BBG Watch Commentary

Secretary of State Hillary ClintonBBG Watch has learned that members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), who oversee U.S. international broadcasting including the Voice of America (VOA), are scheduled to meet in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next Thursday amid reports that the BBG’s five-year strategic plans is in shambles due to miscalculations and mismanagement on the part of the agency’s senior staff.

The Secretary of State is an ex officio member of the BBG but does not normally attend board meetings. She is usually represented at these meetings by the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, the position currently occupied by Tara Sonenshine. The meeting, which will be held at the State Department, is expected to last approximately 30 minutes. The terms of all BBG members, other than the Secretary of State’s, have expired, but they continue to serve until the President nominates new members. The agency is run by the executive staff and many of the recent and current BBG members miss their regular monthly meetings. Some BBG members are trying to hold the staff accountable, but are meeting with strong resistance.

Hillary Clinton is the only Secretary of State who has met with members of the BBG. This will be the second such meeting. More than other Secretaries of State, she appreciates the value of U.S. international broadcasting and has visited the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague, the Czech Republic. She may be concerned about charges of mismanagement and the direction the agency is moving.

In her congressional testimony last year, Secretary Clinton alluded to problems at the Broadcasting Board of Governors by suggesting that the United States is losing the information war, although at that time she was still optimistic that the new members of the BBG board would turn the agency around.

“So we are in an information war. And we are losing that war. I’ll be very blunt in my assessment. Al-Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English-language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened up an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive.”

“Because most people still get their news from TV and radio. So even though we’re pushing online, we can’t forget TV and radio.”

These quotes were taken from Secretary Clinton’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on March 2, 2011. The BBG had ended direct VOA radio and satellite television broadcasts to Russia in 2008 in favor of Internet-only program delivery and tried to end VOA broadcasts to China and Tibet.

Since then, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has become embroiled in numerous controversies and has been consistently rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee opinion surveys as the worst-managed and the worst place to work in the federal government. The BBG executive staff has embarrassed the agency again and again with its actions and decisions. One of the latest controversies is the request from a senior BBG executive to the United Nations to revoke the UN press accreditation of an independent American journalist.

Held in contempt by the BBG workforce, the senior executive staff is at war with its employees and their union. In an unprecedented move during President Obama’s Democratic administration, the BBG’s employee union, AFGE Local 1812, has pulled out from labor-management negotiations in protest against having its voice ignored on all important decisions.

One recent example of management problems has been the coverup of the failure to restart the highly popular Voice of America satirical television program “Parazit,” which was broadcast to Iran. The BBG executive staff led by the International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo kept BBG members in the dark for nine months about the cancellation of the program while issuing press releases suggesting the program was still being broadcast.

The divided Broadcasting Board of Governors has failed to win approval for its plans to discontinue Voice of America broadcasts to China and Tibet, to consolidate its privately-run grantee broadcasters, which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia (RFA), and to get Congress to repeal the Smith-Mundt Act which restricts domestic distribution of BBG programs. All of these plans, developed by the BBG executive staff, met with strong bipartisan opposition in Congress and severe criticism from media freedom and human rights organizations. The grantee consolidation plan is now described as grantee administrative streamlining but critics fear that it will severely undermine the independence of grantee surrogate broadcasters that allowed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to make a major contribution to winning the Cold War.

The non-partisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) described the proposed administrative merger of RFE/RL, RFA, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) as a bureaucratic nightmare that would deprive these highly effective small broadcasters of their independence and ability to produce highly-targeted programs.

At least two BBG members, Ambassador Victor Ashe, a Republican, and Michael Meehan, a Democrat, object to proceeding with the merger without Congressional hearings.

CUSIB has also expressed concerns about severe cuts being advocated by the BBG executive staff in Voice of America programs, attempts to mix VOA news with news from grantee broadcasters, and proposals to create a CEO position that would not be subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. All of these proposals are described by critics as contrary to Congressional intent and designed to strengthen the bureaucracy at the expense of effective broadcasting and news delivery by the Voice of America and independent grantee broadcasters.

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