BBG Watch Commentary

James Jay Carafano
James Jay Carafano

Journalist, writer and former Voice of America (VOA) and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive, Ted Lipien, sent us his comment to an op-ed by James Jay Carafano in The Washington Examiner: “It’s time for Congress to hit the ‘reset’ button on public diplomacy.”

We do not disagree with the basic premise of Mr. Carafano’s commentary. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is responsible for the dysfunctional state of U.S. international broadcasting/media outreach. Lipien also does not question Carafano’s basic thesis, but he makes a strong argument that the real culprit is not the institution of an oversight board per se, but the enormous and uncontrolled IBB bureaucracy.

James Jay Carafano, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Carafano wrote:

“One important tool for pushing back against propaganda, disinformation, and dirty tricks is public diplomacy — a government’s program for communicating directly with foreign publics. During Kennan’s time, public diplomacy was a major American initiative, spreading the gospel of freedom to people in trapped behind the Iron Curtain. But U.S. public diplomacy has been on the decline since the end of the Cold War. And it has continued to decline even as countries like Russia and China have ramped up their global outreach.

Much of the blame for America’s crumbling ability to tell its story may be laid at the doorstep of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which overseas almost all of our public diplomacy broadcast assets. By many accounts, it’s just plain dysfunctional.” “It’s time for Congress to hit the ‘reset’ button on public diplomacy.” James Jay Carafano, The Washington Examiner, April 13, 2014

We re-post Ted Lipien’s commentary on Mr. Carafano’s article:

Mr. Carafano is right: a major reform and reorganization is absolutely needed for U.S. international broadcasting/multimedia outreach. The culprit, however, is not the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as an oversight board per se, but the enormous bureaucracy of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which consecutive boards have allowed to grow at the expense of programs. The first step to reforming the BBG is the elimination of the IBB.

Part-time BBG members are not running the agency; IBB executives are. Their appetite for power and control is unlimited, as is their incompetence and lack of any connection with programs and audiences. They have expanded their bureaucratic reach by proposing eliminations of news services — proposals which various BBG boards were unable to evaluate and frequently accepted.

Their next target are surrogate broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) — the only part of the agency that still functions relatively well. Their independence and effectiveness are being threatened by the IBB, which has already largely destroyed Voice of America (VOA) and its news reporting capabilities. VOA executives, lacking both vision and basic management skills, have allowed production of dozens of reports on the British royal family and a zombie video of a blood-thirtsty Uncle Sam character for audiences in Pakistan while failing to arrange for prompt reporting of hard news, as unbelievable as it may sound. For more examples, see dog watch website: BBGWatch.com.

Various BBG boards, of course, share the blame for not establishing control over the IBB and allowing incompetent VOA executives to stay in their positions. But the latest board, and some of its recent former members, including Ambassador Victor Ashe, have at least started some reforms and replaced at least some incompetent managers.

What needs to be abolished is not the bipartisan BBG Board, which should continue to serve a useful oversight function, but the entire federal bureaucracy of the IBB. All IBB support resources that still function and may be needed should be divided between Voice of America (VOA) and the surrogate broadcasting/media outreach entities. All IBB management/bureaucratic positions should be eliminated, saving U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars, which can then be spent on journalists and production of news programs for overseas audiences. Once reformed, U.S. international media outreach will still need much greater investment from the administration and the Congress to confront Putin’s propaganda and challenges from state-controlled media from countries like China and Iran.

At the last BBG open meeting last week, Governor Michael Meehan made a radical proposal to transfer all U.S. funded media programs targeting Iran from VOA to RFE/RL. He is absolutely right that a surrogate/grantee organization like RFE/RL can do a much more effective job than VOA. His proposal was not accepted as too radical, but it may still be accepted at the next BBG board meeting.

