FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog The Federalist Commentary, December 9, 2008, San Francisco — One of our regular contributors offers a unique perspective on the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors and its policies that led to the outsourcing of U.S. international broadcasting to scandal-ridden private entities. One of them, Alhurra Television for the Middle East, was described in an independent study, which the BBG tried to keep secret, as failing to meet basic journalistic standards. The BBG is also responsible for the closing of many Voice of America radio broadcasting services, including radio broadcasts to Russia.
This commentary was written before the Broadcasting Board of Governors released the Alhurra report in response to pressures from Congress, investigative journalists and media freedom organizations. ProPublica.org, a nonprofit investigative journalisim website, reported that BBG Executive Director Jeffrey Trimble delivered copies of the report Wedenesday to Congressional investigators with the House Foreign Affairs Committee who until then had unsuccessfully sought the report for several months.
According to ProPublica.org, Trimble has appeared three times before House committee staff this year to answer questions on Alhurra since a joint investigation of the network in June by ProPublica and CBS’ 60 Minutes. Trimble and BBG members have also ignored Congressional requests and warnings not to end Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia, which they did secretly 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia. It is likely that the sudden decision by the BBG to make the Alhurra report public was due to the arrival in Washington of the Obama transision team members selected to review U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting operations.
In the weeks between the November national election and the January inauguration, the incoming administration fans out members of its transition team to the many Federal agencies to obtain an overview of their operations. This tradition is currently underway by the incoming Obama administration.
One of these transition units has been assigned to assess the operations of the US international broadcasting entities under the direction of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
It is rather doubtful that this team will receive a complete, objective and detailed explanation of what has been taking place under the BBG for the past eight years. This may not be solely related to the Board, but also due to the senior International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) career bureaucrats who act on behalf of the Board, but are also tenacious in protecting their own interests (and careers) above all else.
Therefore, the following is offered as a critique of certain aspects of US international broadcasting under the direction of the BBG that warrant the attention of the transition team.
The BBG “Strategic Plan”
US international broadcasting has suffered from flawed decision-making and strategic misdirection under the BBG/IBB.
A key component to the BBG strategic plan is the intention to move the Voice of America (VOA) in a direction that ultimately results in ending its direct radio broadcasts. In place of these broadcasts, the Board intends to adopt an Internet-only strategy, relying solely upon its websites to provide audio, video and text to potential audiences. This may appear as a state-of-the-art approach, attractive to our technology-driven outlook, particularly inside the Washington Beltway. However, for most global populations, this technology is unaffordable, unavailable or impractical, particularly at the high end of the spectrum using broadband or wireless technologies.
It also ignores the fact that taking a one-dimensional approach makes it much easier to adopt a variety of countermeasures, electronic and otherwise, from simply cutting off access to BBG/VOA websites to more aggressive acts such as hacking these sites in direct cyber warfare. The BBG is wholly unprepared for and dismissive of the scope of this threat.
Since it will take decades for this strategy to reach optimum penetration in the best of circumstances, it provides long-term job security to those who are its proponents. This puts self interest ahead of mission effectiveness or the National and Public Interest.
The transition unit should be concerned that the consequence of this BBG strategy is to eliminate the VOA as an international broadcaster, cutting off existing and potential mass global audiences who have access to relatively inexpensive radios capable of receiving VOA radio broadcasts. The effect is similar to that of an inverted pyramid, where large audiences are eliminated by funneling them through Internet choke points that can be blocked off with minimal effort and maximum effect.
Vacuum of Silence
The transition unit should be concerned that BBG decisions have resulted in a deliberate, self-imposed US international broadcasting communications blackout in key regions of the world.
In the late Summer of 2008, the Board eliminated direct radio broadcasts to Russia. Not long afterward, Russian military units moved against the Republic of Georgia in a dispute over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The BBG blackout of VOA direct broadcasts to Russia remains in effect. This blackout not only ended radio broadcasts for audiences in the Russian Republic. It also cut off and blacked out radio programs in Russian to the former Soviet republics where Russian is spoken as a second language.
