BBG Watch Commentary

After a long delay, the Wilson Center posted the video of the roundtable discussion on U.S. global media which took place on February 12.

Expert panelists included Tom Dine, former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague; D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, executive vice president of the Northeast MAGLEV and former governor of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors; A. Ross Johnson, Wilson Center senior scholar; R. Eugene Parta, retired director of audience research and program evaluation at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College and former director of Voice of America.

John Milewski, host of the Wilson Center’s Dialogue Radio & Television, chaired the event.

A paper by Ross Johnson and Eugene Parta,  “A 21st  Century Vision for U.S. Global Media,” was used as a starting point for the discussion.

Former RFE/RL president Tom Dine strongly disagreed with their conclusion that U.S. international broadcasting entities should be merged into a single non-governmental structure. Dine suggested that U.S. international broadcasting needs a national security-oriented media freedom vision and a budget of not less than $2 billion to be even competitive with Al Jazeera. He opposed centralization and defended broadcasting by independent entities.

Tom Dine was the only panelist who offered a realistic solution to obtaining more funding for U.S. international broadcasting: Congress and American taxpayers have to be persuaded that U.S. international broadcasting is in America’s interest. The other panelists did not disagree with this conclusion, but they failed to support any of the arguments that could persuade the U.S. Congress to provide more money. They focused instead on either reforming the current structure or on changing it by combining and reducing the number of media services rather than expanding programs.

Tom Dine called for articulating a clear vision of U.S. international broadcasting before even discussing on how it should be structured. The other panelists, however, could not agree on what that vision should be. While Dine was not specific, he clearly sees U.S. international broadcasting as an important U.S. national security asset and believes that individual entities, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio and TV Marti), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV) are far more able to produce effective programs, based on their specialized knowledge and commitment to a particular audience, than any kind of central bureaucracy, either federal or private, setting programming policies, controlling resources and telling these entities what to do.

The U.S. Congress and American taxpayers need to hear what it is that international broadcasting is doing for America. But several simple and effective messages that could accomplish this goal were shut down by various panelists.

Except for Tom Dine, none of the participants was able to suggest anything other than providing news and information as the role of U.S. international broadcasting.

Should U.S. international broadcasting be about winning hearts and minds?

The answer was “No.”

D. JEFFREY HIRSCHBERG: “The answer is ‘No.’ “The U.S. international broadcasting does not do messaging. Period. It’s not in the mission of any of the broadcast entities. … These organizations just don’t do messaging. They are providing solid journalism in the American tradition.”

Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher College and former director of Voice of America, objected to a mission defined by national security.

JOHN MILEWSKI: “Are you talking about it as being treated almost as a matter of national security?”

SANFORD UNGAR: “Well, I worry about calling it national security.”

TOM DINE: “That’s soft power. This is soft power.”

SANDFORD UNGAR: “I worry about where that leads us.”

JOHN MILEWSKI: “But security can be achieved through soft power as well.”

SANDFORD UNGAR: “Well, soft power. But I worry about calling it national security because then all sorts of people take over, and I’m concerned about that.”

JOHN MILEWSKI: “This program is brought to you by the Department of Homeland Security.”

SANDFORD UNGAR: “Right. But a kind of consensus that it is really important that American society has a role in this international dialogue,  that there be some news presented in all these various forms form an open, free, democratic, honest perspective. I think if some funding could be made available then we could figure it out. But you can’t have to fight for it every week, every month, every year in order to do this.”

The panelists also could not agree on the future structure of U.S. international broadcasting  or on the proper role of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. They could not even agree on the meaning of “telling America’s story.” Some said it would be seen as propaganda.

“I can get as dewy-eyed as anybody about telling America’s story and really be sincere about it, my own family’s story, etc. But that’s not the job of an international broadcaster,” said former VOA director Sanford Ungar.

TOM DINE: “I start with the following. There has to be a commitment by the United States Government, by the Government, to be a leader on behalf of American interest. From that, I go directly to what counts, which is money. And we spent pittance on this–to use the phrase again–the leaver, the tool of foreign policy. If it’s not two billion dollars, then we can’t even keep up with Al Jazeera. Who’s bullshitting whom here? Money is what counts and the money behind the idea, the ideas. And so, this has always been a failure, I believe, in U.S. efforts to communicate abroad. And this includes high technology. It also includes first-class personnel. … Second, the talent on the Board (BBG). And now I’m being general, because I don’t want to get into it. If you don’t have the Chairman of the Board whose committed to making this the best that can possibly be made in the year 2013, 2020 and whatever, then forget it. Forget it, in my experience. Talent in the entities, again giving David (Ensor) what he needs. And finally, I’m a believer in the entities. I’m not a believer in a central place. And that gets back to the paper (Johnson-Parta Proposal). I’m not for stagnation, I’m not for centralization, I’m not for bureaucracy, I’m not for mediocracy, and I’m not for the haphazard broadcasting. But I am in favor of the entities, living or dying on their planning and on their products.”

On the question of reorganizing the BBG, panelists could not agree whether it would be better to have a full time BBG chairman or a CEO, or whether the BBG should be abolished altogether. They could not agree whether U.S. international broadcasting should be de-federalized, as proposed by Johnson and Parta, left as it is under the BBG, or restructured in some other way. The federal elements within USIB are: the BBG, its bureaucratic operation, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the Voice of America, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks are private, 501(c)3 grantee entities, which get all of their funding from Congress through the BBG and are increasingly controlled by the agency’s bureaucracy in Washington.

What was obvious from the low attendance at the Wilson Center panel discussion was that official Washington is not paying much attention to U.S. international broadcasting–an observation made by some of the panelists. If they and the current BBG Board want to reverse this sad state of affairs, we suggest that they should listen to what Time Dine had to say: articulate a convincing vision, have a high profile BBG chairman and BBG members, ask Congress for at least three times as much money as the BBG is getting now, shrink the central bureaucracy, and allow all broadcasting entities to specialize in targeting their audiences and to maintain their independence.

Link to Video.

Some of the panelists suggested that BBG budgets have been steadily declining in recent years, which is not true. (They may decline in the future as a result of the sequester and if Congress does not see a plan from the BBG to deal with the mismanagement problem at the International Broadcasting Bureau.)

BBG budgets have in fact grown almost every year since 2008, but they were grossly mismanaged by the IBB bureaucracy. Despite promises from IBB bureaucrats, BBG’s global audience has not grown as they kept receiving bigger and bigger appropriations. During those years, IBB has vastly expanded its bureaucracy while cutting or proposing to cut numerous programs. BBG’s global audience in 2012 is still the same (actually it is smaller) as it was in 2008.