In one respect, his proposal was not radical enough, because it did not extend to the IBB, although Governor Meehan had expressed in the past his support for a total transformation of the agency and his comments at the last board meeting suggest that he still favors such a radical solution. He should be applauded. But in one respect only, his proposal may have been too radical because it apparently did not preserve any role for Voice of America in media outreach to Iran, although I could not find the full text of his proposed resolution to know for sure what it said.

Voice of America brand has a significantly different and often important meaning for some of the most critical foreign audiences. It represents to them the United States and its policies and society — something that grantee U.S. funded media outlets cannot do if they are to maintain their unique surrogate status and effectiveness. And while most of resources should be given to the more efficient and better-managed surrogates, when it comes to countries without free media that are strategically very important for the United States, for the same reason a much smaller and efficient VOA news operation from Washington should be preserved without duplicating to any significant degree surrogate news reporting efforts.

These countries and audiences are too critical for the United States not to support a journalistic substitute for nonexistent local free media, but they are also too critical not to have at least a minimal VOA media outreach. It could be three or four experienced multimedia journalists, instead of dozens. Most resources should go to the surrogates, unless surrogate outreach is no longer needed, in which case VOA takes over. I believe it was a mistake to completely eliminate VOA Arabic Service, although I do support Al Hurra and Radio Sawa. In their case, because there is no Voice of America Arabic at all, not even a website, they appear to their audience as neither American nor surrogate, and thus face a crisis of identity, which in my view has a negative impact on their effectiveness.

My argument in defense of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is that a bipartisan board of some kind is needed as an oversight board that can make these strategic decisions, but without the enormous IBB bureaucracy — tail wagging the dog — that sucks up resources and makes the agency completely dysfunctional, including the BBG board. I also agree with Ambassador Ashe who said that the current nine-person board is too large. Just as the IBB should be eliminated or made into a very small unit within the BBG, the number of board members could also be reduced.

I comment from some experience, having been a listener to both VOA and Radio Free Europe in Eastern Europe under communism, and later having worked as a VOA service director, IBB and BBG marketing director for Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries in Eurasia, and finally as a former VOA acting associate director. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the creation of the IBB and its uncontrolled bureaucratic growth have made the agency dysfunctional and defunct. I saw it first hand while working in a managerial position for the IBB in early 2000s. Since then, the situation has gotten much worse.

One should not confuse the BBG board with the IBB. I can also say from experience, as both a manager and a journalist concerned with journalistic freedom that the United States Information Agency (USIA), despite its close links with the State Department and the rest of the U.S. executive branch, was vastly better for U.S. international broadcasting in the 1970s and 1980s than the IBB is now. Again, I agree with Mr. Carafano that a larger parent agency, like the NED, might be a better arrangement, at least for VOA. But surrogate broadcasters should keep their independence. Without it, they will lose their effectiveness and may become no different from the IBB.

As for Governor Meehan proposed resolution, he might be pleased to know that people like General Eisenhower, George Kennan, Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane and other prominent and influential Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, had worked hard to create Radio Free Europe in the 1950s as an independent and surrogate outlet run by the CIA (the CIA connection was unfortunate but probably unavoidable at that time; it was later dropped) after realizing that Voice of America had become completely ineffective because it was turned into a Washington bureaucracy — much like the IBB and the executive part of VOA today.

In addition to Governor Meehan, the BBG now has probably the most capable and reform-minded chairman in many years, Jeff Shell, Governor Susan McCue who together with Governor Meehan and former Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe has done much to reform and strengthen RFE/RL, and several newer members: Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Matt Armstrong, and Kenneth Weinstein. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel represents Secretary Kerry on the BBG. These are all outstanding public servants who may yet reform the agency, although the FY 2015 budget proposal they had approved shows that the IBB is still firmly in charge and able to get its way. BBG members are now searching for a CEO to run the agency. If they find the right individual who will start by eliminating the IBB bureaucracy, the agency may yet be saved. If this does not happen, the agency is doomed and the Congress needs to step in. The problem is not the BBG board; it is the incompetent government bureaucracy of the IBB.

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