Discussing the BBG’s (dys)function

The importance of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to U.S foreign policy has, at least for the last couple of decades, but under-appreciated.  Perhaps this is because of the shift in the late-1960’s & early-1970’s from the struggle for minds and wills to the Cold War known to many, an arms race of boomers, bombers, tanks and warheads.  The change was noticed by Senator Fulbright in 1972 when he declared “the Radios [VOA, RFE, and RL] should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.”
Today is not 1972, however.  Nor is it 2001 (through most of last decade) when the “battle of hearts and minds” was waged in the ill-founded and misdirected effort of getting people to like us.  “If only they knew us, they’d like us.”  Today is more like the 1940s and 1950s where the enduring struggle was taking place and not a battle to be won, or lost, then move on.

Information is power.  The Congress and the State Department appreciated its importance over sixty years when it made permanent activities we now call public diplomacy: Voice of America and other informational programs, and educational and technical exchanges.  So important were these activities that those involved were, by the direction of the Congress, subject to a “loyalty check” [security clearance in today’s world] equal to that of the protection of “our atomic secrets” in World War II.

What then is the role of the BBG, and its networks, in today’s communication environment?  Few would argue the current structure and strategy of the BBG is flawed and that it is a dysfunctional organization.  Those that argue otherwise lack sincerity or knowledge, or both.  The topic of reform is fraught with emotions and subjectivity too often framed by by past glories and not the demands of today’s, and tomorrow’s, communication environment.  Those that truly care about the BBG, across the Government and the Congress, are too few and those that want to actually understand the issues are fewer.

We need a vigorous public debate on the role and direction of U.S. Government broadcasting.  This includes discussing the purpose of Government broadcasting based not on assumptions or projections from the past but the current and future communication environment and the requirements of foreign policy.  Like it or not, the BBG is a critical element of America’s foreign policy that often works indirectly, in hard to measure ways.

What do you think?  Post or email your comments, or email a guest post.

5 Replies to “Discussing the BBG’s (dys)function”

  1. There’s an essential difference between the BBG structure of today, and say, the BBC — one has established truly global credibility, the other (i.e. USIB) still struggles in the muck and mire of the never-ending debate over its mission, its link to “public diplomacy” and U.S. foreign policy objectives, and the role of journalism in all of this.
    Formation of the BBG accelerated a process that took us from having one VOICE OF AMERICA, to numerous voices. Though VOA itself was born during World War II, with a specific purpose (though also to tell the truth), by the 1990’s the BBG had encouraged and made possible, with the help of a compliant Congress, creation of the cacophony of USIB that today we all know so well. Not only do we have the main grantee entities, but entities within entities. And the line that for a long while separated so-called surrogate activities was blurred, to say the least, and remains that way today.

    Now, under the Isaacson plan, being sold to Congress with the appropriate flood of hosannas, this BBG is trying to make the case that nothing less than a CNNization is the answer to all of the ills seen in today’s USIB. This will be a most interesting discussion, provided members of Congress have the presence of mind to examine the issue with care in an election year.

    The “vigorous debate” that Matt calls for is more likely not to happen (except in this and similar blog sites) simply because it is not in the interests of the BBG to allow it.

    Board members for the most part (the exception has been Victor Ashe who at least paid some attention to employee morale and other issues) care only about forcing through the Isaacson plan, so they can comfortably return to their own more lucrative pursuits as pundits or CEOs, until they are dragged back for the next BBG meeting in the Cohen building, or in Prague or Miami.

    It is an amazing fact that USIB has been run for decades by a board that generally (only in recent years did it open deliberations to the public) has been secretive, and isolated itself from hearing the views of the rank and file.

    As for the comment that BBG is “a critical element of America’s foreign policy” — that may be the case. But the $760 million bill of goods the BBG is trying to sell Congress (roughly the current BBG budget figure but multiply this by however many years USIB will continue) is being parading as the creation of some independent global network when in reality everyone knows (except the American taxpayer) that this will be a government-run and influenced information network. We hesitate to use the word propaganda — that still sets off alarm bells — but unfortunately that is exactly what many in the non-government media believe USIB is.

    Will there be vigorous debate? We doubt it. Advantage to the BBG here. Ironically, at a time when Americans are so worried about how their money is being spent, it’s all too likely that Congress will hold a single hearing about USIB and the BBG’s management of it, and proceed to lock in the board’s long-term strategic plan.

