BBG Watch Commentary
The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) warned that there are inherent conflicts of interest in nominees to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) who are also heads of international media corporations doing business in countries like Russia and China.
CUSIB, an independent and non-partisan NGO which supports U.S. international broadcasting, has asked Jeff Shell, President Obama’s nominee to be the BBG Chairman to either decline the nomination or resign from his position at NBC Universal. In an open letter to Jeff Shell, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting made the following points:
“This request is not intended to mar your reputation in any way. You are considered one of the most competent media executives in the world, which is probably why you were selected. However, CUSIB has serious concerns about your nomination and the inevitable conflicts of interest that will arise if your nomination is approved by the U.S. Senate. These conflicts include the inability for you to either disregard the financial benefits to NBC Universal, or disregard the struggle for media freedom in areas of the world where governments violate human rights and oppose democracy and free speech.
As Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, your commitment would require you to support the BBG’s Mission statement: “To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” If you remain as Chair of NBC Universal, your commitment to your NBC Board and to your NBC shareholders must certainly require you to do your best to expand the commercial business interests of NBC Universal. We expect that there will be conflicts of interest in nations such as China, Russia, Iran, Tibet, and Cuba, and it is also expected that your commitment to NBC Universal may take precedence.
This position, we believe strongly, also requires a full-time chairman. If you stay at NBC Universal, it would be impossible for you to give this job time and attention it needs. We would hope that the nominees who serve at the BBG would be former corporate heads of international media with equal caliber as yourself, human rights experts, or professionals who have the necessary experience to serve but won’t have to struggle with how to compromise the advancement of media freedom and private corporate goals.
This decision is not an easy one for you to make, but if you do choose to decline, it may send a message to others who face similar conflicts of interest and will give them the fortitude to realize that these positions require much more than corporate experience but an impartial and burning desire to help millions of people in nations where media freedom is denied.”
The letter to NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Shell was signed by CUSIB directors Ann Noonan and Ted Lipien.
BBG Watch agrees that the conflict of interest is almost as real now as it was during the Cold War. No one then would suggest that Armand Hammer, who had extensive business dealings with the Soviet Union, would have been an ideal choice of oversee U.S. broadcasts directed behind the Iron Curtain. With President Putin actively destroying free media and democracy in Russia, the Broadcasting Board of Governors could benefit from more members with experience in human rights and media freedom advocacy.
Asked to comment on the CUSIB appeal, Ted Lipien, a former acting Voice of America Associate Director, said that seeing conflicts of interest in nominating heads of international media corporations doing business in Russia and China to serve on the Broadcasting Board of Governors is “easy and obvious, a no-brainer.”
“I’m surprised that the issue of conflicts of interests in some nominations to the Broadcasting Board of Governors has not been seriously raised before. As heads of international media corporations, these executives who are also nominated to serve as BBG members must curry favors with officials of repressive governments in countries like Russia or China, or at the very least they must not offend them. They have a duty to their companies and their shareholders to act with prudence and caution on the political and public relations front to maximize profits in these countries. That does not mean that these individuals may not be otherwise qualified to be good public servants or that they are doing anything wrong as corporate heads. But they have a great deal to lose if they offend Mr. Putin or leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Shell, but his corporate and financial interests would be in obvious conflict with his duty as the BBG chairman to promote media freedom and oppose political censorship in countries where his company does business,” Lipien said.
Lipien also said that he has no reason to believe that Mr. Shell would engage in this kind of behavior, but he noted that some former BBG members managed to successfully encourage hiring by BBG’s broadcasting entities of their business associates who unfortunately lacked expert knowledge of nations served by U.S. international broadcasting and had little appreciation of significant differences between commercial broadcasting and broadcasting in support of media freedom and democracy. This has resulted in some terrific missteps by the BBG in nations like China, Tibet, and Russia and diminished bipartisan Congressional and public support for U.S. international broadcasting, Lipien said. This is highly unfortunate, he added, because while maintaining U.S. military and diplomatic influence abroad is becoming more and more costly, U.S. international broadcasting offers a cost-effective and successful alternative, if it is managed properly.