Base­less angst over re­form­ing Voice of Amer­ica

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - Helle Dale is the se­nior fel­low for pub­lic diplo­macy in The Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s Thatcher Cen­ter for Free­dom.

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, 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.

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