Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost: The Secretary Weighs In – Again, Part Two
by The Federalist
“We have basically abdicated in my view, the broadcast media. I have tried and will
continue from the outside to convince Congress and the others.
If we don’t have an up-to-date modern, effective Broadcasting Board of Governors,
we shouldn’t have one at all.”
(Comments by outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Council on Foreign Relations, January 31, 2013)
These are words we use to describe our reaction in reading outgoing (and now former) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. These were some – and by no means all – of the remarks made when she addressed the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday, January 30, 2013. Her remarks follow her congressional testimony of Wednesday, January 23, 2013.
With all the issues that abound around the world, Mrs. Clinton singled out US Government international broadcasting as a key issue, more than any previous secretary of state.
She continues to be on message and more forcefully than in previous remarks going back to 2011. These remarks provide an opportunity to expand the discussion on the subject.
Lessons To Be Learned:
We have never met Mrs. Clinton nor have we spoken to her or members of her staff. However, we don’t think it’s a stretch for us to understand the context of her remarks.
As Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton is recognized as having traveled longer, harder and farther on behalf of the national interests of the United States.
One thing we are certain that Mrs. Clinton discovered in her travels is that the world is a very difficult place. She is also likely to have discovered that US national interests have declining resonance around the world with global publics. In our view, she has correctly identified where the problem lies:
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
Let us examine the situation:
When speaking about the BBG, we speak of it as not only as a board of governors but also as an agency comprising the Voice of America (VOA) and the various grantee entities which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and other operations.
We look at the whole package in its entirety. Why? Because the failure is systemic, not limited to any one particular segment of the operation.
And we most certainly include in that failure the agency executive staff: the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). Indeed, we see the executive staff as the facilitator and enabler of a failed agency. Why? You already know the answer if you have read our previous commentaries: the “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan” actively, aggressively and sometimes viciously promoted by the handful of senior IBB staffers.
In recent weeks, there has been a heavy dose of misdirected blame, generated (in our view) by the IBB staff toward members of the current BBG. In reality, the agency’s state of affairs began long before the current board members arrived on the scene. The one constant through much of the agency’s decline and perhaps imminent downfall:
The IBB staff.
Of late, certain members of the BBG have seen through the tactics of the IBB and have raised concerns and outright objections to the direction of the agency’s operations.
Not unexpectedly, the IBB – composed of way too many entrenched, self-serving and self-promoting individuals – co-opted an Office of Inspector General (OIG) report – giving full throat to their arrogance, defiance and (as we see it) gross insubordination. In short, the net effect of the report was a no-holds-barred effort to neutralize the board and usurp the statutory powers of the board.
Clearly, the IBB wants to run the agency the way it wants to without interference from the board and no deference to accountability and responsibility from any quarter, inside or outside the Federal Government.
The IBB overplayed its hand – not unexpected when you are dealing with a group of pompous, overbearing and arrogant individuals who have an oversized view of their power and have become accustomed to getting what they want whenever they want it – including those bonuses they have handed themselves on top of their six-figure salaries.
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with past incarnations of the Board. There is a history of similar IBB tactics being used against governors who have spoken up about agency problems. In addition, there have been some clashes among members of prior boards, some which may have been manipulated by the IBB staff. There have been some major egos at work on the board in the past – ultimately resulting in some equally large disasters for US national interests, as alluded to generally by Mrs. Clinton’s statements.
Like other things that go wrong in government, this is a situation that is cumulative: a process of running an agency that is flawed at best, compromised at worst, over a protracted period of time.
That is why the agency has earned a reputation for being “the worst organization in the Federal Government” and one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government.
Let there be no doubt – as long as the status quo prevails, the situation will continue unabated as the IBB continues the agency’s downward spiral.
What Is Past Is Prologue – Unless You Are The IBB
Mrs. Clinton spoke with great passion about the achievements of the agency during the Cold War. She believes with equal passion that those achievements can be replicated now and in the future.
We share Mrs. Clinton’s passion for the agency and its mission.
The IBB does not.
