Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Dysfunctional and Defunct – The FY2014 Budget
by The Federalist
On Wednesday, April 10, 2013 the White House released its FY2014 budget request.
For US Government international broadcasting and the employees who engage in the effort, it is more bad news. It is yet another sterling example that the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is taking the US Government out of the business of international broadcasting to global publics.
Before we get into the intended bloodletting, it is important to note that this is the White House’s budget “proposal.” What actually comes out of the budget via the appropriations and authorization processes in Congress remains to be seen. Most certainly, the budget will be discussed and debated, with numbers kicked around by the House and Senate and in conference work between the two. The agency’s principal employee union, AFGE Local 1812, should also weigh in with its position on the budget proposal. In addition, interested parties outside the government, including BBG Watch, will lend additional commentary. In short, much work remains to be done.
That said, we note a comment made by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Michael Meehan as quoted in a BBG press release dated April 10, 2013:
“Some of these changes, if enacted, will be very difficult on the men and women involved,” Meehan said. “We will do everything possible to minimize the impact on our employees through agency buyouts, early-out authority and reducing positions via attrition.”
Governor Meehan is right on target with the first part of his statement. It will be a traumatizing experience for the employees and contractors who work in the agency, should the budget be enacted to the letter of the White House proposal. If this happens, in an agency known for being “the worst organization in the Federal Government,” the likely effect is that it will compound the agency’s problems and make the agency even more insufferable in its shortcomings, internally and externally.
With the second part of the statement, Governor Meehan notes intended actions to minimize the impact of the budget proposal. This will require action on the part of the Federal government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) through an agency request to offer buyouts and early retirements.
Even so, while the early retirement and buyout authorizations are positives, they still reflect that the agency’s actions are having an adverse impact on its workforce and its operations. And the buyout and early retirement authority only applies to the agency’s Federal workers, not its contractors – a group of employees that the agency relies heavily upon to carry out its operations.
Nonetheless, we acknowledge Governor Meehan for his candor – much needed from an agency noted for the lack thereof, particularly at the hands of the IBB.
The agency’s budget request totals 144 pages. That’s a lot to digest. For the present, we will offer an overview of some things that jump off the pages of the document.
By The Numbers
The agency’s FY2014 budget request is for $731-million dollars. By comparison, the agency’s enacted FY2013 budget was for $756-million dollars. Comparing the two, the FY2014 budget is for $25-million dollars less than its FY2013 budget.
Asking for less fiscal resources is the kind of thing that raises eyebrows. To those of us who follow the agency’s “flim flam Soviet-style dysfunctional and defunct strategic plan,” the outward appearance is that this is yet further indication that the IBB is getting out of the business of US Government international broadcasting.
Presently, the agency’s estimated worldwide audience on all media platforms (including radio, television, the Internet) is hovering around 175-million – out of a global population of 7-BILLION. In our view, less money equates with less audience and less effectiveness in reaching that audience, particularly when coupled with other agency actions detailed below.
The budget request includes the statement,
“Freedom House notes that 2013 is the seventh consecutive year that declines in worldwide freedom have outpaced advances.”
The budget request states that the agency’s mission is in support of freedom and democracy. That is not the agency’s primary mission; delivering uncensored news, information and commentary that would result enhancing freedom is the agency’s primary mission. Mentioning freedom and democracy while failing to increase audiences since at least 2008 is the sales pitch coming from the cartoon strategists of the IBB. It sounds great, like many sales pitches. But the proof is in the product delivered.
[Note: The agency’s mission is codified in the VOA Charter. Read it and you will understand what the agency’s mission is. “Supporting freedom and democracy” is a subjective outcome. But it is also an outcome that can be measured and is being measured by others. Measurements that we provide herein demonstrate that the IBB’s intended outcome has failed.]
Juxtaposing the agency’s statement with the data supplied by Freedom House, one can reach the conclusion that the agency isn’t delivering the goods. Indeed, it appears to be losing ground. Add to that the agency’s budget request – something of a form of fiscal self-flagellation – you wonder about the frame of reasoning applied to the request. Indeed, “reason” may be an oxymoron in this case.
