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International Broadcasting: The Nuclear Option

Jun 1, 2016


If it wasn’t inevitable, the threat was clearly lurking on the horizon. And now, legislation that would eliminate the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – the group of political appointees who oversee U.S. international broadcasting – and de-federalize the Voice of America (VOA) has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Blowing up the Board and converting the 74-year-old VOA into a non-governmental entity, the kind of drastic reform which one congressional aide reportedly described as “the nuclear option,” is now on the table.

The proposal, which came in an amendment to the annual defense spending authorization bill, was written by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX). While the chances of it becoming law, at least in its present form, are probably slim, it’s still a serious sign of just how unhappy some are in Congress with the Voice of America and the Board that oversees it and the nation’s other non-military international broadcasting.

There’s been plenty of advance warning. Probably the most quoted came in 2013 congressional testimony from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called the BBG “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.” (As secretary of state during the preceding four years, she had been an ex officio member of the BBG but apparently did not push for any reform through her representatives during that time.) Since then, U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) has introduced a bill to defund the Voice of America, and U.S. Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Ranking Member, have backed two reform bills aimed at upending the current structure of the BBG. Both of those bills have received bipartisan support in the House and Secretary of State John Kerry has endorsed their efforts “to get reform that this troubled agency needs.”

The Board’s governors have been working hard to avoid a surprise like this. In recent months they have, among other things, appointed a new reform-minded VOA director and hired a new director of congressional affairs to improve relations with congress.

I believe that VOA, at its best, is a valued symbol of America. It just needs to do a better job of demonstrating that value to congress.

But the biggest change they’ve made is to streamline the way they oversee the broadcasting entities (VOA, Radio & TV Marti, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa, and Alhurra TV). Rather than continue doing it on a part-time basis during occasional teleconference calls and face-to-face Board meetings in Washington fewer than a dozen times a year (as originally designed by Congress two decades ago), the Board decided to create a new CEO position and empower him to manage the entities on their behalf.

And that, ironically, may have led to the bombshell Thornberry amendment.  

To their credit, the Board concluded that a full-time CEO with journalistic experience (which few BBG governors have had) could do a better job of staying on top of things. So they hired one, and asked congress to give him the legal authority to do his job – and now at least one congressman has apparently decided that, if we’re giving all this power to the CEO, what do we need the Board for?

It’s a valid question. But there are also valid responses, and here’s one: the Board can serve as a safeguard against political bias in the broadcasters’ content.

How? By law, the Board must be bipartisan, with four Democrats and four Republicans, plus the secretary of state. In the case of VOA, its Charter specifically requires it to be editorially objective and balanced, which means that its coverage should never be politically biased in favor of the party in the White House – and who better to monitor that than a Board composed of partisans from both sides? In my personal experience, the Board operated in a fair, non-partisan, and collegial manner when asked to scrutinize controversial content. They had different political beliefs, but they all believed that the broadcasters should be objective and unbiased, and that was key.

All this is not to say that a CEO is not needed. One is, and not only because part-time Board members can’t begin to oversee five multimedia journalistic organizations churning out content 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A CEO who’s authorized to oversee the big picture, manage the entity directors, take advantage of opportunities for collaboration and economies, and be accountable to both a board and outside stakeholders, is the best way to supervise and improve U.S. international broadcasting.

As mentioned above, the Thornberry amendment also calls for de-federalizing VOA and basically giving it the same status as its fellow “grantee” broadcasters. (The amendment did not mention Radio & TV Marti of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting which, like VOA, is a federal agency.)

As a former VOA director, I’ve heard all the arguments for and against keeping VOA in the government, and if VOA were more popular in congress these days I wouldn’t worry that much about de-federalization. But VOA isn’t popular now, and I am concerned that converting it into an NGO dependent on federal grants could be the first step toward eventual de-funding. I believe that VOA, at its best, is a valued symbol of America. It just needs to do a better job of demonstrating that value to congress.

