US international broadcasting: Rebuilding the firewall in the new administration

President-elect Joe Biden, who as a senator had a key interest in U.S. international broadcasting, is looking at its future. 

He named Richard Stengel, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, to head the transition team for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Under USAGM are the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc., Radio Free Asia Inc., Office of Cuba Broadcast (Radio/TV Martí to Cuba) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks Inc. (the Arabic-language Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa).

With government officials under President Trump instructed not to cooperate with Biden’s teams, the transition for the time being will have to be done from afar. The Trump-appointed USAGM CEO Michael Pack, whose leadership has fomented several controversies since he was installed in June, might decide to be a benign, if uncooperative, caretaker until the new management comes in. Or he could impose personnel changes and alterations in content that could diminish the credibility of the USAGM entities, a situation that could take years to repair.

During his campaign, Biden promised to fire Pack. Pack might try to serve out the three-year term stipulated in the legislation that replaced the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) with a politically appointed CEO (Pack being the first). If such an attempt ends up in court, a June Supreme Court decision overruling the fixed term of the director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, a victory for the Trump administration, could, ironically, be the undoing of any plans by Pack to stay on at USAGM.

Pack has already left his mark by rescinding the firewall “rule” published in June by the outgoing BBG. The rule, however, was not an act of Congress or a presidential directive. It was simply language placed in the Federal Register “to codify and memorialize definitions and practices associated with the firewall.” On such shallow roots, this tree was easy to fall. In October, Pack issued a repeal, which waved away the firewall rule as readily as it was instituted.

On firmer footing are provisions about journalistic standards included in the International Broadcasting Act of 1994, which was sponsored by then-Sen. Biden (and amended several times since 1994). These sections of the act are often used to bolster the editorial independence of the USAGM entities. But while the act giveth independence, it also taketh it away.

The passage most often cited by defenders of the firewall is “United States international broadcasting shall include…  news which is consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” But the same section of the act also states that United States international broadcasting shall include “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States Government.” Politically appointed executives of USAGM and its entities could dial up a ratio that increases “presentation of the policies” at the expense of news. Indeed, Pack has expressed his fondness for the policies part of the mandate.

And then there is the passage in the act that states “United States international broadcasting shall … be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.” This sentence is often cited by detractors of U.S. international broadcasting to back up their claims that the USAGM’s news organizations are, after all, propaganda agencies.

One can argue that the “broad foreign policy objectives” are served by providing the news that is not available in countries with state controlled media. On the other hand, a more fundamentalist view of this passage is that news should be selected and phrased to serve those objectives. This would be a credibility killer as the audience would quickly perceive the bias.

The letter of the International Broadcasting Act is a minefield. The real firewall is (was) a bipartisan board that acknowledges the spirit of the act and appoints CEOs, directors and presidents who are devoted to independent journalism. And with the staggered three-year terms of the old BBG, transitions from one administration to the next were mainly limited to the political majority of the board (the Secretary of State as tie breaker, if decisions ever came to a tie), with directors and presidents of the entities usually staying on board.

It may be years before such a bipartisan board can be restored, it having been dissolved just months ago. In the meantime, Biden could create an advisory panel. It would consist of respected journalists and media executives, with international experience, representing a spectrum of political orientations. Such a panel would be better off without commentators, pundits, political strategists and public relations flacks, as important as those professions are. Members should not be so high in their corporate management chains that they don’t have time to attend meetings or to participate in the work of the board.

The main task of the panel would be to recommend to the president a suitably qualified and independently minded CEO of USAGM. And to recommend to the USAGM CEO the directors and presidents of USAGM’s entities.

The panel can also recommend its own replacements as vacancies occur. If the panel distinguishes itself, there is a good chance it will survive into future administrations of either party. And with that, U.S. international broadcasting would have the provisional firewall it needs to protect its independence, and therefore its credibility, and therefore its ability to compete in a complex global media environment. 

Kim Andrew Elliott is a retired Voice of America audience research analyst and media journalist.

Tags biden administration Broadcasting Board of Governors Donald Trump global media International broadcasting international news Joe Biden michael pack President-elect Biden state-run media transition team USAGM

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