Looking for Part-Time Work? The Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors just opened up

The Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Walter Isaacson, is resigning his position at the BBG.  Walter’s decision has surprised many.  He was a well-respected leader of the BBG, a prolific author (most recently of the Steve Jobs biography, but also biographies of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin) and tremendously busy person (he continues to be president & CEO of the Aspen Institute).
The Chairmanship of the BBG is, like the other board members, a part-time job.  Five of the eight Governors are serving beyond the expiration of their term (they serve until replaced).  Walter’s term expired later this year.

In his letter announcing his resignation, Walter wrote that he is taking on another big writing project and “won’t be able to give the BBG the time it needs and deserves.”  He continued in his letter,

Our terms have all either expired or are about to, and I think the board can be proud of its work. We developed over two years a strategic plan to streamline and consolidate the agency, and we adopted unanimously at our last meeting the two resolutions that would implement it. We’ve also hired great new entity heads — David Ensor at Voice of America, Steve Korn at Radio Free Europe, and Carlos Garcia-Perez at Radio and TV Marti — to join the strong leaders at the other entities.

Knowing how hard the Board has worked since they took their jobs in June 2010, Walter’s resignation should not reflect a personal failure but a reflection of the strain of the “part-time” board.  The strain is made worse when this board is not regularly infused with fresh bodies and minds, which was its design.  Governors are appointed to staggered terms, but we are again in a situation of neglect by the White House in nominating new blood.

When the current board was appointed as a complete group under President Obama, it was the first time since 2004 that all eight of the BBG seats were filled.  Further, the new group replaced four members serving terms that expired 4-6 years earlier, under President Bush.  When Walter became Chairman in June 2010, he filled a role that had been empty since June 2008 when Jim Glassman resigned to become the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

The terms of Michael Meehan, Victor Ashe, and Ender Wimbush were to end August 2010 (the whole slate of eight Governors were nominated in November 2009 but they were not confirmed until June 2010).  Dennis Mulhaupt and Susan McCue were supposed to be replaced by August 2011.  Walter Isaacson, Michael Lynton, and Dana Perino are serving terms that expire later this year, August 2012.  And yet, the White House has yet to nominate a single replacement, or re-nominate a sitting governor, and the rumor is there will not be a nomination until after the election.

Clearly the BBG is neglected, both by the White House, regardless of who is in it, and the Congress, who has failed to demand or push forward nominees.

The relatively thin upper management has arguably relied too much – by necessity – on the Governors to manage the organization when the Governors should have been in the role of providing expert and senior advice.  The BBG’s new strategic plan, the details of which are still being finalized and have yet to be shared beyond a narrative, includes changes to remedy this over-reliance on the appointed part-timers.  Regardless of the details of the forthcoming plan, more is required: either refresh the BBG as intended or change some or all to full-time positions.  America’s international broadcasting is too important to U.S. interests and to the lives of people abroad to be neglected as it has been.

This post first appeared about 3:20 CT, January 27, and will be updated as new information is available.


3 thoughts on “Looking for Part-Time Work? The Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors just opened up

  1. Come on, Matt…you are far too kind to the BBG, and to Walter Isaacson, who was largely an absentee. Most employees never met him (same is true for other board members when it comes to “connecting” with rank and file). While he was off putting finishing touches to his Steve Jobs biography, morale at 330 Independence Avenue (admittedly never good) and elsewhere in the BBG structure, plummeted. That’s the dirty little secret that news organizations who covered his book launch never covered.
    In an ultimate display of insensitivity, Isaacson granted interviews (audiences, like the Pope) to every major TV network and print publication, but only much later with anyone from BBG. He basically gave BBG broadcasters the finger (a few signed copies of his book were offered like crumbs to the masses though a for-charity raffle — not a replacement for true access).

    But enough on Isaacon’s book and self-promotion. Still in last place in government employee satisfaction surveys (despite small improvements cited by the board) the BBG under Isaacson embarrassed itself with the China fiasco. It then ran in a panic to repair its relations with Congress, and with VOA Chinese broadcasters. Key officials rushed to a reception on Capitol Hill celebrating what was basically a victory over a BBG blunder. The new VOA director went scurrying to the China division in the headquarters building.