Meanwhile, the challenge facing the BBG is to convince Congress they have gotten the message, and that the new CEO and other changes they’ve made will soon produce visible improvements in fulfilling their mission of providing news and information to the rest of the world in a way that Americans can be proud of. Central to this will be doing a better job of keeping members of congress (and the secretary of state) better informed about what VOA and her fellow broadcasters do every day, and why it’s important to the nation. 


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David Gets it (mostly) Right

David Jackson is on target with his analysis of the legislative proposals popping up in Congress.

I would, though, take one exception to his historic account of the BBG. I do not believe, as David says, Congress intended for IBB to be managed by a part-time Board of Governors. I know those of us working on the new organization in the 1990s did not intend it to be that way.

The BBG was patterned after the old Board for International Broadcasting, which provided oversight of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. In the wake of the Cold War, and after the demise of the USSR, the surrogate broadcasters were rightly entitled to a 'Mission Accomplished" moment. But democracy is a sometimes messy thing, both here and abroad. Much work needed to be done to help establish independent reporting and media in newly independent nations previously dominated by State controlled media. RFE and RL were perfectly situated to take on that task.

The incoming Clinton Administration had other priorities, though. They wanted to reap a 'peace dividend' and in their first budget proposal 'zeroed out' funding for the BIB, and through that the grantee organizations RFE and RL. This did not sit well with the BIB, of course, and neither did it with neoconservatives, Cold War political veterans, nor the many ethnic groups associated with the work and success of the 'Radios.' A bitter fight ensued between BIB and its political friends (who were formidable) and the USIA which was in a considerable state of transition from the GHWB and Clinton Administrations.

Ultimately, the IBB and the BBG were a compromise aimed at achieving substantial cost savings to redeem the Clinton-Gore post-cold war downsizing claims, while retaining substantial elements of the missions of both the Radios and VOA (as well as Radio Marti, and the new proliferation of new surrogates)

Like all compromises, it was messy and imperfect. But the most reasonable interpretation of the new blueprint was that the Director of IBB was to be, essentially, a Chief Operating Officer with the responsibility of overseeing the daily activities of the federal elements, and administering the grants to the surrogates. The BBG's function was to provide a bi-partisan oversight committee, for the purposes David outlines above, but also to provide a journalistic firewall between the IBB and outside political interference from Congress, State Department AND the parent organization, USIA.

It was the first Chairman of the BBG, David Burke, who was determined to take a more hands-on role in managing the entity, and proceeded to build a staff at the BBG level that overlapped, and eventually overshadowed, the staff of the IBB. And the rest is history. Rather than following the lead of the Board for International Broadcasting, which was quite successful in its role, the BBG became a kind of part-time CEO by committee.

Whether, in the long run, the new configuration will work remains to be seen. What I can say, however, is that this configuration with a CEO with executive responsibility is much closer to the design those of us working on the new organization in the 1990s intended than the chaotic framework that quickly evolved.

The organizational structure was a mess

Since Joe was "present at the creation," he is more familiar with who intended what when the unwieldy BBG was created. Congress may not have intended what it became, but they certainly didn't bother to change it during nearly two decades of OPM reviews, IG reports, and budget allocations.

Regardless of whom is to blame, the organizational structure became a dysfunctional mess. The International Broadcasting Board (IBB, as the new element was named), ended up composed largely of offices such as marketing, research, public affairs, transmissions, etc., that should have been serving VOA's needs and requests (and sometimes those of the other broadcasters, although some of them had their own such offices, so it was duplicative). Yet on paper, they supervised VOA. This led to goofy situations in my time like the IBB marketing officer traveling to countries without my knowledge and signing agreements with a foreign network or affiliate obliging VOA to create an exclusive program for them regardless of our manpower, resources, needs, or other plans. On paper, the IBB director had authority over the VOA director, but I had the good fortune to serve with two IBB directors who never asserted that authority, and didn't need to. Both knew they had their hands full managing the IBB's largely technical and supporting mission, and trusted me to take care of the journalistic and content part of the mission. (Not all VOA directors have been as fortunate.) 

