BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch presents a variety of opinions on U.S. international media outreach. One of our regular contributor, The Federalist, takes issue with a CUSIB statement in support of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) director and CEO Andy Lack in his dispute with Russia’s RT and is somewhat critical of our reporting on the controversy.

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War Lost: 2015 – A Year For Living Dangerously

By The Federalist

It’s February and that means Chinese Lunar New Year is coming soon. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2015 is The Year of the Goat/Sheep.

But for US Government international broadcasting, it is shaping up as a year for living dangerously.

One month into 2015 and turmoil abounds. Let’s consider the participants.

Participant #1: Andrew Lack

Mr. Lack has the dubious distinction of being the runaway leader at the moment. Not in his appointment for barely a week as the first and newly-minted Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Mr. Lack was interviewed by The New York Times. In the course of the interview, when talking about the challenges facing the agency, Mr. Lack stumbled into a contextual malfunction by lumping RT (formerly called “Russia Today”) together with Boko Haram and ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

RT is the Russian state media organization. Whether you like them or hate them viscerally, they are not a terrorist organization.

If Mr. Lack cited RT as a competitor and likened them to CCTV (the Chinese), the Iranian state news agency or others, it is more than likely the remark would have come and gone and the most one would expect as a response from the Russians would have been, “Good Luck.”

Not so.

The statement just hung out there.

It is still hanging out there.

Mr. Lack himself has not attempted to clarify his remarks.

Not surprisingly, the Russians picked up on it and went to battle stations.

Some people revel in the Russian reaction seeing it as RT being on the defensive.

Not so.

We are no fan or follower of RT or its editorial direction. As a third party observer, we don’t see their reaction in it that way.

In so many words, Mr. Lack’s statement, constructed as it is, was and remains, handed the RT management an issue as big as all outdoors and they went at it vigorously.

Conversely, one would certainly expect a similar reaction from the BBG and Mr. Lack if the Voice of America (VOA) were to have been similarly juxtaposed in a remark by another state media outlet.

Participant #2: US Department of State

In steps the US Department of State to “fix” things.

In the attempt to clarify Mr. Lack’s remarks, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki – responding to a question put to her by an RT reporter – stated:

“Would the US government put those three in the same category? No, we wouldn’t.”

Psaki went on to say, “that wouldn’t be the way we would state it,” referring to “concerns” Lack was attempting to express which the State Department does agree with.

Not three days into his post, Mr. Lack not only stumbled, he got thrown under the bus for added emphasis.

Ms. Psaki also made some errors, attempting to refer to the BBG as an “independent” Federal agency, which it is not. She also cited the limits on access inside Russia to BBG programming, not mentioning in context the decision by the BBG to end its direct VOA Russian Service radio and satellite television broadcasting to Russia in 2008.

Participant #3: RT

Not content to sit back and watch Lack, the BBG and the apparatus of State Department public diplomacy struggle with damage control, RT officials crudely lowered the discussion by likening Andrew Lack to Josef Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Participant #4: Committee for US International Broadcasting (CUSIB)

The next twist in the chronology comes in the form of a statement by the Committee for US International Broadcasting (CUSIB). BBG Watch, which has a longer history than CUSIB, was launched by one of CUSIB’s co-founders. CUSIB is an independent NGO separate from BBG Watch.

In the CUSIB statement is the allegation that RT is showing “feigned outrage” over the Lack statement and that RT is engaged in “a ploy” to discredit Lack in an attempt to stop his management reforms and possibly force his ouster.

With all due respect to CUSIB, we are having some difficulty following the logic here.

A “ploy” would seem to presume the initiation of some kind of action by RT to set up Lack to make the remark that he did.

That sequence didn’t happen.

Lack made a poorly articulated statement. RT jumped on it and is pummeling him relentlessly. Calling it a ploy misapplies the term. But most certainly they are exploiting Lack’s misstep. If Lack takes the fall for what he did, that would suit the Russians just fine. But to call this “a ploy” is just plain wrong.