On its face, it appears to be yet another example of agency dysfunction that former Secretary of State Clinton referred to at the time she left office.
Here’s another statement from the budget proposal:
“For 2012-2016, the BBG’s core strategic goal is to become the world’s leading international news agency focused on mission and impact – i.e., to reach key audiences in support of free, open democratic societies. The agency’s principal performance goal is to reach 216 million in global weekly audience by 2016.”
The long and the short of this statement is that present realities make this statement delusional.
Let’s return to the numbers: an audience target of 216-million in 2016 out of a global population of 7-BILLION. Also consider that the agency’s audience numbers with its present broadcast operations are tanking; NO INCREASE OF AUDIENCE SINCE 2008 despite larger budgets almost every year since 2008 until now. Let’s also keep in mind that this agency has been around for 70 years. Its current dismal showing may indicate the agency and its message are either worn out or (more likely) subverted by IBB decisions.
Who are the “key audiences?” Certainly, we would include China, Iran and Russia. But those audiences are approaching extinction through a combination of blocked BBG broadcasts, domestic Chinese, Russian and Iranian controls over the Internet or internal IBB acts of self-destruction as in the case of the Russian Service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
What this statement amounts to is sloganeering – seemingly picking a number out of thin air to correlate to a calendar year – something one suspects as coming out of the IBB marketing apparatus or its Office of Digital Design and Innovation. We would not be surprised if they plan to start measuring and reporting their audience in the United States, marketing programs to Americans instead to audiences abroad, spending U.S. taxpayers’ money on domestic marketing of news and information. They were pushing hard for a repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions on domestic marketing of programs and they got it.
As a practical matter, this kind of “growth” amounts to zero growth. It doesn’t take into consideration that the agency is being tossed around like a rag doll by the Chinese, Iranians, Russians and others. Right from the start, three key audiences can be factored out of the equation. IBB decisions have both facilitated and accelerated the process.
Let’s add to that the diminished impact of US Government broadcasts to the Arab and Muslim world. That part of the equation has taken what appears to be a hard turn toward fundamentalism. Freedom and democracy are hard sell concepts in a part of the world with no history of the Western practice of both. This is a world which can speak to an alternative world view: monarchies, dictatorships and theocracies – and well over a millennium in the practice of all.
[Note: Want another example of failure in the Arab and Muslim world?
Preliminary reports indicate the suspects in the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon were originally from Chechnya, a region in the Russian republic with an active, global jihadist insurrection.
But that is not all. International Broadcasting Bureau executives and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty managers proposed last year to ELIMINATE RFE/RL RADIO PROGRAMS TO CHECHNYA and to cut the number of journalists reporting on terrorism and other issues in the North Caucasus region. They did not succeed on Chechnya due to strong opposition in Congress and elsewhere, but they DID SUCCEED in firing dozens of experienced Russian journalists who reported on the same issues in Russian, a language widely spoken in the region. Firing journalists in Putin’s Russia and proposing to cut programs to Chechnya shows how utterly clueless these executives are.]
And consider this:
The Chinese have a budget in the range of $8-BILLION dollars for its global media initiative. Actions speak louder than words and the Chinese are making themselves heard. When one wants to use the phrase “world’s leading international news agency focused on mission and impact,” put the Chinese at the top of the list, not the also-rans on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.
As we call it, this is “motion without movement.” We already know this:
If the budget request reflects the IBB strategic valuation, the agency is already bankrupt.
