BBG Watch Commentary
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Jeff Shell’s trip to Russia turned out to be a disaster because he foolishly chose to travel to a country run by an ex-KGB officer, using his regular rather than a diplomatic passport. He was planning to do what appeared to be an inappropriate mix of private and government business while relying for policy advice on his hand-picked BBG CEO executive, John Lansing, who has had no prior foreign policy or U.S. government work experience of any kind. Jeff Shell has been relying also for advice and assistance on other BBG executives linked with numerous management failures at the $777 million (FY 2017) federal agency, or on other executives who lack prior experience in managing large news media organizations, either in the private or public sector.
Because Jeff Shell chose to listen to his ill-selected BBG executives and advisors, he walked into a trap set up for him ahead of time by the Russian security services. Apparently, it came as a surprise of his BBG entourage. Anybody else with any knowledge of foreign policy and Russia could have easily predicted that such a provocation was likely to be staged by the Russians. Because BBG managers released the information, many people in Moscow knew that BBG Chairman Jeff Shell was coming to participate in a reception for RFE/RL to which Russian Foreign Ministry officials were reportedly invited. Perhaps only to the surprise of BBG management, these officials did not show up after expelling Mr. Shell from Russia.
The Putin government was all along planning to send a strong propaganda signal against the United States by subjecting the BBG Chairman, a high-level U.S. presidential political appointee, to a humiliating treatment at the Moscow airport. He was held in isolation for several hours and was forced to take a flight back to the U.S. To add insult to injury, Shell’s traveling companions who should have warned him against taking such a trip to Russia–John Lansing, another BBG executive Jeff Trimble, and new Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty president Thomas Kent–were allowed to enter Russia. For a variety of reasons, the Putin government still permits RFE/RL to keep a large news bureau in Moscow.
The Kremlin is not worried because under BBG’s misguided management, RFE/RL is not competitive in the digital sphere, not even against some of the few remaining independent and semi-independent Russian news outlets which operate on much smaller budgets than RFE/RL. The Russian FSB security service keeps a close eye on the RFE/RL news bureau in Moscow and uses its presence for the purposes of control and intimidation, as well as to help justify the presence of RT and SPUTNIK news bureaus and television operations in Western countries. The Russian security services have determined that they have much to gain and little to fear from allowing RFE/RL to keep its news bureau in Moscow, otherwise they would have closed it down as they did to many other Western NGOs in Russia.
Despite considerable tension in U.S.-Russia relations, a trip to Moscow last week by Richard Stengel, the State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, seemed to have gone without any incident because it was properly planned by State Department officials who know what they are doing. But it is doubtful that any such visit to Moscow by a high-ranking U.S. official would produce any lasting results as long as the current Russian oligarchy remains in power. Stengel received no significant news coverage in Russia. The poorly managed VOA and RFE/RL did not report on any public events associated with his low-key visit. Stengel represents Secretary of State John Kerry at BBG Board meetings. Kerry is an ex officio BBG Board member. But VOA and RFE/RL could not be bothered to cover such a visit. They also failed to report earlier on one of Vice President Biden’s speeches in Latvia, in which he specifically commented on U.S.-Russia relations in a historical context.
Unlike Jeff Shell, Richard Stengel wisely did not go to Putin’s Russia to do any private company business, nor is he known to be associated with any private U.S. companies who want to do business in Russia. As far as we know, he works only for the State Department. There is no doubt he traveled to Moscow using his official U.S. diplomatic passport stamped with a valid Russian diplomatic visa. Jeff Shell should have done the same if he were not doing private business and listening to bad advice from BBG and RFE/RL executives. Judging by his actions, they may have even convinced him that until a few years ago Russia could still be viewed almost as a democracy.
