BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Board, Apr. 2013
BBG Board, Apr. 2013. Image shows four vacancies.

Sources at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) report that BBG’s Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton has missed yet another board meeting, making the agency essentially ungovernable. This is contrary to what the law requires for managing the agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting.

BBG Watch has also learned from agency sources that a complete recording of the meeting may not be available online to the public as promised on the BBG’s website due to what officials describe as a technical issue.

Sources also said that the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) director Richard Lobo, whose staff was responsible for making the recording, has made comments suggesting that he might not carry out BBG members’ directives he disagrees with unless the board has a quorum.

Presiding Governor Lynton’s absence and Director Lobo’s reported comments in effect make the BBG ungovernable. These reported comments and Lynton’s prolonged and unexplained absence of over four months are especially troubling at the time of serious national security challenges to U.S. international broadcasting in the aftermath of the Boston terrorist attacks.

These developments, combined with the reported lack of a complete audio recording from the latest meeting, raise serious questions. Are they coincidental or are some IBB officials and Governor Lynton trying to prevent a presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed board from functioning as designed by Congress and required by law?

Asked by a reporter for a comment, BBG’s only Republican member, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, said that Michael Lynton’s prolonged absence is “inexplicable.” Ashe expressed hope that Lynton would “soon start to communicate with other BBG board members.”

All other remaining governors–Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan–as well as Secretary of State John Kerry’s representative, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, participated in Wednesday’s meeting by phone. It was Lynton’s absence that prevented the board from having a quorum. The board is now down to only five members, including Lynton, and has four vacancies. It should have four Democrats, four Republicans, and the Secretary of State who serves as an ex officio member.

President Obama had nominated a Democrat, Jeff Shell, to be BBG chairman and Matt Armstrong as a Republican member, but their nominations have not yet been confirmed by the Senate and may not be for quite some time. Also, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who has represented both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry at BBG meetings, will reportedly leave her post soon. This will deprive the board of a foreign policy and public diplomacy professional who has become familiar with U.S. international broadcasting issues.

BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton
Michael Lynton

The White House should replace Michael Lynton as soon as possible while keeping the remaining three active members to maintain continuity and prevent IBB senior staff from completely taking over the agency. As for candidates for new BBG members, there are many outstanding Americans who 1. have the necessary experience in international broadcasting, foreign affairs and human rights advocacy; 2. are not hampered by conflicts of interest typical for international media executives; and 3. would be able to devote enough time and attention to their duties, including showing up for meetings.

It is worth noting, that while BBG has had as members Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and several women, it never had an African American member. In recent years, it also had very few experts on human rights and media freedom issues in the countries to which broadcasts and other programs are directed.

Many recent nominees have been media executives who have made large political contributions to presidential and Congressional candidates. Some of them know how to work with authoritarian regimes to distribute their non-political media products for profit, but they do not know how to work against these regimes by delivering news and information these regimes want to exclude at all cost. Their presence on the BBG board and as top executives at some of the broadcasting entities has become a major problem for U.S. international broadcasting in recent years.

IBB Director Richard Lobo
Richard Lobo

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is currently in a legal limbo and is basically unable to function. While the of majority of board members present can still make their wishes known to their executive staff, the International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo, who is in charge of the executive staff, can ignore any requests he disagrees with by claiming that the board lacks a quorum.

This places just one presidentially-appointed official in charge of the agency rather than the board consisting now of four presidentially-appointed officials, not counting Michael Lynton. This goes against the legislation which established the BBG board and against wishes of many members of Congress who no longer have any faith in IBB bureaucrats being able to manage news and information programs to dangerous parts of the world and countries without free media.

Lynton’s absence is simply inexcusable in this critical period for U.S. national security. There have been speculations that Lynton, whose company, Sony, does business in both Putin’s Russia and communist-ruled China, has been unhappy with other BBG members for initiating reforms at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) designed to improve its news coverage of Putin’s assault on the rule of law.

Lynton was reportedly a strong supporter of former RFE/RL president Steven Korn who had fired dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists reporting on political corruption and human rights violations in Russia. Lobo’s IBB senior staff failed to alert BBG members to the outrage these firings and programming changes produced among pro-democracy Russians. Most board members eventually became aware of the problem on their own and selected a reform-minded media executive Kevin Klose to resolve the crisis.

We have made this point again and again that leaving the entire agency in the hands of the IBB director and his senior staff in the aftermath of the Boston terror attacks can be dangerous for U.S. national security. These executives have been rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys (Federal Employee Viewpoint as being the worst managers in the entire federal government, as well as being responsible for the lowest employee morale among federal agencies.

