Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting (Part Two): What to do About the BBG?

Guest Post By Alex Belida

If, as suggested by Congress and proposed in my last posting, the mission of U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB) is to be good journalism in support of freedom of the press and the free flow of information, then those who oversee America’s non-military broadcasting entities need to be selected accordingly. 

Unfortunately, to date, few Governors have had serious backgrounds in journalism and foreign affairs and too many have had partisan or ideological agendas.  This needs to change if USIB is to prosper in the future and attract greater audiences.

Let us first stipulate for the sake of practicality that the Broadcasting Board of Governors should be preserved, with some modifications, and not abolished.

Let us then look at the main duties assigned to the BBG by Congress.  While there are many, the key function is this:  “To ensure that United States international broadcasting is conducted in accordance with the standards and principles contained in section 6202 of this title.”

Again, while there are several standards and principles spelled out by legislation, the important ones, in my view, are these:

“United States international broadcasting shall…be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism”

“United States international broadcasting shall include… news which is consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive”

The law also makes several points often overlooked by critics of objective and balanced journalism, including some members of Congress itself.  It stipulates that U.S. broadcasters will feature “a variety of opinions and voices” from abroad and showcase American thinking that reflects “the diversity of United States culture and society” along with “responsible discussion and opinion” of U.S. government policies.

(Nowhere does it state that Congress only wants to hear voices that support the U.S. government nor does it say Congress only wants to hear foreign voices representing the opposition in repressed countries.)

Having established a clear journalistic mission for the BBG and USIB as well as duties that protect the practice of good journalism, then who should sit on the Board?

Clearly the Governors should be experienced in the fields of journalism and foreign affairs.  But they should also be individuals who, despite the part-time nature of the work, are willing and able to devote themselves more intensely to the BBG’s work.

The current Board members have other jobs – jobs that interfere with their ability to function as effective overseers of USIB.  Walter Isaacson, who just resigned as Chairman of the BBG, is a good example.  While on the Board, he also held down the job of President and CEO of the Aspen Institute and he continued writing, notably his recent best-selling biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs.  He quit the BBG because he said he was embarking on yet another major writing project.  Another example is Michael Lynton, Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment.  He has missed most of the BBG’s monthly meetings.

So who best to replace these appointees?  I would suggest the President (and Congress) look first to the ranks of retirees from the Voice of America and the other USIB entities and consider giving two of the Board’s eight seats to them. Because they already know the playing field, they do not need to rely so heavily on the permanent staff of the BBG (and the IBB, the International Broadcasting Bureau).  Critics have charged those staffers regularly pursued their own agendas and as a result often misled the Governors.

Because retirees also know the players in USIB, they are more likely to be sensitive to the needs and the views of the journalists and others who work at the entities.  This is critical.  For the last several years morale has plummeted at the entities, largely because employees feel ignored.  At VOA, for example, the agency has ranked last or near the bottom in annual workplace satisfaction surveys.  The surveys have shown that while staffers feel their work is important, they have little confidence in their management.

In addition to having two of the eight Board seats reserved for non-partisan USIB retirees, I would propose two seats for retired U.S. public diplomacy specialists, two for appointees representing journalism education and the final two seats for representatives of U.S. news media. I would remove the Secretary of State from the Board and allow the eight other members to elect their own Chairman.

Next: A New Structure for USIB


Alex Belida is a former correspondent and news executive who worked in U.S. International Broadcasting for 40 years.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors, do not necessarily reflect the opinion of, and are published here to further the discourse on activities that understand, inform, and influence.