BBG Watch Commentary
In the end even the Obama White House had enough of the “practically defunct“ (Hillary Clinton’s words) Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which has for years mismanaged U.S. international media outreach. Under a deal between the White House and Congress, President Obama removed his opposition to abolishing the board in charge of the federal agency which carries the same BBG name.
SEE: BBG oversight of U.S. international broadcasting would end under new legislation, Adam Powell, Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), November 30, 2016
SEE: NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2017 CONFERENCE REPORT TO ACCOMPANY S. 2943 – SEC. 1287. GLOBAL ENGAGEMENT CENTER, PAGES: 1396-1404; SEC. 1288. MODIFICATION OF UNITED STATES INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING ACT OF 1994, PAGES: 1404-1421; Global Engagement Center (sec. 1287), PAGE 2670; Modification of United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994 (sec. 1288), PAGE 2671.
Under new legislation, which is expected to be passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, the BBG board will become only an advisory body without any effective powers. The agency will remain within the federal executive branch and will be run by the CEO nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The remaining BBG board members would be allowed to serve out their terms, constituting a first International Broadcasting Advisory Board. Eventually, they would all be replaced. Under new legislation, the Global Engagement Center, which will focus specifically on countering foreign disinformation and misinformation, will be formed.
Donald Trump will choose the next Broadcasting Board of Governors federal agency CEO who will have enhanced powers over federal, as well as non-federal BBG entities, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
The non-federal entities would be combined under one non-federal umbrella organization. Current interim BBG CEO John Lansing, a former private entertainment TV executive who lacks experience in government operations, international news outreach, intercultural communications, U.S. foreign policy and U.S. public diplomacy, is expected to stay on until his replacement is found.
Lansing has told BBG staff that he is not leaving anytime soon.
His ineffective leadership, which saw a further drop of BBG employees’ confidence in senior executives — as well as unprecedented management and programming failures, including one-sided Voice of America (VOA) attacks on Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and even Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) — may have pushed the White House to side with the congressional critics of the BBG.
The FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act amendment to establish a Global Engagement Center and to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors was initially crafted by Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep Ed Royce (R-CA).
The Secretary of State in coordination with the Secretary of Defense (and relevant federal departments and agencies and partner nations) would be directed to establish a Global Engagement Center (GEC). The GEC’s general purpose would be “to discover, expose and counter foreign government information warfare efforts (to include foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts) and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support US allies and interests.” A separate bipartisan bill, called the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016, was introduced in May in the Senate. It was sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and co-sponsored by Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.).
SEE: Thornberry Amendment to Reform Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG Watch, May 19, 2016.
Just as many Republicans and Democrats in Congress were deeply displeased with the BBG, the Obama White House may have also had enough of Hollywood executive Jeff Shell’s ineffective and chaotic tenure as BBG chairman. His first agency CEO choice, a distinguished media manager Andy Lack, left the BBG only after several weeks for a better job at NBC News. His next choice, John Lansing had far less journalistic experience than Lack, while new Voice of America director Amanda Bennett, who had previously written for The Washington Post, has tolerated partisan and one-sided reports in VOA programs, including unprecedented personal attacks on Donald Trump.
SEE: How do you call Trump a pig in Ukrainian? Voice of America will tell you, BBG Watch, October 12, 2016
Bennett and her new deputy Sandy Sugawara are also likely to be replaced sooner or later by the Donald Trump administration, but these personnel changes may take many months, as they always do, especially at the agency that even President Obama has completely ignored even when speaking about countering Russian and ISIS propaganda.
Experienced VOA reporters have been complaining of chaos and unprecedented decline of journalistic standards under the current management team while the bureaucracy claims audience gains for VOA, which journalists believe to be completely misleading when it comes to mission impact and when compared to digital outreach and audience engagement by Russia’s RT, BBC, or even any major U.S. media outlet. Even a few poorly-funded but still independent Russian media organizations such as MEDUZA (some of them based abroad) have a far greater digital footprint and audience engagement than BBG-run Radio Liberty or VOA Russian Service.
SEE: BBG Governor Confirms Inadequacy of U.S. BBG Media in Countering Putin Propaganda, BBG Watch, June 17, 2016.
The Obama White House, and certainly many Republicans and Democrats in Congress, may have also had enough of some BBG members doing or wanting to do private company business in countries like Russia and China while they were charged with combating media censorship in those countries. The BBG board met Wednesday in an atmosphere described by some of those present as resembling a funeral.
During Wednesday’s BBG board meeting, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell profusely thanked longtime BBG official Jeff Trimble as BBG members applauded. Trimble, together with John Lansing and RFE/RL president Thomas Kent, had accompanied Shell on what appeared to be a mixed private business and official U.S. government trip to Vladimir Putin’s Russia last summer.
The controversial and never fully explained BBG mission to Moscow seemed to have embarrassed the White House and the State Department after the Russians expelled Shell but allowed Lansing, Trimble, and Kent to enter the country.
A State Department Russian Affairs Political Officer Timothy Nelson said in a public forum in October that estimated 60 to 80% of funding for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda media channels comes not from the Russian government but from spending on advertising in Russian media by Western businesses for which Russia is still an attractive market.
The incident, which could have been easily avoided if more experienced executives were in charge of the agency, may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as the White House’s previous reluctance to side with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who wanted to abolish the BBG board. These critics included House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and the committee”s Ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). Both Shell and Lansing publicly opposed their proposed reforms, which the White House eventually embraced in a different legislative proposal, leaving Shell and Lansing in the lurch.
The only compromise between Congress and the White House under the new legislation was the dropping of the initial legislative proposal which would have allowed for the privatization the Voice of America.
Mystery About VOA’s Future Role
The new legislation does not specify what VOA’s future role will be, but there seems to be little doubt that VOA together with Radio and TV Marti to Cuba, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV to the Middle East will come under more pressure to counter propaganda and violent extremism.
How far these pressures will affect the Voice of America is hard to predict, but under the current BBG leadership both VOA and RFE/RL have on occasion repeated Russian and Iranian propaganda without any challenge rather than countering disinformation with fact-based journalism and sophisticated analysis.
Whether the right kind of experienced leaders will be installed at the agency and at its various entities remains to be seen, but many think that what may come next can’t possibly be any worse than the current BBG/VOA management team in charge of the “practically defunct” (again Hillary Clinton’s words in 2013) Broadcasting Board of Governors.