BBG Watch Commentary

Helle C. Dale, the Heritage Foundations Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy studies, and Brett D. Schaefer, the Jay Kingham fellow in International Regulatory Affairs, also at The Heritage Foundation, wrote an article urging the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the whole Senate not to rush the approval of three nominees to seats on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, including such media entities as the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), but also Alhurra and Radio Sawa broadcasting to the Middle East, Radio and TV Marti broadcasting to Cuba, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcasting to various countries, including Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and several other countries.

Dale and Schaefer wrote in “Halt the Senate Rush to Fill Dysfunctional Broadcasting Board“:

“An untimely rush is on in the Senate to fill board positions in one of the government’s most dysfunctional agencies, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

Perpetuating non-functioning government structures is never the answer, though it admittedly is standard Washington practice. What’s more, rushing through the nominations will create a political imbalance on the bipartisan board, weighted in favor of the Democrats.

At a scheduled business meeting on July 29, squeezed in before the August recess, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning to move on nominations for three new board members: former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, executive director of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Matt Armstrong, and Jeffrey Schell, president of NBCUniversal.”

The problem is not with the current nominees, all of whom seem to have very good qualification to serve on the BBG board. In an earlier article, “U.S. International Broadcasting and Public Diplomacy Should Be Bipartisan,” Helle Dale explained the root cause of the controversy:

“The news that the White House has sought to replace the only Republican currently serving on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), former U.S. ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, has made many sit up and pay attention.

It is rare that Americans get passionate about the BBG, which oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting to the tune of $731 million a year, but has little impact on domestic politics. The context provided by the Obama scandals, however, has made a difference. If the IRS can be used to pursue the President’s critics, and the Justice Department to intimidate reporters, could not the BBG be used as a megaphone for partisan purposes?

Ashe’s passion for transparency and battle against corruption and bad management has made him unpopular among the BBG leadership but a hero among its employees. Ashe’s departure, combined with an imbalance in filling vacant positions, would leave the BBG with a four–two majority in favor of the Democrats. That has an impact on broadcasting strategy. Ironically, the BBG was established legislatively by the Broadcasting Act of 1994, precisely as a firewall against the polarization of Voice of America and the other U.S. international broadcasters.”

The attempt to politicize the Broadcasting Board of Governors and to increase its partisan imbalance was also condemned by nonpartisan NGO, the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – founded to support U.S.-funded media outreach to nations without free press. CUSIB Director Ted Lipien said that “a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors who is admired by employees and outside experts for his commitment to good management and transparency, former mayor of Knoxville and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, is about to be driven from his post as a result of a nasty partisan intrigue engineered by disgruntled bureaucrats.”

The Heritage Foundation’s experts Helle C. Dale and Brett D. Schaefer wrote in their most recent article:

A hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June exposed the deep and pervasive problems of managing the U.S. government’s broadcasting complex. The Senate should follow up with probing investigations of its own and not simply rubberstamp the Obama Administration’s choices.

Among the issues that need to be aired:

Is the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act working as intended, allowing U.S. broadcasters to access programming produced by BBG entities such as Voice of America? The modernization took effect on July 2 and has been the center of controversy, as some suspect the government of trying to propagandize Americans.

Should Voice of America be de-federalized, as is currently under legislative consideration in the House? What would be the consequences for production quality and current staff?

Is the trend away from radio (specifically shortwave) toward satellite television and social media appropriate or premature, given the global digital divide?

Should the BBG itself be replaced with a more efficient management structure to oversee the $730 million broadcasting complex of the U.S. government?

As the broadcasting agency is the center of a number of controversies and potential legislative reform, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should hold off on confirmations and seek thorough hearings to question the proposed members on where they stand on the future of international broadcasting, a critical tool of U.S. outreach to the world.


Halt the Senate Rush to Fill Dysfunctional Broadcasting Board

by Helle C. Dale and Brett D. Schaefer, The Foundry, The Heritage Foundation, July 25, 2013.