They are also the same officials who last year had proposed ending Radio Liberty broadcasts to Chechnya, the ancestral homeland of the Boston bombers. The same managers had also proposed ending or reducing broadcasts to China and Tibet. Most of these proposals were rejected by members of Congress who criticized and in some cases ridiculed IBB “bureaucrats.”

[aside]During the debate in the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2011, Congressman Brad Sherman D-CA, Congressman Connie Mack R-FL, and Congressman Chris Smith, R-NJ said that “bureaucrats” should not be allowed to make the decision to cut VOA radio and TV to China. Rep. Mack commented on the BBG’s audience research, which claims low audience figures in China for Western radio stations, but which free media advocates describe as completely unreliable: “People in China or Cuba, as you can imagine, will not jump in joy and admit it (listening to Western radio stations). If you say yes, in China or Cuba, the government will punish you. People are afraid for their own lives.” Rep. Smith pointed out that the company, which the IBB uses to conduct audience research, “gets money from the BBG, and then gives money to contractors in Beijing to conduct the survey.”[/aside]

But while members of Congress managed to block plans to end broadcasts to China and Tibet, former RFE/RL managers, whom Lynton had supported, succeeded in firing dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia and in ending their programs in defense of democracy and human rights. Radio Liberty’s reputation and audience in the Russian Federation, including the dangerous North Caucasus region, have plunged.

Sources told BBG Watch that Lobo and his senior staffers are definitely using the excuse of Lynton’s absenteeism to resist urgent reforms to the IBB bureaucracy desired by the majority of BBG members. Sources told us that Governors Ashe, McCue and Meehan have been unsuccessfully trying to recruit a chief of staff who could help them exercise more control over the rebellious IBB executives while they wait for the legislative proposal to establish a permanent CEO position to go through Congress. The future of the CEO legislative proposal is uncertain. According to sources, Lobo denies that he is trying to delay the hiring of the temporary chief of staff.

To put pressure on Lynton to show up, BBG members who participated in Wednesday’s telephone call adjourned their meeting to May 15. During the session they received an update on the fire at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) building in Miami and heard reports on several other topics. The OCB fire was reportedly started by a smoker outside of the building. According to sources, some BBG members wondered why smoking was permitted so close to the facility. The fire damaged the newsroom but did not interrupt Radio and TV Marti programs to Cuba.

During the Wednesday’s session, BBG members could not vote on anything due to the lack of quorum. IBB officials promised to post an audio recording of Wednesday’s meeting the BBG website, Agency sources told us that there is no complete audio recording but there may be a partial recording. We were not able to confirm this information late Wednesday evening.

This announcement, prominently displayed before on the BBG website, has disappeared from the Home page and from the Events page where it was posted previously.

“The Broadcasting Board of Governors will hold a meeting by telephone on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 3:30 p.m. EDT. This is a continuation of the April 11, 2013 meeting adjourned due to lack of quorum. The agenda includes reports from the Board’s Governance and Strategy and Budget committees. Topics include progress on compliance with the January 2013 Office of Inspector General’s report, the Board staffing plan, the language service review process, and an update on the agency’s strategic plan.

An audio recording and transcript will be available following the meeting on (Emphasis added.)

The above announcement and a reference to an audio recording can now only be found on the BBG website as a link under the May 15 board meeting announcement. There is no mention on the website about what happened at the April 24 meeting and about the continued absence of BBG’s Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton. The very short announcement about the upcoming May 15 board meeting provides no additional details.

“The Broadcasting Board of Governors will meet on May 15, 2013, at BBG’s headquarters in Washington. This meeting will be a continuation of the recessed meeting from April 11, 2013. More details will be posted here when they become available.”

There is no excuse for the presiding Governor of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to make U.S. international broadcasting during a period of a national and international emergency hostage to his continued absence. If he had a legitimate reason for being absent, Michael Lynton should make it public. Otherwise, he should attend all future BBG meetings to make a quorum and resign as soon as one or two new Governors are confirmed by the Senate. He should excuse himself on any votes dealing with Russia, China or any other country where his company does business and relies on the goodwill of a local regime.

U.S. international broadcasts plays a vital national security role. It cannot function without a functioning board. Michael Lynton owes America an explanation. Richard Lobo also needs to explain why the agency he was put in charge of by President Obama has been so badly managed during his tenure.