BBG Watch Commentary

The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) has invited and later announced it will disinvite a Roman Catholic priest and a social activist from Chicago Father Michael Pfleger, whom Barack Obama had criticized for “divisive, backward-looking rhetoric,” to speak at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) “Diversity Day” program on May 14 in Washington, D.C. The IBB is the managerial and administrative part of the BBG, the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting.

In racially-charged comments during the 2008 presidential election campaign, Father Pfleger had mocked Hillary Clinton who later became an ex officio BBG member as the U.S. Secretary of State.

The BBG is in charge of U.S. international new programs, focusing on countries without free media, and includes the Voice of America (VOA) and several other media entities serving foreign audiences.

In addition to his controversial political comments, Father Pfleger has been also in conflict over different matters for many years with his superiors at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and has been disciplined with temporary suspensions. He strongly disagrees with his critics, presenting himself as a defender of the poor and disenfranchised and denouncing his critics as “ignorant haters.”

The Weekly Standard reported on the controversial invitation, “‘Divisive’ Rev. Pfleger to Deliver Keynote Speech at Federal ‘Diversity Day’ Program (Update: Pfleger Disinvited).”

Fox News Radio reported that Father Pfleger has been disinvited, “Controversial Preacher Removed from Diversity Day Program.”

According to a BBG spokesman, the agency’s Office of Civil Rights, which organizes a Diversity Day event each year and reports to IBB Director Richard Lobo, had invited Father Pfleger. Employees who saw the announcement raised concerns that the event is intended to celebrate inclusion, and Reverend Pfleger had made public remarks in the past that were divisive. A BBG official who had not known about the invitation before the media reported on it and who wants to remain anonymous said that “by blaming the Office of Civil Rights, IBB Director Lobo and IBB’s top leadership are looking for scapegoats and trying to divert responsibility from themselves.”

According to an agency spokesman, when IBB Director Richard Lobo was made aware of the issue, he asked that the Office of Civil Rights identify a different speaker and inform Father Pfleger that he is no longer invited to speak.

It is not known whether Director Lobo had signed off on the original invitation, when he found out about the controversy, when he requested his staff to disinvite Pfleger, and why he did not promptly inform about the incident members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors who bear the ultimate responsibility for the mission and reputation of the agency.

The Weekly Standard quoted Lynne Weil, the BBG’s Communications Director, as saying that Pfleger has been disinvited. “The Office of Civil Rights has reached out to Rev. Pfleger—I don’t know that they’ve gotten hold of him yet, but they’re letting him know that the decision has been taken to have a different kind of program and that he is not being invited to speak,” Weil said. “This event is supposed to be a celebration of inclusion and there is a history of divisiveness in Rev. Pfleger’s public remarks.”

Human Events quotes Weil as saying that the Office of Civil Rights “didn’t check on the appropriateness of the speaker for this particular program with anybody else in the agency.” RACE-BAITING PREACHER INVITED, UNINVITED TO DIVERSITY DAY, Human Events. Whether others in the agency were or were not informed, it shows in either case that IBB lacks proper management. It also shows unwillingness on the part of Director Lobo and his deputies to take responsibility for a bad decision. Always concerned about their own careers, bonuses and personal reputation, they hoped that the controversy would go away and BBG members and the public would never find out about it. They had adopted a similar approach during the earlier crisis at Radio Liberty in Russia.

Human Events quotes the BBG spokeswoman as saying that the agency learned about the controversy several days ago. Since most if not all BBG members were not informed until today, and since it is not even clear when IBB uninvited their controversial guest–it is yet another sign of poor management on the part of IBB executives and shows that they are prone to putting their own interests ahead of the agency’s. The spokeswoman could not confirm whether the speaker was offered any money and whether the honorarium would still have to be paid even if he does not participate in the event. How IBB executives could not know an answer to such an obvious question is stunning.

