Allegations of ‘Trump TV’ distract from real issues at Broadcasting Board of Governors

Allegations of ‘Trump TV’ distract from real issues at Broadcasting Board of Governors
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The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton: FBI investigation into Kavanaugh could be done quickly Hillary Clinton urges Americans to 'check and reject' Trump's 'authoritarian tendencies' by voting in midterms EXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency MORE once called “practically defunct,” is finally getting new leadership, provoking opposition from those who say Trump will turn it into an administration mouthpiece. This has prompted some in Congress to consider new legislation to insulate it. But the hyperbole surrounding Trump’s choice to be the BBG’s first confirmed chief executive officer (CEO) is a distraction from the agency’s more fundamental problems. Since inception, the BBG has been plagued by dysfunction and poor management, leading some to call for reconstitution of the United States Information Agency (USIA). 

It’s been two decades since the BBG was established as a stand-alone agency out of the ashes of the USIA, but it remains beset by problems. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Office of the Inspector General (OIG) regularly point to its structural and internal governance failures; the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey which ranks it as one of the worst places to work in the federal government.

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Under President Clinton in 1994, the various roles of USIA were determined “so central to U.S. foreign policy efforts that they belonged within the Department of State itself.” The non-broadcasting public diplomacy elements of USIA were consolidated within State but it has been a rocky transition at best.

 

The broadcasting elements of USIA — Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — were grouped under the new BBG management structure. In an attempt to build congressional support for the reform and assuage journalists’ fears about editorial control over content by political partisans, the BBG was to be supervised by a bipartisan nine-member board. 

Board members were not forced to give up their careers and worked part-time, usually two days a month. The White House selected four Republicans and four Democrats plus the Secretary of State (or his or her representative), but no day-to-day manager was established. In 2013, the OIG called the BBG “structurally a mess.” These problems were compounded by a deep-rooted BBG culture, which fought becoming part of the foreign policy and national security structures.

The BBG has long held that its value is providing uncensored news and information to people around the world. The first Voice of America broadcasters signed on by saying “the news may be good or bad (but) we shall tell you the truth.”

However, as the ability to access uncensored news and information has expanded, the challenge has been to cut through the cacophony of voices and reach target audiences. This has created tension within the BBG: Should it provide news and information that is readily available through other outlets and platforms, or should it try to reach audiences with strategic messaging intended to advance U.S. security objectives?

The result has been the near-isolation of the BBG from other elements like the State Department, and disinterest or neglect on the part of legislative and executive branches.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have used the board as a form of political patronage. Board seats have frequently gone unfilled for months, creating a crisis in 2013 when the lack of a quorum meant even basic decisions could not be made.

In addition, the agency has been unable to demonstrate an ability to shape public opinion in target communities. Instead, it has relied on traditional media metrics, touting that it “provides content in 61 languages to a record measured audience of 278 million people each week in more than 100 countries on radio, television, and digital media platforms.” According to the BBG, since 2010, audience size increased by 113 million — but many in Congress want success to be defined as being able “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

In 2013, Secretary of State Clinton testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the BBG did not have the capacity “to be able to tell a message around the world, [thereby] abdicating the ideological arena.” Pressure from a bipartisan group of congressmen, led by Committee Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoycePoll: House GOP candidate leads in California swing district Overnight Defense: Congress reaches deal preventing shutdown | Pentagon poised to be funded on time for first time in years | House GOP rejects effort to get Putin summit documents GOP rejects effort to force release of documents about private Trump-Putin meeting MORE (R-Calif.), forced the BBG to launch a new “impact model” that was a complete failure. 

In 2014, Royce introduced legislation to overhaul the BBG, implementing many reforms proposed by an independent panel of experts in 2007 and endorsed in the BBG’s 2012 five-year plan. The Royce legislation passed the House unanimously and had support of the BBG workforce union, the Heritage Foundation and numerous notable experts of U.S. public diplomacy, but it died in the Senate, was reintroduced in 2015 and died again, despite strong bipartisan support in the House and the Senate.

Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election woke many in Congress to the dangers of “weaponized information.” Yet, in another demonstration of the BBG’s foreign policy irrelevance and self-imposed exile, Congress authorized the State Department, not the BBG, to lead the fight against Russian disinformation. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision to dissolve the BBG board and install a CEO, a reform proposed by the board in 2011.

Many former USIA employees reminisce about the halcyon days when their work was relevant to U.S. foreign policy. Today, the BBG should be the “tip of the spear” in responding to and countering foreign propaganda but, as Secretary Clinton noted, it is no longer able — or perhaps willing — to fulfill that mission; instead, its dysfunction and foreign policy irrelevance raise questions about whether it can be fixed or should be dissolved.

Congress annually appropriates almost $750 million to the BBG. It’s time to get serious about reforming it to ensure a better return on that investment, or to try something else. 

Thomas Hill is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he served as a senior professional staff member for the majority staff of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs covering State Department operations. He also served for nearly 10 years at the Department of State, in both domestic and overseas assignments. Follow him on Twitter @seatodca.