BBG Watch Commentary

September 13, 2012. BBG Presiding Governor Michael Lynton led the Board’s delegation to the State Department for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex officio BBB member. The delegation included Governors Victor Ashe, Dennis Mulhaupt, Susan McCue, and Michael Meehan, as well as Richard M. Lobo, Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau. Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine, the Secretary’s representative to the BBG, took a leading role in framing the discussion.
September 13, 2012. BBG Presiding Governor Michael Lynton led the Board’s delegation to the State Department for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex officio BBB member. The delegation included Governors Victor Ashe, Dennis Mulhaupt, Susan McCue, and Michael Meehan, as well as Richard M. Lobo, Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau. Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine, the Secretary’s representative to the BBG, took a leading role in framing the discussion.
Richard Lobo
Richard Lobo

As reported on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) website, at an agency-wide staff meeting on November 18, 2013,  Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Jeff Shell presented International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Dick Lobo, who retired November 30, the Distinguished Honor Award for his service to the agency.

See: Board Honors Broadcasters, IBB Director Dick Lobo, BBG Press Release, November 21, 2013.

Also see: Dick Lobo Announces Retirement, Caps Award-Winning Broadcasting Career, BBG Press Release, October 23, 2013.

The certificate cited Lobo’s “more than three years of dedicated service to U.S. international media and exemplary leadership of the International Broadcasting Bureau, including oversight of strategic planning, implementation, and day-to-day management of technical and professional operations.”

The certificate went on to say, “As the longest-serving IBB Director in the history of the BBG, Lobo played a critical role in furthering the agency’s mission, and leading innovation throughout the agency and its grantee networks.”  Lobo announced on October 23 that he will retire after decades of public and private sector service and an award-winning career as a broadcast executive.

Was this for real, or was this an outstanding example of Orwellian doublespeak at the federal agency charged with countering press censorship and propaganda practiced by oppressive and authoritarian regimes worldwide?

Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. The term “doublespeak” probably has its roots in George Orwell‘s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. According to a Wikipedia entry, although the term is not used in the book, it is a close relative of one of the book’s central concepts, Doublethink.

Why do we point this out?

During Richard Lobo’s tenure as Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the agency, which he was managing, was “losing information war” and was “defunct” in carrying out its mission.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking on March 2, 2011 at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, DC.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: “We are engaged in an information war. You know, during the Cold War we did a great job in getting America’s message out. After the Berlin Wall fell, we said: ‘Okay, fine, enough of that. We’ve done it. And unfortunately we are paying a big price for it.”

“Our private media cannot fill that gap. In fact, our private media, particularly cultural programming, often works at counterpurposes to what we truly are as Americans and what our values are. I remember having an Afghan general tell me that the only thing he thought about Americans is that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis, because the only TV he ever saw was ‘Baywatch’ and [professional wrestling shows].”

“So we are in an information war, and we are losing that war. I’ll be very blunt in my assessment. Al-Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multilanguage television network. The Russians have opened up an English language network. We’ve seen it in a few countries, and it is quite instructive. We are cutting back. The BBC is cutting back.”

“Most people still get their news from TV and radio. So even though we’re pushing online, we can’t forget TV and radio. And so I would look very much toward your cooperation to try to figure out how we get back in the game on this.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her final testimony before Congress on January 23, 2013.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: “And finally, we need to do a better job conveying a counter-narrative to the extremist Jihadist narrative. You know, I’ve said this to this Committee before — a lot of new members on it — you know, we have abdicated the broadcasting arena. You know, yes, we have private stations: CNN, Fox, NBC, all of that. They are out there, they convey information, but we’re not doing what we did during the Cold War.”

“Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back into it. We have the best values. We have the best narrative.”

“Most people in the world just want to have a good decent life that is supported by a good decent job and raise their families and we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void. We have to get in there and compete and we can do it successfully.”