In September 2008, the BBG ended Hindi-language broadcasts to India. Thus, in December 2008 there was a US international broadcasting blackout in Hindi language programming when a terrorist cell attacked civilian commercial targets frequented by Westerners in Mumbai, India. This BBG blackout remains in effect.
The BBG has created a strategic vacuum in US international broadcasting. Its “strategic plan” has placed virtually complete reliance upon non-US Internet service providers (ISPs) to carry its audio, video and text media. These foreign entities can be interdicted by cyber countermeasures or periodic cycles of news and media censorship.
This BBG plan has resulted in a wholesale abandonment of real and potential audiences through direct radio broadcasts…radio broadcasts that were largely under direct and secure US control of domestic and foreign broadcasting transmission facilities. The BBG has broken US international broadcasting’s strategic radio bridge in areas of known conflict, which can quickly escalate into broader confrontations with global repercussions.
Middle East Broadcasting
The transition unit should be particularly troubled with the BBG broadcasting project to the Middle East known as alHurra television.
By all accounts, this multi-million dollar entity is a “broadcast flop.” At enormous cost, this project has failed to achieve any substantive results in terms of changing Arab and Muslim public opinion from its highly negative posture to one that is more amenable to US policy in the region.
The BBG has suppressed a report prepared by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, at the Board’s request and at public expense, regarding the operations of the alHurra television network. Suppressing a report on a controversial project is a deliberate attempt to prevent public and broader governmental scrutiny of the operations of the alHurra television station that the BBG oversees.
AlHurra television broadcasts to Arab and Muslims audiences over public airwaves. For the Board to suppress and/or otherwise cover-up a report on the operations of this station leads inexorably to the conclusion that there must be something seriously amiss. One would think that the Board would understand the implication. Apparently, it does not.
A Development on the Transition Team
Dean Wilson appointed to presidential transition team
USC Annenberg School for Communications
December 2, 2008
Dean Wilson will serve several functions in the transition. He will lead a team reviewing America’s international broadcasting services, including the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He will also be an advisor to the transition team working with the U.S. Department of State on public diplomacy issues.
This is of particular note to interested observers of the transition process. It is unclear and unstated what Mr. Wilson’s view is of the BBG action to suppress the Annenberg Report on the controversial alHurra television project.
If previous experience is of any value, in the politics of the BBG it may be observed that nothing happens by chance or coincidence.
From published reports, indications are that the BBG appears to be suppressing the report because it contains observations and conclusions that may reflect negatively upon the operations of alHurra or point to the ineffectiveness of the BBG and its senior career managers to take effective remedial action.
It is in the National and Public Interest that this report be made public.
Clearly, the operative issue of the moment is: what happens to the Annenberg Report in this mix of circumstances and events? Does it remain buried or does it receive public attention, discussion and debate? As long as the Annenberg report remains suppressed, legitimate deficiencies in that operation will remain uncorrected and the damage to US credibility with Arab and Muslim audiences will be perpetuated indefinitely.
The OPM Human Capital Survey
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts a regular survey of Federal agencies known as “The Human Capital Survey.”
Consistently, the BBG ranks near or at rock bottom among Federal agencies of similar size. Among other things, this survey demonstrates that the employees do not identify with the goals and objectives of the Board. If the Board cannot win over its own employees to its broad strategic vision, it is not likely to be able to achieve satisfactory results with its international audiences. Employees perceive the BBG as intent upon undermining the effectiveness of the agency’s mission, particularly as applies to the broadcasts of the VOA. This is commonly referred to as being set up to fail.
One of the great ironies in all of this is the manner in which BBG decision-making has facilitated the convergence of arrogance, ignorance, political and personal self-interest as the driving forces behind the US international broadcasting strategy.
Thus, the cumulative effects of flawed BBG/IBB decisions results in an undermined US international broadcasting mission. When this happens, the BBG fails a Public Trust.
The entities controlled by the BBG are in serious need of assessment as to their prospects for effectiveness. The current state of the BBG/IBB, which is one of denial of its shortcomings and a “business as usual” posture, hinders this process and is unacceptable to the immediate and long term interests of the United States.
Earning and maintaining US credibility, prestige and respect with the international community appears to be rapidly slipping from the grasp of the BBG.
The Federalist 2008