Often referred to as a senior Republican member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Ambassador Victor Ashe has invited the public, including BBG employees and contractors, to send comments to his personal email address, Send an e-mail to BBG member Victor Ashe, on the controversial plan to merge BBG-managed Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) into a single administrative unit.
Ashe has become a champion of transparency and raising employee morale at the federal agency which oversees U.S. international broadcasting. He is one of nine members serving on the bipartisan Board. In the absence of Michael Lynton, the BBG’s interim presiding governor, the meeting in Miami was presided over by Governor Dennis Mulhaupt. Governor Dana Perino was also absent. Both Lynton and Perino have a poor attendance record at BBG meetings. Lynton is a Democrat. Mulhaupt and Perino are Republicans.
While the open meeting of the Board on Friday at the headquarters of Radio and TV Marti in Miami was chaired by Governor Mulhaupt, Governors Victor Ashe and Michael Meehan clearly dominated the discussion. On-demand video and audio from the meeting is available on the BBG official website.
Ashe, who in addition to serving as U.S. ambassador to Poland was earlier the mayor of Knoxville, TN and is the most experienced public official on the Board, called attention to a number of unresolved issues in the proposal to merge the publicly funded surrogate broadcasters who get their grants from Congress through the BBG. He expressed concerns about the lack of information on the selection and the authority of the CEO for the merged entity. Ashe warned that rushing to implement the plan in its current form may damage U.S. international broadcasting and said that he would oppose the idea of selecting the CEO for the proposed entity as early as next month.
At one point Ashe was interrupted by another Republican member S. Enders Wimbush with whom he has had disagreements on various BBG issues. Ashe managed to introduce a parliamentary maneuver to divide the merger proposal motion into three separate questions and voted against an early selection of outside contractors to help implement the plan which has not yet been fully discussed and approved. He explained why he voted “no” by saying “I’m not comfortable with this, and I just don’t have enough information.” Ashe asked for a complete documentation of how the proposed merger can produce $10 million in savings. He also disclosed that the heads of broadcasting entities have reservations about the Global News Network. The network functioning as a news agency aggregating news content from all BBG entities was an idea of the former BBG chairman Walter Isaacson who suddenly resigned earlier this year. Critics have described the Global News Network as redundant and lacking a target audience.
Also raising reservations at the meeting in Miami about the proposed merger was BBG Democratic member Michael Meehan. Meehan is not opposed to streamlining BBG administrative operations, but he expressed concerns that a partial merger will only divert resources from other urgent BBG business without achieving desired results. Meehan believes that these resources would be better used for a comprehensive merger of U.S. international broadcasting operations involving all BBG entities.
Another BBG Democratic member Susan McCue disagreed with Meehan on proceeding with only the partial merger. She is working on a legislative proposal which she described as “U.S. Broadcasting Innovation Act.” She said that the proposed administrative merger of the three grantee organizations would help with the passage of the proposed legislation. She has not disclosed any details of her legislative proposal and has not invited public comments.
Meehan supported Ashe on the reversal of the proposed elimination of Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to China, the closing down in FY 2013 of the VOA Cantonese Service providing radio, TV and Internet content, and reductions in Radio Free Asia broadcasts. At the BBG meeting in Miami, Meehan announced the decision to reject the earlier recommendations of the BBG executive staff on cuts in broadcasting to China by VOA and RFA.
It is believed that S. Enders Wimbush, a strong supporter of ending Voice of America radio and television broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese to China, helped to push through the earlier staff recommendations which were rejected at the meeting in Miami. After a storm of criticism from human rights organizations and members of Congress, some BBG governors claimed that their executive staff did not brief them sufficiently on the FY2013 budget proposal for China and did not provide adequate public input.
Victor Ashe spoke at length at the meeting about the benefits of involving the public and major stakeholders in the discussions and cited President Obama’s statement in support of transparency in government. He urged BBG members not to rush major decisions on issues such as broadcasting to China and Tibet and the merger of the surrogate broadcasters. He suggested that the Board allocate more time for discussion and questions at future meetings.
