We present yet another opinion on the bipartisan reform bill, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), this one from our regular contributor, The Federalist. We share The Federalist’s view that the passage of the bill is absolutely essential for reforming and saving U.S. international media outreach. We completely disagree with BBG Governor Matt Armstrong’s rebuke of Democratic and Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and with his assertion that the bipartisan bill is “overly harsh” and “unfair.”
We do not think that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s description of “defunct” U.S. international media outreach was at all “overly harsh” or “unfair.”
We support BBG Chairman Jeff Shell’s wise call to let Congress do its legislative job without interference from within the agency and regret that some agency officials and executives chose to ignore it.
We support 100% of the bill’s findings and 95% of its other wording, but would like to see some minor modification to improve it and strengthen the position of the VOA Charter in the legislation.
We reject BBG Governor Armstrong’s call for modifying the VOA Charter as yet another unnecessary bureaucratic distraction similar to his earlier calls for modifying the Smith-Mundt Act, a process which was so badly handled by the agency’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) that it caused a major public backlash in the U.S. against the Voice of America and the rest of U.S. international broadcasting. The VOA Charter has clearly supported multimedia outreach to foreign audiences and no one has questioned that it does.
The VOA Charter is also the best guarantee of Voice of America’s journalistic independence, VOA’s unique value for American taxpayers, and integrity of VOA news. Governor Armstrong should leave it alone and think twice before he engages in another rebuke of U.S. lawmakers who pay the agency’s salaries and bills thanks to the genorocity of American taxpayers who expect the Voice of America to do what the VOA Charter calls for it to do.
The idea that members of Congress would want to turn VOA into a propaganda arm of any U.S. administration is ludicrous, and the VOA Charter is the best proof that it is not the case. Its essential parts are already included in the bill. It should be included in full to assure any critics that VOA news will never be compromised. But Congress is absolutely right to insist that all provisions of the VOA Charter, not just selective ones, are observed.
International Broadcasting Bureau – We Think Dysfunctional and Defunct Are Just Fine! – Information War Lost: Misplaced Sense of Entitlement
By The Federalist
The US House of Representative Foreign Affairs Committee has recently passed a bill, the bipartisan reform bill, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), which goes a long way toward necessary reforms of US Government international broadcasting.
Officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) the bureaucratic fiefdom which lords over Federal civilian international broadcasting has been precipitously eroding the effectiveness of this agency, particularly with regard to the Voice of America (VOA).
Congress has had its fill of this ongoing debacle: precipitously declining audiences in critical countries with only growth due mostly to placement of non-news programs or short program placement in generally media free countries like Mexico, irrelevance on social media, consistently abysmal ratings in the Federal workplace satisfaction surveys, character assassination of political appointees to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which is supposed to oversee agency operations (to little effect).
Across the board, the agency is a mess. This mess is costing US taxpayers almost $800-MILLION dollars annually. The IBB has absolutely no intention of doing anything other than maintaining the dysfunctional status quo which it created, protects and intends to preserve.
The Findings and Declarations contained in H.R.4490 read like a multi-point indictment of this agency – as they should. In our view, the bill leaves no stones unturned. It is a major, bipartisan and unanimous effort to put the agency back on track.
Given the factual record, it is a bit of a surprise that a small handful of individuals oppose the bill. Even more surprisingly, they are clustered around common association with the VOA Central Newsroom, a part of the agency that was decimated and is the most demoralized by the agency’s dysfunction and who have suffered the greatest loss of credibility and effectiveness at the hands of senior IBB officials hawking a debunked “strategic plan” that has been publicly labeled “neither strategic nor a plan.”
The crux of the angst felt by these individuals has to do with a belief that the agency should be a 100% publicly funded but totally independent entity – essentially without any congressional oversight or requirement for accountability.
Let’s be clear: this agency has never been, is not now, nor ever will be in the future, independent, particularly in the context these individuals are promoting. These employees forget who issues their paychecks: the US Government.
Of greatest concern to these individuals – to the point of blindness – is that the agency will produce propaganda and that it will not be seen as credible.
Since 1976, the VOA Charter spells out what the agency’s mission is. It is supposed to be a “consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”
At the same time, it is also supposed to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” and to present “responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.”
For VOA, this is the only formula that works.
H.R.4490 restates principles from the Charter as vital to the successful execution of the agency’s mission. It would have been better to restate the Charter as a whole. Thinking at the time H.R.4490 was written may have been that the Charter already exists and need not be incorporated in another piece of legislation. Whatever may have been the thinking at the time, the committee is clearly on board with the Charter.
