Volume II Issue 9, September 2010
“The BBG’s Honeymoon: All Work and No Play”
By Matt Armstrong
There is a new governor in town, eight of them in fact. For the first time in six years, all of the top jobs at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) are filled. Half of the seats sat empty for up to four years, including the chairmanship for the past two years. This fresh beginning provides some breathing room for the BBG, which manages all U.S. government, non-military international broadcasting. The Board is taking this honeymoon seriously: it has already held two meetings and is actively reviewing the state of international broadcasting, before putting its programmatic and managerial stamp on its operations.
As the Board considers the requirements, challenges, and opportunities it faces, along with the broadcasting organizations it supervises – including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/ RL), Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), and Radio Free Asia (RFA) – three fundamental questions must be addressed: how is the BBG relevant in today’s global information environment? Can the BBG balance advocacy with news delivery as a part of the federal government? And, can the BBG adapt to the free-for-all participation of social media?
The BBG is the only federal agency run by a committee composed of eight governors appointed by the President, not more than four of whom may be from the same party, and the Secretary of State, who usually delegates his or her Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy as the representative. By statute, Governors’ terms are of different lengths to guard against complete leadership changes like the one occurring now. However, this requires action by the President and Congress to appoint new Governors when (or before) terms expire. The terms of the just replaced members of the Board expired four to six years ago (Governors whose terms have expired are allowed to continue serving until their replacement is confirmed). Sadly, due to unnecessary delays by Congress in confirming the new Board, (the slate was nominated in November 2009), three governors are serving on expired terms. The new Governors are: Walter Isaacson as chairman (for a term expiring August 13, 2012); Victor Ashe (August 13, 2010); Michael Lynton (August 13, 2012); Susan McCue (August 13, 2011); Michael Meehan (August 13, 2010); Dennis Mulhaupt (August 13, 2011); Dana Perino (August 13, 2012); and, S. Enders Wimbush (August 13, 2010).
Few in Congress and less of the general public pay attention to the BBG and keenly understand its role and purpose. While flying under the radar can be advantageous, a small constituency also translates into limited understanding and support. The BBG can no longer afford to be perceived as an unaccountable black box. With few exceptions, relations between the agency and the Congress are strained at best and adversarial at worse. This must change if the BBG is to be effective in today’s saturated media environment spanning multiple platforms, amidst increasing competition from foreign governmental broadcasters, global and diverse audiences are less likely to be contained within political, geographical, or linguistic boundaries, not to mention the challenging budgetary environment.
Increased dialogue between Congress and the BBG must be complemented by third-party oversight to provide the Congress, the President, and the American public informed analysis and recommendations on the BBG’s course of action. This would allow for much-needed transparency and accountability required by Congress (and useful to the rest of Government and the public in general). This third party entity has existed for over sixty years as a Presidentially- appointed, Senate- confirmed commission. The Advisory Committee on Radio Programming was established in 1946 by Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs
William Benton in response to Congressional concerns over the State Department’s ability to professionally and effectively engage global audiences.1 The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 upgraded this group to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information and charged it with providing strategic oversight and comprehensive advice every six months. Today this body is known as the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and has been dormant for a long time. An invigorated and active Commission of experts will shed a continuous light on the BBG’s activities as well as the challenges and constraints faced at home and abroad in a way that the occasional reports from the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office cannot.
The BBG faces a significant challenge. According to the BBG, its organizations, reach a combined estimated audience of 171 million people in sixty languages and across multiple mediums, including Internet, radio, television, and text messaging.2 But government broadcasting was never intended to get this big. Originally, American peacetime information services were to be placeholders until the “highly competitive” U.S. private media expanded abroad, at which time “governmental overseas news” would “be limited mainly to such background information as full texts of Presidential statements [and] acts of Congress.”3 This privatization is enshrined in the legislation authorizing the VOA and the rest of public diplomacy. This requirement was to “put as much of this broadcasting in the hands of experienced private agencies as possible.”4 The BBG’s Broadcasting Standards, enshrined in the law, further state the BBG shall “not duplicate the activities of private United States broadcasters.”5 In other words, as private media stood up, the government would stand down.
Today, however, commercial media is stepping down, closing bureaus abroad and losing its ability to provide in-depth coverage of global events. When it does not ignore international affairs abroad, it often surrenders interpretation of the events and their causes to others.
The gap between what audiences need to know and what the media wants to tell them is progressively filled by foreign governments portraying events in their own favorable terms, while disparaging our activities. For example, China recently expanded its international reach into different markets, including in the Middle East, Africa, and the U.S. This year, China launched yet another international English language news channel to promote a Chinese perspective on global affairs. China Radio International even broadcasts from a station in Texas!
The Kremlin also stepped up its game and seemingly has every cable network in the U.S. carrying Russia Today, Russia’s English language public diplomacy news channel. Then there are the television stations (not to mention other mediums) of Korea, Japan, France, Germany, and of course the United Kingdom.
In 1994, Congress decided that information disseminated by foreign governments was no longer to be considered as propaganda and amended the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) of 1938. The result was the elimination of the requirement to label all foreign government media to be distributed in the U.S. as propaganda. The same is not true of U.S. government media, which continues to be implicitly labeled (and explicitly viewed) as propaganda.