How long RT will continue along this path remains to be seen. But what we are seeing is that they are marshaling their worldwide resources and are on the offensive. Their message is having some resonance. Part of that message is portraying Lack’s inarticulate remark as an attempt to stifle free speech by media which has a different point of view from that of the BBG and the United States Government.

We also would raise the question: how is the RT reaction materially different from the BBG expressing outrage in other incidents involving actions against its employees?

At the end of the day, what it comes down to is Mr. Lack handed the Russians a gift and they made full use of the opportunity.

However, another issue is part of this discussion.

BBG Watch has diligently crafted a reputation for being “independent and effective.” It has been subjected to the verbal and written “slings and arrows” of officials of the BBG many times over. It has been publicly savaged by David Ensor, the VOA director.

In mounting a defense of Mr. Lack, we have to ruminate on the point: does this sacrifice the BBG Watch role and its credibility as an independent observer of the actions of this agency and its officials?

Does rushing to the defense of Mr. Lack – when he messed up – now put BBG Watch in the position of defending every decision that Lack makes?

We also take into account that BBG Watch has oftentimes pointed to RT’s successful audience penetration compared to the worse than anemic BBG presence across all media platforms.

Lack’s remark was an enormous blunder in both strategy and tactics.

In our view, Mr. Lack’s first order of business is (or maybe was) to get the BBG house in order. Rather, he decided to tangle with an organization that presently and into the likely near future at least, out-positions BBG entities, particularly in Russia where the BBG presence is rather hapless and in large measure due to actions of its own going back to 2008.

Last But Definitely Not Least:

Participant #5: The Cohen Building (BBG, VOA, etc.)

Silent as the grave in all of this is the BBG press/public affairs machinery.

It is uncharacteristic silence, given the penchant of the BBG to crank out press releases extolling its operations or expressing outrage over some breach in the treatment of its employees, the most recent example being the treatment of its Azeri Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in its Baku bureau in Azerbaijan. And please note: the pre-trial detention of one of the RFE/RL employees has reportedly be extended by the Baku authorities. Perhaps they have upped the ante sensing a moment of opportunity with one more example of disarray provided by Mr. Lack.

BBG silence on “The Lack Flap” could be reflective of at least two possible scenarios:

The first would be to button up and not run the risk of making things worse than they already are.

The second would be an internal agenda on the part of the BBG bureaucracy:

As we have remarked, there are people inside the Cohen Building who are not favorably inclined toward the Lack appointment and the potential consequences to the career bureaucrats in what he might do to reshape the agency.

Further, there are individuals inside the agency who believe they would have made better choices for the CEO position and will point to Lack’s opening public statement as to why. Not that they would, by the way, but megalomania reigns supreme on the part of certain individuals.

Also, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that these individuals would be content to watch Lack whither under the weight of the consequences of his own actions.

It makes perfect sense: a bad organization with a management structure that has no interest in self-correction (remember, the “Back Off Congress” motif). Let the reformer take a hit and undermine his effectiveness. It buys them more time to either outlast the reformer or to make an exit from the agency on their own terms at some later while building up their retirement annuities.

We would suggest that Mr. Lack has more to worry from what goes on inside the Cohen Building than he does from RT. But that seems to have escaped his initial attention.

At the end of the day, here is what we believe matters:

At present, Andrew Lack is damaged goods, a political liability. How that continues to reverberate in his CEO capacity for a dysfunctional and defunct organization, remains to be seen.

Surrogates attempting to apologize or clarify Mr. Lack’s remarks are less effective than Lack himself offering his own statement of clarification. He should have done that right away. He didn’t. It’s still out there. Until he does, the appearance is that Mr. Lack intended the statement to stand as it is.

RT is still here. It is not going away. It is not afraid of the BBG or Mr. Lack. It is not on the defensive. It is on the offensive and appears to be exploiting the situation to its own advantage.

The BBG is still dysfunctional and defunct.

The BBG remains outmaneuvered by the Russian government where it counts: it has no significant presence or audience inside Russia.

For the sake of its credibility, independence and effectiveness, it may serve CUSIB better to step back and observe this incident more judiciously and objectively.

The Federalist
February 2015