BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Watch has learned that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which holds jurisdiction over all diplomatic and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) nominations, has cleared President Obama’s nominations of Jeff Shell, Ryan Crocker, and Matt Armstrong to serve on the bipartisan BBG board in charge of U.S. international broadcasting.
The nominations will be sent to the full Senate for a final confirmation vote which is expected to be a formality. They may be confirmed before the Senate adjourns for the August recess.
Once confirmed by the full Senate, Jeff Shell,Chairman, NBCUniversal International, will also become BBG Chairman.
Sources told BBG Watch that while it is good news that the BBG board, which currently lacks a quorum, will get new, highly qualified members and a new chairman who has shown his willingness to reach out to outside supporters of U.S. international broadcasting, the process has been marred by a bureaucratic intrigue. Victor Ashe, a current BBG member, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and former mayor of Knoxville, has annoyed the executives in the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) with his calls for better management, accountability and transparency.
Ashe will be leaving the BBG once former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker is confirmed by the Senate. Even though Ashe is now the only Republican member on the bipartisan board which should have four Republicans and four Democrats in addition to the U.S. Secretary of State, the White House had decided that Ashe should be replaced instead of proposing that Ambassador Crocker should fill one of the existing Republican vacancies.
Earlier this week, the White House had proposed another Republican nominee to the BBG board, a prominent scholar and expert on the Middle East Dr. Kenneth R. Weinstein who is President and CEO of the Hudson Institute. His confirmation by the Senate is expected to take some time. Even if he is confirmed, the BBG board would still have four Democrats, including the Secretary of State, to three Republicans. If the three earlier nominations are confirmed, the board will have four Democrats to two Republicans if Ashe leaves his post.
According to sources, IBB officials were believed to be behind the push to get rid of Ashe. Sources also told BBG Watch that the IBB executive staff has been also resisting directives and instructions from the board’s current Democratic members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan.
IBB officials are also blamed for poor planning and poor execution of their campaign to get the U.S. Congress to modify the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act restriction on what many Americans fear might be domestic government propaganda. Because of the mishandling of the legislation and the public relations effort, newspapers, bloggers and irate taxpayers in the U.S. are criticizing the U.S. government and the BBG. Prior to the current controversy, Voice of America (VOA) and other BBG-funded news and information programs for foreign audiences generally avoided this kind of domestic political criticism and enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress.
If the nominations are confirmed soon by the full Senate, Jeff Shell and the other new BBG members will inherit the IBB executive staff, which has not only rebelled against its own public oversight board but has been rated in numerous Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) as having some of the lowest leadership and management skills and being responsible for record low employee morale when compared to all other federal agencies. BBG employees and their union are telling BBG Watch that while they will welcome new board members with new ideas, they will be sorry to see Victor Ashe leave his position.
Our advice for nominees is not to underestimate the power and ability of the bureaucracy to create major crises for U.S. international broadcasting and their willingness to retaliate against individual board members who displease them. The bureaucrats need to be told that the agency does not belong to them but to the American people and that the BBG board is there to exercise public oversight.