BBG Watch Commentary

Most people know or suspect that major business deals for U.S. companies, especially media deals, in countries like Russia or China, cannot happen without government approval or at least without support from individuals who are well connected to the government structures.

These governments do not like media freedom. They practice media censorship. They are easily offended by anyone calling for media freedom. The Chinese government blocks independent news websites and imprisons dissidents and journalists who dare to criticize the one-party rule. Investigative journalists in Russia have been murdered and their murderers are almost never caught. President Putin tightly controls all major television networks and much of the rest of Russian media.

In this kind of environment, is it possible for American media executives who do business in China and Russia and also to serve on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which is in charge of Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media entities that try to deliver uncensored news to these countries?

Would executives or owners of companies which do business in Putin’s Russia also vigorously support U.S. news broadcasting that President Putin finds highly objectionable and tries to silence in his country through administrative measures and through intimidation by the secret police?

Could such BBG Governors or any future administrators speak out publicly and strongly at every opportunity against censorship in Russia and China and later travel to these countries or send their subordinates to negotiate and sign business deals that depend on the support from the government, its officials or close associates of these officials?

Would it be possible to promote free media in China and Russia and to serve interests of their company’s shareholders?

Would BBG members who fall into this category support expanding hard-hitting journalism exposing government corruption in these countries or would they prefer a less confrontational style of reporting?

Would they justify to themselves that more soft journalism by Voice of America, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is actually better and more productive because governments might tolerate it and even allow local media placement? That’s what their private companies might do — an approach perfectly legal, understandable, profitable and in the long run perhaps even good for eventually expanding media freedom if we are talking about a private, for profit business and not a taxpayer-funded media freedom broadcaster.

It seems to us that doing this kind of business in Russia depends on not annoying Mr. Putin and in China on not annoying the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

But is this an approach the Broadcasting Board of Governors should take?

A few former BBG members apparently had been engaged in this or similar kind of private business activities in countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia while serving on the BBG board.

We do not doubt that they are all honorable men of great personal integrity who wanted what’s best for America. But the question is what kind of leadership arrangement for U.S. international broadcasting would serve America best.

A Sony Entertainment, Inc. biography of Michael Lynton, who recently resigned from being a BBG member and Interim Presiding Governor, has the following information:

“Sony Pictures Television (SPT) produces television programming for multiple platforms in the U.S. and around the world. Among the unit’s popular and award-winning programs in the U.S. are Breaking Bad, Justified, and Happy Endings, reality series like The Shark Tank, The Sing-Off and Re-Modeled, as well as top-ranked game shows and daytime dramas, including Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, The Young and the Restless and Days of our Lives. Launched with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, The Dr. Oz Show is one of the most popular syndicated programs in America. The Dr. Oz format has also been exported to Russia, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Colombia, Chile, Brazil and China (where for the first time a Hollywood studio is producing a talk show for Chinese television). Internationally, the studio’s television channel network includes 124 channel feeds in 159 countries reaching more than 800 million households worldwide. SPT also operates Crackle, which is one of the top online video networks in the U.S. and expanding internationally.”

At their meeting on June 19, the Broadcasting Board of Governors “recognized former Presiding Governor Michael Lynton for his time with the BBG, crediting him for his contributions and accomplishments during his tenure.”

He joined the board on July 2, 2010.

During Lynton’s tenure on the BBG board, there were attempts to end Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to China, which some board members and BBG executive staff at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) justified as a move toward expansion of digital media that would enhance effectiveness of BBG’s outreach. There was also an attempt to end Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Tibet, a move also presented as designed to improve effectiveness and reach.

These proposals were widely criticized by political dissidents, human rights activists and NGOs as weakening media freedom. They were rejected in Congress and were not implemented.

But some BBG members also supported the firing last September of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists working in Putin’s Russia. The former RFE/RL management, which Mr. Lynton publicly endorsed in an open BBG meting, justified this move as a cost-saving measure and argued that the journalists were not needed and were not suitable for doing digital media. These managers were eventually replaced due to efforts by BBG Governors: Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Lynton. Some of the fired journalists, almost all of whom were actually digital media experts, were rehired.

Before resigning in late May, Mr. Lynton had missed all BBG open meetings since December 2012.

