Baseless angst over reforming Voice of America
The Russians are surging in information warfare. The Chinese are making huge investments in international cable news. The Islamic State, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are using the internet as a low-overhead tool for recruitment and propaganda.
To compete effectively, to connect with global audiences, the U.S. government will have to sharpen its communications tools. Yet resistance to change is deeply ingrained at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the oddly named agency responsible for broadcasting to the world on behalf of the U.S. government.
But change is on its way. Congress has at long last passed legislation to improve the $750 million agency that oversees all the civilian broadcasting services of the U.S. government: Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, S. 2943, revamps the agency’s management structure.
Somehow, press accounts have linked this long-overdue reform with the election of Donald Trump. The insinuation is that the reform is designed to turn the BBG into a Trump propaganda megaphone. It’s a thoroughly baseless suggestion.
Every study of the BBG, including a highly critical inspector general report from 2014, has pointed out that its management structure is abysmally ineffectual. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2013 called the BBG “a defunct agency” in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously for reform legislation in 2014 and 2015. How often do Democrats and Republicans agree on anything these days?
Congressional discontent is rooted in a history of bad management and questionable editorial judgments. A few recent examples: On Nov. 10, voanews.com ran a story with this headline: “Terror Groups Giddy Over Trump Victory.” VOA’s Ukrainian service ran a translation of actor Robert De Niro’s offensive screed in which he called the president-elect ”insane’’ among other unpleasant things, and ran it without any opposing views.
Meanwhile, the BBG is trying to save money by closing down radio services — even to countries like Bangladesh, where terrorist recruitment is rampant. At the same time, the board is proposing to spend some $400,000 on three investigative reporters and an investigating researcher to “analyze public records” and “retrieve court filings and government filings.” For what purpose?
So what, exactly, will the reforms passed last week do? According to the Conference Report accompanying the bill, it will remove the part-time, nine-member board, which has mismanaged VOA and the other U.S. broadcasters since 1999. The board is replaced with a presidentially appointed and Senateconfirmed CEO, a more conventional management arrangement. This CEO will have a five-member unpaid advisory board to guide him as well as an obligation to “regularly consult with the secretary of state.”
There is nothing in the legislation to change the mission of the VOA charter: to broadcast factual and truthful news, to promote democracy and free speech in countries where they are repressed, and to present factually the U.S. government’s foreign policy and values to global audiences.
Nonetheless, the elimination of the ninemember broadcasting board has been taken by critics and many BBG employees as a sign that a firewall between policy-promotion and news broadcasting has been fatally breached. Yet, for one thing, the muchvaunted firewall actually does not exist in any legislation pertaining to the broadcasters. For another, in its annual report to Congress, the BBG has for years testified that it has experienced no attempts at political interference from the State Department.
It is time to get serious about the U.S. performance in the information space, as we once were during the Cold War. Congress has taken a good first step.