IBB staff tries to avoid Senate confirmation of new BBG CEO

BBG Watch News Commentary

The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo and his staff are working behind the scenes on Capitol Hill trying to get approval for legislation that would limit Congressional oversight of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of taxpayer-supported U.S. international broadcasts, and allow them to hire a new CEO who would not be subject to Senate confirmation and Congressional oversight.

Keep Quiet

BBG Watch has learned that some of the nine members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors have been kept in the dark about significant details of the efforts by the International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo and his staff to reorganize the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasts by reducing Congressional oversight.

At least one BBG member, Victor Ashe, is demanding a more open process and public discussion of the proposed changes and expressing concerns that they could drastically limit public scrutiny of BBG operations. Ashe is the senior Republican member and former mayor of Knoxville and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland.

BBG member Michael Meehan, a Democrat, also raised objections at the Board meeting last month in Miami over the proposal to merge the so-called grantee or surrogate broadcasters into one administrative structure. Meehan is in favor of a more comprehensive merger, including the Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB). He indicated that a partial merger may not succeed and would waste the BBG’s time and resources that could be used for more urgent international broadcasting needs.

Ashe has expressed concerns about any kind of merger without public hearings, public input and proper safeguards. Another Democratic BBG member Susan McCue was in favor of the partial merger. She may also be working on the Hill trying to gain support for the proposed legislation to establish the position of a powerful CEO without the need for a Senate confirmation. Both Meehan and McCue supported Ashe at the meeting in Miami in opposing the IBB staff’s proposal to end Voice of America radio broadcasts to Tibet and to close down the VOA Cantonese Service.

Lynne Weil is sworn in by IBB Director Richard Lobo
Lynne Weil is sworn in by IBB Director Richard Lobo

According to our sources, the newly-hired Director of Communications and External Affairs Lynne Weil who works for IBB Director Lobo sent out an email to BBG members earlier this week informing them about some of her efforts on Capitol Hill to get approval for a new bill that would effectively strip much of Congressional control over the BBG. The proposed legislation would place the Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti, as well as the grantee broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) under a CEO who would not be appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate or answerable to the U.S. Congress.

While the IBB staff uses the rationale that this change would establish a journalistic firewall between the Congress and the BBG, critics have pointed out that BBG and IBB executives want to exempt themselves from public and Congressional scrutiny and use the firewall argument as an excuse to get greater control over public funds to spend them as they want and to eliminate news broadcasts to countries like China.

Outside experts familiar with the history of U.S. international broadcasting have pointed out that if it were not for Congressional interventions during the Cold War, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as some broadcasting services of the Voice of America, would have been eliminated at the request of the State Department or the White House. But they also point out that more recently an even greater threat has emerged from the entrenched BBG bureaucracy. Members of Congress of both parties again had to step in to save various broadcasting services from being eliminated at the insistence of some BBG members and IBB officials.

Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America acting associate director and co-founder of the nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB), warned in a recent Washington Examiner op-ed that the Broadcasting Board of Governors staff is grasping for power in an effort to limit public and Congressional role in U.S. international broadcasting. He argued that editorial as well as administrative independence was the essential element of the success of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in helping to bring down communism in East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. He also argued for strong Congressional oversight of the BBG.

Many journalists working at Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks ( Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa) see the U.S. Congress as their only protection from IBB executives who, among other things, wanted to end VOA broadcasts to Tibet and China and to reduce RFA transmissions to other countries without free media. Critics say that the most needed firewall would be the one between the BBG/IBB staff and the journalists who are committed to U.S. International broadcasting serving the needs of those who need uncensored news and information.

We have learned that the proposed legislation covers several areas, but the last two proposals are the most important as they would create a position of a powerful CEO and would give BBG members and BBG and IBB bureaucrats vastly greater authority to run U.S. international broadcasting without worrying about Congressional mandates and public criticism.

Our sources told us that this is what the legislation proposed by the IBB staff would do:

– Authorizes the Board to hire, fire, and fix the compensation of a CEO answering directly to the Board.

– Authorizes the Board to delegate certain of its authorities to the CEO, which the CEO would exercise subject to the supervision of the Board.

– Converts the IBB Director position into the CEO position, preserving the journalistic firewall by eliminating the requirement that the position be Presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed.

– Clarifies that the VOA and OCB Directors report to the CEO.

We have learned that at least some BBG members were upset about not getting this information earlier and in greater detail and by Ms. Weil’s directive not to share the information that she provided with anyone outside of the Board. She reminded them that at its January 2012 meeting, the Board voted to pursue legislation to create a CEO of United States international broadcasting in the context of a proposed International Broadcasting Innovation Act. This action was planned while the BBG was still led by Walter Isaacson who had plans to turn U.S. international broadcasting into a CNN-like operation and allow it to operate in the United States like NPR and PBS. Isaacson resigned as BBG Chairman and left the Board.

Our sources told us that Lobo and Weil informed BBG members that they have identified an opportunity to implement the front-end goal of the International Broadcasting Innovation Act (IBIA) in the current Congress, rather than the 113th as originally envisioned: adding a provision to a foreign affairs authorization bill now being prepared in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Conversations with key House Foreign Affairs Committee majority staff indicate that this initial window of opportunity is open only for a brief time, Weil reportedly told BBG members. Weil did not identify House Republican staffers who may have told her about the “window of opportunity.” She also did not disclose information about any contacts with members of the Senate and their staff.

According to BBG Watch sources, Lobo and Weil did inform BBG members that the proposed provision creating the position of a CEO was revised and no longer includes language regarding the relationship between the CEO and the grantees, to be settled later upon further consideration by the Board. This proposed provision enables the Board to decide the CEO’s responsibilities, authorities and compensation, as well as to hire or fire the incumbent, who would answer directly to the Board.

It appears that the Congress would have no role in this process. Apparently, not even the heads of the Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the grantee organizations were informed about the latest proposals for the authorities of a new CEO as outlined in recent communications to BBG members from Director Lobo and Lynne Weil.

The secrecy of the process and the way the BBG/IBB staff is trying to rush the proposed legislation, which may have a significant impact on the ability of the United States to inform and influence foreign audiences, raises very strong concerns. It appears that even BBG members are being kept in the dark and are ordered by bureaucrats to keep quiet.

American taxpayers who pay the salaries of these officials and pay for U.S. international broadcasting have the right to know what is being proposed. They should be invited to offer comments and be part of this process. Any proposal that puts Broadcasting Board of Governors and International Broadcasting Bureau officials outside of public scrutiny should be rejected by the Board and by members of Congress.

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