Commentary

BBG Watch offers a wide range of commentaries on current issues in U.S. international media outreach, public diplomacy, disinformation, and propaganda.

The following commentary is by The Federalist, one of our longtime observers of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets providing news programs to audiences abroad.

All views expressed are those of the author.

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War Lost: Dysfunctional, Defunct and Broken

By The Federalist

 
With the sudden departure of Andrew Lack as the first chief executive officer (CEO) of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency is back to square one. In reality, it may well be at less than square one.

We are perhaps one person the least surprised by Lack’s departure. Lack faced an uphill battle against an entrenched bureaucracy and a defiant “Back Off Congress” cabal both opposed to necessary reform of this agency.

Here is the truth of the matter:

This agency does not want to be fixed.

It is quite happy trafficking in dysfunction and playing a make believe game that it is a serious contender in the business of international broadcasting, on any level, on any platform.

The NBC network knows that it is in trouble. Most assuredly, it wants to be fixed and needs to be fixed. It is bleeding advertising revenue. Shareholders are not a happy group. Senior executives are looking at their careers sliding into a professional abyss.

For Lack, it was not a hard decision to make, especially with longstanding relationships at the network: go to the place and the people who want to be fixed.

Lack knows, as any rational individual would, that an organization needs to be on the same page if it is to recover from a bad situation. That is certainly not the case with the BBG which is rife with self-interest, factionalism and the worst “management” in the Federal government.

Among professional who watch these things, this is bad news for the agency. The message between the lines of Mr. Lack’s departure is that the agency cannot be fixed, that he is likely to have more success turning NBC around than a decrepit portion of the federal bureaucracy on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC.

He made the right call and we wish him well.

On the other hand…

Jeffrey Shell should resign as BBG chairman.

This agency, with its established reputation for being dysfunctional and defunct can now add broken to the list of words best used to describe it.

In our view, Mr. Shell is out of his element.

Way, way out of his element.

BBG decisions (or the lack of effective decision making) have accelerated the agency’s demise. He has been unable to deal with any of the major, substantive issues that have this agency not worthy of one US taxpayer dollar. He has had no measurable impact on confronting the root causes of the agency’s troubles – an entrenched self-interested bureaucracy.

And that is on top of a serious credibility issue.

Shell has either been given to unguarded unilateral declarations or has allowed the bureaucracy to speak for him. The worst of these statements was right after Lack’s appointment when he was quoted as saying he felt good about where things were with the agency, etc.

Profound.

Profoundly wrong, as events would indicate in short order.

The agency is in shambles and Mr. Shell is presiding over the broadcasting equivalent of the offal from a landfill: no reach, no audience and no effectiveness.

And then there is the matter of Lack’s departure to – NBC!

It is a stretch of believability that Mr. Shell had no idea that NBC’s news executives were deliberately seeking Lack out. On its face, it doesn’t say a whole lot for what regard Shell has among his peers in corporate NBC.

No matter which way one views the situation, the best thing for Shell to do is tender his resignation and look after things in his part of the NBC domain. He obviously cannot do both.

And There’s More

Shell met with agency staff on Wednesday, March 4.

Shell named Andres Mendes as the interim CEO.

We have serious and grave reservations about this appointment, even on an interim basis.

In our view, this appointment perpetuates business as usual, in particular the business as usual of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the collection of career bureaucrats who are largely responsible for putting the agency in the position it is in with strategic plans that have been neither strategic nor plans as opined by one of the current BBG governors.

We have had the opportunity to watch and listen to Mr. Mendes in action. We are left with the impression that Mr. Mendes is more interested in being slick: that the true nature of the agency’s dire situation is less important than listening to himself pontificating in a demonstration of personal self-importance, that if his pronouncements were put under serious scrutiny, there would be a lot of sweating.

Frankly, there is no one inside the Cohen Building suited to the CEO position with the kinds of problems this agency has. All the senior position holders are compromised. All of them are tainted by being active participants in a dysfunctional, defunct and broken agency. This agency needs to make a clean break with the insiders, which is why the Lack appointment, on its face, was the right move for many reasons from a management and leadership standpoint.

But now the agency is back to less than square one.

Shell took questions from the staff. And once again, the “Back Off Congress” came forward attempting to pin down Shell on legislation to reform the agency.

Apparently, these folks missed Secretary of State Kerry’s public statement not more than a week ago and in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in which he said that the administration is “100 percent on board with reforming this agency.”

What is it that the “Back Off Congress” crowd doesn’t understand about “100 percent on board with reforming this agency?”

And that was before Mr. Lack made his hasty exit.

Percentages may well be on the increase from 100 percent.

As we see it, the “Back Off Congress” crowd is part of the problem. They don’t get it. And worse, they don’t want to get it. They want to perpetuate a bogus argument and a self-interested status quo.

They don’t seem to understand that a Secretary of State and a congressional committee chairman trump a hapless BBG chairman. Mr. Shell is in plenty of political hot water and the “Back Off Congress” crowd wants him searching for more.

Clueless.

We have also heard that Mr. Shell asked Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to stop using the term “dysfunctional and defunct” to describe the agency.

Guess what?

The agency is as described. And you can add to the description:

Broken.

Mr. Shell also told employees that the reform legislation language about the VOA Charter is “incomprehensible” to him.

Let’s make it easy for Mr. Shell:

You blew it. You can’t run it. The BBG as a whole can’t run it. And it gets exponentially worse with each passing day.

The legislation represents the particulars of how it happened – on your watch.

Mr. Shell also tried to make the claim that the Voice of America (VOA), the absolute core of agency dysfunction, will be around for a long time.

Honestly, does anyone place any serious amount of trust, confidence or credibility in what Mr. Shell has to say at this point?

We don’t and no one inside the Cohen Building should either, if you need your job and your federal pension.

Let’s put it this way:

Everything about the future of this agency is up for grabs.

Last But Not Least

Leave it to the public relations wonks of the BBG to issue a press release (“Statement from BBG on CEO and Director Andrew Lack,” March 4).

The press release is less about Andrew Lack and a whole lot more about Jeffrey Shell. It produces a list of “noteworthy achievements” under Shell’s “leadership.”

It is all pure fantasy and fiction: made up audience numbers, claiming to be “countering extremism” in Iraq (tell that to the folks still alive in the caliphate controlled by ISIS), and a concoction of glaring, over-reaching generalities and declarations that likely wouldn’t hold up to serious scrutiny.

It sounds remarkably like Shell desperately trying to justify hanging onto the BBG chairmanship.

Shell should resign.

And if he doesn’t have the courage to do that, the White House should end this particular part of an on-going nightmare, thank him for his service and send him on his way.

Chairman Royce has it right: BROKEN.

Or as we like to say: dysfunctional and defunct.

On steroids.

Some people would tell you that Lack failed the agency.

Perhaps this is more a case of the agency failing Lack’s litmus test.

The Federalist
March 2015

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