BBG Watch Opinions

BBG Watch has received a number of reactions to its exclusive report that U.S. cable TV industry executive John F. Lansing is considered a top contender for the position of Chief Executive Officer and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). (The official title may actually only be BBG director since this is a federal government agency with a public policy mission funded by U.S. taxpayers through a congressional appropriation and subject to federal rules and regulations.) John Lansing is former president and chief executive officer of Scripps Networks Interactive Inc. He managed HGTV, Food Network, DIY, FINE LIVING and GAC,,,,, and their associated Web sites and other interactive businesses until September 2013.

Lansing joined Scripps Networks in January 2004 as executive vice president from The E. W. Scripps Company in Cincinnati, where he had been senior vice president for television in charge of the company’s 10 broadcast television stations. Prior to E. W. Scripps, Lansing worked at two Scripps-owned affiliates: WEWS in Cleveland where he was vice president and general manager and WXYZ in Detroit, where he worked as vice president and station manager. Lansing is currently listed as President and Chief Executive Officer Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM). CTAM is a cable business marketing association. He is also listed as Secretary / Treasurer of CTAM’s Educational Foundation Board.

SEE: John F. Lansing is leading contender for U.S. broadcasting BBG CEO post EXCLUSIVE, BBG Watch, August 11, 2015

BBG Watch has cautioned that there is no certainty John Lansing will be ultimately approved and take the public service executive position at the BBG, but numerous sources inside and outside BBG confirmed that he is a leading choice. Some of our contacts said that it might be better to see if he comes on board before making comments as to his qualifications and challenges. Others felt that general comments about qualifications of any CEO candidate and key problems facing BBG are warranted, especially at this point when important decisions are being made. Some wished him well assuming he ultimately gets the job and takes it. One former VOA employee expressed hope that if he does, he will stay on the job longer than the previous BBG CEO Andy Lack who left only after a few weeks to save NBC News.

Not Much Known About John Lansing

Reacting to the uncertainty about the ultimate selection approval and the fact that little is known about John Lansing’s qualifications beyond his U.S. TV and cable industry management experience, one former Broadcasting Board of Governors member told BBG Watch that whoever is selected for this enormously important position for providing uncensored news and improving media freedom, human rights and America’s image abroad will require a lot of support from Congress and the American people. This former BBG member and others who offered their reactions have not heard of John Lansing before. His bio available online may not be complete, but it does not show much international experience. It shows strong U.S. domestic media management experience and leadership skills, a successful U.S. domestic media career focused most recently on lifestyle programming, some early journalistic and later journalism teaching experience, new media management skills, and involvement in public causes through NGO activities. More information about his media career can be found in the previous BBG Watch report.

Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy Experience?

Congressional staffers who observe BBG closely were also completely surprised by the BBG Watch report about John F. Lansing. The most common reaction was “what do we know about this guy?,” “does he know anything about BBG?,” “has he ever been a public servant?,” “does he know anything about public diplomacy?” Members of Congress will have “lots of questions,” they said. But while members of Congress may be asking these questions, the BBG CEO/Director position is no longer subject to the confirmation by the U.S. Senate as BBG members still are and IBB director was before. The CEO is now selected by the BBG Board, but the person also has to pass the usual federal personnel policy and security checks. The White House may also have some input.

One staffer speculated that John Lansing must be someone whom BBG Chairman Jeff Shell knew well in U.S. cable TV industry.

Political Connections and Congressional Support?

A former high-level VOA executive and journalist observed that in addition to foreign relations, journalism and/or public diplomacy experience, the ideal candidate would also be a well-known and well-connected individual with excellent contacts on the Hill and in the rest of Washington. The former BBG board found a candidate with some of these qualities and offered him the CEO position a few years ago, but BBG bureaucrats, according to at least two former BBG members, sabotaged the government approval process until the candidate withdrew in frustration.

Some of these bureaucrats who work for the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) are still around. They would prefer to have someone in the CEO position who lacks experience in some of the key areas, a cynical but nearly always correct observer of the BBG pointed out.

Strong bipartisan support on the Hill, especially from members of Congress who care deeply about foreign policy and human rights, is absolutely essential for the success of the agency and its individual media entities. Ability to generate and cultivate such support would be one of the top job requirements for any BBG director, VOA director or RFE/RL president. Voice of America’s support is not among a few VOA English newsroom reporters who rarely get more than 10 Facebook “Likes” for their stories from the entire world but who object to VOA “countering” ISIS and Putin propaganda, a former VOA journalist observed. They don’t know where BBG’s political support is, think it is them, and are VOA’s worst enemies, one person said.

Strong bipartisan political connections and connections to the wider foreign policy and national security establishment in Washington, if not directly to the White House, could help raise BBG’s and VOA’s profile and assure better funding from Congress, some experts pointed out. But finding such a person, considering the BBG’s current state, is nearly impossible, they said.

Advice From A VOA Journalist

“Assuming Mr. Lansing is the person who will lead the agency, he would do well to thoroughly read BBG Watch reporting on the widespread dysfunctions in the agency, particularly those relating to VOA.
This reporting revealed the sad fact that VOA failed to seize opportunities to become an online destination of choice, while rampant mismanagement, notably in its Central News Division, accelerated the organization’s decline.
He should come in with the intention of removing or moving key individuals, (assisting former VOA director), who were responsible for damage to the news product.
A smart move would be for Lansing to meet with reporters who fled the organization in recent years, whether or not they supported or opposed H.R. 4490 and the current H.R. 2323 on the Hill.”

Ability to Fire and Hire

One former high-level BBG official with years of international relations, journalism, management, and strategy setting experience, observed in reaction to the John Lansing news that foreign policy experience is key to this appointment. But so is good management skill, this former BBG official added.