While Al Jazeera, BBC, and Russia Today regularly get hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of Facebook “Likes” for their online news reports, Voice of America (VOA) reports usually get between zero and ten on the main English-language VOA news website, rarely more than a few dozen. VOA has been often late in reporting on major U.S. and international news stories and sometimes does not report on them at all. Most recently, already after Richard Lobo’s departure, VOA failed to report on Solidarity leader and Poland’s former president Lech Walesa’s return visit to the U.S. Congress.

Is Richard Lobo in any way responsible for “losing information war,” for “abdicating the ideological arena,” for BBG being “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world”?

Obviously not, since the Broadcasting Board of Governors gave him the Distinguished Honor Award for his service to the agency.

It also cannot be the fault of his top deputies, IBB executives whom he kept and rewarded with high performance bonuses. The BBG Board named Richard Lobo’s former top lieutenant Jeffrey N. Trimble as Acting Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau.

Paul Kollmer-Dorsey, who joined the BBG as Deputy General Counsel and Acting General Counsel in June 2009, was named by the BBG Board General Counsel in October 2013.

It is clearly not Mr. Kollmer-Dorsey’s fault nor the fault of Richard Lobo and Jeffrey Trimble that in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS), the BBG has ranked year after year at the very bottom of all federal government agencies in terms of employee morale. Or is it? This happened while Mr. Lobo and Mr. Trimble were in charge and Mr. Kollmer-Dorsey advised them on how not to implement the Federal Arbitrator’s decision to return to work a group of illegally-fired RIFed employees at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) in Miami as they were losing their savings, houses, and health insurance. It is not Mr. Kollmer-Dorsey’s fault either. These former OCB employees are still waiting to see justice done.

It is also not the fault of longtime BBG/IBB Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman that “we [the United States] are losing that [information] war,” to use Hillary Clinton’s expression. One can assume from a recent BBG press release, “BBG Expands Collaboration With Leading International Media,” that Richard Lobo, Jeffrey Trimble and/or the BBG Board had sent Mr. Sherman to Paris, France, in early December 2013 to accompany two BBG members to a meeting of leading government-supported international media organizations.

He also has obviously been doing a great job all along. Dismal social media performance indicators for VOA must not be a result of his strategic planning.

May be the fault lies with VOA Director David Ensor? But he was also in Paris and therefore we can assume that the BBG Board thinks very highly of him, even though a few weeks ago VOA embarrassed itself with a late, superficial and journalistically biased report on President Obama’s meeting at the White House with Pakistani girls’ rights activist Malala. The VOA newsroom was alerted to the White House meeting by a VOA correspondent and given all the information well ahead of time but failed to post a comprehensive and journalistically solid news story.

When VOA failed to report on Lech Walesa’s visit to Capitol Hill, Director Ensor was probably getting ready for his trip to Paris or was already flying to Europe, so may be the person responsible for the agency being described by Hillary Clinton as “defunct” is Ensor’s top deputy, VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch?

Again, we don’t think so if we are to rely on the language used in official agency statements. In a recent BBG press release, Steve Redisch is quoted as saying “No other media outlet in the world will have this kind of show this week, amidst recent negotiations on bilateral relations.” He was referring to “Voice of America and Channel One TV (1TV) in Afghanistan are teaming up on a high-tech, international town hall style television program that will address critical issues in US-Afghan relations,” as stated in a BBG press release.

VOA Director David Ensor, assisted by  Executive Editor Steve Redisch, insists that progress has been made and that “the state of VOA is strong and is getting stronger all the time.” The agency’s former top manager,  Richard Lobo, said shortly before leaving his post that “today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before.”

But may be things are not as they seem. May be they are even more convoluted than in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which brings us back to doublespeak and doublethink.

The Distinguished Honor Award for his service to the agency for Richard Lobo notwithstanding,  well-placed sources told BBG Watch that BBG Chairman Jeff Shell had no great confidence in Lobo and was happy to see him leave. If true, this puts everything in a somewhat different perspective.