After Radio Liberty journalists were fired in Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev issued a statement that “Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in this context. In times of severe censorship Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL Russian Service) made calls for democratization and glasnost a tenor of its programmes. It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about-turn.”

Leading Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva was even more blunt in saying that “the KGB could not harm the image of the radio and the United States in Russia as did U.S. managers.” Mr. Lynton had expressed admiration for professional accomplishments of these managers even after this kind of criticism.

Statements from Gorbachev and Alexeeva seemed to confirm the conclusion of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. broadcasting agency was “defunct.”

It is therefore no surprise that U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wants hold a hearing, Wednesday, June 26, on reforming the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Hearing: Broadcasting Board of Governors: An Agency “Defunct” 2172 House Rayburn Office Building Washington, DC 20515 | Jun 26, 2013 10:00am.

In commenting on the hearing, Rep. Royce noted that “‘tinkering’ and ‘band-aid’ solutions are not an option, because the stakes are too great” in how America’s story is told to the world and how news is delivered to societies living under press censorship.

“International broadcasting is a key tool of U.S. diplomacy. Unfortunately, it’s broken. As Secretary Clinton rightly pointed out earlier this year, ‘the BBG is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.’ It is time to take a hard look at the BBG and ask if our resources, nearly $750 million annually, are being spent wisely – are we getting what we need from these broadcasting efforts? We aren’t, and it is time for broad reforms; ‘tinkering’ and ‘band-aid’ solutions are not an option, because the stakes are too great.”

Mr. Lynton is not scheduled or expected to testify, but a question whether future BBG members, or executives of any future body in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, should be allowed to do private business in countries like China and Russia is definitely worth asking during the Congressional hearing on Wednesday.

One of the witnesses scheduled to testify, The Honorable D. Jeff Hirschberg, Chairman, The Northeast Maglev, LLC, who is a former Governor of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was quoted in a November 12, 2003 Los Angeles Times article that Russia is a country of great business opportunities:

“There is enormous opportunity at the entrepreneurial level,” says Jeffrey Hirschberg, an attorney with the Washington firm of Howrey Simon Arnold & White, who is a director of the U.S.-Russia Investment Fund, a decade-old government-backed venture that has poured $300 million into small to medium-sized companies there.

Among the fund’s accomplishments: resuscitating St. Petersburg’s Lomonosov Porcelain Plant, putting the business on a sound footing and allowing it to sell shares to the public last year in a modern Russian stock market. The fund also has revived a bottled water firm, a bank, a high-tech logistics firm and a company that has brought supermarkets to the middle Volga region.

Next up, says Hirschberg: a privately run, $300-million fund. “That,” he says, “indicates that the Russian economy is reaching a new maturity.”

D. Jeffrey Hirschberg was appointed to the Broadcasting Board Of Governors in 2002 and he might be a good person to ask how doing business in Russia can be reconciled with being a BBG member while the Russian authorities, specifically the FSB secret police, started to prevent private Russian radio stations from rebroadcasting Voice of America and Radio Liberty news programs. If Mr. Hirschberg discussed VOA and Radio Liberty with his business contacts in Russia or with Russian officials, it might be interesting to know what they had told him.

Another scheduled witness at Chairman Royce’s hearing, The Honorable S. Enders Wimbush, Executive Director for Strategy & Development, National Bureau of Asian Research and also a former Governor of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is not believed to have done private business in Russia or China. He did, however, write a significant letter to The Washington Times in defense of ending Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to China. Thse broadcasts were not terminated due to strong opposition in Congress.

Wimbush argued that moving resources from VOA broadcasting, which he claimed had almost no audience on shortwave radio in China, to develop stronger Internet presence, made good strategic sense. S. ENDERS WIMBUSH’s LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF THE WASHINGTON TIMES Ending VOA China presence politically smart.

Critics pointed out that the Chinese government effectively censors and blocks VOA Chinese news websites.  Wimbush supported research on circumventing Internet censorship. But very few individuals can make safe use of this technology. Blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng said that he had listened secretly to VOA Mandarin shortwave radio broadcasts even while in prison. Media freedom advocates, including the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) were urging the BBG not to eliminate Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to China and other nations without free media while calling at the same time for using these broadcasts and the talents of experienced news journalists to expand web and social media presence.

