BBG Watch Commentary

SECRETARY CLINTON: “And finally, we need to do a better job conveying a counter-narrative to the extremist Jihadist narrative. You know, I’ve said this to this Committee before — a lot of new members on it — you know, we have abdicated the broadcasting arena. You know, yes, we have private stations: CNN, Fox, NBC, all of that. They are out there, they convey information, but we’re not doing what we did during the Cold War. Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back into it. We have the best values. We have the best narrative. Most people in the world just want to have a good decent life that is supported by a good decent job and raise their families and we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void. We have to get in there and compete and we can do it successfully.”

BBG Watch Commentary

Clinton – We have abdicated the international broadcasting arena. Why?

In her testimony Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States has “abdicated the broadcasting arena” in telling America’s message to the world.

Secretary Clinton also said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting of which she is an ex officio member, “is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”

In an earlier Congressional testimony, Secretary Clinton said, “We are in an information war. And we are losing that war.”

Did she mean that the BBG does not have enough money, is mismanaged, or both?

Probably both.

In terms of mismanagement, what Secretary Clinton may have been referring to are not just members of the BBG Board, on which she also serves ex officio, but primarily the management team, now led by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo, a presidential appointee.

This group of Washington bureaucrats has been reducing U.S. international broadcasting to many parts of the world for many years — although not to the Middle East. They have been moving resources from radio and television broadcasting to Internet-based programming, which has to compete with millions of news websites and blogs around the world.

There is nothing wrong with expanding and enhancing online presence, but in most cases it should not be done at the expense of broadcasting. Finding the right balance requires having an outstanding management team that values the expertise of journalists from various nations working for the BBG and knows how to use it in a joint effort to build and expand audiences.

The IBB management team, however, has been pushing the plan of raiding and eliminating broadcasting services despite objections from Secretary Clinton, some of the other BBG members, BBG’s own journalists, and many outside experts. The team has been rated in the Office of Personnel Management employee viewpoint surveys as having the worst managers in the entire Federal Government.

In fairness to some of them, however, some of BBG’s previous and even a few current members also have favored the plan of reducing broadcasts and substituting them with Internet-only program delivery. One IBB senior staffer told BBG Watch that many of the staff decisions had been forced upon them by various BBG boards.

Inside and outside critics charge that it is necessary and possible to keep and expand broadcasting while supplementing it with successful online programming at a much lower cost and without destroying broadcasting.

IBB senior executives argue that they can’t do it with existing resources. Yet, they keep expanding their own bureaucracy. Their solution to creating new non-programming jobs for themselves and their associates has been to propose terminating Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to countries such as Russia, China, and Tibet and to fire journalists and experts in foreign languages and cultures.

The BBG/IBB team succeeded in ending VOA broadcasting to Russia in 2008 despite opposition in Congress, but pressure from Congress and media freedom NGOs prevented IBB executives from carrying out their plan to end VOA radio and television broadcasts to China in 2011 and VOA radio to Tibet in 2012. They have not managed to increase audience size for the last few years despite being granted increasing budgets and giving themselves large outstanding performance bonuses.

Their latest plan, which BBG members are now questioning, was to replace much of Radio Liberty broadcasting to Russia with softer online journalism, which the Kremlin may find easier to tolerate. According to media reports, the BBG asked for the resignation of RFE/RL president Steven Korn who had proposed this plan. He denies that he has been fired.

The Russian government has severely limited in-country broadcasting of U.S. government-funded news and information programs from Radio Liberty, but options for satellite radio and television, cross-border medium wave (AM) broadcasts, online broadcasts of audio and video, YouTube video, UStream, Google Hangout, Facebook and other social media venues still exist.

Several current BBG members have been trying to revive U.S. international broadcasting but are meeting with strong opposition from the IBB executive staff. IBB senior staffers are believed to be behind attempts to besmirch the reputation of Ambassador Victor Ashe and Michael Meehan, two BBG members who are the strongest supporters of broadcasting. The senior executive staffs attacks on Board members and their authority made it into the Office of the Inspector General report on the BBG, which the BBG employee union condemned as a “hatchet job” and came to Ashe’s defense as a champion of improving employee morale and exposing waste.

Another current BBG member Susan McCue has taken a lead in efforts to reform the International Broadcasting Bureau bureaucracy and the management of BBG’s surrogate broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Jeff Shell, President Obama’s nominee to be the next BBG chairman, may have his own ideas on how to reform the BBG/IBB bureaucracy if he is confirmed by the Senate.

In an earlier Congressional testimony in March 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

“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.”

Secretary Clinton also said in her testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on March 2, 2011 that international broadcasting remains important in addition to efforts to expand online presence.

“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.”

Secretary Clinton’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 2, 2011.

Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not elaborate on specific reasons behind her latest statements in Congress this week that the U.S. has abdicated the international broadcasting arena and that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is “defunct,” the BBG would definitely need additional funding to expand radio and television broadcasting, even if it managed to get rid of some of its unproductive bureaucratic infrastructure.

Such funding could also pay for more cross-border broadcasting, satellite delivery, and local rebroadcasting where local program placement that can greatly expand audience reach is possible without compromising the integrity of the news content due to pressures from foreign governments and station owners.

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