by The Federalist
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee conducted a hearing on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, titled:
“The Broadcasting Board of Governors:
An Agency ‘Defunct’”
Committee members heard testimony and engaged in an exchange of questions and answers with one panel of witnesses, all former members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG): James Glassman (also a former under-secretary of State for Public Diplomacy), Jeffrey Hirschberg and S. Enders Wimbush.
An agency defunct.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “defunct” as “no longer living, existing or functioning.” The dictionary provides some related words:
nonexistent, collapsed, antiquated, dated, obsolete, passé, finished, lapsed, lost, missing. In one way or another, all these related words apply to the agency.
Cumulatively, this means that we are talking about an agency that is already dead.
There have been instances of people coming back from being declared clinically dead and perhaps even some businesses or other organizations written off as dead and staging a successful comeback.
But neither is happening here.
When mission effectiveness is no longer an operative part of the equation and has been replaced by self-serving propaganda from its senior officials, the agency is DEAD.
This also means that the $756-million dollars being currently spent on the agency’s operations is a form of artificial life support.
What comes across in this hearing is a desperate attempt at resuscitation. Too many conditions – both internal and external – make this extremely unlikely.
The Oft-Repeated Mantra
Let us begin with one thing that the witness panel and committee members have wrapped themselves around: the idea of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for US Government international broadcasting.
Here’s the bad news:
Forget it. The concept is too vague. A lot of conditions need to be set to avoid yet another disaster. After all, BBG already has not one but at least two CEOs: International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo and IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble.
We’ve argued this point before and we will argue it again:
You will need the proverbial “man (or woman) of steel” in this position and even then there is no guarantee that this person will work a miracle.
The first and most important consideration is that this person cannot come from the ranks of the International Broadcasting Bureau. This body of self-serving bureaucrats has compromised itself. It has engaged in defiant, grossly insubordinate behavior. It has deliberately and intentionally engaged in willful character assassination of BBG members and has done so both through administrative processes (a State Department Office of Inspector General [OIG] report) and in public comments anonymously or through their contacts.
The second consideration is obvious: who then will this person be and where will that person come from? Whoever it is will need to be prepared to deal with the nest of vipers in the IBB. They have crossed a threshold manifest in their behavior described above. You will be confronted by a renegade group of individuals who do not have the national and public interest in mind. You will be confronted by a group of individuals who believe that visceral character assassination is now an acceptable form of behavior intended to preserve their agenda. Unless you have the authority to give each and every one of these people the heave-ho –
The third consideration is that this CEO person must work for the BBG and not the IBB. If it were to be the latter, an already dead agency will be “deader than dead.”
The CEO thing has become a mantra – one which is repeated ad nauseum as if saying it often enough will make it the miracle solution. Not only that: it’s the elusive miracle that must work, because there is no other idea out there to latch onto.
This means, the agency is dead.
That’s one of the things about this hearing: seemingly both panel witnesses and committee members like the idea of a CEO but none really have sufficiently fleshed out the idea as to how this person/position will function. Nor does the witness panel or the committee members acknowledge what has put the agency in this position in the first place: the renegade IBB. The problem must be identified and agreed upon in order to effectively eliminate the problem. If you can’t be honest about this key element –
In short, a generalized view of a CEO doesn’t get the job done. There needs to be a whole lot more specificity and no one is providing it.
In short, even if the Congress legislates a CEO into existence, the underlying problems are so deep and pervasive that there will be no material impact on reviving the agency.
The agency is flat-lining. Do you hear that steady, oscillating tone instead of a beep indicating a pulse?
And one must never forget that the agency does not exist in a vacuum. The rest of the world – including other legitimate international broadcasters – is moving forward, with or without US Government international broadcasting participating as an effective part of the picture.
A Kaleidoscope of Views But No Clear Focus
A very brief consideration of some of the extemporaneous views of the members of the witness panel (via notes from sources):
James Glassman – Former BBG Chairman, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Some of the things that jump out from Mr. Glassman’s remarks:
- The Federal entities (notably VOA) should go into State.
[Where they would be most unwelcome. The folks over at State have a jaundiced view of this whole “public diplomacy” thing and have had it for a long time. It’s an attitude not likely to disappear any time soon. They wouldn’t miss the agency in any form if it were to go away.]
- No need to do programming to Greece and Turkey.
[Let’s pull out our National Geographic world map. Greece and Turkey represent the historical crossroads of East and West. The Turks control the Straits of Bosporus which give the Russians access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Russians are reconstituting their naval presence in the Mediterranean. Both Greece and Turkey are suffering serious socio-economic and political disruptions.]
- Trying to persuade the Iranians to go against nuclear proliferation.
[We’ll give it to you straight: this is not going to happen. The new Iranian president, Hasan Rowhani, was the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. He most certainly knows that the Iranian nuclear program is a source of national pride. A radical departure from the current nuclear policy on the part of the Iranian theocracy is not likely in the foreseeable future.]
Jeffrey Hirschberg (former BBG member)
Generally, Mr. Hirschberg’s positions varied somewhat from those of Mr. Glassman. He believes the entities should remain organizationally intact as they are today. He doesn’t like the idea of rolling VOA into the State Department or the National Security Council (NSC) – although both exert varying degrees of influence on how the agency goes about its business. He supports the idea of a CEO but only if the BBG remains.
Enders Wimbush (former BBG member)
Mr. Wimbush comes across as an individual very unhappy with his BBG experience. He indicated that he resigned from the Board in disgust. He missed quite a few meetings. He would like to see the Board eliminated.
Mr. Wimbush thinks the agency should up its game in TV, especially in the Middle East.
