BBG Watch Commentary

Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Tara Sonenshine

During the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) meeting last Friday, February 22, 2013, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who represents Secretary of State John Kerry at BBG meetings, had asked two astute questions:

1. Whether placement of Alhurra programs on an Egyptian TV channel in a way competes with Alhurra brand?

2. Whether there is unnecessary duplication between the Voice of America (VOA) and the surrogate broadcaster Radio Free Asia?

The two question are extremely important for the future of U.S. international broadcasting (USIB), and indirectly also for U.S. public diplomacy and U.S. national security. Secretary Sonenshine should be applauded for asking them.

In order to gain complete control over USIB, the bureaucracy of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which has failed to increase BBG’s global audience since 2008, wants to convince BBG members that it should be given even more control over surrogate broadcasters and USIB budget. To strengthen their arguments for control, IBB bureaucrats argue that surrogate broadcasters duplicate the work of the Voice of America and VOA duplicates the work of surrogate broadcasters. In their attempt to merge programs, IBB officials have managed to convince the GAO that such unnecessary duplication exists.

IBB officials claim that a global USIB program designed by them and kept under their control would attract a large audience despite the fact that USIB has never had a global program and attracted large audiences in the past only to its specialized language broadcasts.

IBB wants to substitute their central bureaucratic incompetence for specialization, expert knowledge and deep commitment on the part of surrogate broadcasters to serving populations deprived of freedom and free press.

Bureaucrats claim that they have a formula for increasing audiences through local placement, even in countries like China and Russia, where regimes practice strict media censorship. While it may not be so much the case for Alhurra’s program placement on a local television channel in Egypt, it is definitely the case in China and Russia, where most local placement requires self-censorship.

IBB strategists, audience research experts, and program placement specialists have for years advocated “fluff journalism” to achieve local placement that does not offend authoritarian regimes. Their latest experiment was conducted on Radio Liberty and resulted in the loss of the station’s reputation and audience in Russia.

Surrogate broadcasters are particularly threatened by IBB’s centralization plans, which would destroy their ability to specialize and serve populations in closed societies. But the Voice of America would also lose its special role of representing the United States to foreign audiences if the bureaucracy succeeds in merging VOA programs with programs of surrogate broadcasters and in changing VOA’s unique mission as defined in the VOA Charter.

They want VOA to become like CNN–a private broadcaster–but funded by U.S. taxpayers. They failed to explain why foreign audiences would want to tune in to VOA in its private reincarnation if they already have CNN. Foreign audiences, to the extent that they are interested in VOA, are interested in VOA because it is the authoritative voice of the United States and the American people. Otherwise, a truly private and independent broadcaster like CNN is preferable because it is completely independent.

Secretary Sonenshine’s questions have produced good responses from surrogate entity heads, Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) President Brian Conniff and Radio Free Asia President (RFA) Libby Liu, and to some degree from VOA Director David Ensor. BBG member Victor Ashe summarized the discussion by concluding that some duplication in news coverage by VOA and surrogate broadcasters is necessary, but it is not necessarily bad duplication. Without it, neither VOA nor surrogate broadcasters could specialize and still attract an audience.

Surrogate broadcasters are a substitute for free local media that does not exist in closed and semi-closed societies or in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. These are local or emigre journalists who try to cover the news within the entire country–news that otherwise would not be covered or be distorted by regime-controlled media. The Voice of America’s job is to cover some of these news but with a focus on American views, perspectives and reactions. VOA is not set-up to provide news coverage at a local level or to speak with a local voice.

The answers to the questions posed by Under Secretary Sonenshine have clarified some of these important issues. They can be seen in the video below. BBG Watch is also re-posting a commentary written by an anonymous BBG employee who summarizes the current struggle between the central IBB bureaucracy and programmers who want to preserve their autonomy and specialization.

Answers to Under Secretary Sonenshine’s Questions at BBG Meeting, February 22, 2013

LINK to video.

US stands to lose ability to connect with citizens in closed societies if bureaucrats have their way

by Jane Doe

Jane DoeMany things are happening on the third floor of the Cohen building in Washington, DC, the headquarters of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting (USIB). Some were mentioned in the BBG open session on Friday— some not. A wise, thoughtful and knowledgeable friend observed to me:

“There is an attempt to neutralize surrogate broadcasters. (Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) It is led by the central BBG bureaucracy — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — which wants control of all broadcasting. The administration may want the same thing for slightly different reasons. Without the deep commitment and expert specialization of surrogate broadcasters, U.S. international broadcasting will lose much of its meaning and effectiveness.”

Not only is this true, the real tragedy is that the ball is already rolling.

The IBB is sacrificing every principle for which Congress created surrogate broadcasters. These Washington bureaucrats launched an assault on surrogate broadcasters in order to preserve their bureaucratic way of life. On the 3rd floor of the Cohen Building, they do not think about the families of the immolators being dragged into jail or the children separated from their parents.They are obsessed with devising ever more questionable means by which they can be the boss of all things broadcasting. They are not deeply analyzing every nuance of the lives of the people the surrogates serve. They are making sweeping “strategies” and planning “innovation” for the minions to implement.

The BBG external relations people don’t seem to understand the mission, not madness, of the USIB structure. Mass distribution of documents such as the BBG annual report lead with the IBB. How’s that working out? Reputation on the rise or on the decline?

That is because everyone on the 3rd floor of the Cohen building thinks everyone in international broadcasting works for the IBB. Not so.

No one has ever heard of the IBB–they shouldn’t–and they never will–because the IBB does not do the mission critical work. The broadcast entities do.

IBB is the support structure. IBB supports the broadcasters. At least it did when Congress created it. The IBB did this job splendidly until the tragic loss of George Moore, the last great IBB director who understood the mission of surrogate broadcasters and the Voice of America as well as the limits of his mandate. Under Moore, it WAS the support structure. Once the BBG gave all its delegable duties to the IBB Director AND all of their support staff – the IBB became a behemoth regime within the Broadcasting Board of Governors searching for territory to dominate.

Surrogate journalists do not work for IBB.

Surrogates work for people suffering in closed societies. Surrogate staff eat, drink and sleep for people they don’t even know but for whom they gladly give their waking hours to love.

The surrogate broadcasters are the only game in town for people in closed societies to get the local news their governments desperately want to keep from them. Even the other international broadcasters concede and support US surrogate work.

In closed societies communications form over decades around thought leaders by word of mouth. Learning to trust a credible far flung news source is a learned behavior. One that USIB entities have spent their existence cultivating. The surrogates and the repressive regimes who do everything they can to shut them down understand that no sustainable transition to a free society can be achieved without indigenous free press, free speech and free association (in many cases virtual).

The spin doctors and “strategists” at the BBG need to take a fresh look at how well their current strategy is working to serve the United States, their listeners and not just themselves. By neutering the surrogates and pushing everyone, including the Voice of America (VOA), underneath the banner of the BBG, they have successfully become the pariah of Washington.

By acquiescing to the short-sighted policies of the administration, the US stands to lose its long-fought for unique ability to connect with citizens in closed societies and it’s enviable ability to set discussion agendas for governments that are decidedly NOT the friends of the US.

As with the Radio Liberty debacle, Putin could not have done a better job silencing brave voices. The shame is that the US is doing the work for totalitarian regimes everywhere. Imagine how much money these regimes will save when they no longer need to censor or jam US surrogate broadcasters?

Yay team!”

I thought it worth sending on. We can’t let the third floor ruin USIB.