There is no denying that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is still a highly dysfunctional agency run by inexperienced or failed managers. It is “practically defunct” as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2013. Listening to the advice of inexperienced and/or failed government executives working for the agency has produced numerous crises and scandals over the years and made the agency so irrelevant that President Obama does not even mention it when talking about countering Russian disinformation or challenging extremist ideology from groups like ISIS. The BBG is also being ignored by mainstream U.S. media and by major U.S. presidential candidates, although some of their supporters have complained about VOA’s biased election coverage.
As Richard Stengel’s trip to Russia has shown, the State Department’s public diplomacy arm may not be nowhere near where it was under the former United States Information Agency (USIA), which was also the parent agency for the Voice of America. But the State Department still seems capable of performing some of its basic functions, if without its previous public diplomacy effectiveness. State Department employees still rate their management highly on morale issues, while the BBG has been for years near the bottom in employee satisfaction in annual Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) of federal agencies.
Examples of chaos and poor management abound at the agency. John Lansing and his new Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett could not ensure that VOA and RFE/RL covered an important foreign policy speech delivered recently by Vice President Joe Biden on a visit to Riga, Latvia, nor could they ensure at least minimal coverage of Richard Stengel’s visit to Moscow.
READ: Voice of America used Putin’s narrative in a Russian report, ignored Biden on WWII history, BBG Watch, September 6, 2016
In addition to missed opportunities for news coverage to countries lacking free media, both VOA and RFE/RL have been caught posting reports, which instead of countering Russian and Chinese propaganda, repeat without questioning or challenge Russian or Chinese propaganda narratives and disinformation. While some of the better VOA and RFE/RL journalists still produce excellent news coverage, others at VOA and RFE/RL damage America’s image abroad. Poor leadership at the very top is to blame.
READ: Mao’s Influence Lingers in China, 40 Years After His Death, Voice of America, September 10, 2016
READ: Enjoy ‘Pravda-style’ reports from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) at US taxpayers’ expense, BBG Watch, September 14, 2016.
There can be no outstanding leadership as long as top BBG leaders lack the necessary experience and commitment to the agency’s mission or interpret its public role as a commercial business proposition. As we have pointed out repeatedly, BBG members making private business deals in countries like Russia and China have no business serving on the BBG Board. Everybody knows that Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party have the ultimate say as to who among foreign companies and executives will be allowed to make profits doing business in their respective countries. BBG members engaging in private business in countries ruled by America’s propaganda enemies like Russia or China open themselves up to a potential and real conflict of interest.
One can also be a highly successful U.S. private media executive, as Jeff Shell and John Lansing appear to be, and be completely unsuited to oversee or run the U.S. government’s international media outreach operations. In addition to news reporting, these operations inevitably encompass foreign policy, traditional diplomacy, public diplomacy and other complex problems and challenges related to international relations. This essential U.S. government activity or U.S. government funded and supervised activities call for considerable experience in these areas, which neither Jeff Shell nor John Lansing appear to have, nor can they reasonably be expected to have it, considering their private business background. Such experience is not gained in a few months on the job. Yet both Shell and Lansing are strongly opposed to the congressional passage of the bipartisan BBG reform bill, H.R. 2323, which was introduced last year by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and the committee’s Ranking Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).
Hollywood film industry executives, private entertainment TV channel managers, and advertising industry gurus are hardly the best candidates for these government positions, especially on the operational side. They may know what to do in the private media sector, where they have much more latitude for taking business risks, but they fail miserably when put in charge of essential U.S. government media outreach and public diplomacy operations. There is a good reason for Foreign Service Officers at the State Department having to pass rigorous knowledge and skills exams to be given Foreign Service assignments abroad. In the private sector, it is usually no big deal when some business assumptions do not turn out as planned. Employees can be laid off and a new line of products can be introduced as long as the company eventually makes money. While some private sector business experience is useful, that is not the way U.S. government-funded media outreach and public diplomacy work.
NBCUniversal to lay off 200 staffers at Glendale campus https://t.co/j0NECuOLdK pic.twitter.com/Cc29Ubyg1N
— Hollywood Reporter (@THR) September 15, 2016
@THR ..based on this picture, one hopes Jeff Shell’s barber was the first lay off..
