BBG Watch Commentary
Politico and The New York Times reported that Richard Stengel, the top editor of Time magazine for the past seven years, is planning to step down as managing editor to take a job at the U.S. Department of State where he will serve as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs if he is formally nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
In addition to being in charge of public diplomacy at the State Department, Stengel will likely also represent the Secretary of State at meetings of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency is in charge of U.S. international broadcasting. The Secretary of State is an ex officio member of the nine-person, bipartisan BBG Board, but no Secretary of State has ever attended a formal BBG Board meeting. They are usually represented at these meetings by the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
The Under Secretary of State would be in violation of the law if he or she tried to influence news content of BBG-funded broadcasts. By law, the BBG serves as a firewall between the State Department and BBG journalists. The Under Secretary of State can, however, play a major role along with other BBG members in how U.S. international broadcasting is managed. As a journalist, Stengel will likely have a good understanding of these nuances.
Shortly before leaving her post at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called BBG’s management “defunct.” Her representative at BBG meetings, the then Under Secretary Tara Sonenshine, had to intervene with other BBG members to address and resolve a public diplomacy crisis in Russia which had been ignored by the BBG’s dysfunctional senior executive staff at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). The crisis developed after the former management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) had fired dozens of Radio Liberty’s human rights reporters in Russia, a move which was condemned by leading Russian opposition figures.
Last week, BBG Watch reported that Secretary of State John Kerry should have designated someone to represent him at BBG Board meetings considering the lack of good management at the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Voice of America (VOA). Because of mismanagement at its top executive ranks, VOA has been late in posting news on its English website, ignoring major news developments, even those involving the State Department, and failing to engage audiences through social media.
While serving in his future new job, Richard Stengel cannot tell Voice of America what news to cover or not to cover, but he could ask for example why VOA had not provided a response from the State Department when President Putin called Secretary Kerry a “liar” on Syria and why VOA had not reported on Ambassador Anne Patterson’s letter to an Egyptian newspaper protesting against printing of false anti-American rumors. Critics said that this was due not to any deficiencies on the part of VOA journalists but because the organization is poorly managed by its senior executives who have caused employee morale to drop to a record low level.
The unfortunate part is that even if he is quickly nominated, it may take months before Stengel’s nomination is confirmed by the Senate. The BBG Board needs a State Department representative to more effectively deal with management issues at IBB and VOA. The latest scandal was minimal coverage by the VOA English website of President Obama’s address to the nation on Syria with Al Jazeera, BBC and Russia Today leaving VOA far behind in social media engagement. See: Voice of America’s amateur hour on Obama’s Syria speech, BBG Watch.
Read: Richard Stengel leaving Time for State Department, Politico | By By JOE POMPEO and DYLAN BYERS | September 12, 2013.
Read: Richard Stengel to Leave Time for the Obama Administration, The New York Times | By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY, September 12, 2013.
BBG Watch Commentary
Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry with Lyudmila Alexeeva in Moscow, May 8, 2013. Alexeeva was boycotting Radio Liberty after human rights reporters had been fired. The BBG Board resolved the crisis, which was being ignored by IBB officials. Alexeeva is again cooperating with Radio Liberty. RFE/RL has a new president, Kevin Klose, who was appointed by the BBG Board.
As far as we know, Secretary of State John Kerry has not yet designated anyone to represent him and vote at formal Board meetings of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, which includes media outlets such as Voice of America (VOA).
The Secretary of State is an ex-officio member of the nine-person, bipartisan Board, but no Secretary of State has ever attended any formal BBG Board meetings, which in itself is highly unfortunate considering that the agency has been badly managed in recent years.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the agency “defunct,” yet she herself had not attended any BBG Board meetings, although she did have a get-acquainted meeting with other BBG members.
The Secretary of State usually appoints a high-level State Department official to attend BBG meetings. Former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine represented Hillary Clinton and briefly John Kerry. She had left her post last July. No one has been appointed since her departure to represent Secretary Kerry at BBG meetings, although a lower-ranking State Department official usually attends these meetings and takes notes.
The absence of a formal State Department representative at meetings of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is very unfortunate for several reasons and it has been made worse by the current crisis over Syria.
The same management team that Secretary Clinton blamed for making the agency “defunct” is still in charge of running the BBG on a day-to-day basis. The bipartisan Board, which includes Secretary Kerry, did not have a quorum until very recently. The Board is still short of three members.
While some of of the former and current BBG members have tried to get control over the bureaucracy, which is centered within the top ranks of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America, they have been unable to force significant management reforms due to strong bureaucratic resistance. IBB’s Director is Richard Lobo, a presidential appointee. Jeff Trimble is his deputy.
In addition to two experienced and effective members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, the Board has the new highly capable Chairman, Jeff Shell, and two new members, Matt Armstrong and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, both experienced in public diplomacy issues. Having someone representing the Secretary of State at BBG meetings would help Shell and other Board members to deal more effectively with the IBB/VOA bureaucracy at this critical time.
The IBB/VOA management team has to be watched very carefully. These executives have gotten the agency in deep trouble before because of the lack of sufficient oversight from weak BBG Boards. The possible war with Syria makes good oversight a national necessity.
Some of the IBB executives were partly responsible for causing and not responding to a major public diplomacy disaster in Russia when the previous management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) fired dozens of human rights reporters. The then Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine worked together with then BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe and with BBG members Susan McCue and Michael Meehan to address and resolve the crisis at RFE/RL after IBB executives had failed to take any action.
Many suspect that Ambassador Ashe’s departure from the Board last month at the request of the White House was a result of a bureaucratic intrigue instigated by IBB officials unhappy with his demands for accountability and transparency. At the time his departure was requested, Ambassador Ashe was the only Republican member on the BBG Board. The Board still lacks two Republican members. Ambassador Ashe was the senior Republican member who worked closely with his Democratic colleagues.
Having a representative of Secretary Kerry at BBG meetings could prevent future disasters that IBB/VOA management is fully capable of creating. It could also help Chairman Shell and other current Board members to force major management reforms at the federal agency.
A representative of Secretary Kerry could, for example, could ask tough questions why Voice of America, led by Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch, is late in reporting on major news developments or fails to report on some altogether, including news relating to the State Department and the Secretary of State. On one of such Syria-related news stories, Russia’s state-supported international broadcaster Russia Today got recently over 13,000 Facebook “Likes,” while VOA only managed to get less than a dozen.
A State Department representative could also help the BBG with such issues as staff security abroad and the search for the Alhurra correspondent missing in Syria.
He or she could also question Ensor and Redisch about their ill-conceived idea to send a VOA correspondent to Syria at this time, possibly risking the person’s life and opening the United States Government to blackmail from the Syrian Government or Syrian anti-government extremists.
A State Department official could also tell top agency bureaucrats in no uncertain terms not to embarrass the United States Government by refusing to answer questions from American reporters or attempting to punish American reporters by demanding that their press credentials be revoked by the UN.
As we pointed out, the BBG Board can’t be certain what these officials might do next to embarrass the agency and the United States Government. These executives need to be carefully watched. Having a high-level State Department official join the BBG Board during all future meetings would be very helpful, especially since the United States might be going to war with Syria. Secretary Kerry should also make an effort to attend BBG meetings himself from time to time.