The IBB believes in a “flim flam strategic plan” which has a whole lot more to do with self-interest than it does with the US national and public interest. The IBB advocates of this plan, and their acolytes inside the Cohen Building, are not about to admit that they goofed. That would be a major career-killer. We see the following scenarios as the consequence of the IBB’s dogged standing by this plan:
Scenario One: The IBB grossly overestimated its ability to reach global audiences via new online technologies versus traditional radio and television broadcasting. They ignored or dismissed numerous obstacles which have had the net effect of reducing the agency’s broadcast footprint worldwide. In turn, they underestimated the ability of adversarial regimes to develop effective countermeasures to the IBB’s wild embrace of new technology.
(Think about it – the government informant in your neighborhood or at the local market has now been augmented by the one encased in your mobile phone or your computer – with you all the time, watching, recording every keystroke you make and automatically reporting any suspicious activity.)
Scenario Two: The IBB may have intentionally “gamed the system,” knowing that to replicate the footprint of its direct broadcast radio transmissions would take years, possibly decades, ensuring that they would be entrenched in their positions as the process laboriously unfolded at a cost of millions and even billions of dollars to the American taxpayer as years and decades roll by.
Scenario Three: A combination of both scenarios above, along with an unwillingness to acknowledge and/or adjust to circumstances.
Another self-inflicted wound has been to the agency’s programming.
Time and again, the IBB has put forward proposals to eliminate staff and broadcasts. Recently, it eliminated its Special English newscasts – the Special English broadcasts being among the most popular with the agency’s (dwindling) global audiences.
Instead of news and information as codified in the VOA Charter, the bedrock of the agency’s mission, we see the agency moving away from breaking and developing news along with in-depth analysis of the news.
In its place, the IBB has turned toward programming of lowered standards. Its credibility has been severely, if not mortally, injured by the vacuum it has created and is being filled, as Mrs. Clinton pointed out correctly, by a hostile, anti-American message.
Boxed out of delivering effective programming by countermeasures by the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians and others, the agency is now reduced to delivering more content that is in the form of “lifestyle” pieces.
Worse, with its audiences in freefall, some agency elements have decided that the way to attract new audiences is to engage in sexually provocative content – keeping in mind that the content is targeted in certain parts of the world where women are debased, devalued and abused.
In short, the place where Mrs. Clinton would see US Government international broadcasting needs to go is not getting there and won’t get there with the current IBB.
Do We Fix It Or Forget It?
That is the “to be or not to be” question.
Some people suggest that increased funding will solve the problem.
Let us disabuse everyone of that notion. In this agency, more funding equates with more failure. With the same cast of IBB characters in charge, the only thing that will change is the increased size and scope of failure.
To put it bluntly, there isn’t enough money in the Federal treasury to do what is required: a top-to-bottom remedial effort. That takes time and a lot of money – and all the while you will have a renegade group of IBB operatives trying to sabotage the effort. What the IBB bureaucracy doesn’t like, it will try to destroy. Have a conversation with Ambassador Victor Ashe and other members of the current BBG on that subject.
If More Funding Isn’t The Answer, What Is?
This is where things get interesting.
We have said it before and we will say it again, it’s time to neutralize the IBB. The way that is done is through legislation to transfer the agency’s functions elsewhere in the government. The agency could be transferred wholesale – minus the IBB – in order to retain the name recognition of its entities with global audiences. Operationally, the transformation would be seamless. Administratively, there may be a needed break-in period.
The transformation could be incremental as opposed to abrupt.
Facilitating the transformation would be a transition team composed of individuals with superior credentials and expertise. Indeed, we would go so far as to suggest that Mrs. Clinton can put her passion to work in short order by heading up this transition effort.
As for the IBB, Congress would perhaps be more than willing to legislate it out of the way – perhaps making it part of the Public Diplomacy Advisory Council. There, it can while away the days to retirement generating paper, some of it no doubt in a continued defense of its “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan.”
This approach is likely to be more cost effective than a top-to-bottom investigation of how the agency got to the place it is – no doubt with some revelations the IBB hopes might never see the light of day. As we like to say: follow the money. When you are an agency of the Federal Government spending taxpayer funds, that’s the first place you look: painstakingly, thoroughly.
Clearly, this is a subject that will generate further debate and discussion. However, let us be clear: as long as the status quo prevails, the end result is inevitable:
Close the place. Mission failed.
(To Be Continued)