— Patrick F. Gleason (@PatrickFGleason) September 15, 2016
READ: NBCUniversal to Lay Off 200 Staffers at DreamWorks Animation Campus, by Gregg Kilday, Hollywood Reporter, September 15, 2016.
We don’t think one should judge a man by his haircut. Jeff Shell probably knows what he’s doing in his private business capacity. If not, the company’s management and shareholders will let him know sooner or later. His haircut may be unusual for a high-level government official, but it’s perfectly OK for a Hollywood entertainment media type. He should keep his barber. But he and the rest of the BBG Board need to think hard about failed or inexperienced executives they chose to run the BBG agency and its news media entities. These are not places where action films or Food Network television programs are produced. What BBG puts out or doesn’t put out has a direct impact on U.S. national security and America’s image abroad. Some of the fluff videos seen recently on VOA and RFE/RL sites are truly embarrassing.
When it comes to hiring and firing, in his U.S. government position as Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Jeff Shell should have taken a much closer look at his BBG advisors, especially those who may have encouraged him to go to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to do a mix of private and government business, attend a reception in Moscow, and meet with Putin’s officials, only to see their boss detained at the airport by Russian security services and expelled. Their inability to predict what was likely to happen is stunning, to say the least.
It’s OK for successful Hollywood entertainment media executives to take risks and do private business in a private business position, but U.S. government officials working for American taxpayers are required to think ahead. That’s why they collect their three figure government salaries and very generous benefits.
By the way, Jeff Shell is not the first Broadcasting Board of Governors member doing private company business in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Some of the former BBG Governors had mixed their private and government duties on trips to Russia, which may have prompted then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say in 2013 that “our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct.”
READ: Hillary Clinton on BBG and Voice of America, BBG Watch, July 24, 2016
At the time, she herself served on the BBG Board. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The entire BBG Board needs to be abolished together with the dysfunctional BBG bureaucracy and a bipartisan reform bill passed by Congress and signed by the President.
We have found some Tweets and Instagram photos from Under Secretary Richard Stengel’s trip to Russia, which was covered neither by VOA nor RFE/RL. Jeff Shell’s unfortunate trip to Russia was, however, the subject of a statement by BBG CEO John Lansing, which omitted key material facts. An equally incomplete VOA report was also posted about the expulsion of Jeff Shell from the country by the Russian authorities. Both John Lansing’s statement and the VOA report failed to disclose some of the questionable behavior on the part of Jeff Shell, John Lansing and other BBG officials in connection with the incident.
READ: State and White House more honest, less deceptive on Jeff Shell than BBG bureaucracy and VOA, BBG Watch, July 15, 2016
BBG and VOA executives still do not realize that the standards for transparency are much higher in real news media organizations and in government agencies than they may be in Hollywood and in other commercial entertainment business.
Under Secretary Stengel Travel to Russia
Office of the Spokesperson
September 13, 2016
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel will travel to Moscow, Russia from September 13 -16. In Moscow, he will meet with U.S. Embassy staff, Russian government officials and Russian journalists. The Under Secretary will engage with alumni of educational and cultural exchange programs and deliver remarks at an event at the American Center in Moscow. In addition, he will tour the Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and have a conversation with RFE/RL journalists.
For updates on the trip, please follow Under Secretary Stengel on Twitter at @stengel and on Instagram at @richardstengel. For more information, please visit here.