    Ain’t America great?

  2. anchorJohn,your simplifying history a bit too much. if you want to participate in a vigorous debate, it starts with you and so far I’m reading little in the way of debate and argument for one case, only critiques, some of which are misleading and erroneous.

    So, let’s look at your suggestions, and correct me if I’m wrong:
    * USIB should be like the BBC
    * Surrogate radios should go away, leaving only VOA
    * Government broadcasting is Propaganda only if it is US Government broadcasting (e.g. not UK)
    * BBG gets what it wants
    * BBG leadership structure is defective
    * BBG is secretive

    Where I stand: I agree with with the last two points… this, I believe has shifted in the last two years and may continue to do so, especially when Lynne Weil joins next week. One thing you should know too well is BBG’s engagement is defective. In my opinion, this particular defect is not unique to the BBG as I’ve found that many (too many) communicators fail to communicate about their own activities.

    Despite what Kim Elliott says, the BBG top management is thin. The BBG relies too heavily on the Governors, part-timers that are supposed to provide guidance, not be managers. Creating a CEO out of the IBB head, a Senate-confirmed position, is a good first step. However, can Dick and Jeff adequately manage and support the organizations? Kim says the radios have their own upper management, but perhaps it is they that are too thin.

    In discussions about the direction toward China, the question of why move VOA broadcasts to RFA and not the other way around was answered with “Congress wants RFA”. Fair enough, so who is addressing that? This goes to the larger issue of what are we doing and why. It costs too much to do what we have because that’s what we did.

    What is wrong with a central newsroom to provide substantive content to be used and modified and supplemented? Syndicates in the US seem to work fine that way. “CNN” may be the moniker used, but that doesn’t mean that’s the way it’ll work. The plan, which I can find no support on the Hill for but obviously I haven’t looked in the right places, can be tweaked. Toss out an idea, anchorJohn…

    If only there was an organization dedicated to oversight over the BBG… wait… http://state.gov/pdcommission

    Back to your comments, anchorJohn, did I miss something?

  3. Having lived under communist censorship and working later as a Voice of America (VOA) reporter and manager, and also having observed the U.S. Government and domestic U.S. politics for many years, I don’t share the view of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as well some VOA broadcasters, particularly those working on English language programs, that the U.S. Congress will give them money to become a BBC like operation. U.S. political and journalistic tradition does not support such an outcome.
    VOA never was and never will be like BBC. The best we can hope for is a somewhat journalistically independent outlet that in the mind of Congress and the American people serves a useful function in promoting free flow of news to those abroad who need it most. It’s helpful if you can also make a national security, foreign policy, and public diplomacy arguments in favor of VOA. The argument that VOA needs to be like BBC or NPR is just not going to work. It’s actually better for VOA journalists, the Unitec States, and people abroad who need uncensored news and support for their struggle for freedom and human rights if the Voice of America is tied to another U.S. government agency that can help VOA get funding from Congress with sufficient protections against interference with the news content. The BBG is the best proof that institutional independence does not work for VOA, at least not under the BBG setup and with the current permanent management team.

    I also believe, based on my own experience, that in some cases surrogate broadcasters do a much better job that either VOA or BBC. When I lived in communist Poland, I and many people I knew preferred to listen to Radio Free Europe rather than VOA or BBC. Surrogate broadcasters will always be more popular in some countries because they can do reporting and commentary that VOA and BBC cannot do. They should be totally independent, which is what makes them effective. That does not mean that VOA is not needed. It serves a different purpose. And in many countries, VOA is actually more appropriate and more effective than a surrogate broadcaster. It all depends on the level of repression, history, journalistic traditions, etc.

    I also realized while at VOA that coming close to becoming a surrogate broadcaster, but maintaining its American identity, was the best strategy for VOA to gain an audience in certain countries. We managed to beat RFE/RL in Poland in the late 1980s by doing this. This strategy may not work as well for all coutntries, but specialization is the key, whether it’s VOA or a surrogate broadcaster. There should a good reason to have a surrogate broadcaster, but if there is one, there should be no mixing with VOA.

    The biggest problem I had working in a Voice of America language service was not interference from State or USIA but the VOA Central Newsroom that refused to provide specialized, targeted and comprehensive coverage. It was not until we were able to do it on our own that we could compete with RFE in audience ratings.

