BBG Watch Commentary
Two former Voice of America (VOA) journalists criticized Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Republican member, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for his dismissal of the bipartisan H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act, designed “to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters.” The bill was introduced on May 14, 2015 by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the committee’s Ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the bill, which now awaits further action in the House and the Senate.
In an op-ed for the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill, propagandistically titled, “Divided we’ll fall,” Ambassador Crocker makes a completely false and highly misleading claim that “legislation is pending in the House of Representatives that would do the unthinkable – restrict our government’s ability to broadcast news and information in Arabic to the Arabic-speaking world.”
It’s very likely that this utterly false disinformation and propaganda claim was suggested to Ambassador Crocker by Broadcasting Board of Governors longtime bureaucrats who are in the forefront of defending status quo and resisting reforms.
H.R. 2323 would do exactly the opposite. H.R. 2323 recognizes widely-shared belief among communications experts that “local actors are incomparably better-placed to identify the best channel for communicating than distant governments.” As far as U.S. government-funded efforts are concerned, these local actors include such media outlets as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Ambassador Crocker is defending the dysfunctional status quo of keeping them under firm control of the BBG bureaucracy and its CEOs.
H.R. 2323 would most likely result in much more U.S. media outreach in Arabic and would make it more effective because it would decentralize U.S. government-funded media outreach operations, as they were during the Cold War when they were the most successful. In the Internet age, such decentralization is even more essential. The main advantage of H.R. 2323 would be to dismantle the BBG bureaucracy, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which consumes most of BBG’s budget, produces no programs, and makes media outreach to the Arab world far less effective than it could be.
As two experts on propaganda and disinformation, Charlie Winter and Jordan Bach-Lombardo, pointed out in their article for The Atlantic, “Why ISIS Propaganda Works – And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way“:
CHARLIE WINTER AND JORDAN BACH-LOMBARDO: “Government-directed initiatives are fighting an unwinnable battle. They are too centralized, too rigorously managed, and too reactive.”
Charlie Winter and Jordan Bach-Lombardo were not commenting on Ambassador Crocker’s article, but they were commenting on how government bureaucracies mismanage the information war against ISIS.
This is, unfortunately, exactly the status quo Ambassador Crocker, is defending in his op-ed, repeating arguments and slogans which have been put forward by longtime BBG bureaucrats for years as the Broadcasting Board of Governors was becoming more and more dysfunctional and defunct.
READ MORE: Divided we’ll fall By Ryan Crocker, The Hill, February 12, 2016.
Two former Voice of America journalists posted critical comments under Ambassador Crocker’s op-ed. One of them, Ted Lipien, was acting associate director of the Voice of America and is one of the co-founders, volunteers and supporter of BBG Watch. He directed highly successful VOA radio broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity trade union’s struggle for democracy, launched VOA TV broadcasts to Russia and Ukraine, placed Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) programs on stations in Eurasia, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and was editor of VOA’s multimedia and multilingual online journal “New Europe Review” which had Vaclav Havel on its international advisory board.
Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent.
It’s disheartening that The Hill appears to have become a primary platform for the entrenched representatives of one of the most dysfunctional agencies there is in the federal bureaucracy.
Ambassador Crocker had an illustrious career as a diplomat. But he now actually spends much of his time out of Washington, away from the sorry morass that is the Cohen Building, the headquarters of the Voice of America, and the BBG, which has become a laughing stock, especially over the last decade.
Crocker, the new BBG CEO John Lansing, and others have been lobbying hard on Capitol Hill to prevent passage of H.R. 2323. The effort, as Crocker sums up for us, is to get members of Congress to give this agency another pass, despite years of mismanagement — of its personnel and its news products.
Board members have signed on to a plan that would remove agency broadcasters from what Lansing refers to as “daily news coverage” that other global media are able to supply. This alone raises huge questions about what the place exists to accomplish on a daily basis.
An aside — It also raises questions about why VOA and other BBG broadcasters are still accredited with voting or non-voting status by House and Senate media galleries, whose requirements forbid membership to anyone “employed in any legislative or executive department or independent agency of the Government…”
or those “[engaging] in any lobbying activities.”
The FY2017 request for BBG is about $778 million. Do U.S. lawmakers support the elimination of the news coverage function of VOA, which from Lansing’s core objectives, one can only assume would apply also to other BBG entities?
