BBG Watch Commentary

Huffington PostIt did not occur to International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) bureacrats that Americans might not like the removal of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act restrictions on domestic distribution of U.S. government-funded news for audiences abroad. They were not prepared for Voice of America (VOA) programs being inaccurately described in media reports as propaganda. They wanted the removal of the domestic distribution restrictions so badly, it did not occur to them that the poorly planned and executed move might make all U.S. international broadcasting controversial in America and undermine public support for such broadcasts. It certainly did not occur to them that they might open excellent and much needed news programs for overseas audiences to ridicule in American media.

This is exactly what has happened, as shown by two recent Huffington Post articles. Many reports similar in content and tone have appeared in both left-wing and right-wing media outlets and blogs.

The 10 Best Unintentionally Hilarious Propaganda Videos, The Center For Investigative Reporting  |  By Amanda Pike, The Huffington Post, August 10, 2013.

Big Brother Speaks!, Huff Post Comedy |  By Lester & Charlie, The Huffington Post, July 19, 2013.

Only truly unimaginative managers could possibly be so ignorant of political climate and political realities in America to push for the removal of the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions in such a fashion and at this time. It so happens that journalists and other employees who have the misfortune of working under them do rate them in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) as having some of the lowest leadership and management skills in the entire federal governmen. Employee morale has also been for many years at record low levels at the agency under the same IBB managers.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the agency’s ability to engage audiences abroad “defunct.” She was not being fair about some of the excellent programs that agency journalists were still producing under very difficult conditions. She was, however, 100% right about top level International Broadcasting Bureau executives who, having failed to provide good management of programs for overseas audiences, pushed for the change in the Smith-Mundt Act without thinking of political consequences of such a move in the United States.

In their usual manner, bureaucrats are now trying to avoid taking responsibility. They point to members of the part-time oversight bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as the ones who approved this move. Yet everyone knows that it was IBB bureaucrats who originated and promoted this idea and sold it to BBG members.

Since the same executives silenced internal debate within the agency with their anti-employee intimidation tactics, the issue was never properly discussed and presented to the BBG board. The result was a badly managed process leading to a legislative change that Americans do not understand and do not accept, even if there were some merits to the proposed modification of the old Smith-Mundt law. The whole issue should have been handled differently and with much greater political sophistication than the current executive staff is capable of providing.

IBB executives blame the opposition to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 and the confusion over its provisions on the media not understanding the facts and getting them wrong, but they alone should be held accountable for not anticipating the negative reaction and the confusion.

Unfair accusations against hard working and honest BBG journalists are the fault of the same executives. They alone are to blame for the agency being called “defunct” and being a target of sarcastic comments in The Huffington Post and in other media reports.