#Russian #exchange students welcomed @stengel with a traditional folk song, “Kalinka” followed by a Q+A discussion. pic.twitter.com/64vZ7xToqX
— PDatState (@PDatState) September 16, 2016
U/S @stengel had the opportunity to learn more about #Russian farm-to-table practices @ Lavka Lavka in #Moscow. pic.twitter.com/WAGL7KL1U5
— PDatState (@PDatState) September 16, 2016
#FLEXAlumni Russia @nicknebogin ’12 & Elzyata.K ‘12 walking Mr.@stengel through Russia’s Red Square. Ty, @USEmbRu 🙂 pic.twitter.com/PkB2z9KyLa
— FLEX Alumni Program (@FLEXAlumni) September 14, 2016
Last view of #Moscow before ✈️ to #NY. Had important conversations on people to people #diplomacy in digital age. pic.twitter.com/sSQiUeqJMY
— Rick Stengel (@stengel) September 16, 2016
BBG CEO John Lansing’s Perspective
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Wednesday, September 14, 2016 2:12:22 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Year in Review & Looking Forward
Today marks my one year of service at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and I continue to be impressed by the dedicated group of people who work here in the Cohen Building, across our five BBG brands, and around the world.
Over the past year I have watched this exceptional team achieve strong audience growth, give life to exciting new content opportunities, particularly in digital and mobile media, push for industry-leading ways to achieve impact in our programming, as we collectively work to inform, engage and connect with people in support of freedom and democracy.
Together, we have achieved a lot.
The ICC – Strategic Coordination
One of the most impactful things we did last year was form the U.S. international media Coordinating Committee (ICC) to facilitate strategic coordination across the BBG’s five networks and the IBB. There have been substantive improvements in favor of our key audiences based on this coordinated and strategic approach from Russia to China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and covering CVE. The ICC now meets twice a month with me to discuss further collaboration and jointly worked with the IBB to develop and submit our FY 2017 and FY 2018 budgets.
Measuring BBG’s Impact on Key Audiences
Equally important, together we are growing our focus on achieving impact through our journalism. BBG reaches an audience of 226 million weekly, which only goes to show the hunger for our accurate and reliable content around the world. But it is also clear that reach is not enough – we need our journalism and programming to impact the lives of our audiences and their communities as well. That is why I was so pleased when, in February of this year, we hosted an Impact Summit where research directors of each BBG network came together and agreed upon an enhanced Impact Model to evaluate all BBG content.
Aggressive Push into Digital / Mobile / Social
We also made several advancements to increase access and engagement on social/mobile platforms to reach younger, more urban audiences, future leaders and influencers. There already was a lot of work being done in this area before I arrived, but I am proud to say that we are pushing the envelope significantly further. In just a few weeks, we will convene a Social Media Summit to look at best practices across BBG, establish baseline expectations, and promote future growth in mobile / social media across our networks.
Putting Our Audiences First – On Their Terms
And we continue to create and scale up innovative and compelling new content and reporting that is making a difference around the world. For instance:
— MBN’s multi-platform Raise Your Voice initiative is connecting audiences in the Middle East as they fight back against ISIS recruitment
— OCB’s aggressive push to open up Cuba to Internet freedom
— RFA’s powerful investigative stories halting the construction of faulty health clinics by North Korea in Africa
— RFE/RL’s collaborative success story with an expanded Current Time on all platforms and aggressive DIGIM strategy
— VOA’s collaboration on Current Time, and its successful launch of the Global Town Hall in Somalia
And there is so much more being done across our networks, and at the IBB, that I simply do not have space to list them all here.
None of these advancements would be possible without your tireless support, commitment, and mission-driven energy – whether you are contributing to the team at IBB or serving in any of the many responsibilities at our networks. It is YOUR work that earns our audiences’ respect as a trusted source of news and safe access to a free Internet.
Yet, while this has been a remarkable year and we made many strides, there is still more we need to do to continue to transform our global operations to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving media environment. I look forward to working alongside you for the next year to do just that.
But, for the moment, I only wish to say this: I am proud to come to work every day and work alongside all of you to achieve our important mission. The BBG team is an extraordinary one, and I thank you for welcoming me.
With sincere gratitude,
John F. Lansing
CEO and Director
Broadcasting Board of Governors