When the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) recently unveiled a new Strategic Plan, it set a brazenly ambitious goal: “To become the world’s leading international news agency by 2016.”
But based on its latest budget proposal, global news organizations like Reuters and AP would appear to have little to fear. To achieve its goal, the BBG, a tiny federal agency overseeing U.S. non-military broadcasters, first plans to gut its existing news operations, starting with the nation’s flagship overseas broadcaster, the Voice of America.
Just in time for VOA’s 70th birthday, the eight-member Board has proposed to cut news spending by $5.6 million and to eliminate 71 positions in VOA’s Central Newsroom as well as its English News Features and Programs Division.
Yet the BBG still maintains: “VOA Central News will be at the heart of a global newsroom for all U.S. international broadcasting entities.”
Those other entities include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE-RL), based in Prague. It, too, has a newsroom. But the BBG plans to cut 10 positions there and reduce news spending by $1.2 million.
What about Radio/TV Marti, broadcasting to Cuba out of Miami? Its newsroom would lose $2.3 million and 24 positions.
Radio Free Asia loses news jobs as well. The BBG Budget plan says, “RFA will capitalize on VOA’s assets by utilizing VOA as a Washington Bureau.”
(The controversial Middle East Broadcasting Network, consisting of Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, is the final element in the BBG family. It escapes relatively unscathed in the latest budget, largely because the Board wants an additional $2 million “to increase its news and information for and about Egypt and Egyptians.”)
An unnamed journalist at VOA, commenting on the cuts on a website run by current and former BBG and VOA employees, asks: “Has the Broadcasting Board of Governors gone mad?”
Alan L. Heil, a former deputy director of VOA and author of Voice of America: A History, compares the budget cuts to reckless surgery of the worst kind. As he puts it, “The overseers have VOA on the operating table for a lobotomy, one that, if not blocked by Congress, would cost the network its journalistic soul.”
The BBG concedes “change on the order we propose is inherently unsettling. There will be resistance within and outside the organization. Employees will naturally worry about their jobs.”
But the eight-member Board, whose bipartisan Governors serve only part-time, claims inefficiency, redundancy, and lack of coordination have kept U.S. broadcasters from living up to potential. They assert integration is “an operational imperative.”
Critics have for years called for integrating U.S. broadcasters and eliminating the costly duplication that has, for example, seen VOA and RFE-RL both broadcast to such countries as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But many of these same critics look at the Board’s plans now as a thinly veiled effort to slowly do away with the Voice of America, whose journalists have long been known for upholding journalistic standards in the face of political pressure from the Board and conservative members of Congress.
Despite the criticism already flowing its way over the proposed cutbacks, especially those targeting VOA, the BBG maintains it is committed “to fostering and promoting high-quality, independent and objective journalism” as well as becoming “the world’s leading international news agency by 2016.”
Curiously, the only Board member to speak consistently of the primary importance of good journalism resigned just before release of the budget proposal. Former Time editor and CNN CEO Walter Isaacson had been Chairman of the BBG. The author of a best-selling biography of Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs, Isaacson said he was embarking on a major new book project. But one wonders.
Alex Belida is a former correspondent and news executive who worked in U.S. International Broadcasting for 40 years.
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