Tom Coburn, former Republican U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from Oklahoma and a medical doctor who in a 2010 interview with Foreign Policy reporter Josh Rogin called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) “the most worthless organization in the federal government,” died today (March 20, 2020) from prostate cancer at the age of 72. In response to his “most worthless” description of the BBG, the then BBG’s Director of Public Affairs Letitia King said in 2010 that “The current BBG Board is actively engaged in the management and oversight of the agency.”
Senator Coburn led a bipartisan effort to identify waste and abuse in federal agencies, including the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Despite their strong ideological differences, Coburn was a personal friend of President Barack Obama.
Senator Coburn is remembered by many former and current officials and employees of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the BBG’s new name since 2018, as a critic of the agency’s dysfunctional bureaucracy and defender of quality broadcasting by the Voice of America (VOA), Radio and TV Marti in the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Neworks (MBN) in charge of Alhurra Television.
Blanquita Cullum, a former Republican member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who during her tenure on the BBG oversight board from 2002 to 2010 worked closely with Senator Coburn to reform the agency, posted on her Facebook page:
He protected me when I was a Governor on the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors when many did not want me to fight to continue our efforts in Venezuela, Russia, Nor. Korea (short wave radio) and so much more. I cannot express the level of integrity and courage he had in protecting our First Amendment and ability to reach those in countries by accurate, balanced news and information. At some point, I will detail how this brave man supported the great efforts of our journalists from Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, the Middle Eastern Broadcast Network and Radio & Television Marti.
Gary Marco, a retired employee of the Voice of America who for 25 years was president of Local 1418, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees which represents the radio broadcast technicians at VOA, commented on Facebook:
Dr. Coburn was a good man. A very good man. There are never enough good men. As a member of the US Senate, Dr. Coburn had no patience for federal agencies which garnered a reputation for waste and mismanagement. This included the now-named US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) that includes the Voice of America (VOA), which in Dr. Coburn’s day and to this day has consistently been ranked as one of the worst workplaces in the Federal Government. Lest we forget.
In response to pressure from Senator Coburn, the Broadcasting Board of Governors passed in 2012 a RESOLUTION REGARDING SENATOR COBURN’S AMENDMENT TO LIMIT SPENDING ON GOVERNMENT-SPONSORED CONFERENCES AND TRAVEL. Non-news reporting international and domestic travel by USAGM officials and employees grew again in recent years. Current VOA director Amanda Bennett (since 2016) has been traveling abroad accompanied by senior VOA managers who arrange her meetings with often controversial foreign politicians. VOA journalists likewise travel abroad on non-reporting assignments and are received and feted by foreign dignitaries. BBG and later USAGM CEO John Lansing (since 2015), who departed the agency in 2019, was also frequently traveling abroad, once going to Russia in the company of the now former BBG chairman who had corporate business interests in both China and Russia.