BBG Watch Commentary

Former Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director and journalist Ted Lipien wrote in a Washington Times op-ed article that International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials in charge of U.S. government-funded broadcasts are losing information war abroad by undermining support for it at home.

Commenting on the controversy over the recent lifting of domestic propaganda ban with the congressional passage of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, Lipien wrote about IBB officials who have been running the agency and making critical decisions despite the existence of the part-time bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG):

LIPIEN: “I found their attitude to be arrogant in the extreme. How could they not think that Americans might object to such a move, which many see as directed against the First Amendment’s guarantee of free press with the creation of government press? Did they not realize that the original Smith-Mundt Act had been passed to prevent, among other things, the State Department and U.S. international broadcasts becoming a target of domestic partisan political disputes?”

IBB officials argue that they are not to blame because various BBG boards had approved the push for modifying the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and other controversial decisions that turned out to be public relations and public diplomacy disasters.

But critics counter that all of these ideas had been presented to BBG members by none other than IBB officials. IBB officials apparently painted a rosy picture of the supposed benefits of the lifting of the Smith-Mundt restriction, offered misleading information on what the restriction really meant — it did not ban Americans and American media from accessing BBG news content on the web and reusing and rebroadcasting it in the United States; it banned government officials marketing it to Americans — and failed to warn BBG governors about possible backlash from irate American taxpayers, as seen in various media reports and comments from readers.

Other than a possible desire to target specific groups of Americans based on their ethnic origin or religion — such as Somali Americans in Minnesota, an example often used by IBB officials — there was no urgent need to get the Smith-Mundt restriction removed and it could have been easily modified without giving the government power to distribute news domestically.

BBB Watch reported that IBB officials who were behind the Smith-Mundt Act modification are in fact running the agency and resisting reform efforts from current BBG members who do not even have a quorum to take votes and make decisions that IBB might still then ignore.

A BBG member has accused top IBB officials of wasting taxpayers money and prolonging hardships of former employees at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) who are seeking reinstatement after federal labor arbitrators ruled that they were illegally dismissed. IBB denies that OCB managers acted with malice because employees complained about mismanagement.

The agency’s management team has been consistently rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) as having poor leadership skills and being responsible for record low employee morale. Some IBB officials argued that employees do not have a good understanding of the term “leadership” and thus blame top agency personnel for poor performance of their immediate supervisors at VOA or OCB. Comments like these suggest that IBB leadership is in deep denial and refuses to take responsibility for its actions, sources told BBG Watch.

A BBG member who has most often challenged IBB executives, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, may be soon leaving his BBG post as a result of what many suspect was a bureaucratic intrigue and revenge for his calls for accountability and transparency. He is currently the only Republican on the bipartisan board that by law should now have four Republican members.

Some IBB officials put the blame on BBG members, but many critics believe that most if not all agency missteps were initiated by IBB and approved by part-time BBG governors who were poorly briefed and misinformed by the bureaucracy. Sources told BBG Watch that current BBG members have learned their lesson and no longer trust top agency managers.

IBB officials strongly deny that they intend to target American audiences and point out that the current legislation allows them only to produce programs for audiences abroad, but their extraordinary effort to get the domestic propaganda ban overturned, often using misleading information, betrays a strong desire to claim the domestic market.

International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo, a presidential appointee who has been in his position since 2010 defended in a recent Letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal the performance of his management team:

LOBO: “The board has been working closely with the operational leadership of the BBG and its broadcasters to reduce duplication in use of resources, increase efficiencies, and promote innovation. Impressive strides have been made in adapting our content to digital media so that our broadcasters’ award-winning, unbiased news and information programs can be delivered on all the platforms that our audiences increasingly prefer, according to solid research.”

Many believe that Director Lobo was also poorly served by his top deputies but he chose to keep them when he took over IBB in 2010 and subsequently rewarded them with outstanding performance bonuses, some as high as $10,000 per executive in one year. Lobo argued that these bonuses were below government-wide average.

Responding to an earlier Wall Street Journal op-ed article by a former BBG member, Lobo wrote:

LOBO: “…there are vexing problems that have built up over decades and that will be more difficult to resolve—overlap of language services where it is not needed in local markets, questions of control over taxpayer-funded grantees and other matters that have been documented elsewhere. Some of these matters can be resolved only through legislation, since Congress created the BBG’s structure in stages over seven decades, using different sets of blueprints drawn by disparate hands. But to do away with the agency altogether is certainly not the way to get things done.”

While blaming the IBB, Lipien strongly defended the work of Voice of America and other journalists who work for U.S. international broadcasting:

LIPIEN: “What I fear much more, however, is the negative impact the current controversy has on the future of liberty voices abroad: Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. Excellent journalists who work there to provide uncensored news and opinions to nations without free media are being unfairly suspected of domestic propaganda because of actions of a few top officials who are also ruining America’s media outreach abroad.”

Lipien also wrote that “just because a few bureaucrats were hungry for power, Americans should not turn their backs on these strategically important international broadcasts and outstanding journalists who produce them.” “It is not the journalists’ fault that they have to work under such incompetent management. It is these officials who need to be replaced,” he concluded.

LIPIEN: Losing the information war – Domestic propaganda officials silence voices of liberty abroad, The Washington Times, July 29, 2013.