BBG Watch Commentary Introduction
BBG Watch welcomes the last commentary of 2013 by The Federalist, our most popular contributor. We wish him and all our readers, U.S. international media agency employees, and all our other volunteers and contributors HAPPY NEW YEAR!
We welcome on our site various points of view and hope to bring you even more variety of opinions and more information and analysis in 2014.
In this commentary, The Federalist makes a correct observation that it is easy for International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives in charge of strategic planning to make claims about “freedom and democracy” while pursuing a failed strategy of seeking audiences at all cost and ignoring the Voice of America Charter and the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Their strategy of placing audience growth before the mission still failed to increase BBG’s audience between 2008 and 2012 and never kept up with global population growth in the last quarter century. A sudden and questionable gain claimed by IBB in 2013 just as the new BBG Board was formed occurred not in the Middle East, China or Russia — where strategic audiences decreased — but supposedly largely in Latin America, where even IBB admits that it may have counted a previously existing and uncounted audience.
The agency has been losing audiences in some of the most strategic areas of the world while at the same time — due to pressure from IBB — diluting its message with fluff journalism, especially at the Voice of America.
The sad result is that while the Voice of America posts 27 separate news reports in English on the royal wedding in Great Britain (hundreds if counting translations by VOA’s 44 language services) that hardly get any Facebook “Likes” or any other indication of audience engagement through social media, its English website does not report or reports hardly at all on U.S. human rights pronouncements and even statements by Vice President Biden, the White House and the State Department.
IBB strategic planners are still hard at work trying to deny that the Voice of America and BBG’s surrogate media outlets have different missions clearly outlined in U.S. legislation.
If they have paid any attention, they would have seen that recent coverage of major news events in North Korea, China, Ukraine, and Russia was completely different between Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
The two grantees providing outstanding and extensive news coverage from within even the most closed societies, while VOA did not report much on U.S. reactions to major news developments in these countries.
The Voice of America failed to do its job as outlined in the VOA Charter because both VOA and IBB executives have been hard at work trying to ignore the Charter and to make it irrelevant. VOA’s mission has been displaced by an attempt to grow an audience that is also failing in a major way.
Some of BBG’s surrogate media outlets have done an outstanding job, especially most recently, but even they have for years struggled under the pressure of IBB to make their programs appealing to a mass audience by ignoring their missions. This process has been reversed to some degree thanks to the intervention of the BBG and a new management team at RFE/RL. But the work is far from finished.
It is perfectly obvious that U.S. legislation provides for different missions for the Voice of America and BBG’s surrogate media outlets. IBB and VOA executives are still confused about it.
The U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994, which established the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), has a reference to “broadcasting to support freedom and democracy in a rapidly changing international environment” [Emphasis added.] as applying in general to U.S. international broadcasting (media outreach). The act says for example that RFA will “be a forum for a variety of opinions and voices from within Asian nations [Emphasis added.] whose people do not fully enjoy freedom of expression.” But the act also includes the VOA Charter, which has no specific reference to “freedom and democracy,” while giving VOA specific tasks not assigned to the grantees.The VOA Charter in existence since 1976 describes VOA’s mission as being significantly different from RFA’s or that of RFE/RL.
We repost the VOA Charter to remind VOA and IBB executives what it says and does not say.
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)
And as to the IBB-Gallup survey findings that televisions are in 98 percent of Vietnamese households and mobile use is around 90 percent — any journalist working for the Vietnamese services at the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) could have told IBB executives the same thing for free. IBB not only paid Gallup for this information ($50-million 5-year contract, in which IBB has an option of scaling it down), it spent additional money publicizing these findings in Washington. It seems that it never occurred to IBB executives to question the finding that the topics of most interest among the Vietnamese polled were the weather, environmental concerns and territorial issues with China.
Perhaps, they did not feel comfortable telling Gallup poll takers about official corruption, media censorship, and lack of personal and civic freedoms.
The agency could use more skeptical and wiser analysis than those provided until now by IBB and VOA executives.
In that spirit we welcome BBG Chairman Jeff Shell’s recent comment that a small improvement in the agency’s still dismal employee morale scores is “nothing to crow about.” We welcome management changes he and the Board have initiated at IBB.
