Commentary

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

US Government International Broadcasting – Information War Lost: An Unnecessary Misstep

By The Federalist

We read with interest a piece in The Washington Times (“Hillary Clinton skipped Voice of America meetings, now mourns its demise,” by Jim McElhatton, August 5, 2014).

In essence, the piece is highly critical of former Secretary of State Clinton for not taking a more hands-on approach to dealing with the disarray that constitutes US Government international broadcasting, particularly the Voice of America (VOA).

We take exception to that view.

Let us start out by saying that we are not part of the “Pillory Hillary” crowd. We tend to reserve judgment or to take a more measured assessment of her tenure as Secretary of State.

By comparison to other secretaries in the era of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its oversight role, Mrs. Clinton perhaps has done more to draw attention to the failings of this agency than previously or since (to date).

The Washington Times article correctly points out that she was not a regular attendee of the once-monthly meetings of the BBG, but other Secretaries of State were also not regular attendees. The schedule of the Secretary of State being what it is, the appropriate action was to delegate a representative, which in this case normally would have been the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy.

The question then becomes what the undersecretaries did or did not do in the name of the Secretary. Like the rest of government, some of these appointees are thought well of. Patricia Harrison was cited as one. Mrs. Clinton may have received extensive reports about the agency’s failings from former Under Secretary Tara Sonenshine. Others may not hold similar regard. And some may not have urged the Secretary to get down in the weeds of the agency and its problems.

Whatever was taking place within the inner workings of the office of the Secretary of State, it is clear that Mrs. Clinton formed a strong opinion of the agency’s lack of performance, noting it in congressional testimony, public speeches, her published biography and in a recent interview on CNN. In short, she and others close to her understand that the agency is down-spiraling. Precipitously.

Compare her public observations regarding this agency with that of other secretaries of state.

The BBG is a bi-partisan board. It has demonstrated itself to be, in reality, very partisan and contentious. Other board members had attendance issues and from positions of less political stature. Having equanimity or unanimity on what views Secretary Clinton would have articulated directly – or through her representatives – is difficult to fathom.

And that’s the “easy” part.

Second, there is the matter of the IBB, which has demonstrated more than a robust contempt for the authority of anyone with a view of the agency other than their own.

The IBB is of a mindset to symbolically or purposely purloin the authority of board members. It would be like sitting behind the desk of a BBG chairman and putting their feet up on the desk.

Most certainly you can be assured that the IBB wishes that Secretary Clinton had stayed silent about the disaster they have wrought to US Government international broadcasting and kept it out of public visibility and scrutiny.

Individuals who encumber certain positions of the IBB seem to take perverse delight in undermining decision-making by people above their rank. They do so with one goal in mind: to preserve their self-interest.

If Mrs. Clinton or any other secretary of state faced down the IBB, you can logically conclude that the IBB would have done what it has been doing: undermining or attacking the critic.

There is a pattern to this IBB behavior.

Mrs. Clinton observed in her book the need for an “overhaul” of VOA (in particular) and further commenting that it “proved to be an uphill struggle to convince either Congress or the White House to make this a priority.”

Apparently things have changed.

The abject disarray of this agency is on the radar: with the legislation making its way through Congress and likely headed to the White House for the president’s signature.

There has now developed a convergence of political will to deal with a serious problem undermining US national and public interests.

Without question former secretary Clinton has made a conscious investment of political capital to place and maintain this issue. This is not some kind of rhetorical exercise. There is power behind it.

All-Time Misstatements and Understatements

If the article has any redeeming qualities, it has to be in the form of making statements that fly in the face of reality.

According to agency spokesperson Letitia King,

“In terms of the subject of the effectiveness of the agency, there is agreement that the agency needs to function more efficiently.”

What “agreement?”

Overt opposition to congressional legislation intended to reform this agency has been the hallmark of internal reaction by agency officials. That opposition has been voiced publicly by at least one member of BBG, along with David Ensor (the VOA director) and other surrogates.

In a letter to the BBG, board member Michael Meehan acknowledges a larger BBG opposition to the reform legislation.

Within the Cohen Building, there is no agreement on the substance of what constitutes effectiveness and efficiency in the execution of US Government international broadcasting save on one point: the IBB and/or the VOA should lord over the entire enterprise doing whatever it wants without accountability.

If there is one constant in the opposition to the legislation, it is to doing business as usual without regard to the dysfunctional and defunct nature of the agency.

Next:

Ms. King claims that US Government international media is having,

“a significant impact for audiences in countries of strategic importance in the U.S.”

This statement is brazenly outrageous.

The agency cannot deliver and the Voice of America does not have an effective message in China, Iran and Russia, three countries that represent those among the top tier of US interests. Programs either don’t exist at all or are effectively blocked from the target audiences. The BBG put its stamp of approval on eliminating its direct radio broadcasting to countries where other terrestrially-reliant downlinks are prohibited or otherwise blocked, including television and the Internet.

And the agency is well along the way to teetering on the abyss in the Middle East and elsewhere with a message or program content that has no resonance with intended audiences.

The “significant impact” of this agency is that it is flat-lining or heading toward a sum of less than zero. Programs cannot be seen, heard or read on the agency’s various media platforms despite spending about $750-MILLION dollars in taxpayer funding annually.

To the point:

Secretary Clinton should be commended for addressing this issue publicly and persistently.

In turn, Members of Congress and their staffs should be commended for their fortitude and perseverance for elevating this issue to legislative prominence, providing the agency with one last chance to redeem itself.

And therein lays the great irony: the people most in need of this rehabilitative effort – agency officials – reject it and do not want things to be fixed. They prefer their demonstrated model of performance to be: dysfunctional and defunct.

This legislative effort will not fail to be signed into law. Circumstances demand that it be passed in the Congress and presented to the president for his signature.

Where the chance of failure rises significantly is within the Cohen Building itself.

The Congress has provided a blueprint for rehabilitating the agency. It is also sending a very clear and distinct message to separate the grantee broadcasters from the VOA.

Should the VOA prefer to write the last chapter of its history – the last great act of defiance as it were – the Congress is positioned to salvage the best of a bad situation and let the grantee broadcasters remain to carry out US Government international broadcasting to where it is needed.

Trying to insinuate blame on former Secretary Clinton for this agency’s ills, to the exclusion of many other people over a much longer period of time than her service, is missing the substance of the extent to which this agency is off the rails and has been driven there intentionally.

The Federalist
August 2014

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