VOA building in Washington, D.C.
VOA building in Washington, D.C.
by The Federalist

As said before, this alleged “plan” isn’t new. It’s recycled and repackaged a bit, but the goals are the same, the primary one being eliminating US international broadcasting. Whatever is left will be something else, but it won’t be a broadcasting entity. Perhaps it will be a mediocre Internet website, blocked in countries where there is still a substantial radio audience (as in China) and otherwise lost in the cacophony of cyberspace. And that’s on a good day, when the BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors) websites aren’t being attacked, hacked and otherwise neutralized.

As expected, the BBG has hired a consulting firm to try to map the way for implementing this “plan,” which we see as more of an idea rather than an actual plan with timelines and costs mapped out. It needs a contractor because agency officials can’t get their arms around what they are trying to pull off. That is not a good sign right from the get-go.

How much is this “plan” going to cost? This is the priority question that needs to be asked and to be responded to by the BBG in detail. To this point, what the BBG is doing is masking specifics and asking for a blank check from the Congress and the American taxpayer. The BBG and the IBB salesmen promoting this plan are long on big ideas but short on details – the kind of details needed for the Congress and the American people to decide if the expenditure is worth it.

The BBG talks about a five-year window for this ambiguous “plan” to be rolled out, complete and running. This seems like strangely familiar territory. Another government entity believed in five-year plans: the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union isn’t around anymore. Maybe that should tell the BBG something. But nevertheless, we now have the mindset of the Kremlin on C Street: the Cohen Building, along with a bureaucracy acting not unlike the Politburo. Quite a picture.

Let’s put funding in an important context:

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) half of American families do not make enough income to file income taxes.


That’s puts an enormous burden on the other half.

At the same time, the mortgage and foreclosure crises continue to have a crippling effect on many American families.

Meanwhile, “Occupy Wall Street” protests have mushroomed across the country protesting financial practices, unemployment and what is seen as corporate greed. We won’t put a value judgment on the rightness or the wrongness of the protests. However, it is clearly evident that there is a substantial body of discontent and people have mobilized to express it.

On top of that there is the continuing problem with debt, both that carried by the US Government and personal debt on the part of individual Americans.

In short, the United States is in the midst of a very serious, multi-dimensional problem, the kind can be self-perpetuating, the kind that doesn’t go away overnight and the kind that requires some serious reprogramming of how the US Government goes about spending money.

With a problem of this size and scope, it is incumbent upon the Congress to demand an accounting by the BBG as to the price tag of its “new” strategic plan. And that’s the rub for the BBG. It isn’t used to being held accountable for the way it goes about spending public funds. It has gotten into the very bad habit of seeing the Congress (and by extension, the American taxpayer) as an ATM machine.

Lack of accountability and oversight invites waste, fraud and abuse. It is all too easy to hide failures and mistakes in increased funding. It is all too easy to plead for a few more millions to make things right or, in the BBG dreamscape, to make some kind of extraordinary breakthrough, as in the claim to create a “global news network.” In the past these outrageous claims have not been challenged. Worse, the agency hasn’t been held to timelines and price tags in order to allow Congress and American taxpayers to decide if the cost is worth the expense and if the cost is actually accomplishing something substantive.

Global news networks already exist. In head-to-head comparisons, the BBG can’t compete. The best example is in the Arab and Muslim world where al-Jazeera is the recognized leader. The BBG effort, al-Hurra, is not even in al-Jazeera’s rear view mirror.

Outside the Cohen Building, the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans don’t know about the BBG and US international broadcasting. And they don’t care. They have other priorities that cut deeply into their day-to-day, things like food, clothing and shelter, the rising costs of everything, their personal debt and so forth.

To these same Americans, their idea of effective “public diplomacy” is an unmanned drone dropping a Hellfire missile on terrorists in remote locations, disrupting terrorist planning and removing key leadership cadre. It also helps to salve over the wounds many Americans still feel from watching commercial airliners being flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and people jumping to their deaths on September 11, 2001. It may have been ten years ago, but for many, it still feels like yesterday.

Mr. Ensor, the new VOA director, equated the cost of all US international broadcasting to the price of one advanced fighter aircraft. Symbolically, he said it represents a “cheap date.” However, Americans know the value of that fighter aircraft (or the drone with the Hellfire missile) and its purpose in defending American citizens, our national interests and the safety of the nation. It is money well spent, particularly when seen effectively carrying out its stated purpose. People flock to air shows all over the country to see these aircraft up close and personal. They can put their hands on it, see it and clearly know what it does.

These same Americans don’t flock to the Cohen Building in big numbers.

In Mr. Ensor’s analogy, even a “cheap date” has to have some intrinsic value. The actions of the BBG over the last ten years and those projected outward for the next five of their Soviet-style five-year plan don’t demonstrate value. If anything, the Board and its IBB apparatchiks have devalued US international broadcasting with oversized claims that don’t have a basis in reality. Remember, Secretary of State Clinton pointedly remarked in congressional testimony, “We are losing the information war.” The agency responsible for losing the information war is the BBG. And there is your devalued “cheap date.”

Call it a “cheap date” or a “new” strategic plan, in either case, the result is the same:

We lose.

By the way, to get the “new” plan from its idea stage to reality could cost over $1-million dollars just in consulting fees alone if the contract with the consultant goes all the way and the BBG doesn’t cut it off. Procedurally, this sometimes happens when a consultant comes up with a different view of reality than that of the BBG.

The Federalist
October 23, 2011