[The truth of the matter, as we see it, is that the agency’s TV broadcasting experience to the Arab/Muslim world is one of the larger failures. There may have been a window of opportunity immediately after September 11, 2001 but must certainly, more than ten years later, that window has closed.
The agency has bought into that concoction of wishful, Western media thinking known as “The Arab Spring.” It’s a crock. We are dealing with hardcore revolution, getting bloodier by the day, capable of destabilizing the region further and laying the groundwork for even more autocratic, fundamentalist regimes. It’s a nightmare. But those who believe in that crock of “Arab Spring” nonsense hold to their views as even more blood is spilled.
We do not have the resources to pour into more TV to the Arab and Muslim world. And even with we did, we don’t have a message that has any resonance with Arab publics. That’s the reality.]
The Committee Members:
Most of all, the committee members need straight talk from people other than the three witnesses about what “defunct” really means with regard to US Government international broadcasting.
They too have bought into the CEO mantra. They need to be extremely alert. They have the power to legislate the position into existence. If that is the scenario that comes to pass, they have a better than average chance that they will mess things up – if only because the renegade IBB will parse the language of the legislation and test it to find its limits, either legally or in the fortitude of the person encumbering the position.
Where the rubber meets the road is the scenario in which the CEO and the IBB come to a difference of opinion on some matter, large or small. We know these IBB types very, very well. And so do the surviving members of the current BBG. These IBB types do not take kindly to individuals who do not share the IBB world view.
[Isn’t that right, “Penny?”]
That’s the first and most important reality that the committee members are not tackling head-on.
Another is the IBB canard of “duplication.”
Because of the confusion generated by the witnesses, at least some Committee members appeared to have a difficult time distinguishing the mission of VOA and that of the grantee broadcasters, although Chairman Ed Royce, Ranking Member Eliot Engel and some others made statements suggesting that they do understand and appreciate the differences. VOA has the world view and American view. The grantees operate as surrogates for those places in the world that have less-than-free media as cited by Freedom House. It’s an important distinction and has critical bearing on how well the entities and VOA function.
The IBB wants to make a mosh-pit of all the entities, blurring distinctions and creating confusion among what little remains of the agency’s audiences, particularly those of the VOA. Every Member of Congress understands the distinguishing features of congressional committees. Blur those features and there can be problems of identity and jurisdiction. They should apply the same concepts with regard to US Government international broadcasting.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been a powerful supporter of US Government international broadcasting who saved VOA radio and television broadcasts to China and other nations without free media. In her remarks, she offered the following:
“…the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is: Quote: ‘To inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.’ End Quote. “This is broadcast for freedom and democracy. If you think that this is impartial broadcasting, then you are not fulfilling your mission because you are supposed to stand for freedom and democracy. That is the direction. That is what the BBG is supposed to do.”
Truth to power:
This is technically, from a legal standpoint, not the agency’s mission. The Voice of America mission is codified in the VOA Charter passed by Congress in 1976. Surrogate broadcasters have their own mission statements, which are different from VOA’s. They have to be because the surrogates have a different mission. Some of their mission requirements are also included in legislation. A long-term outcome may be the same, but individual missions vary.
The BBG mission statement is its own creation. It speaks to an intended outcome. This is advocacy. While it may be a desired outcome, its practical effect is to place all US Government international broadcasting in a box limited to this outcome.
- How is this outcome achieved?
- How does one define “supporting freedom and democracy?”
- What are the practical programming methods the agency intends to carry out this advocacy and do so successfully?
- How is “success” defined or measured?
- What does the agency do when this intended outcome is not achieved? How does it explain itself then?
The provisions of the Charter, as legislated by Congress, have sustainable outcomes that produce lasting effects beneficial to our national interests. The problem with the BBG mission statement is that it comes across subjective, judgmental and something to be imposed rather than embraced. And yet, IBB bureaucracy is in violation of its own mission statement on a daily basis and works against it, especially when they call for combining missions, for changing VOA’s mission and for changing missions of surrogate broadcasters.
People find outcomes more palatable when arrived at on their own. This is called self-determination. It is not a cure-all, nor does it suggest a process absent of challenges or setbacks. “Freedom and democracy” involve a complex set of relationships among social, political, cultural and economic conditions. In many global circumstances, there are no pre-existing conditions which make “supporting freedom and democracy” understandable or workable and where a preponderance of historical experience exerts tremendous influence. That is why surrogate broadcasters were created by Congress, and VOA was given its own mission statement, also by Congress.
But we would add: if, because of IBB decisions, actions and negligence, intended audiences (a) can’t hear you on radio, (b) can’t see you on television and (c) can’t read you on the Internet, what Rep. Ros-Lehtinen proposes, and any other mission outcome, is dead.
And we are right there, right now:
- No significant VOA broadcast presence in Russia and a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) presence which had its credibility seriously undermined by the wholesale firing of its veteran staff, which IBB executives either applauded but certainly watched and did nothing, and is now requiring a serious remedial effort to restore the service’s reputation;
- Live news to China via direct radio broadcasts only in one program segment in a 24-hour period;
- Constant proposals originating in the IBB calling for additional cuts to entity broadcasts including those to core audiences.
- A total global audience of such proportionately insignificant size resulting in little or no significant resonance with global publics; and,
- A fascination with high end technology that is not readily available or affordable for many global publics and can be easily interdicted.
Unfortunately, this hearing only peripherally touched on these underlying problems delivered wholesale by the IBB, which, as we point out already has two CEOs.
At the end of the day, the hearing demonstrates to us that the agency under the current IBB management has passed the point of no return. There is no clearly defined plan to extricate the agency from the myriad problems it faces, largely self-created.