BBG Watch has confirmed with various sources that presidentially-appointed members of the bipartisan BBG Board, or at least most of them, indeed were not consulted and knew nothing about the invitation until they found out about it from media reports. They blame IBB Director Richard Lobo and his staff for once again damaging the agency’s reputation and keeping them in the dark about critical agency matters. “The level of frustration with the IBB executive staff among BBG members is so great they are pulling their hair out in desperation. They soon will not have any hair left,” one source told BBG Watch.

Father Pfleger had caused a controversy during the 2008 presidential election when he gave a sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ, then Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s church. His controversial statements about Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic Party nomination, were widely condemned.

Pfleger, who is white, said, “I really believe that she just always thought, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife. I’m white, and this is mine. I just gotta get up and step into the plate.’ Then out of nowhere came, ‘Hey, I’m Barack Obama,’ and she said, ‘Oh, damn! Where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!'” He then pretended to wipe tears from his face, a reference to Clinton’s emotional speech before the New Hampshire primary, and added, “She wasn’t the only one crying. There was a whole lot of white people crying.”

After hearing about Pfleger’s remarks in 2008, Obama said he was “deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger’s divisive, backward-looking rhetoric”. Pfleger later released a statement that read, “I regret the words I chose Sunday. These words are inconsistent with Sen. Obama’s life and message, and I am deeply sorry if they offended Sen. Clinton or anyone else who saw them.”

According to sources, IBB Director Lobo had become aware of the controversy a few days ago, but neither he nor his deputy Jeff Trimble, who runs the day-to-day operations of the agency, have alerted BBG members who found out about the invitation to Father Pfleger from media accounts. According to sources, several BBG members are furious with both Lobo and Trimble about being kept in the dark, bad publicity for the already embattled agency and the fact that the person who had been invited by IBB mocked Hillary Clinton, who until recently was a BBG member.

Most BBG members are believed to be highly frustrated by being stonewalled by IBB executives when they try to get them to reform the agency, and the latest incident made them even more determined to do something about mismanagement at the executive level, several sources told BBG Watch. One of recent actions by BBG members was to stop bonuses for senior SES managers during the current sequestration budget crisis after they discovered that Director Lobo and VOA Director Ensor had given nearly all SES executives $8,000 bonuses in FY 2012.

Lobo and Trimble had previously failed to alert BBG members in a timely manner to the growing management crisis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), one of the media entities funded by the BBG. BBG members took action and appointed a new top manager at RFE/RL but only after they became aware of problems from media accounts and complaints from human rights NGOs. Some BBG members are still furious with Lobo and Trimble over the loss of Radio Liberty’s audience and reputation in Russia after dozens of its highly regarded journalists were fired by the previous RFE/RL management, apparently without the Board’s full knowledge or approval.

Three BBG members, Susan McCue, Michael Meehan and Victor Ashe, have been especially active in trying to reform the IBB bureaucracy. The BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton has been absent from board and committee meeting in the last few months but is believed to be a strong supporter of Director Lobo. Lynton tried to block attempts at management reform at RFE/RL and IBB during few times when he did participate in meetings, several sources told BBG Watch.

One source told BBG Watch that like Governor Lynton, IBB Director Lobo also appears to be disengaged from day to day oversight. The BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812, criticized Director Lobo for placing discredited managers in charge of improving dismal employee morale at the agency.

During her last days as the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton also criticized the management of U.S. international broadcasting, calling it “defunct.” While BBG members change, the agency has been run by the entrenched IBB executive staff.

Unless BBG members can reassert the Board’s authority over IBB, its failed executive staff–the worst managers in the federal government according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee viewpoint surveys–will continue to embarrass the Broadcasting Board of Governors and undermine its important mission in defense of media freedom and democracy abroad. The victims are BBG employees, the agency’s exploited contractors (POVs) and audiences in nations without free media. The most recent controversy is just one of many examples of the lack of executive leadership at the top of the International Broadcasting Bureau.

Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton must resume his duties and support his fellow BBG members in their efforts to reform the agency’s management team and to reestablish the Board’s direct control over the IBB bureaucracy. Had this been done earlier and had Governor Lynton stopped defending failed managers, embarrassing incidents such as the latest one could have been avoided.

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