We also applaud Governor Matt Armstrong for questioning VOA Director Ensor about inadequacies in VOA news reporting.
We thank BBG Governors Susan McCue and Michael Meehan for their longstanding questioning of the agency’s management practices and their concern for BBG employees.
We are also happy to see new BBG members, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and BBG Kenneth Weinstein, also taking their oversight role very seriously and making important contributions to the debate about the future of U.S. international media outreach.
BBG, and especially IBB and VOA, desperately need more such intellectual honesty. It is becoming more and more obvious in Congress and elsewhere that the problem is not the BBG Board but rather the constantly growing IBB bureaucracy and the legislation that established it. IBB should be disbanded and its resources divided among those who actually produce programs for overseas audiences.
And we must once again express our gratitude and admiration to former BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe for his relentless efforts to address and solve management problems created by agency executives and to make it a better place for journalists and other employees to do their work that is so important to the United States, its interests, and its security.
It’s both possible, necessary and good for the United States to help extend real freedom and democracy that is not just a rule of the majority without individual liberties. But the BBG must do it wisely.
HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM BBG WATCH!
International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunction and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost – Memo To The Board #4
by The Federalist
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
“Me and Bobby McGee”
-written by Kris Kristofferson
Performed by Janis Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie
A recent collaboration between the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Gallup polling organization is a survey of media use in Vietnam (“Television and Mobile Ubiquitous in Vietnam,” December 11, 2013).
According to the survey, televisions are in 98 percent of Vietnamese households and mobile use is around 90 percent.
The survey notes that the topics of most interest among the Vietnamese polled were the weather, environmental concerns and territorial issues with China. Perhaps, they did not feel comfortable telling Gallup poll takers about official corruption, media censorship, and lack of personal and civic freedoms.
Bruce Sherman, co-author of the agency’s (not a) “strategic plan” is quoted in the agency press release as saying,
“What matters to our audiences? The BBG is committed to supporting free and democratic societies by fostering a free press and free expression. In order to connect with audiences around the globe, we have to understand them.”
This doesn’t sound much like understanding the Vietnamese audience or acknowledging their interests as expressed in the Gallup poll.
Much like IBB executives like to do in their PowerPoint presentations, this is talking at someone with the IBB mantra about “freedom and democracy” devoid of its real meaning.
We were similarly interested in the presentation made by David Ensor, the Voice of America (VOA) director during the December 2013 meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) on December 18.
Mr. Ensor is often good for a memorable quote. When he became VOA director some years ago, he said the future of the VOA Newsroom would feature “blood on the floor” and “no turning back.” He was right on both counts. The VOA Newsroom as an effective flagship operation delivering timely, breaking news and analysis is largely a thing of the past. Today, original VOA reporting has been significantly reduced and replaced by non-government news service reports by Reuters.
Once again, Mr. Ensor offers another quote. This one also has to do with the “freedom and democracy” mantra. In essence, during his presentation to BBG members, he noted that when it comes to freedom of expression, “we are not neutral.”
Such a statement comes with consequences and implications.
If You Aren’t Neutral, What Are You?
VOA has a charter. If you read the VOA Charter thoroughly, you will note that it doesn’t contain the phrase, “supporting freedom and democracy” with regard to the Voice of America. Indeed, you will note that nowhere in the Charter do you see the words “freedom” and “democracy.” It doesn’t need to. If the agency properly carries out its mission, US interests and freedom and democracy are properly served.
According to Mr. Ensor, VOA has abandoned neutrality. What does that mean?
Does it mean that VOA is no longer in the business of upholding the VOA Charter?
Does it mean that VOA is now subjective as opposed to objective, an advocacy or propaganda mouthpiece? If so, for whom?
How does VOA go about not being neutral when it comes to freedom of expression?
How does VOA intend to materially support “freedom and democracy?”
And most importantly, when VOA fails, as it is doing so now, what comes next?
