BBG Watch Commentary

BBG member Victor Ashe
Victor Ashe

The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) only Republican board member, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, may be paying a political price for exposing mismanagement at the federal agency and trying to save U.S. news broadcasts to Russia and China from cuts and fluff journalism. The White House wants to remove Ashe from the bipartisan BBG board, even though he is currently its only Republican member (there should be four). Even with Ashe, the board still lacks a quorum because its interim presiding governor fails to attend meetings. There are also still two unfilled Republican vacancies.

There is no reasonable explanation for this attempt to remove Ashe. He is the only BBG governor with a perfect attendance record at board meetings. He takes his job of protecting U.S. interests and U.S. taxpayers’ money seriously. Ashe is greatly admired by the agency’s rank and file journalists and other federal and non-federal employees and enjoys strong support from the BBG employee union for his efforts to improve working conditions and employee morale.

While the decision to replace Ashe was announced by the White House, there is strong speculation that a push for it originated within the BBG’s bureaucratic arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). Ashe has played a leading role in pushing for reforms at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) after the previous management fired dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia and alienated Russian human rights and democracy leaders as well as online and radio audience.

IBB executives in Washington did nothing to alert BBG members to the Radio Liberty crisis in Russia and may have participated in at least some of the disastrous decisions of the previous RFE/RL management. They were reported to be extremely displeased with Ashe’s leadership on the Radio Liberty issue. This raised questions whether IBB director Richard Lobo had anything to do with reported attempts to undermine Ashe’s position on the board. Lobo has connections to the White House because of his wife’s political fund raising activities for President Obama.

BBG’s interim presiding governor Michael Lynton is also reported to have similar connections to the White House. He has missed every BBG board meeting since January 2013, thus making the agency basically ungovernable because of the lack of quorum. There is speculation that his absence may have been related to his displeasure over how Ashe and two Democratic BBG members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, dealt with the crisis at RFE/RL in a bipartisan effort to restore the station’s reputation among pro-democracy and pro-human rights Russians. Michael Lynton is CEO of Sony Entertainment, Inc. The company is reported to have business interests in Russia.

There is also speculation that behind Lynton’s non-participation in recent BBG meetings may have been a desire to avoid questions being raised about reconciling his company’s business interests with his public duties as a BBG member. A BBG member is likely to be required to take actions that may annoy repressive governments which control access to doing business in countries like Russia and China.

Ashe has been a champion of transparency and good management. As IBB is consistently rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys as being one of the worst-managed agencies in the federal government with the lowest employee morale, Ashe’s efforts to make its bureaucrats accountable made him unpopular among top officials with links to the White House.

Ashe may now be paying a political price for trying to make sure that U.S. taxpayers’ money was being well spent on U.S. international broadcasting to advance media freedom, public diplomacy and national security interests with effective news programs for foreign audiences.

Depending on how this plays out, the attempt to remove Victor Ashe from the U.S. broadcasting board may be an interesting lesson in American democracy for foreigners who rely on news programs managed by BBG. Ashe will in any case remain a hero to those Radio Liberty journalists in Putin’s Russia who were unjustly fired last year and who may now get their old jobs back thanks to his efforts.