    The Global News Network or any kind of centralized or globalized news gathering operation is a completely misguided idea that does nothing to help with specialized coverage for well defined audiences, which is what U.S. international broadcasting needs to be effective.

  4. Two thoughts to add in the discussion, for what they’re worth:1.) Any consideration of the BBG’s role in public diplomacy must begin with the fact that most executives there and almost all news managers deny that that is part of the mission. Presenting balanced, unbiased news is the (albeit admirable) mantra. Serving as a voice/outlet/sounding board for US government policy, American values, culture, etc., however, is seen as jeopardizing journalistic credibility and, in the case of the evermore important television programing, audience share. This despite consistent feedback from audiences (as reported in program review exercises) that listeners, viewers and Web readers want to turn to the BBG’s services, particularly VOA, to learn the US government’s position on events in their countries. Only at Appropriations time does it seem that the board and its managers don the PD mantle and declare themselves a national security asset. A better balance must be found both to justify continued USG funding and serve audience interests. The world does not need another CNN International. The one we have is just fine.
    2.) Before the board embarks on its ambitious re-invention campaign to become a leading global news operation, it must first invest in the training and manpower to do what it does now much better. The sad fact is that as a news product, VOA’s work is rather mediocre. The large central news room in Washington produces relatively little original reporting, working instead with what it receives from the AP, AFP, Reuters and other news services to repurpose the copy for its global, then regional audiences. It’s “commodity” news, largely indistinguishable from what people can get from any other source or medium. With the increased emphasis on television production, the reports increasingly are prepared as tv scripts, then passed on to the radio and Internet services to be re-purposed again. What real news is being produced – news as in “new,” what has not been heard or read before – comes from a network of reporters overseas. Most of these are foreign stringers — many experienced, but many not — who sometimes go months without getting paid because of the BBG administrative bottlenecks. When a real paying job comes along they take it, forcing the news managers they report to in Washington to scramble to get coverage. As a result, the list of “critical” countries with no local VOA coverage is a long one. BBG/IBB news managers seem to realize all of this and are reorganizing to make original reporting from places like Somalia, Pakistan, etc. more available to a wider VOA audience. But rather than hiring new editors and translators to do this turning around of the copy, they have simply added it as a new responsibility for current staff. This is a problem particularly with the foreign language services, which tend to be lean due to difficulty in finding staffers with the needed (and unusual) language skills. The burden has only aggravated the already serious morale problem that exists throughout the Cohen Building.
    “But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

  5. A couple of observations:
    1. Ted Lipien, a firm advocate of preserving the surrogate entities, engages in Gingrich-like hyperbole when he asserts “The biggest problem I had working in a Voice of America language service was not interference from State or USIA but the VOA Central Newsroom that refused to provide specialized, targeted and comprehensive coverage.” I doubt seriously that was his “biggest problem” at VOA. But I suspect this disenchantment with the Central Newsroom stemmed from occasions when it correctly declined to issue a news item based on unconfirmed and unconfirmable information of the flimsiest, single-source nature provided by a language service — service that was barred from using the infomation in a newscast without Central’s consent.

    2. Ted also states: “The Global News Network or any kind of centralized or globalized news gathering operation is a completely misguided idea…” At this time I don’t think we have enough information on just what former BBG Chairman Isaacson wanted when he first mentioned GNN. Before I left VOA it seemed more likely GNN would simply be an outlet, probably a website, featuring “the best of the BBG entities reporting,” and not a consolidated newsroom for all the entities. I personally think it would make economic sense to create a truly central newsroom for all BBG outlets providing basic world and U.S. news but leaving each entity with its own regional specialists.

    3. Brashaw suggests a greater investment in training. I couldn’t agree more. While I was at VOA we attempted to start a two-week training course for all new employees which would teach the organization’s fundamental journalistic values as well as provide practical information on facilities inside VOA. It was held once and then stopped. Why? For various bureaucratic reasons, elements in VOA generally wait a long time for their new hires to actually arrive. Because services, in particular, are short-handed, they want their new employees immediately, not two weeks after arrival. Because of this, a new hire from country X is never properly introduced to journalistic values that may differ radically from those back in his or her homeland — a country where commentary may be common in “news” stories or where the outlet he or she worked for might have been a partisan political operation or a state-owned organization. One reason the BBC is admired for its journalism is because it has long had a model training program for all new hires. That VOA has not had one is frankly quite shocking.

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