Another former executive noted that getting rid of majority of current managers is essential for making the agency healthy. But firing high-level federal employees is extremely difficult in the U.S. government setting. One former BBG member pointed out that some veteran IBB executives bragged about being immune to dismissal to the point of convincing some BBG members that this is true. Firing and/or transferring SES and GM-15 managers is extremely difficult, but not impossible.

Public Service and News Experience?

Excellent management experience or news experience in the private sector are not enough, various sources pointed out. A CEO without government and other public sector experience will be too dependent on the failed federal bureaucracy, they warned.

The problem is that the BBG Board continues to focus on the least important qualification: having been part of another “news” network, some contacts observed. This job does not need a senior retired newsperson, they argued. But that seems to be the BBG’s top priority, probably because Jeff Shell (and Walter Isaacson before him) knows only that world, they said. They anticipate that there may be a repeat of the Andy Lack experience. [The current head of NBC News who left his BBG job after a few weeks.]

What can the head of the Food Network possibly know about BBG audiences and their issues?, one person asked.

News reporting experience, however, especially if it included international news, would be useful, as many current VOA news reports do not meet VOA Charter standards for accuracy, balance and other professional standards. This was pointed out again in today’s Wall Street Journal opinion article about VOA’s Iran nuclear deal coverage, A Partisan Voice of America – Iranian dissidents watching the taxpayer-funded broadcaster miss much of the debate in the U.S. about the nuclear deal. By Sohrab Ahmari, The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2015

How Much Authority Will CEO Have?

How much authority will the new CEO actually have? was a frequent question. Some suspect that Andy Lack discovered that he had very little, that it was not a visible prestige job with daily visits to the White House, and that the BBG’s inability to plan or execute was going to sink him quickly.

What makes anyone think that the new guy will be any more content in these conditions? one person asked. Or is he just another rich retiree with time on his hands: a bad combination, without evidence of other mitigating qualities, was another question.

BBG Up Against the Wall

To many it appears to be a potential Hail Mary selection by BBG. The BBG is finally starting to react to accusations that they have degraded United States International Broadcasting (USIB), also now referred to as United States International Media (USIM) because of its multimedia program delivery.

These critics argue that not filling senior leadership positions has contributed significantly to the degradation of USIB/USIM: no leader at RFE/RL for more than a year and a half; no CEO for the BBG; no director of VOA; and a series of “interim” leadership combinations that have all failed, they point out.

The inability to mount a rapid and stout opposition to Putin is also being noticed. This failing record is starting to bite them, therefore the rush to get a former executive in charge of the Food Network and other U.S. lifestyle media despite his apparent shortage of necessary credentials, a well-connected Washington-based expert said. The BBG needs to be seen to be doing something, one critic observed.

Outside Candidate Good

One of the fiercest critics of the BBG who comments for BBG Watch under the pen name “The Federalist” defended the strong possibility of an outside appointment rather than selecting someone already associated with the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

“Selecting an outside candidate to fill the CEO post is the right call for the BBG. There is no one inside the apparatus of US Government international broadcasting with the requisite skills and expertise or just as importantly has not become tainted by the agency’s abysmal record. Whoever takes the position comes to an organization in severe disarray. Worse, a new CEO will find a management structure which refuses to acknowledge its failures and take ownership of them. Equally, a new CEO will find elements of the workforce who are opposed to necessary corrective action. The new CEO must be empowered to act and not to accept these conditions.”

Outside Candidate Bad

At least one Voice of America (VOA) broadcaster who wants to remain anonymous told us of feeling sorry for André Mendes, the current interim CEO and director, assuming he is not selected as permanent CEO.

“Maybe now André will have a more complete understanding of why the VOA rank-and-file are so fed up. Here’s a guy who got rid of lots and lots of deadwood, worked his behind off, threw himself into the job wholeheartedly, listened to the employees, was available 24/7 via e-mail, had an open door policy, and actually gave a damn about this place.”

The writer assumes that André Mendes was or will be passed over in the CEO selection process.

“Welcome to the club, Andre. That’s how they roll around here. And that’s why VOA is always at the bottom of the survey.” [Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Employee Viewpoints Survey which measures employee morale and employees’ views of management]

Unlike some of the other IBB executives who have been around for years and are blamed for the agency’s decline and various crises and illegal practices, André Mendes is a relative newcomer.

Lack of Discipline and Disarray

Discipline at the BBG has plummeted even further, one outside observer noted. We and others in Washington knew of the Lansing appointment a few weeks ago and got it from several different parts of the BBG staff simultaneously. Who is in charge up there?, one person asked. It is definitely not the part-time Board or the interim management team. Individual IBB executives, some of whom have been around for many years and are responsible for ruining the agency, are still damaging the agency from their current positions, another outside observer noted.

Influence Peddling?

The new CEO will have to address the cesspool of possible influence peddling and other questionable activities. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) has identified a number of illegal contracting and personnel practices in the International Broadcasting Bureau, the Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio and TV Marti), all three being federal elements of the agency. There are also questions swirling around the L88 Group which manages the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) building in Prague.

The new CEO may have to deal with criminal corruption investigations. The BBG has known about various accusations of influence peddling and corruption within the agency for more than a year, but according to some it has not acted quickly and decisively. It has relied for investigating some of these problems on IBB officials who themselves had been responsible for past misdeeds and their lack of response to previous management crises within the agency.

Any new CEO needs to know what he or she is walking into, a former VOA journalist said. Whether John Lansing is ultimately the person who is given the job, approved for it and accepts it, questions ought to be asked about any serious candidate for this important public service position. Whoever the new CEO is, he or she will need maximum support from many quarters to succeed.