As I recently wrote on the USC Center for Public Diplomacy blog (http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/…, it’s time to consider options other than just reflexively renewing the BBG budget and funding for broadcasters such as VOA, whose reputation has been on a sharp downward slide in recent years.
Crocker and others would have U.S. taxpayers believe that the United States
would somehow be measurably worse off, or its people and policies massively unrepresented on the global media stage, if VOA and other services were to disappear.
That’s absurd, given the multiple channels available to global audiences. These days, the U.S. government has numerous websites and social media channels with which to project policy, multiple ways of connecting with audiences.
BBG officials also promote the fiction that these operations also measurably help reduce threat levels to the U.S. homeland and our interests abroad — as if potential ISIS or al-Qaeda terrorists in diaspora communities in the U.S. will somehow see the light as a result of BBG programming. Also absurd.
And they use fear tactics — such as the warning about “strategic confusion” and “fiscal mismanagement” to persuade lawmakers that they should kill any legislative reform effort.
Here’s some news, not unknown to many of us who spent years working in the agency. It has been a confused bureaucracy, replete with infighting and fiscal waste, for decades.
Yes, some of this is due to members of Congress, often for their own constituency interests, expanding the BBG network and adding to duplication of efforts that lawmakers then were seemingly surprised to find existed.
But the BBG, and its subsidiary IBB (International Broadcasting Bureau) were basically left to their own devices for years, with little detailed oversight. For the latest example of one outcome of this, see the following link detailing the $400 million civil suit the agency now faces as a result of federal rules violations https://bbgwatch.com/bbgwatch/themis-pllc-offers-update-on-400m-contractors-class-action-lawsuit-against-bbg/
So, sure — go ahead and keep this most mismanaged of agencies going ad infinitum. Everyone knows there is plenty of money to go around.
Board members will continue to fly in for self-congratulatory meetings; BBG’s audience research arm (buttressed by a $50 million contract with Gallup) will continue issuing inflated claims about how impactful BBG programming allegedly is.
And unless they are removed or re-located, entrenched GS-15 and SES bureaucrats will continue business as usual in what House and Senate members who have taken notice have described as a broken and ineffective operation that has shown itself to be in need of thorough restructuring to be deserving of ongoing taxpayer support.
Ambassador Crocker couldn’t be more wrong. Whether the BBG is run by a central government bureaucracy or a CEO, even a good one, assisted by a central government bureaucracy, U.S. international media outreach will continue to fail, as it does now precisely because of its current institutional model. These programs are two complex and employ too many different approaches to be managed centrally, as they are now under the dysfunctional Broadcasting Board of Governors, which Secretary Clinton called “practically defunct,” and rightly so.
One CEO does not represent institutional reform. It is the bureaucratic desire to centrally control programs, which the government bureaucracy does not understand and does not identify with, that makes the BBG ineffective and wasteful. Ambassador Crocker may not know this, but historically the U.S. was most effective in its media outreach and public diplomacy when the so-called surrogate broadcasters were managed separately from the government bureaucracy, and separately from the U.S. public diplomacy programs. They were managed so much better in fact under the model Ambassador Crocker objects to that we won the Cold War. The H.R. 2323 would simply bring back that model rather that creating an even more powerful and wasteful government bureaucracy.
As for Ambassador Crocker’s various dire warnings, they are far more likely to be realized under the current institutional arrangement. It was the BBG that had eliminated Voice of America Arabic broadcasts and Arabic online media outreach. I led one of VOA’s most successful language services — the Polish Service — during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy, was VOA’s acting associate director, studied U.S. international broadcasting history, and had to deal with the central BBG bureaucracy. The BBG has been a nightmare for talented journalists at the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia. Some of BBG’s longtime bureaucrats are still there and they are not going away. I have great respect for John Lansing, but he won’t be at the BBG forever, and he can’t manage it alone. A VOA English news report on the New Hampshire primary gets 9 comments from readers worldwide; a Washington Post report gets over 1,300. Radio Liberty management fired some of its best investigative and human rights reporters in Russia. Even modestly-funded independent Russian media, such as Latvia-based Meduza, are doing better online in Russia than U.S. taxpayer-funded Russian Service of Radio Liberty. RL still has a few good journalists left, but its impact has declined because BBG bureaucrats have been micromanaging it for many years. CEOs in Washingtion will come and go, but nothing will change without major structural reforms.
H.R. 2323 offers the best and time-tested solution for making U.S. international media outreach work.