Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War: Lost – Brace Yourselves
By The Federalist
We came upon an interesting item from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The title in the subject line is “Positioning Ourselves for Impact.” It is signed by BBG’s new CEO and Director John Lansing.
An interesting title which generated discussion with some of our sources. For example:
- Does this mean that until now and at present, the agency has had no effective impact with global publics?
- Or, does this mean that agency employees should be preparing for another agency crash landing?
What it appears to mean to John Lansing, the BBG’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO),
“…We are carefully weighing pressing national security concerns, government-wide spending constraints and the need to fine-tune our operations to deliver more impact.”
Mr. Lansing goes on to note that the Obama administration’s FY2017 budget request for the BBG is $777.8 million dollars, “an increase of more than 3.5% over our FY2016 request, is evidence of President Obama’s confidence in us and the work we do. This increase will enable us to meet our challenges and achieve our objectives.”
In short, Mr. Lansing’s effort here appears to be to spin some positives whether they exist or not.
It is important to note that this is a funding request by the administration. The budget process now becomes part of a political process of give and take with the Congress and within the Congress competing priorities and wishes of the legislators. Ultimately, the Congress must agree on a budget authorization or plod through a series of continuing resolutions if agreements are hard in coming.
The figure of $777.8 million dollars does not represent a sea change in the agency’s fiscal fortunes. It is more or less within a range that has been consistent through the Obama administration.
“Confidence” in what the agency is doing is open for debate. Administration officials have in the past said that the administration is “on board” with necessary reform legislation. This may be nothing more than public rhetoric – the kind of rhetoric that attempts to accent the positive, when in effect, the positives are hard to come by and harder to define – not the least due to the agency’s fuzzy manner in determining whether or not it has global audiences and online audience engagement of any consequence. We are not counting placement of self-censored programs, not counting Facebook “Likes” generated by Facebook ads paid with taxpayers’ money, or Facebook “Likes” from the United States for funny animal stories or other content having nothing to do with VOA’s mission.
How this agency achieves impact is codified in the Voice of America (VOA) Charter. Reform legislation aimed at the BBG is all about how this agency has deliberately set itself adrift from the core principles of the Charter and fails badly to carry out its mission and serve the US national and public interest.
In assessing some of Mr. Lansing’s remarks, one of our primary sources suggests:
“One of his core objectives (is) the aim to reduce ‘daily news coverage’ in favor of more original news coverage.
Of course, that is hard to do. Any organization dealing with news has to be seen covering daily happenings, or its audience will (and has in the case of VOA) simply go elsewhere.
What this points to is a continuation of, and increase in, use of commercial news agency material by VOA to maintain the appearance that it is still covering the news when in actual fact VOA is serving as a pass through for AP (the Associated Press), Reuters, AFP (Agence France Presse) and others at taxpayer expense.”
In effect, VOA has become not much more than a surrogate distribution service for these and other commercial outlets. There is nothing in the VOA Charter that even remotely suggests this should be part of the agency’s mission. But that is what the agency has become under the debilitative decisions of agency officials.
As has been noted repeatedly by BBG Watch, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has consistently towered over VOA in its news coverage in depth, detail and originality in its reporting. It would be charitable to characterize the VOA effort as feeble at best by comparison.
The same goes for editorial content.
More often than not, editorial content posted to VOA’s English website lacks balance.
Anyone reading the VOA Charter would plainly see that what the Charter calls for and what appears on its websites (since the agency has claimed a “digital first” strategy) are not one and the same.
As we see it, the only “positioning ourselves for impact” is, in effect, being crushed by other international media outlets with a much clearer sense of purpose and identity.
Scenes From The Big Picture
Reform legislation has been on the radar of the Congress for the past couple of years. It has yet to be voted into law and make its way to the Oval Office to be either signed or vetoed.
Some would suggest it would a supreme irony for Mr. Obama to sign reform legislation into law on the last day of his presidency in January 2017. Strange things can and often do happen in Washington.
The legislation creates more not less separation between VOA and the grantee broadcasters (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, etc.). Each would have its own CEO and its own board to make sure true oversight happens.
This suggests that the Congress is positioning itself to determine where the greater effectiveness resides. It is a rather clear and unambiguous signal to VOA that it is not entitled to flagship status “just because.” And, the agency didn’t aid its position by arrogant, defiant and borderline insubordinate pronouncements from some VOA English newsroom staffers demanding in writing that they determine what the agency’s mission is or is not.
This much is clear: should the legislation be passed into law, the Congress will be in a position to determine which entity is effective and which is not. For the loser:
Good-bye. Good riddance.
One good thing that Mr. Lansing has done is go outside the agency to hire his chief of staff and a new chief financial officer.
Mr. Lansing needs individuals from outside the agency unblemished by its corrupted management practices. These individuals will probably come to the conclusion that officials and executives internal to the agency encumbering management positions seemingly couldn’t manage the contents of a small brown paper bag. And there is a reason for it:
They do not encumber these positions to manage. They encumber these positions to perpetuate business as usual – a form of fealty to the philosophy of a malevolent bureaucracy. That is their top priority – particularly when you consider the amount of money these agency officials are paid – and their practice of writing justifications for monetary awards above and beyond the six-figure salaries that come with the positions and titles they hold.
These individuals have had a hand in lending credence to the belief that they are supremely inept:
- By using the term “baby steps” as their approach in addressing longstanding, institutional and systemic problems and employee morale issues within the agency.
- By building a continuity of operations (“COOP”) facility so far removed from the Cohen Building as to be virtually useless in a crisis or emergency.
- By failing to secure the release of an imprisoned Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent as one could almost virtually predict in advance by virtue of their reputation.
And there some of them still sit, on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building, ineffective in every detail.
Whether or not Lansing’s top lieutenants can turn things around remains to be seen. We tend to think not because this system of mismanagement has been in place for a very long time – more than long enough to have passed the point of no return.
And There’s More
In January 2017 a new administration takes office. Between the November election and the inauguration of the next president, the president-elect and his core advisers assemble a mammoth transition team to study the executive branch agencies.
New administrations are loath to inherit problem agencies – and this agency has to be high on the problem list.
Remember: the cornerstones of this agency are:
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
With its track record, filling political appointments becomes problematic. Not many people want to come to an organization that can leave a black mark on one’s resume. And this agency has demonstrated that it is more than capable of that – or, as we also know, engages in personal and political assassination of individuals who reveal just how corrupt the agency’s bureaucracy is.
As some would opine, the agency in its current iteration is on borrowed time. One can be sure that senior officials in the agency have one card to play and they will play it to the bitter end: stall and delay fixing the agency for as long as they can until they can retire comfortably.
As to the agency’s employees:
Too bad for you.
This is the reality of what Mr. Lansing is dealing with and what will be the albatross hanging over him and the next administration.