Divided we’ll fall

Right now, legislation is pending in the House of Representatives that would do the unthinkable – restrict our government’s ability to broadcast news and information in Arabic to the Arabic-speaking world.

As a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon, I know that whether discrediting ISIS’s murderous ideology, providing a clear explanation of American policy, or better explaining the hallmarks of American culture in places where it is not well understood, there is no substitute for the ability to talk people across the Middle East in their own language.

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Last year, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), led by Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), passed the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015 (HR2323) to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. government oversight body on which I serve.  The BBG oversees television, radio and Internet programming in 60 languages to more than 100 countries in the world, through five networks: Voice of America, (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). Together they inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

The intention of the bill is to improve the efficiency and efficacy of U.S. international media, as the bill’s supporters argue that the BBG has in the past suffered under the management of a board comprised of nine part-time governors.  On that we all agree; however, in my view, this criticism is outdated.

Today, the day-to-day operations of the BBG are no longer managed by the board, but rather by full-time Chief Executive Officer John Lansing, an award winning journalist and highly experienced private sector media executive. In his short tenure, Lansing has already instituted several commonsense reforms that, if passed, HR2323 would eviscerate.

With the board’s support, one of CEO Lansing’s top priorities has been to improve coordination between the BBG’s five networks, which previously operated as five independent entities, and focus them on mission requirements. To that end, he convened - for the first time in the agency’s history - a regular meeting of the leaders of these networks. The International Media Coordinating Committee (ICC) meets biweekly with the CEO to collaborate on strategic priorities, share resources, and discuss programming ideas. This effort has already resulted in better news coverage across the BBG, including content sharing on key stories like the Paris attacks and the 2016 U.S. elections.

Yet HR2323 would dismantle this coordination by creating a second CEO and a second board to manage MBN, RFE/RL and RFA, selected by the networks’ presidents themselves. The new structure would be subject to no meaningful federal oversight by the BBG, answerable to neither the White House nor the Congress, and permitted to set its own goals, strategies, and objectives. Instead of improving coordination, HR2323 will divide U.S. international media in the face of a growing enemy propagandist threat and create an expensive and duplicative new government bureaucracy.

This is a recipe for strategic confusion and creates an environment where fiscal mismanagement is far more likely. In fact, HR2323 would recreate the very pre-BBG structure that, in 1997, then-Senators Kerry and Feingold called a “breeding ground for fiscal abuse.”

But perhaps most concerning is that this bill will certainly weaken our international broadcasting across the board. At this very moment, global competitors like Russia and China are centralizing their media apparatuses to ensure powerful, whole-of-government approaches in global media. Perplexingly, HR2323 will divide ours. Rather than strengthening our voice in the face of Russian propaganda, ISIS’s insidious global outreach, and China’s massive censorship efforts, HR2323 will instead result in a confused whisper as competing organizations fight over smaller budgets and work at cross-purposes, confusing our audiences and allowing our opponents’ lies to go unchallenged.

Perhaps nowhere is this harm more evident than in our Arabic language programming.

I urge the Congress to avoid weakening U.S. international media at the very moment we need it most.  The BBG Board is more nonpartisan than ever and now benefits from a new reformist CEO. Indeed, meaningful reform is already underway at BBG – we simply ask the Congress to give it a chance to take root. 

The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

Crocker is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors; dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and has served as U.S. ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kuwait.

 

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