What return on investment do American taxpayers receive for the money we pay for international broadcasting in 61 languages from the Voice of America and five other USG-funded media organizations? And is that investment effective? The answer to each question is, we believe, not nearly enough.
Having recently spent several years on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed body responsible for oversight of international broadcasting, we have serious reservations about the effectiveness of the taxpayers’ current investment of $720 million. In our experience, U.S. international broadcasting is run by a dysfunctional organization in pursuit of an unfocused mission attached only tenuously to U.S. foreign policy objectives. This state of affairs is the result of the last round of “reforms” to international broadcasting in the 1990s. It hasn’t worked.
Fortunately change is in the air again, this time serious reform that actually addresses U.S. international broadcasting’s many challenges.
The BBG —the product of the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994 and the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998—is a perfect storm of unworkable structure, broken governance, and no management. Try to follow this.
Today’s BBG oversees six separate international broadcasting organizations. Three—the Voice of America (VOA), the Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB), and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)—are part of the BBG federal agency, which operates under federal guidelines much like all other federal agencies. The other three organizations—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), and Radio Free Asia (RFA) are federal “grantees.” This means that they are not a direct part of the federal agency, but rather are set up as non-profit 501(c)3s operating as private companies. Thus the BBG is responsible for reconciling two incompatible governance models, one federal and one private.
These six different media organizations compete for funding to support their diverse missions, with members of the BBG supposedly responsible for adjudicating which organizations get how much and for what. Yet in an obvious conflict of interests, members of the BBG separately and at the same time form the supposedly independent fiduciary board of each grantee. In practice, this means that each BBG board member is actually a member of the board of no less than four theoretically independent and competing entities, while still retaining separate jurisdiction over the non-grantees—the VOA, OCB, and IBB—in the federal agency. Not surprisingly, little incentive exists for the different networks to cooperate by combining capabilities, sharing assets, creating synergistic strategies or shutting down duplication. In fact, they spend a disproportionate amount of time competing with each other for funds and advantage, putting their respective boards squarely in the middle, while important strategic and mission-focused activities often suffer.
The original concept of the board itself abets the dysfunction. The BBG was designed to be a part-time bipartisan oversight group of four Democrats and four Republicans, with the sitting Secretary of State serving ex officio as the ninth member. In practice this means that most Governors have outside jobs, often as heads of major corporations or institutions, and little time to oversee six complex media organizations. The chairman has no special powers or authority, just one vote. No one is in charge. And with no management structure—no CEO, COO or even an operational director—the BBG defaults to those individual Governors who may be inclined to interfere directly in the operations of the networks, seldom, in our experience, to good effect.
Confused yet? No one can seriously believe this is a good way to rationalize and manage a complex organization in a fast-changing media environment dedicated to serving hundreds of millions of people across the globe in need of coherent news, perspectives, analysis, and an understanding of American objectives, policies, and attitudes.
The muddle deepens when one considers U.S. international broadcasting’s dual purpose. The notional division of labor for U.S. international broadcasting is, first, to support America’s public diplomacy by explaining American policy and “telling America’s story” to listeners and viewers worldwide while offering a menu of objective news and information. The second function is to provide “surrogate” media services focused on local news, with analysis and commentary, in societies where media are not independent or are easily influenced or intimidated.
The public diplomacy role—explaining American policy and telling America’s story—belongs to the Voice of America, or should. The “surrogate” broadcasting role was originated and made famous by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War, which is the model for the other grantee organizations. But in reality, the division of labor between public diplomacy and surrogate broadcasting is in the eye of the beholder, with the blurring of responsibility most notable at the Voice of America, which duplicates a number of the “surrogate” language services of RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia. At the same time the VOA’s broadcasts to some markets, for example to sub-Saharan Africa where it is the only U.S. broadcaster, are mostly “surrogate” by design.
Meanwhile VOA’s public diplomacy function is out of favor with many at VOA, who complain that it should be an independent news agency free of compromising associations with U.S. policy. Back to the taxpayers, who might be forgiven for asking why they should be footing the bill for adding more “news and information” to an saturated global media universe—already exploding from thousands of traditional, new, and social media sources in virtually every corner of the world—without so much as a mention of America’s interests or points of view. What’s the point? Where’s the return on investment?