Blood on the Floor – By the Numbers
According to sources inside the Cohen Building, the following is what the IBB proposes not to be doing in FY2014 regarding Voice of America (VOA) operations:
Greek Service: eliminated (4 positions)
Georgian Service: 4 positions cut (including 1 unfilled vacancy)
Cuts to broadcasts to Afghanistan (10 positions cut, 5 are vacant)
Albanian Service (3 positions cut, 1 is vacant)
Eliminate front office personnel for Near East and Central Asia divisions (6 positions)
Cuts to Spanish to Latin America and Creole to Haiti (8 positions cut, between 6 and 9 vacancies
Urdu radio broadcasts: eliminated (4 positions)
Persian News Network (PNN): radio to Iran eliminated (4 positions)
And the main targets:
Worldwide English: 11 positions cut including 7 vacancies
VOA Central Newsroom: 24 positions cut, 20 which are vacant
Sources also report that $2-million dollars will be cut from funds designated for contractors. Some estimates put this as equivalent to 30 contractor positions.
[Please note that even though positions are vacant, in budgetary calculations, those positions are funded in order to be filled. Cut the vacant positions and the funding for filling those positions also evaporates.]
Even though the agency may seek buy-out and early retirement authority – as alluded to by Governor Meehan in his remarks in the agency press release – these must be approved by the Office of Personnel Management [OPM]). It is somewhat unclear whether or not the agency will get approval because of government sequestration.
On its face:
These proposed adverse actions are inconsistent with an organization that claims its intention:
“…is to become the world’s leading international news agency focused on mission and impact – i.e., to reach key audiences in support of free, open democratic societies…”
This is a specious claim – like so much that comes from the IBB. Based on the IBB’s intended actions, these claims appear to divert attention away from its true goal: to take the United States Government out of the business of international broadcasting.
It is bad enough that these IBB types are hypocrites. Even more, they are something far worse, as evidenced by their scurrilous public attacks against agency employees and members of the BBG.
Add to the list of specious claims the one about creating a “global news network.” This IBB budget proposal for VOA specifically attacks core radio operations including Worldwide English and the VOA Central Newsroom.
As it is now, in the ongoing effort to destroy Newsroom effectiveness, the daily process of reporting news is being described among employees as “schizophrenic:” not being able to cover breaking news and events in a timely fashion. One should not expect things to improve for the better in the Central Newsroom.
And worse: the agency appears to be abandoning a core journalistic principle of obtaining double sources on news stories. As recently as the Boston Marathon bombings, the agency got burned – as did other news organizations – by relying on a single “source” who claimed that arrests were imminent in the immediate aftermath of the bombings.
The FY2014 budget request clearly intends to continue the assault on agency radio operations. Over half of whatever meager audience the agency has remaining for its programs exists on radio. Kill off the radio and the only thing the agency is doing is spending an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money on an exercise in futility.
And we are getting closer by the day to that moment.
Last but definitely not least:
Remember what we’ve said about the IBB – how they obsess over something they want. In addition to killing off the agency’s radio broadcasts, their budget proposal includes a request for the establishment of a CEO – a chief executive officer, which they would mold to be a “chief execution officer,” the person to carry out the IBB agenda.
We’ve made this plain before:
At this juncture – and given the nature of the IBB – no CEO is going to save the place and in the wrong hands would likely hasten its demise.
Particularly when the top priority of the IBB is their venal self-interest and not the national and public interest.
Even if the BBG were to appoint a CEO, there is no guarantee that the individual in that position would survive the conspiratorial and vicious behavior of the IBB after the BBG members who appointed the CEO leave the board and are replaced.
But if you want it to work:
The first order of business is to remove the entire top tier of the IBB, systematically working down through the incompetence and corruption. It can be done. It will require an iron constitution but it can be done.
Short message to the BBG: you want a CEO to be your enforcer, not a lackey of the IBB.
Do that and the agency might have a chance to reconstitute its reputation and mission effectiveness. Don’t do this and the only thing left to do is close the agency and stop wasting taxpayer by keeping the place on life support for the IBB.
Not surprisingly, however, we hear now that IBB’s top leaders are actively preventing BBG members from hiring their own executive officer or a chief of staff.
We’re not exactly holding our breath for a positive.
Remember: this is the worst organization in the Federal Government and one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government.
(Next: Blood On The Floor – David Ensor Speaks – Again)