Another witness to testify before Chairman Royce’s committee, The Honorable James K. Glassman, Founding Executive Director, George W. Bush Institute, is a former Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and Former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He is also not believed to have done private business in Russia, but as BBG chairman in 2008, he voted to end all Voice of America Russian radio and television broadcasts. The cut was made just days before Russia invaded and occupied part the territory of the Republic of Georgia. Mr. Glassman and Mr. Hirschberg were reportedly among BBG members who refused to resume VOA radio and satellite television to Russia or to the war-zone in Georgia. Their reported argument was that VOA would do much better as an Internet-only news provider.

But exactly the opposite happened. As in the case of RFE/RL in 2012, the transition was used to get rid of experienced journalists and to cancel their programs focused on human rights issues and corruption. VOA no longer had high quality and balanced news content to fill its website. An independent Russian scholar hired later by the BBG to do a study of new media and the VOA Russian website concluded that it had a “pro-Putin bias.” IBB staff may have withheld the study from BBG members.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday offers a good opportunity to ask questions not only whether serving on the BBG and doing private business in Russia and China is a good idea but also whether the executive staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau should be replaced for failing to expand social media outreach to compete with such broadcasters like Russia Today and Al Jazeera while greatly undermining VOA’s news gathering capabilities.

Should BBG members with business interests in Russia and China excuse themselves from voting as to whether BBG journalists preparing news programs to these countries be fired?

Should a BBG member conduct negotiations with business partners in Russia with possible links to the Kremlin on one day and the next day have a meeting with Russian officials about U.S. international broadcasting?

Another question that should be asked is whether promises made by some BBG members and IBB executives that ending radio and television broadcasts and firing of older but experienced journalists would lead to great advancements in social media outreach were actually borne out by what happened afterward.

It appears that exactly the opposite happened. Russia Today and Al Jazeera beat Voice of America in every social media use and engagement statistic many times over. VOA no longer has a capacity for on the ground news coverage of major international news, such as anti-government protests in Turkey. Even news reports on Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements on Edward Snowden from Russia Today appear on the web faster and get thousands of Facebook “Likes” and hundreds of comments, while posting of a VOA English news report on Facebook is delayed gets very little attention.

On June 24, VOA posted to YouTube a report on the interview with Secretary Kerry, Kerry: ‘Lives will be Lost’ Due to Snowden’s Betrayal. It had 301 views after 19 hours and 6 comments.

When Russia Today video posted to YouTube, Chase Mode: US set to catch Snowden amid biggest hunt for whistleblowers, the story had 12,615 views and 674 comments within several hours.

The statistics by how much Russia Today beats VOA English News in social media use are staggering.

Russia Today English has 920,983 YouTube subscribers and 1,012,986,279 views (over one billion); Voice of America English has only 23,763 YouTube subscribers and 26,948,148 views. Both organizations joined YouTube within one year of one another, March 2007 for Russia Today, and March 2008 for VOA.

Facebook scores are also vastly in favor of Russia Today English over Voice of America English. Russia Today has 949,299 total “Likes” to VOA’s 355,093.

Russia Today and Al Jazeera beat VOA English many times over not just on the Snowden story coverage. The VOA English News Division and its English broadcasts have been decimated to such a degree by controversial managers of the International Broadcasting Bureau — the administrative arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the board and the agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting — that they are incapable of covering most news in a timely manner. IBB executives have been rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey as being the worst managers in the federal government.

But even when VOA should and could cover a major international news story, such as the anti-government protests in Turkey, its executives decided not to send any staff reporters or video journalists to Istanbul in early June. VOA Director David Ensor defended this decision as being responsible and VOA’s coverage as balanced. Critics said that VOA’s English-language coverage of Turkish protests was not balanced because news writers in Washington lacked direct access to the demonstrators and posted instead news wire service reports which tended to focus more on statements from Prime Minister Erdogan. A BBG Watch review of VOA English coverage of Turkey in early June showed this to be true.

Russia Today had its own reporters on the ground in Turkey and posted numerous video reports on YouTube in early June. One of them had over 150,000 views while a VOA English video report filed from Washington at about the same time had only 300 views.