In early 2011, we were two of three principal authors of a radical plan that addressed all of these issues. That plan called for refocusing VOA’s mission and consolidating the grantee networks into a single organization, where strategic priorities could be set and assets shared; a chief executive officer to manage all U.S. international broadcasting’s day-to-day operations (thereby getting the board out of management); and the elimination of competing broadcasting efforts spread across the five networks. The BBG voted unanimously to adopt the plan. Almost immediately one or two members consistently and successfully blocked efforts to implement it. Today, more than three years later, not much has changed: no consolidation, no CEO, and little progress on ending duplication and waste. And U.S. international broadcasting remains as distant from any connection to our nation’s foreign policy objectives as ever.
The United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490) will change this. It incorporates most elements of our proposed plan and goes one better: it abolishes the BBG. This bipartisan bill, sponsored by Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and ranking member Elliott Engel, calls for strengthening the congressionally mandated and longstanding missions of the VOA (public diplomacy) and the grantees (surrogate broadcasting), and it creates urgently needed new oversight and management structures for each to implement them effectively.
First, the legislation replaces the BBG with the U.S. International Communications Agency (USICA), which will have direct jurisdiction over only the federal agency, which is over the VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. (The International Broadcasting Bureau, an anomaly from the earlier reform acts, will be abolished.) USICA will have its own CEO, who will be responsible for day-to-day management of the agency.
Second, HR4490 will consolidate the surrogate Radio Frees—RFE/RL, MBN and RFA—into a single grantee organization, the Freedom News Network, with its own board and CEO apart from USICA. Surrogate broadcasting, a powerful foreign policy soft power instrument, will get a new impetus and stronger strategic connections to broad U.S. foreign policy objectives as well as a new, worldwide mandate.
Pushback on the proposed legislation, which passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously in June, has been light, with even the VOA’s unions in support. Some veterans of VOA have expressed concern that the Royce/Engel reforms could lower the firewall between U.S. international broadcasting and meddlesome policy bodies, especially the State Department.
We believe this concern is overblown. In fact, the new bill reaffirms the important safeguards enshrined in the VOA Charter passed by Congress and signed by President Ford almost 40 years ago. But, the Voice of America is America’s voice, not an independent agent like CNN. No one can plausibly imagine that “political neutrality” is part of its raison d’être, nor should it be. And, in fact, our global audience is not naive, they generally are aware of the networks’ U.S. government connections (indeed the U.S. link is continually pointed out by their own government’s propaganda, yet they choose to listen or watch anyway). Research also shows consistent patterns of audiences wanting more discussion of U.S. policy, opinions, and attitudes, not less, on issues of concern to them.
In today’s global media environment, much of it implacably anti-American, presenting honest and objective discussions of American interests, policies and strategies has never been more important. We believe that this, first and foremost, is what American taxpayers expect from their investment in VOA.
The surrogate networks, too, are seeing their historic mission gain urgency. Events in Ukraine are a wakeup call that the competition over local media is a central battleground in the struggle against aggressive states like Russia. Asia and the Middle East are particularly challenging media battlegrounds where surrogate media is critical. The trend of authoritarian regimes to censor local news is growing alarmingly, and the surrogate broadcasters present an existential challenge to these efforts. Most important, the surrogates puncture these regimes’ preferred narratives, which many compliant local media tailor to their regime’s preferences while willfully ignoring evidence of their mendacity. Think of how Russia overloaded local media with pernicious narratives of its motives and actions in Ukraine.
This is a more complex, nuanced, and competitive environment with many more players. Russia, China, Iran, and Middle Eastern states are investing massively to increase their media reach, sophistication, and credibility. We need to face facts: our competitors are making serious public diplomacy inroads at the expense of American and Western values and interests throughout the world. The Freedom News Network, assuming the legislation passes, will have its work cut out and will require substantial support from Congress. This low cost, high impact competitive instrument should become once again a reinvigorated part of America’s soft- and smart-power.
We are engaged in a global war of ideas and U.S. government-funded media can be one of the strongest and most cost-effective means we have to compete successfully. The proposed reforms are badly needed, long overdue, and deserve support. Like all efforts to reform things that have been badly broken for a long time, HR4490 is not perfect. But it is an important—indeed, admirable—effort to set necessary reform in motion. It is also a heartening example of real bipartisan cooperation to achieve important results. From our experience on the front lines of U.S. international broadcasting, this urgent reform cannot happen soon enough.
Dennis Mulhaupt served on the BBG from 2010-2013, chaired its governance committee and was alternate presiding governor in 2012-13. S. Enders Wimbush served on the BBG from 2010 -2012 and chaired its strategy and budget committee. He served as director of Radio Liberty from 1987-93.