Sources also told BBG Watch that Shell put a stop to sending even a larger delegation of bureaucrats to Paris. But, according to sources, Shell did agree to a promotion for Mr. Kollmer-Dorsey. Why? We don’t know. Presumably, other candidates were not any good. Sources also tell us that not just Chairman Shell but also other BBG members have serious reservations about the performance of top IBB and VOA managers. Press releases and trips to Paris may not be the final indicator of where things are going.

But while Richard Lobo did nothing to save the agency, the executives who truly made it defunct are still very much in charge. As we observed, they are also in charge of the language the agency uses to communicate with employees and with the agency’s outside stakeholders. They managed to corrupt previous BBG boards with such tactics, and they may very well succeed again.

Language is a powerful weapon. They know how to use it and how to impose it on BBG Governors. Jeff Shell’s new Board has already been co-opted by IBB bureaucrats to some degree, at least in terms of the use of language (doublespeak) and public perceptions.

Recent personnel decisions and public statements do suggest to employees and outside observers that it is again business as usual at the BBG, IBB, and VOA. They suggest that Hillary Clinton, who was an ex officio BBG member, and other critics, such as former BBG Governor and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, were clearly wrong, or mostly wrong, in pointing out various serious deficiencies in how the agency operates.

If Richard Lobo, Jeff Trimble, Bruce Sherman, David Ensor, and Steve Redisch all deserve distinguished performance awards, or at least a new title, a trip to Paris, and a favorable mention in a BBG press release — then who is responsible for the agency “losing information war” or being “defunct,” if it is defunct?

We can only assume from these agency press releases that everything is hunky–dory. May be it is all Hillary Clinton’s imagination or even her fault as a former BBG member, or the fault of former BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson, or the fault of former Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton, or the fault of any of the other former BBG members?

If VOA English news fails to post a news report on President Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents or for days does not do original reporting on major anti-government demonstrations in Kiev, getting only 19 Facebook “Likes” for its report on Ukraine from Reuters last Sunday to BBC’s 2,364 and Russia Today’s over 3,200 Facebook “Likes,” it must be somehow the fault of lower-ranking VOA and IBB employees — not top VOA and IBB executives and strategic planners responsible for social media outreach.

Or may be no one is to blame except for members of Congress who have passed legislation setting up and regulating U.S. international broadcasting? Or may be IBB’s top brass does not get enough funding from Congress and BBG boards and enough new executive positions despite of what appears to be a tremendous growth in both in recent years?

These are some of IBB bureaucrats’ favorite excuses, and they as wrong as these bureaucrats are wrong about doing their jobs — cutting programs and programming positions while building up their bureaucratic empire and trying to extend control over still well-functioning grantee surrogate broadcasters.

The current system may not be perfect, but it is IBB executives who have made it worse and made the agency “dysfunctional” — not legislators, not even most former BBG members and former chairmen — and certainly not rank-and-file employees who for years have been the victims of mismanagement by senior IBB managers.

Did Richard Lobo deserve his Distinguished Honor Award? He got it.

Let’s hope this is all Washington doublespeak. May be Jeff Shell and his new Board have a secret plan to deal with these serious management problems and problem managers. May be some of these IBB and VOA executives will soon join Richard Lobo in his retirement or be transferred to other jobs. We don’t even mind if all failed managers get their Distinguished Honor Awards as long as they can no longer do damage to U.S. international broadcasting.

But doublespeak has its risks. It can create its own reality, as it did in countries ruled by communist and other dictatorial regimes. It transfers power from leaders to bureaucrats. It allows bureaucrats to control the agenda. It will perpetuate status quo. It destroys employee morale. It turns supporters of reforms into bystanders and critics.

Jeff Shell and his new Board need to reestablish their leadership and their credibility. They need to move fast or they will be destroyed by the bureaucracy. If they do not act quickly, Hillary Clinton’s correct assessment of the agency will become a permanent reality until Congress and U.S. taxpayers get tired of paying the bills and shut down U.S. international broadcasting altogether. This must not be allowed to happen.

The sooner Jeff Shell and the new Board realize that those responsible for making the agency “defunct” need to go, the sooner real reforms can start.