BBG Watch Commentary

As far as we know, Secretary of State John Kerry has not yet designated anyone to represent him and vote at formal Board meetings of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, which includes media outlets such as Voice of America (VOA).

The Secretary of State is an ex-officio member of the nine-person, bipartisan Board, but no Secretary of State has ever attended any formal BBG Board meetings, which in itself is highly unfortunate considering that the agency has been badly managed in recent years.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the agency “defunct,” yet she herself had not attended any BBG Board meetings, although she did have a get-acquainted meeting with other BBG members.

The Secretary of State usually appoints a high-level State Department official to attend BBG meetings. Former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine represented Hillary Clinton and briefly John Kerry. She had left her post last July. No one has been appointed since her departure to represent Secretary Kerry at BBG meetings, although a lower-ranking State Department official usually attends these meetings and takes notes.

The absence of a formal State Department representative at meetings of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is very unfortunate for several reasons and it has been made worse by the current crisis over Syria.

The same management team that Secretary Clinton blamed for making the agency “defunct” is still in charge of running the BBG on a day-to-day basis. The bipartisan Board, which includes Secretary Kerry, did not have a quorum until very recently. The Board is still short of three members.

While some of of the former and current BBG members have tried to get control over the bureaucracy, which is centered within the top ranks of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America, they have been unable to force significant management reforms due to strong bureaucratic resistance. IBB’s Director is Richard Lobo, a presidential appointee. Jeff Trimble is his deputy.

In addition to two experienced and effective members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, the Board has the new highly capable Chairman, Jeff Shell, and two new members, Matt Armstrong and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, both experienced in public diplomacy issues. Having someone representing the Secretary of State at BBG meetings would help Shell and other Board members to deal more effectively with the IBB/VOA bureaucracy at this critical time.

The IBB/VOA management team has to be watched very carefully. These executives have gotten the agency in deep trouble before because of the lack of sufficient oversight from weak BBG Boards. The possible war with Syria makes good oversight a national necessity.

Some of the IBB executives were partly responsible for causing and not responding to a major public diplomacy disaster in Russia when the previous management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) fired dozens of human rights reporters. The then Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine worked together with then BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe and with BBG members Susan McCue and Michael Meehan to address and resolve the crisis at RFE/RL after IBB executives had failed to take any action.

Many suspect that Ambassador Ashe’s departure from the Board last month at the request of the White House was a result of a bureaucratic intrigue instigated by IBB officials unhappy with his demands for accountability and transparency. At the time his departure was requested, Ambassador Ashe was the only Republican member on the BBG Board. The Board still lacks two Republican members. Ambassador Ashe was the senior Republican member who worked closely with his Democratic colleagues.

Having a representative of Secretary Kerry at BBG meetings could prevent future disasters that IBB/VOA management is fully capable of creating. It could also help Chairman Shell and other current Board members to force major management reforms at the federal agency.

A representative of Secretary Kerry could, for example, could ask tough questions why Voice of America, led by Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch, is late in reporting on major news developments or fails to report on some altogether, including news relating to the State Department and the Secretary of State. On one of such Syria-related news stories, Russia’s state-supported international broadcaster Russia Today got recently over 13,000 Facebook “Likes,” while VOA only managed to get less than a dozen.

A State Department representative could also help the BBG with such issues as staff security abroad and the search for the Alhurra correspondent missing in Syria.

He or she could also question Ensor and Redisch about their ill-conceived idea to send a VOA correspondent to Syria at this time, possibly risking the person’s life and opening the United States Government to blackmail from the Syrian Government or Syrian anti-government extremists.

A State Department official could also tell top agency bureaucrats in no uncertain terms not to embarrass the United States Government by refusing to answer questions from American reporters or attempting to punish American reporters by demanding that their press credentials be revoked by the UN.

As we pointed out, the BBG Board can’t be certain what these officials might do next to embarrass the agency and the United States Government. These executives need to be carefully watched. Having a high-level State Department official join the BBG Board during all future meetings would be very helpful, especially since the United States might be going to war with Syria. Secretary Kerry should also make an effort to attend BBG meetings himself from time to time.

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