Critics of the merger plan worry that if implemented in its current form it would undermine independence and effectiveness of the surrogate broadcasters as well diminish public and Congressional scrutiny over U.S. international broadcasting. They also fear that area experts and other professionals currently running these broadcasters will be replaced by International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) bureaucrats who have devised the merger plan and made recommendations to limit broadcasting to Tibet, China and other countries without free media. Some critics have described the merger plan as a power grab by BBG and IBB executives who don’t like Congressional oversight.
Referring to the interim report on the proposed merger, which was prepared by an inside working group led by MBN head Brian Conniff, Victor Ashe said that he looks forward to hearing comments from the public when the document is posted on the official BBG website. It was suggested at the meeting that the report will be posted by May 1, but an unofficial copy of the interim report is already available online.
At the open meeting in Miami, Ashe said that Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine, who has been recently confirmed by the Senate and represents Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at BBG meetings, made valuable suggestions to BBG members about the importance of public input into government decision-making process.
Ashe asked the public to share their suggestions with him by sending them to his personal email address:
“I would encourage everyone who is listening, talk to your friends and share this among them once it goes on the website. It is an official document. It’s not a bootleg document. And share your ideas with us.
If you want to share them personally with me, my email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m more than happy to hear from you. I’m only one member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. My views only reflect myself. But if you want me to share whatever you send to me with my colleagues, I will more than happily do it.
But again, we want this process to be open, transparent — all the stakeholders at the table. And if we do that in good faith, in good conscience, at the end of the day — whatever the outcome is, wherever the vote falls — we will have a better product. We will have more of buying-in by the process than if we don’t.”
To demonstrate his commitment to transparency, Ashe disclosed at the open meeting the cost of his recent trip to Asia (between $7,000 and $7,500), during which he visited BBG radio transmission facilities and held discussions with U.S. embassy personnel and government officials in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. He said that he was the first BBG member visiting Laos in an official capacity. Laos has a communist-run government and government-controlled media. Ashe, who supports continued VOA and RFA shortwave radio broadcasts to Laos, noted the extensive Chinese economic presence and influence in the country.
Ashe also spoke about an unprecedented meeting the BBG’s Governance Committee had in March with representatives of the employee unions and contractors. Ashe was an early supporter of establishing this kind of dialogue to improve employee morale at the BBG, which is among the worst in the entire federal government. He has met personally with a number of employee groups. Speaking about the March meeting with the unions and contractors, Ashe said that it was difficult:
“We heard things we did not want to hear, but we heard things that we all agree we should hear. And I think that the result of it is that now a number of these issues are now on the table. It’s no longer hidden. It’s not in the closet. And we’re discussing them openly.”
Ashe also paid tribute to Annette Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, whose recent plea in defense of Voice of America broadcasts to China, Tibet and Russia may have contributed to the BBG’s reversal of some of the broadcasting cuts. He recalled that in 2005 as U.S. Ambassador to Poland he accompanied the late Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife Annette Lantos when they visited the site of the former Nazi death camp in Auschwitz to mark the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
Ashe also announced that Edward R. Murrow’s only son, Charles Casey Murrow, will participate in the the rededication ceremony at the BBG Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville, North Carolina, in honor of the renowned broadcaster and director of the USIA (1961-1964) and in recognition of World Press Freedom Day. Ashe and Congressman Walter Jones (R – NC) also plan to attend the event. The BBG and IBB executive staff wanted to close down the facility, but Ashe insisted that the only remaining shortwave transmitting station on U.S. territory remain open.
During the meeting in Miami, BBG governors also stressed the importance of U.S. broadcasting to Latin America, but it is not clear what they plan to do about their FY 2013 budget proposal to eliminate several positions in the Voice of America Spanish Service. There was no mention at the open meeting about the FY 2013 budget proposal to eliminate dozens of VOA newsroom and English broadcasting positions and cuts and reductions in other VOA programs, including VOA Georgian, Turkish, and Greek broadcasts.