I agree with Joe that a single CEO is the best way to oversee all of these pieces. Having strong directors in charge of the entities and the support functions, clearly spelling out their missions, and then giving them the support to fulfill them (and holding them accountable if they don't), may be the only way to win back the trust of outside stakeholders.


I certainly admire the good work that David did in the face of the dysfunctional organization.

And, we certainly agree on 'goofy.' Although that is a generously benign description.

Voice of America reform

The issue facing both the BBG and VOA isn’t that they aren’t popular with many in Congress. It is and has long been that they aren’t effective, and thus worth taxpayer funding.
The media landscape today is swamped with the kind of information choices that VOA was created more than 70 years to provide. Management lurches from strategy to strategy to remain relevant, but undermines its effectiveness under tight budgets by robbing Peter -- the "legacy" broadcasts -- to pay the TV and digital Paul. Trying to be all things to all audiences has boomeranged because it's badly hurt the news product.
While VOA has some talented reporters, overall the quality of the journalism is at best mediocre: wire rewrites, pedestrian news commentary, late filing, shallow coverage of pop culture at the expense of regional enterprise, the list goes on. What little original news is produced tends to come from the foreign services, many of which are over-worked and understaffed because of the difficulty of finding trained reporters in Washington who speak Georgian, Shona, Creole, Urdu, Thai and other needed languages. Overseas coverage is largely provided by stringers – some talented, many not – who come and go when offered better paying jobs. Some 40 percent of the staff are contractors who must have their contracts renegotiated when given new assignments. Many have joined a class action suit against the agency over pay and benefits. All of this and more hurts morale and, more importantly, productivity. Little wonder VOA staffers twice voted it the worst place to work in government.
Management gives lip service to these problems, but on the operational level, little if anything has changed. Little wonder that the agency is facing the nuclear option.

VOA is still needed

VOA is facing a lot of challenges, but it is still needed, not despite all of today's information sources but because of them. And VOA must be a multimedia content provider.

One of the most unfair and inaccurate charges that's thrown at VOA and the BBG is that they've been slow to adapt to digital communications. In fact, VOA and its fellow broadcasters have been quick to adapt to new media. When I stepped down as VOA director 10 years ago, every single one of our language services had its own webpage, and that was at a time when many of the countries they were broadcasting to had very few people who could go online. Our strategy was that we wanted to be online when they could eventually access us. Meanwhile, of course, we knew that the elites in those countries -- government officials, news media, and academics -- were online, and they were an important audience to reach. 

All this is not to say that VOA can't do a better job. It has to. There's not a journalistic organization in the world that doesn't have to constantly improve to hang on to its current audiences, much less grow them. Fortunately, the new leaders at the BBG and VOA have journalistic backgrounds and have dealt with change at other organizations; they deserve a chance to do that again here.

Jackson is among a group that

Jackson is among a group that has various vested interests, ideological or otherwise, in keeping this broken agency and VOA within it, going ad infinitum. I like to refer to them as permanent cognoscenti for U.S. international broadcasting.

The problem is that while they claim to have superior knowledge about how things should work, and wave the "BBG and VOA are still needed" flag, they gloss over reports about agency failures, in the digital realm and news coverage, not to mention the personnel issues that everyone is aware of.

Given the opportunity -- preferably a nice SES position -- many would leap right back in, to make sure that VOA and other elements are perpetuated year after year. With a new administration coming in 2017, It's a perfect opportunity to start ramping up their campaign to take a seat on the board, or whatever follows it, or become -- or return -- as VOA director.

They wave the "keep BBG and VOA alive" flag, and shout about the importance of honest journalism and the
firewall -- when in fact BBG members, including the board chairman, have steadily gone about aligning the agency precisely with the kind of policy direction contained in legislation being discussed.

Many taxpayers don't think they should be paying another dime for this agency. Yet to be proven is the extent to which U.S. international broadcasting/media activities, mismanaged as they have been, are having the impact that BBG officials always claim.

Winston Wood, whoever he or she is, is quite right and I am glad to see the comments reposted here because they are a very accurate description of the bigger picture.

