BBG Chairman makes news by calling Russia’s and China’s official media America’s ‘enemies’; former BBG member gets praise on Capital Hill

BBG Chairman Walter IsaacsonThe Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Walter Isaacson, recently placed by President Obama in the job of managing U.S. international broadcasting, made news this week by naming China’s and Russia’s official media as America’s “enemies,” alongside state media in Iran and Venezuela. He used such strong language while calling for more money for his federal agency to combat foreign propaganda. Meanwhile, efforts of a former BBG member Blanquita Cullum, who tried to save Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Russia and fought against waste of U.S. taxpayer money by BBG executives, have been recognized on Capital Hill by a Republican senator.

KEYNOTE: Walter Isaacson at RFE’s 60th Anniversary Reception from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Vimeo.

A transcript of the speech is available here.

Mr. Isaacson, who has been the Chairman and CEO of CNN and the Managing Editor of TIME, made these comments at the 60th anniversary celebration for Radio Free Europe (RFE), which he credited with contributing to the end of the Cold War. When questioned by The Cable, a FOREIGN POLICY (FP) blog about his “enemies” comment, Isaacson apologized for the remark, while saying that the “enemies” he was referring to were in Afghanistan, not the several countries he mentioned.

“I of course did not mean to refer to, nor do I consider, that Russia, China, and the other countries or news services are enemies of the U.S., and I’m sorry if I gave that impression,” he told The Cable. The BBG has also published a statement of clarification on its website.

Mr. Isaacson received a rebuke for his comments from Russia Today Television, Russia’s TV broadcaster targeting foreign audiences, which he specifically mentioned in his speech.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies,” Mr. Isaacson said in his speech at the Radio Free Europe anniversary celebration. “You’ve got Russia Today, Iran’s Press TV, Venezuela’s TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the world [and has] reportedly set aside six to ten billion [dollars] — we’ve to go to Capitol Hill with that number — to expand their overseas media operations.”

The BBG, with an annual budget of $757.5 million (estimated in FY2010), oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)—Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television.

The BBG has been ridden with scandals and its employees consider it one of the worst places to work at within the U.S. federal government. One of the most blatant examples of editorial mismanagement at the BGG was the airing of statements by Holocaust deniers by Alhurra Television.

Former BBG members, both Democrats and Republicans (by law the BBG must be bipartisan), have been accused by Agency employees and others of favoring private contractors, including some of their former associates, at the newly created stations such as Alhurra. Unlike the Voice of America, which is subject to strict U.S. government fiscal regulations and operates under a Congressional Charter mandating specific editorial standards, these stations are privately-run and face less fiscal and editorial scrutiny while still using federal government funds.

To get more money to run semi-private broadcasting operations at Radio Sawa and Alhurra, the same former BBG members, with the exception of Blanquita Cullum, voted to end or reduce VOA radio broadcasts in Arabic, Russian, Georgian, Ukrainian, and Tibetan. BBG executives ended VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian military incursion into Georgia in July 2008.

Ms. Cullum’s fight against mismanagement at the BBG was recognized by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, in a statement placed in The Congressional Record.

“Chief among her concerns,” Senator Coburn wrote, “has been for the continuation of U.S. international radio broadcasts, the form of communication which to this day remains the most readily accessible and cost-effective means of communication for billions of oppressed people living in poverty.”

Senator Coburn has been a consistent critic of the way the BBG manages its broadcasting operations and spends public funds. He has charged that not even the Voice of America is free from serious editorial errors.

Senator Coburn has publicized examples of VOA broadcasts to Iran which, he charges, undermine U.S. policy and gave a platform for anti-American propaganda. He has also charged that U.S. broadcasts in Arabic on Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television have also given “uninterrupted and unchallenged platforms to terrorists and other enemies of the U.S. and our allies.”

Commenting on Mr. Isaacson’s speech, Free Media Online president Ted Lipien said that the current BBG chairman is right about the need to strengthen America’s ability to communicate with foreign audiences and to counter disinformation. “I’m disappointed, however, that Mr. Isaacson is calling for spending more U.S. taxpayer money without also promising a serious effort to fundamentally reform his dysfunctional agency,” Lipien said.

Ted Lipien, a former BBG manager and former acting associate director of the Voice of America, pointed out that about half of the BBG’s current budget is wasted on unnecessary bureaucracies created by former BBG members.

“The BBG’s current organizational chart is a glaring example how branding of U.S. international broadcasting has been hopelessly diffused among a number of stations, each one with its own bureaucracy but most lacking a journalistic tradition, name recognition, credibility, and effectiveness” Lipien said. He pointed out that the BBC World Service attracts a higher weekly global audience, 180 million people, compared with the BBG’s questionable claim of 171 million, while spending far less money ($434 million versus $757.5 for the BBG).

“There is not enough money to run effectively even one U.S. international broadcasting station, such as the Voice of America, much less operating several stations at the same time. Some of these BBG-managed private entities broadcast to the same countries as VOA, and each one of them has its own set of administrators and private consultants whose salaries and frequent international travels are paid for by U.S. taxpayers. (The Broadcasting Board of Governors will meet on Wednesday, October 13, 2010, in Prague, Czech Republic. The BBG members and their staff will stay at luxury hotels in Prague and will be entertained by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty at a cost to U.S. taxpayers that would not be tolerated if RFE/RL were subject to the same regulations as U.S. government agencies in Washington, DC. American executives working at RFE/RL in Prague pay neither U.S. nor Czech taxes while denying basic labor law protections to most foreign-born RFE/RL journalists employed in the Czech Republic.) It would not occur to the British to create unnecessary competition for the BBC and to weaken its brand. The British public would not stand for such a foolish waste of tax money,” Lipien said.

Ted Lipien also said that the BBG has made a fundamental mistake of using an otherwise highly successful model of World War II and Cold War surrogate radio broadcasting — which was designed to undermine and help to replace Nazi and Communist regimes — by trying to apply the same model to the post-Cold War international media environment. While it made sense during World War II and the Cold War to have a number of different U.S.-funded broadcasters — some of which were run by highly-skilled CIA officers who tightly controlled program content — operating the same way now using private contractors who work without proper fiscal and editorial controls is highly wasteful and, most of all, lacks credibility and effectiveness,” Lipien said.

“During WWII and the Cold War, we were broadcasting to audiences which were strongly pro-American and lacked access to other sources of uncensored information. We are now trying to reach audiences which hold strongly negative views about the United States and usually have access to other media sources. Countering disinformation, censorship, and killings of journalists in countries like Russia requires a different set of managerial skills than broadcasting to the Soviet Union or to China before her emergence as a major economic power.”

“Surrogate broadcasting, if properly managed, can still be useful for a small number of countries, such as Cuba or North Korea, but in most cases it is now counterproductive, especially in the Arab world. Audience surveys conducted during the Cold War showed that even then audiences in Eastern Europe thought that surrogate broadcasting, while highly appreciated, was less trustworthy then the Voice of America programs, although they viewed the latter as sometimes naive about life under communism,” Lipien said.

“Mr. Isaacson made a number of good points in his speech, but it was not clear from his comments whether the money he wants will not be wasted by career BBG bureaucracts and their private contractors and consultants. Together with most of the former BBG members, with the notable exception of Blanquita Cullum, they are responsible for seriously weakening America’s brand and credibility in international broadcasting,” said Ted Lipien, president of Free Media Online, a California-based nonprofit which supports independent journalism worldwide.

This report was first published by Logo. Truckee, CA, USA, October 08, 2010.

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