    Isaacson’s plan to create a GNN, or Global News Network, is dubious at best. Staff members in Congress need to make sure that there is a thorough airing of views, rather than simply a rubber-stamping of this plan. That means calling to testify not just BBG members, and the usual collection of entrenched Washington policy ideologues, but also actual journalists in the BBG structure who have been subject to the hubris of the board.

    BBG will use familiar tactics to ram legislation called the International Broadcasting Innovation Act of 2012 through Congress, sending slick videos and publications to the Hill at a time when members of Congress are preoccupied with election year political battles and re-election. The board has been shrewd, hiring a former staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, most recently at State Department, as the new head of BBG public relations.

    BBG, assisted by the report produced by Deloitte at a cost of $1 million or so, has a long term goal of slimming down the U.S. international broadcasting structure to a neat and tidy structure it can more easily control. Beyond consolidation of grantees, which will surely happen, the simple fact is that BBG wants to finally achieve what some in DC have sought for years – to finally and permanently get rid of federal employees in VOA.

    Isaacson and BBG, and we might as well throw in to the mix certain newer senior IBB managers (many of them refugees from cutbacks at CNN and other media organizations) also want to persuade Congress that this GNN will become some kind of journalistic miracle, emerging in a beam of sunlight from the previous jumble of international broadcasting duplication.

    But let’s look at the facts — Isaacson and the board have approved a plan that will maintain all of the grantee organizations in name/brand, and in organizational structure, though BBG is making a big deal about some steps it is taking that will allegedly streamline staff.

    RFE/RL won’t be going away. RFA won’t be going away. And at least for the time being, and especially while it continues to have support on the Hill from Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and like-minded legislators, won’t be going anywhere.

    The BBG subterfuge, already being implemented and likely to be touted publicly in coming days, is a plan being implemented to turn VOA into some kind of central gathering, processing and coordination hub for all BBG entities. Remember, RFE/RL, RFA, R/TV Marti (VOA obviously too) have all spent years developing their own separate news operations, methods and sources. These processes will not stop.

    In theory, as it has been explained so far this could result in RFE/RL reports appearing on VOA programs, or R/TV Marti material (which since the 1980s has had a very specific surrogate broadcasting purpose) also appearing on VOA. Some questions need to be asked about the propriety of this. All of this will be playing out in months ahead.

    Embedded, by the way, in the subterfuge of the Isaacson/BBG plan is what, based on various remarks by BBG and IBB officials, is now the very open acknowledgment, being expressed in increasingly bold terms, that the entire USIB structure is there to “serve national security interests” (an aspect of this emerged in 2011 at an open BBG Town Hall session when one veteran VOA journalist asked board members to explain contacts between the BBG and the U.S. Central Command).

    This should not necessarily be a surprise, given the history of how USIB developed since World War II. What is notable is that this “national security” justification for the continued existence of ALL entities under the BBG structure is now a major part of the sales pitch being made to Congress for what sounds (GNN) to the average person like a NON-government CNN-type media conglomerate. It may be that in appearance. But no one should be under any illusions – this is government-funded, government-influenced broadcasting, whether in the long run all the entities retain their brand names or at some point they all literally fall under the GNN label.

    Back to Matt’s latest post in which he says “clearly the BBG is neglected, both by the White House, regardless of who is in it, and the Congress, who has failed to demand or push forward nominees.” Agreed – the BBG is being neglected by the White House (though Secretary Clinton, technically a member of the board, drew attention to problems under the BBG in her testimony on Capitol Hill).

    However, successive administrations and members of Congress have failed utterly to pay enough attention to what has really been going on at 330 Independence Avenue. Congress should not want to be seen swallowing a bill of goods, especially in an election year dominated by national debate over deficit spending and debt, by rubber-stamping plans of a discredited board and its now outgoing most recent chairman, without adequate hearings (and that means more than just one) seeking a sufficiently-broad range of views.

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