Response from the Cognoscenti

JT, the only "vested interest" I have in VOA is as a former public servant who spent over four years there trying to improve it and make it as effective as it could be. (As my bio indicates, I spent three decades in the private sector before working for the government, so most of my professional experience has been spent outside the government.)

Secondly, I didn't "gloss over" the agency's failures when I was there, nor have I done so since. If you were a regular reader of this website, or of the one run by the Public Diplomacy Council in Washington, you would know that I have written dozens of commentaries about the problems facing VOA and the BBG, and unlike some critics, I have cited specific shortcomings and suggested specific solutions. For example, see here, here, and here. (And here.)

So, given all these problems, why am I still an advocate? Because I had the privilege of overseeing (and sometimes participating in) call-in shows from countries such as China and Iran where we had a steady stream of listeners and viewers who defied censors to call in and thank us for our programs and giving them an opportunity to exchange views. Because when I traveled to countries where we broadcast, I constantly heard stories from grateful listeners (and even organized fan clubs) from Latin America to Africa to Southeast Asia who told me how much they appreciated and learned from VOA.

No one has denied that VOA has problems, but I believe it can be fixed, and it should be, because it provides a service that is almost impossible for most Americans to appreciate unless they've lived in a country where credible information is scarce or non-existent, and anti-American propaganda goes unrebutted.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

For years now, the BBG and its acolytes have been saying “We know we have problems and we’re working on them. Give us more time.” And for years, nothing much changes journalistically and VOA just keeps bumping along.
Previous VOA directors had considerable journalism experience. David Ensor’s background at CNN was exactly what the Board was looking for as it shifted more and more resources to international TV. Yet under his lead the news product in all media got arguably worse, not better. A BBG member once called him on it and he feebly replied that it was “a resource issue.”
His predecessor, Dan Austin, was general manager of The Wall Street Journal, overseeing a blue ribbon global news operation. It was on his watch that the Journal began developing its online operation, WSJ.COM, now one of the most widely respected websites and with its pioneering paywall, probably the world’s most profitable. His impact on VOA? Today, many people in the building can’t even remember he was there.
It’s not that leaders like this don’t want to shake things up. They can’t, because the VOA model is broken. A government agency – and it is a government agency, not CNN or NPR as many in the newsroom like to think – isn’t staffed and nimble enough to provide a comprehensive world news service in a 24/7 information environment. So it continues bumping along in survival mode.
I would say, though, there is real need for a Voice of America, if it is just that: The Voice of America. News and features broadcast and translated into major languages on multiple adequately funded platforms about events and issues in the United States. No foreign language services, not overseas stringers. Rather, smart coverage of U.S. technology, culture, politics, definitive statements on US foreign policy, even sports. Not game coverage, but talk shows with good US sports writers and features on things like hiking the Appalachian Trail, women’s college sports, will soccer ever be really popular in the U.S., etc. The NBA isn’t wildly popular in Africa because it’s a game; it’s AMERICA’S game. Coverage that few if other similar operations are covering because of the focus on breaking news. At the new VOA, that kind of could be handled with five minutes of headlines at the top of the hour. It’s commodity news, available everywhere these days.
Seven plus years in the Cohen Building tells me that that will never happen, though. Change scares people on the third floor and they prefer to just tweak what they do. There’s also a certain amount of arrogance involved. “We’ve been through this before, we’ll get by.” And in the past, they have. In the days ahead? Time – and Congress – will tell.

Do less, better

I agree with Mr. Wood that VOA is not CNN, nor should it be. It will never have the resources or the skill mix to compete with true 24/7 global news operations, and anyone who is expecting that from VOA will be constantly disappointed.

A better option for VOA is to focus on providing content that its audiences can't get everywhere else. It needs to do a better job on fewer things, like providing more comprehensive, contextual coverage – including discussion and debate  – of U.S. issues and policies, especially those involving foreign affairs. In this, I believe, unlike Mr. Wood, that the language services play a critical role. They have always been the best part of VOA. They know what their audiences are interested in, and they can inform them how decisions made in Washington will impact them, and do it in their own language.

They won't find that on CNN.


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