Mr. Ensor’s declaration is a kind of unguarded, self-indulgent pomposity that may sound fabulous on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building. However, in the real world, it is a different matter altogether. This remark has the potential for putting a target on the back of every VOA employee in the field outside the boundaries of the United States, along with other negative outcomes.
Remember, senior VOA officials wanted to put a female VOA correspondent into Syria, after Alhurra reporter Bashar Fahmi went missing in August 2012. He is still missing and one may tragically conclude presumed dead, although we sincerely hope this is not true. Insurgents like to make a name for themselves. In Syria, one of the ways to do that is to kill journalists.
Freedom And Democracy Poorly Explained and Less Understood
By inference, Mr. Ensor makes “freedom and democracy” potential instruments of “regime change.” Those opposed to Mr. Ensor’s point of view in places like the Middle East equate regime change with attempts to undermine longstanding cultures and beliefs beyond the immediate political consequences.
We like to see our way of life as progressive. But sometimes we can be so far out in front from the rest of the world that we run the risk of being incomprehensible, contradictory. In this context, that which cannot be understood turns into something threatening and hostile.
It is hard for us to understand that the freedoms and rights we enjoy here in the United States can have brutal and deadly consequences elsewhere.
When the United States finds it necessary to project its power in far off places, “freedom and democracy” can be interpreted as words connected with the application of force. After the dust settles, the bodies of dead and wounded removed, what remains is rubble, both material and psychological. Worse, in come the insurgents who point to it all and say something to the effect, “See, America brings you ‘freedom and democracy!’”
“Freedom and democracy” then becomes something to fear, something to hate, something that delivers pain and suffering. When this happens, the ultimate irony is that “freedom and democracy” becomes an unintended but effective recruiting tool for our adversaries.
IBB and VOA officials behind the IBB (not a) “strategic plan” think they are being really slick with the “freedom and democracy” mantra.
They are not.
In its effect, their (not a) “strategic plan” is being stupid when it results in 27 VOA news reports on the British royal wedding but not a single one on Vice President Biden’s speech in China on human rights or some of Senator McCain’s comments on violence against peaceful protesters in Ukraine.
We are familiar with former Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks at the end of her service in late 2012 when she described this agency’s international media outreach as “defunct.” She also opined that we used to have an effective message that served us well with global publics.
Indeed we did, when VOA adhered to the VOA Charter, and BBG’s surrogate media grantees followed their missions as outlined in U.S. legislation.
It seems fairly straightforward: if the Voice of America wants to be effective in reaching global publics, follow the VOA Charter.
The IBB’s (not a) “strategic plan” intentionally undervalues the VOA Charter. The negative consequences are almost pre-determined.
The world has well over two thousand years of recorded civilization and history. The hard sell of “freedom and democracy” does not work well with historical precedents or US interests. All too often, it means bulldozing historical and cultural sensitivities. Indeed, it seems to be culturally insensitive and historically oblivious.
It is also emblematic of how IBB conducts their PowerPoint presentations: right down your throat, no room for questions or debate, timed right down to the second, reminding us of a used car salesman.
Like IBB executives, Mr. Ensor made the mistake of not knowing his audience. He was asked penetrative questions by BBG members much of it captured in the agency’s recording of the Board meeting. It wasn’t one of Mr. Ensor’s finer moments.
Contrast the Ensor presentation with an interview by BBG member Ambassador Ryan Crocker given to Public Radio International in October 2013, prior to the preliminary agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program:
Ambassador Crocker talks about “humanizing” the negotiations process. This does not mean abandoning one’s core beliefs. It does mean constructing a relationship with one’s counterparts in order to bring about agreement.
The VOA Charter provides a parallel process for global publics. Follow the Charter and you build credibility and relationships, the basis for dialogue.
This is exactly the opposite of the IBB (not a) “strategic plan” which rants at global publics, traffics in arrogance, superficiality and oxymorons as opposed to substance (sound bites instead of explanation and analysis).
The most important remedial action the BBG can take in the near term is to get the Voice of America back on message: the VOA Charter.
Along with expurgating the toxicity of the IBB, reconstructing the agency’s mission effectiveness and credibility will take longer. In the end, US interests will be much better served.
There is much work to be done.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!