More oversight of America’s international media networks a good idea

More oversight of America’s international media networks a good idea
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Congress is reviewing legislation that will help guarantee outside oversight of America’s international media networks. The bill is valuable as it is, but could be even stronger.

Bill S.3654, sponsored by Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMore oversight of America’s international media networks a good idea Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Trump lowers refugee goal to 30,000, he must meet it MORE (D-N.J.) and approved Wednesday by the Committee on Foreign Relations, is the latest in a long series of measures to change the structure of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. USAGM, which was known until August as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, administers the operations of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the three other media networks financed by Congress: Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

Together, the networks operate in some 60 languages on radio, television and the internet, serving 345 million people outside the United States.

S.3654 limits the sweeping powers that Congress granted USAGM’s CEO in a 2016 revision of the International Broadcasting Act. The new measure also tasks the International Broadcasting Advisory Board, authorized by the 2016 revision but never actually created, with monitoring the professionalism and independence of the networks.

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The 2016 act was a reaction to widespread dissatisfaction with the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The board, an eight-member bipartisan panel with the secretary of state ex officio, had previously tried to run the broadcasters by committee. The 2016 act transferred most of the board’s powers to the agency’s CEO, currently John F. Lansing, endowing him with the right to name the heads of each network, “direct” the networks’ work and move congressional funding around among them.

The 2016 legislation led critics to assert that the Trump administration would use the “empowered CEO,” untrammeled by outside monitoring, to transform the networks into a political propaganda operation. The administration has nominated Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker who has also been a senior vice president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to replace Lansing as CEO. However, there has been no public indication that the administration has a major new agenda for the networks.

Whatever the politics of the moment, the new legislation is a good structural idea in itself. True, it limits the power of a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed official to run his own agency – not a typical arrangement in the government. But the broadcasters aren’t just another government department; their business is journalism.

During my tenure as president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty it seemed to me that as a journalistic organization, we needed – like many other leading journalistic enterprises – a top-level, robust body as an extra check on personnel decisions, objectivity and professional standards.

The 2016 law tiptoed toward providing such oversight by creating the bipartisan, five-member Advisory Board, consisting of the secretary of state and four prominent private citizens. But the 2016 law gave that board almost no authority. S.3654 takes a big step toward creating real oversight, giving the Advisory Board power that could actually attract people of distinction to serve on it. (The Advisory Board will consist initially of the present members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who continue to meet despite their loss of power to the CEO. They struggle for quorums and have little visibility; their replacements should actively monitor USAGM’s work and discharge their responsibilities with vigor.)

Under S.3654, The Advisory Board’s members – who are to be “distinguished in … public diplomacy, mass communications, print, broadcast or digital media, or foreign affairs” – will have to approve the CEO’s naming of the head of any network. They will also be able to fire a network chief after consulting with the CEO.

The Advisory Board will have specific responsibility as well to make sure the CEO respects the networks’ “integrity and editorial independence” and that the networks adhere to the “highest professional standards and ethics.”

Congress can do even more to protect the credibility of the networks. Three of them – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks – are not government agencies but private companies, operating on congressional grants administered by USAGM and benefiting from private sector advantages. 

While the Voice of America’s mission is to tell America’s story, the grantees have a “surrogate local press” role of creating free media in countries where it is nonexistent or still developing. Their status as private establishments rather than government agencies greatly enhances this mission.

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Congress gave the grantee networks boards of their own, but those bodies now have little power in light of the CEO’s right to direct the work of all the networks. The CEO still has the right, under the 2016 law, to name the grantees’ boards; they can even consist of government officials. (At present their members are non-government, the same people as on the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)

If Congress truly respects the private status it gave the grantees, it should assign their boards powers of their own; the 2016 legislation says grantees shall not be made “a federal agency or instrumentality.” Congress should also require that their board members be private citizens – at least some of them different from the Advisory Board members – with expertise in the areas of the world each grantee serves.

However the roles of the USAGM CEO, the Advisory Board and grantees develop, the networks’ quality and integrity will remain essential. The new legislation is a useful step toward preserving them.

Thomas Kent was president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty until this September. Formerly he was standards editor and international editor of The Associated Press, and an AP bureau chief and correspondent in Moscow, Tehran, Brussels and Sydney. Follow him on Twitter @tjrkent.