Shawn Powers notes in his report on U.S. international broadcasting that American media routinely re-uses BBG- produced media. This is understandable considering that the BBG’s focus on news, not profits, means depth of coverage in areas the U.S. media avoids or is not interested in or cannot access. Technically, this use is illegal, even if there is no enforcement mechanism. But when newspapers and radio stations in the U.S. (or overseas) ask to re- package content for domestic use, permission is denied because of the Smith-Mundt Act. Such was the case with a community radio station in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Serving the largest Somali expatriate community in the U.S., the station was seeking an alternative to the propaganda of Al-Shabab, the Somali-terrorist group actively (and successfully) recruiting from the community. However, because of Smith-Mundt’s prohibition on domestic access to BBG media, the request was denied. The situation is the same with Arabic-speaking immigrants in the U.S. who are able to watch content produced by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera but are barred by the U.S. government from accessing BBG’s Arabic-language TV station Alhurra.
Another example of this absurd restriction is the case of a 2008 VOA film on the poppy harvest in Afghanistan. Various organizations requested permission to screen this program, including NATO (for their television station), Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities (to frame discussions on Afghanistan), and others. If China, Russia, or even Iran financed the film, the movie would have been readily available. However, as this was a BBG film and thus subject to the censorship of Congress under the Smith-Mundt Act, an act of Congress is required to permit domestic (or potentially domestic in the case of the NATO request) broadcast. The approval process for this film began in early 2009 and has yet to be completed due to standard Congressional apathy and lack of awareness regarding State Department and BBG authorizations. An attempt by Rep. Virginia Brown-Waite [R-FL-5] to block the domestic release did not cause a noticeable delay.6 Meanwhile, the video has been available on YouTube since 2008.
The result is a reduced awareness of the quality, quantity, purpose, and relevance of the BBG and even how tax dollars are spent – as well as insulating Americans from a world beyond our borders. This is not about competition with domestic broadcasters, but rather allowing them the choice to use the material. Fortunately, there is a legislation pending to modernize the Smith-Mundt Act that will bring transparency – and accountability – to the BBG while granting access to information to people within the U.S.
The BBG also faces the challenge of balancing the requirements of three masters: Congress, the Administration, and the needs of the foreign publics it is engaging. Congressional ability to tinker with BBG operations must not interfere with the BBG’s core mission of providing “accurate, objective, and balanced news, information, and other programming about America.”7 The firewall protecting the core mission must be sturdy to prevent responding to every breeze of change or shift in policy or, worse, becoming an extension of the White House press secretary’s office. But this firewall cannot be impenetrable: there are productive conversations that need to take place between parts of the government that will not diminish or tarnish the BBG’s reputation or efficacy. Balancing input from the legislative and executive branches too much is a delicate matter that requires understanding of the purpose and requirements of the BBG.
Nearly all of the BBG’s content is available online, as a report by Senator Richard Lugar’s office notes, but the BBG must to do more to move beyond this updated version of dissemination. It must adapt to a world of social media where providers lose control of content past initial broadcast and audiences talk back and among each other. This requires an agile and adaptive organization that can tolerate missteps. Complete risk aversion translates into silence and absence in today’s highly competitive and volatile environment where virtually anyone can have an impact on world affairs, from an anonymous person who filmed with a cell phone the death of Neda Agha Soltan, a young Iranian woman shot in the street while she was watching the protests, to a pastor with fifty followers in Florida. VOA may be on Facebook, but its presence is dwarfed by the State Department’s eJournal and even the website of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.8 There is an example to consider at a surrogate broadcaster: RFE/RL’s Uzbek service turns over the front page of its website to an Uzbek community blogger once a month.
The BBG must educate, empower, encourage, and support its organizations to move beyond the legacy of one- way transmission to multi-lateral engagement. The BBG’s social media strategy will be tested when debates between end-users take place on BBG websites, conversations that may not be appreciated by Congress, the Administration or even the BBG’s management.
As it moves forward, the BBG must anticipate answering several questions about its operations: “what should it do? Whom should it reach? How should it reach them? And what results is it getting?” These answers will be neither simple nor static. More importantly, understanding the often subjective answers requires a growing and deeper appreciation of operational and environmental nuances. This knowledge is too often absent among those funding, authorizing, or even relying on the BBG. This must be addressed if the BBG is to operate effectively in the global information environment of today and tomorrow.
In moving forward, we would do well to recall the words of Assistant Secretary Benton, who in 1945 captured the essential purpose and intent of U.S. government broadcasting:
“We need to open our own doors and minds, and invite a greater inflow of knowledge about other countries and peoples. International information must be a two- way traffic. We do not intend to take part in any sort of international ‘information race.’ Nor do we propose to depend on other nations to speak to the rest of the world on our behalf.”9
The new Governors of the BBG have their work cut out for them. The challenges they face are significant, but not insurmountable.
1. Another purpose of the Committee was to build support in Congress for the need for U.S. Government international broadcasting.↩
6. This vote was almost completely along party lines: Republicans opposing, Democrats favoring. This is interesting considering the film was produced under the Republican Administration and documents the previous policy and not the current Administration’s policy on poppies.↩
7. This mission statement itself needs attention as it emphasizes “freedom and democracy” over “accurate, objective, and balanced news”. Further, it also includes the outdated geographical bifurcation of domestic and “overseas” (apparently Mexico and Canada are excluded?) audiences.↩
8. For more State Department stats, see this post: http://mountainrunner. us/2010/09/pdsmstats.html↩
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Armstrong is president of the MountainRunner Institute, a non-profit think tank dedicated to facilitating informed discourse on public diplomacy and strategic communication. Matt is also an adjunct professor teaching public diplomacy at USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism and Communication. He blogs at www.MountainRunner.us.