BBG Watch Commentary

When one hears of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is “defunct” or the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report that the BBG is “dysfunctional,” it is important to know that while presidentially appointed bipartisan BBG members may have allowed it to happen, those who brought United States international broadcasting to this sorry state are permanent bureaucrats working for the BBG’s administrative and technical arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). They are the ones to bear most of the blame for the crisis at the agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting and at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), one of its several entities.

If anything, members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (Hillary Clinton was an ex officio BBG member.) acted, albeit late, to solve the Radio Liberty crisis by forcing former RFE/RL president Steven Korn to resign (Korn claims he left on his own.) and appointing a distinguished journalist Kevin Klose to take his place.

The removal of Korn, who fired dozens of outstanding Radio Liberty journalists in Russia in a swift operation that involved using security guards (Korn claims all journalists resigned voluntarily and were treated with utmost respect.), would not have happened without having the presidentially appointed Board reasserting its authority over the IBB staff. This made IBB bureaucrats very angry. They failed to alert the Board to the growing crisis at RFE/RL and later tried to defend RFE/RL managers who ruined Radio Liberty’s effectiveness and reputation in Russia and in a few other countries, including Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Three recent articles in U.S. media make some of these point. They appeared in both liberal and conservative media outlets. U.S. international broadcasting has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

Just as BBG members began to take their duties seriously after some of the less engaged and absentee governors had resigned last year, IBB bureaucrats — the worst managers in the federal govrnment according to OPM surveys — have launched an unprecedented attack on the authority of the Board and on individual members who dared to question them. As some of these U.S. media articles explain, IBB executives did it in a typical Washington bureaucratic fashion by stealth and surrogate character assassination aimed at some of the most active and effective BBG members and media critics of IBB bureaucracy. It appears, however, that the bureaucrats have overreached and their attacks have backfired. They are being increasingly seen as the ones responsible for creating one of the greatest public relations and public diplomacy crises in the history of U.S. international broadcasting.

A Very Washington Scandal – By John O’Sullivan – The Corner – National Review Online, February 5, 2013

“This open attack on a board member was both unprecedented and against the convention of anonymity. It was also a transparent hit job. The passages attacking Ashe read as if they had been dictated by senior board bureaucrats who found Ashe a constant thorn in their side (by contrast Ashe is a hero to the rank-and-file broadcasters and their unions). It was plainly designed to force his resignation or at best to prevent his re-nomination to the board.

Still more extraordinary than this, however, was the kind of arguments used in the report to indict Ashe and the other governors. They were accused of such mortal sins as not following the five-year plan for USIB devised by the bureaucrats; exchanging harsh words in board discussions on policy; refusing to be bound by former majority decisions when they believed conditions had changed; demanding information (including about spending) which the bureaucrats thought should be above their station; and in general acting like political appointees who thought their job was to run a government agency sensibly and in the light of the latest information. In other words, as well as a hit job on Ashe, the report was also an attempt by the bureaucrats to extend their own power and influence over the board.” READ MORE

Static at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – Jackson Diehl – The Washington Post – February 3, 2013

“In September, Steven Korn, then president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, presided over the firings or resignations of more than 40 of Radio Liberty’s 100 staffers, including a number of veteran journalists, who were unceremoniously ejected from the Moscow office. As former supporters such as Mikhail Gorbachev and human rights icons Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Sergei Kovalyov loudly protested, a new strategy of focusing on the Internet and softer content bombed, leading to a big drop in audience.

The Radio Liberty fiasco appears on its way to a remedy, though the damage will be hard to undo. Korn resigned under pressure and was replaced last week by Kevin Klose, a former RFE/RL and National Public Radio chief whose dedication to its journalistic mission is unquestioned. An investigation by the broadcasting board into the Moscow operation is underway; probably an attempt will be made to get the radio back on the Russian FM dial through partnerships with local broadcasters.” READ MORE

Subdued by the tube – By Martha Bayles – The Boston Globe – January 20, 2013

“Recently, though, RFE-RL has come under attack, not only by authoritarian adversaries but also by supervisors in Washington. In June, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the nine-member bipartisan body overseeing all of the government’s non-military media, appointed a new management team led by a former CNN executive. Out went over 40 Russian-language journalists, including some of the country’s most respected political reporters, and in came proposals for soft news and infotainment that one Russian commentator likened to “in-flight magazines.”

This provoked an outcry loud enough to be heard in Washington, and a new interim president, Kevin Klose, was appointed this week. A veteran of RFE-RL and NPR, Klose promises to repair some of the damage. But what’s really needed is a major shift in the way Americans think about free speech and democracy.” READ MORE

The appointment of Kevin Klose to lead Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a more active and assertive BBG Board offer some hope for further reforms. But the IBB senior bureaucracy doesn’t like it. BBG Watch reported that in one of the most bizarre displays of Washington bureaucratic arrogance, The Washington Post‘s deputy editorial page editor and one of the newspaper’s most experienced foreign correspondents Jackson Diehl was immediately attacked in a private blog by an IBB staffer who is known to be close to some of his bosses.

The idea that an obscure IBB staffer would accuse Jackson Diehl, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2011 and recipient of the Overseas Press Association award for his coverage of the Solidarity movement’s struggle for democracy in Poland, of being easily deceived and “swallowing whole the story that was given to him” is nothing short of incredible and shows a true nature and quality of the IBB bureaucracy. By the way, Kevin Klose was for many years associated with The Washington Post and worked as the newspaper’s correspondent in Moscow before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As for IBB executives, they continue to withhold critical information from BBG members and refuse to carry out the Board’s orders with which they don’t agree, a well-informed source told BBG Watch. But BBG members are no longer taking it lying down. Rather than a CEO, who would become part of the bureaucracy, what the Board needs is a strong Chief of Staff who would enforce the Board’s decisions.

The Board should also work to abolish the International Broadcasting Bureau with its numerous high-paying positions and turn the combined BBG/IBB into a lean, non-bureaucratic agency which would be responsive directly to presidentially-appointed members and the U.S. Congress. U.S. taxpayers would save a lot of money and U.S. international broadcasting would emerge stronger and more effective without the bureaucrats who have made parts of it defunct and dysfunctional.

But it is also important to point out positive signs. The dysfunction at the IBB level is beginning to be addressed, or so we hope. Despite all odds and despite being micromanaged by IBB–the worst managers in the federal government–in many areas of the world U.S. international broadcasters and individual USIB journalists are doing a tremendous job of overcoming censorship and strengthening media freedom. They need all the support they can get from BBG members.