BBG Watch Commentary
Examiner.com and Gov.Exec.com have reported a comment from the former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chairman James Glassman that BBG, which runs the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. international broadcasting operations, is a structural mess. As BBG chairman during the George W. Bush Administration, Glassman was responsible for ending direct VOA Russian radio and satellite TV broadcasts in 2008, just days before the Russian military invaded parts of the Republic of Georgia, and wanting to close down the VOA Georgian Service. He refused VOA journalists’ requests to resume Russian broadcasts after the Russian invasion. Glassman is also famous for his 1999 prediction, shortly before the dot-com bubble burst, that that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would rise to 36,000 within a few years.
Anticipating a Republican victory in this year’s U.S. presidential elections, Glassman is now proposing to create a new government office, located in the National Security Council, that would manage the “war of ideas” with Islamist extremism. The office would funnel money to a new private non-profit rather than use the non-profits already managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or the Voice of America, a federal entity within the BBG. The BBG-run nonprofit surrogate grantee broadcasters include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).
According to Glassman, the new “war of ideas” office would not be a good fit with the BBG, but he defended the agency, which he at one point led, by saying saying that it is the victim of some uninformed criticism. He called for creating a CEO position at the BBG. This proposal, according to critics, would limit Congressional oversight because the new official would not be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. But having a CEO would presumably make it easier to move money from the BBG to various new nonprofits, such as the one proposed by Glassman.
BBG Watch sees the following pattern emerging: while at the BBG, some officials try to eliminate broadcasts, particularly at the Voice of America. After leaving the BBG, they create or join nonprofits and attempt to get slices of the BBG money for their own media projects that get far less public or Congressional scrutiny than BBG’s regular broadcasts and programs. The effectiveness of these new programs conducted by outside nonprofits cannot be easily evaluated. At the same time, BBG members themselves also give away large sums of money to outside outfits, such as their 50 million dollar contract with The Gallup Organization. They approved the contract (BBG member Victor Ashe opposed it) despite serious doubts whether Gallup can provide the BBG with useful and reliable audience research and whether it will not overcharge the agency. The U.S. Department of Justice has recently joined a lawsuit against Gallup for overcharging other federal agencies.
Glassman is not the only former BBG official calling for diverting funding from the BBG to the new private media nonprofits. A newly created Freedom2Connect Foundation is already running Radio Free Asia’s Internet freedom-promotion program with an initial grant of approximately $7 million from Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Board members of the Freedom2Connect Foundation include Danforth Austin, F2C President who is a former director of the Voice of America. While at the Voice of America, Austin was responsible for terminating broadcasts to Russia and for proposing to end VOA radio and television programs to China. The China proposal was subsequently blocked in Congress.
Another Freedom2Connect Foundation Board member is Diane Zeleny, a former BBG Communications Director who now serves as Vice President of Strategy and Communications at the Legatum Institute. The CEO of the Legatum Institute is Jeffrey Gedmin, who worked for the BBG as President of RFE/RL and did a good job running the surrogate broadcaster. But in a recent article, Gedmin called for busting the employee union at the Voice of America and suggested that VOA should be a public diplomacy voice of the U.S. government — a proposal that contradicts the Congressionally-approved VOA Charter.
Turn Your Radio On by Jeffrey Gedmin
For the BBG/VOA employee union AFGE Local 1812 response to Gedmin’s article see: Defederalization Is A Bad Idea
One of our contributing reporters sent us this clarification about the Freedom2Connect Foundation, which was presumably received from a Radio Free Asia source who said that the Foundation press release created a lot of confusion.
“We want to clarify some confusion created by the very enthusiastic Foundation folks.
F2CF does NOT run RFA’s Internet freedom program.
The $6.7m received by RFA is completely administered by RFA. This money was allocated to RFA over a 2 year budget cycle.
The F2C program at RFA is run by 2 RFA employees and has a group of 6 technical experts volunteering to do vetting and on-going review of the technical aspects of the program.
The Foundation was created as an alternate funding source – not for USG funds – but for augmenting funds available to fund Internet censorship awareness and Internet freedom tools. The Foundation regards the RFA program as a highly effective model and thus is intending to fund projects that have already passed the RFA review process. As the Foundation has not yet begun fund-raising, it is an aspiration not a reality.
We do hope that all the Internet freedom funds given to Radio Free Asia stay with RFA and don’t find their way to pay for travel and expenses of Freedom2Connect Foundation directors and that F2C will not be seeking taxpayers’ money that could be put to a much better use by journalists and media experts with specific area expertise at RFE/RL, VOA, Radio and TV Marti, or MBN.
We agree with Jeffrey Gedmin’s proposal that the BBG needs a full-time chairman and a CEO. Both of them, however, must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to ensure full accountability and proper Congressional and public oversight.
We also support maximum independence for the surrogate broadcasters, as envisioned by the U.S. Congress, and a strong but separate role for the federal Voice of America under the Congressionally-approved VOA Charter.
We call for much closer scrutiny how public money is spent by nonprofits run by former BBG officials.
We do agree that the BBG is dysfunctional, but we see it as the fault of the entrenched executive staff and those BBG members who do not take their oversight responsibilities seriously. Any streamlining and reform must start by replacing the BBG’s senior management team.