BBG Watch Commentary
Sources told BBG Watch that President Obama’s FY2014 budget proposal is likely to call for a single government information czar, a CEO appointed by the federal agency Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to oversee all U.S. international broadcasting (USIB) operations, including the so-called surrogate broadcasters: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East broadcasting Networks (MBN).
The position of the presidentially-appointed and Senate confirmed director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), currently held by Richard Lobo, is expected to be abolished, sources told BBG Watch. IBB has been rated in OPM employee surveys as having the worst managers in the entire federal government. Its OPM management rating has gotten worse under Director Lobo. He has not been effective in carrying out the Board’s directives and some BBG members contribute to the problem by failing to attend board meetings and do not provide sufficient direction and oversight, sources told BBG Watch. The Board does not have a chief of staff who could monitor the work of the IBB executive staff.
A single CEO with authority over the Voice of America (VOA), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) and the surrogate broadcasters would be in conflict with the current U.S. legislation placing surrogate broadcasters only under the authority of the BBG Board and providing them with considerable administrative and programming autonomy. The current legislation would have to be modified to allow the CEO to manage surrogate broadcasters.
It is not clear what will happen to the single CEO proposal for USIB if Congress, as in previous years, does not pass the President’s FY2014 budget.
The proposal for a single CEO is strongly favored by the agency’s executive staff, centered at the International Broadcasting Bureau, which wants greater central control over surrogate broadcasters and all other USIB operations.
Surrogate broadcasters enjoyed historically a high level of autonomy and independence with the support of Congress. Their role was to serve as a substitute for domestic media in countries practicing censorship and to provide local journalists, political leaders, and intellectuals with a media outlet to counter government censorship and propaganda. Washington-based Voice of America’s role was to serve as a source of both international and major country and region-specific news, but also to provide information about the United States and U.S. policies, especially as they relate to specific countries to which VOA directs its programs.
Supporters of a single CEO also favor combining programming content from VOA and surrogate broadcasters and want to distribute it both abroad and in the United States. Their recent efforts to impose a central programming plan at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, with the support of former RFE/RL president Steven Korn, have resulted in strong protests from leading Russian democratic leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva. The protests against the firing of dozens of experienced journalists and programming changes de-emphasizing human rights reporting have led to Steven Korn’s resignation and the appointment of Kevin Klose as the new acting RFE/RL chief executive.
Critics fear that a single CEO who is not subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate may try to undermine surrogate broadcasting and continue to expand central bureaucracy at the expense of foreign-language programming in support of media freedom and human rights.
One former U.S. international broadcasting executive told BBG Watch that a large single bureaucracy in Washington in charge of surrogate broadcasters would be “a disaster for specialized surrogate programs to countries without free media but a bonanza for former government officials, consultants, and contractors looking for jobs that don’t require expert knowledge of foreign languages and cultures.”
“Radio Liberty’s implosion in Russia should be a warning of what happens when Washington bureaucrats tell managers with no knowledge of surrogate broadcasting what to do.” A former executive added that the Voice of America will be in an equal danger of losing its identity and effectiveness.
“Congress should never allow any administration to appoint an information czar without subjecting that person to a confirmation process, especially since the Broadcasting Board of Governors can now place its news and information programs on media outlets in the United States,” a former government executive said.
The current IBB bureaucracy has already been actively pursuing the strategy of eliminating programs and increasing their own ranks for several years. The BBG’s organizational chart shows 16 non-programming offices under the International Bureau, some of them created recently while foreign-languages programs and programming jobs were being eliminated by IBB executive staff. Also, despite efforts by IBB’s strategic planners, program evaluators and marketing specialists to push broadcasters to move from hard-hitting political journalism to supposedly more popular soft features for the web and social media, BBG’s global reach has remained stagnant at 175 million since 2008, even with increased budget allocations.