Some critics among Newsroom staffers attempt to present the agency as a paragon of virtue in the name of “independent journalism.” In a manner of speaking, they appear to project an attitude that everyone should genuflect every time they cross the threshold into the VOA Newsroom on the first floor of the Cohen Building.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the agency has fallen far and fallen hard from the lofty pinnacle of this vision. It no longer applies.
- The agency is no longer a top tier international broadcaster. It is steadily falling further and further behind similar international operations.
- It cannot (and seemingly intentionally will not) keep pace with breaking and developing news.
- It is becoming heavily reliant upon third party news services to mask the extent to which it can no longer cover important news events with an under-staffed and under-resourced Central Newsroom.
- Reliance upon individual language services, themselves under-resourced and under-staffed, to make up the difference, is a full scale debacle (the “43 newsrooms” concept promoted by VOA director David Ensor and VOA executive editor Steve Redisch which make VOA look like a mangled version of CNN Headline News).
- It has systematically reduced its direct broadcasts to be reliant instead on less than reliable in-country placement of its programs on the stations of foreign broadcasters who can demand that news be excluded, edit or simply not broadcast agency provided programs or be ordered by national governments to terminate any agency broadcast.
- Other foreign governments have successfully interdicted its Internet websites.
- The VOA English language website – not part of the VOA Central Newsroom but obviously connected to it – is a disaster of untimely and seemingly indifferent news coverage coupled with poor editing and other deficiencies.
These individuals have fallen into a trap of advocating what essentially comes down to “business as usual.”
Both they and others (Reporters Without Borders, for example) studiously avoid discussion of the Findings and Declarations contained in H.R.4490. They seem to believe that their perspective trumps all the other ills of this agency – which are many and serious.
Leaving these conditions absent from their narrative is unprofessional. It presents an incomplete picture of the agency as a whole and what necessitates a legislative remedy to return the agency to mission effectiveness, with appropriate standards for accountability and responsibility. A half-told story constitutes misinformation at best, disinformation at worst; in other words, a form of propaganda.
In our view, the thing these individuals say they fear the most (being a propaganda mouthpiece) is precisely what they have become: advocating for an outcome (the dysfunctional and defunct status quo) by presenting an incomplete picture (ignoring key provisions of the legislation) of the extent to which the agency has fallen into disrepair.
Figuratively, if not literally, they present the Congress and others as their “enemies.” This is yet one more manifestation of the blindness gripping the agency, the Newsroom in particular.
In the skewed sense of entitlement these individuals seem to embrace, it is perfectly okay to view the Congress and others as “enemies” but still expect and be entitled to MILLIONS of dollars in American taxpayer money to support and solidify this dysfunctional and defunct agency and make it out of reach of public scrutiny, oversight and accountability.
Perhaps, in their own way, these individuals make the perfect spokespersons for passage of the legislation and the necessary reform it entails. They demonstrate the extent to which this agency has gone way off rails.
And here is another point: except for veteran and now-retired former VOA correspondents Dan Robinson and Gary Thomas, these other individuals have not been major public participants in the debate over the agency’s current conditions and prospects for effective corrective action. There appear to have been some degree of inside-the-group discussions but never a unified front to face off against senior agency management; but rather a collection of individual perspectives and opinions.
The reasons for this are obvious: this is a hostile work environment. Tenured employees have a lot to lose if they confront agency officials who have a known reputation for being vicious, vindictive and prone to bullying tactics. Better to vent privately than to be too visible publicly.
As a result, there has developed a tendency to rely upon others to solve their problems. When a solution is arrived at H.R.4490, if it is not to their liking, they rail against it. This is what is happening here.
And let it be said: the people who have worked on fixing this failed agency have invested far more time and effort than anything coming out of the Cohen Building, particularly the IBB and senior VOA officials. These officials put the agency in the position it is in and are adamant about keeping things the way they are.
The scope of the agency’s problems is such that the Newsroom cannot be parsed out for insular treatment of the kind these people demand. This is a failed agency, plain and simple; and substantive measures are necessary to fix it or close it. As regrettable as it is, the VOA Central Newsroom is as much caught up in the failure as are other quarters of the agency.
Given the circumstances identified in H.R.4490, it behooves the Congress and non-government organizations to hold the agency as a whole to a higher standard and advocated for strong corrective action.
H.R.4490 is exemplary for its thoroughness, the dedication of Members of Congress and their staffs to capture the full extent of the major collapse of US Government international broadcasting and the affirmative steps necessary to restore the agency to a standard of performance and effectiveness that justifies its funding and continued existence.
Chairman Royce, the members of the committee and their staffs should be highly commended for the substantial time and effort required in creating a formula to rehabilitate this agency on behalf of the American People.
The provisions of this bill should be similarly embraced by the Senate in their entirety and signed into law by the president, in the national and public interest.