EXCLUSIVE BBG Watch Report With A Commentary

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international media outreach, had its public board meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, December 16, 2015.

Many internal and external critics say that some of BBG’s media entities lack proper leadership and are feeble in their response to propaganda from Russia and ISIS.

Jeff Shell
Jeff Shell

Chairman of the bipartisan BBG board, Jeff Shell, and BBG’s new CEO John Lansing say that they are making changes and have a reform plan, but they oppose a key provision of the bipartisan BBG reform bill, H.R. 2323. This provision would split the federal Voice of America (VOA) from the non-federal so-called “surrogate” media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). The bill also proposes forming two boards and having two CEOs of two different organizations to improve oversight and accountability. Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing are opposed to this idea. They want to keep one board and one CEO.

Critics and reformists worry that even the best CEO will not be able to control the BBG bureaucracy and that one oversight board for entities with different missions is inadequate. Members of the current board only work part-time and have other, full-time jobs. The agency is run largely by its bureaucracy which has been for years diverting money from programs, cutting programs and enlarging its own ranks. Critics believe the agency has been dysfunctional and unable to compete with Russia’s RT or to counter ISIS propaganda.

The independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) urged Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing to reconsider their opposition to the structural reform provision of the H.R. 2323 bill. The reform legislation was introduced this year by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). All Republican and Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the bill. It awaits further action in the House of Representatives.

CUSIB’s spokesperson, Joseph Noonan, also urged the BBG board to look into the case of former Radio Liberty Russian Service human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik who was dismissed by RFE/RL while at the same time being a target of vicious anti-Semitic attacks on her by ultra-nationalist supporters of President Putin for her previous human rights reporting work for Radio Liberty. Human rights leaders in Russia believe that Ms. Gorelik was treated unjustly by Radio Liberty’s management.

Chairman Shell, BBG member Matt Armstrong and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel discussed efforts to coordinate public diplomacy issues with the U.S. State Department. Some Voice of America English Newsroom employees are apprehensive and opposed to “countering violent extremism,” which in their view would be incompatible with journalistic credibility. Many of them, however, lack significant following on social media, while ISIS supporters have thousands of social media followers. The BBG board also viewed an impressive presentation from Radio Free Asia (RFA) on its surrogate news reporting work mostly in Asian countries lacking media freedom.

John Lansing
John Lansing

Voice of America employees remain concerned that new BBG CEO may be co-opted by the failed BBG bureaucracy. John Lansing was impressive in his demeanor but did not reveal any specific plans to deal with numerous management problems. Such plans may have been discussed by BBG Governors in private meetings. Some sources say that Mr. Lansing is working on a plan to shrink the BBG bureaucracy, but this information could not be confirmed tonight.

The RFA presentation included many examples of excellent journalism. Most observers agree that some BBG media entities are not “practically defunct” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2013. Some of the journalists at the BBG’s surrogate media outlets are doing an outstanding job despite difficult conditions and inadequate BBG support, as do some VOA services. In general, however, the Voice of America is in bad shape after years of mismanagement and poor support from the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

Some VOA employees are concerned that Mr. Lansing, who has excellent management qualifications from the private sector, lacks experience in government operations and will have to rely too much on BBG officials. These employees were alarmed that Mr. Lansing repeated the BBG management’s line on extremely poor employee morale at the agency. They are afraid that he may be co-opted by the BBG bureaucracy.

Supporters of H.R. 2323 include many former BBG members, former high-level U.S. diplomats and other experts in public diplomacy, foreign policy, journalism, and international media outreach.

Link to Video on YouTube.