Broadcasting Board of Governors can't do its job in an hour and 15 minutes

BBG Watch Commentary

During last Thursday’s open meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Washington, DC, a senior Republican member Ambassador Victor Ashe criticized the BBG’s staff for bad planning in not allowing board members sufficient time to perform their duties in providing direction and oversight for U.S. international broadcasting operations.

“We can’t do our job in an hour and 15 minutes,” Ashe said referring to the time set aside by the staff for the meeting, during which he tried to get International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive staffers to provide answers on union negotiations, sexual harassment policies and the highly controversial 50 million dollar audience research contract with the Gallup Organization.

Gallup is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for overcharging other government agencies on their contracts. Ashe wanted the staff to tell him when an audit of the BBG’s contract with Gallup will be conducted, as requested by DOJ, but in their usual manner IBB staffers refused to provide him with a clear answer. Ashe was being continuously rebuffed on his requests for specific information by BBG’s Deputy General Counsel Paul Kollmer-Dorsey.

We heard from several sources that Ashe was disappointed by the legal and procedural weakness the staff’s arguments against his calls for greater transparency, consultations with members of Congress, greater protection of BBG employees’ rights, and more public accountability. A lawyer, Ashe was also the longest-serving mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and U.S. Ambassador to Poland.

He pointed out that most of the items on the meeting’s agenda were not covered last Thursday and none of the BBG’s broadcasting services had a chance to present their reports to the Board.

It was also the tenth open meeting which another BBG Republican member Dana Perino did not attend in person. The BBG’s Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton was present but had to leave early and the meeting was chaired by BBG Republican member Dennis Mulhaupt. Michael Lynton is CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. A busy private sector executive, Lynton has not managed to attend all BBG meetings. The terms of all current BBG members, except Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who serves ex officio, have expired but they can continue to serve until they are replaced.

Other BBG members have also missed some of the monthly meetings and the BBG currently has no chairman, although President Obama has nominated Jeffrey Shell to hold that position if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Surprisingly, the President did not propose at the same time a new Republican member of the bipartisan Board, but former U.S. Senator Norman Coleman is rumored to be considered for a nomination to the BBG.

Like the former BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson, Jeffrey Shell, President of NBCUniversal International, may not have enough time and energy to devote to BBG business. While serving as BBG Chairman, Isaacson was finishing his bestselling biography of Steve Jobs. Although he did not miss any BBG meetings, he allowed the executive staff to make critical decisions. The staff’s proposals to end Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to China and Tibet embarrassed the agency and were blocked in Congress by bipartisan committee actions.

It is not clear how Shell, a busy executive who works in the UK, can possibly be able to perform his duties as chairman and attend BBG general and committee meetings in Washington, DC unless he takes a leave of absence from his current job. If he stays in London, would US taxpayers will be required to pay for his transatlantic travels?

It is also not clear how Shell would be able to monitor from the UK the staff’s performance. Their current boss, International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo keeps approving their outstanding performance bonuses even though the BBG management team has been consistently rated in employee viewpoint surveys conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as one of the very worst in the federal government. One of these executives had recently sent a request to the United Nations to revoke UN press accreditation of an independent American journalist who angered the official with his emails about his private dispute with a Voice of America correspondent. All BBG members were reportedly appalled by this action but failed to agree what to do about it.

Jeffrey Gedmin, former President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) — one of the grantee broadcasters managed by the BBG — argued in a recent article that the BBG’s chairman should be made a full-time appointment, not a part-time position as is now the case. “Leading U.S. broadcasting is a formidable challenge considering the breadth and complexity of the issues and the size of the BBG’s budget,” Gedmin wrote. We completely agree with him on this point.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has been rightly described as a “part-time board” and criticized for not being able to provide sufficient direction and oversight to the executive staff. This criticism may strengthen arguments for creating a permanent CEO position — a move which the Board agreed to pursue, although critics fear that BBG’s authority and Congressional oversight may be harmed by having a CEO who is not subject to Senate confirmation. During Thursday’s meeting, Ashe won several concessions on the CEO position proposal and forced agreement on broader consultations with members of Congress to preserve the Board’s oversight authority.

David Jackson, a former Voice of America director, wrote in support of a full-time Chief Executive Officer for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. While Jackson makes strong arguments in favor of an International Broadcasting CEO, there are questions how the Congressionally-mandated independence of the grantee broadcasters can be preserved and Congressional oversight maintained if the CEO is not subject to Senate confirmation.

Meanwhile, the current BBG board can’t seem to agree on how to handle its executive staff which is openly defiant.

The following exchange is from Thursday’s (Sept. 13, 2012) BBG open meeting.

ASHE: First of all, I’m willing to make a motion. I hope in the future, whoever plans these, whoever had decided to do an hour and fifteen minutes for this meeting, clearly had no understanding of what was on the agenda. I mean it was guaranteed for failure. And we should never let this happen again. And, hopefully, on October 11, we’ll put in two to two and a half hours. RFE had an hour and forty-five minutes set aside. Not that it wasn’t important. It was. But for us, with seventeen items? This is bad planning. And, hopefully, we don’t do it again. But now I move that we approve the resolution for [BBG Legislative Coordinator] Susan Andross and [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty General Counsel] John Lindburg.

MULHAUPT: We’re trying to squeeze a lot of things into a day because that’s the time Governors have.

ASHE: But we need to go to two days.

MULHAUPT: Well, that’s something we should discuss, you know.

ASHE: Because we can’t do our job in an hour and 15 minutes and we leave mad at each other because someone had to leave early or someone insists upon further discussion.

MULHAUPT: Understood.

MCCUE: And I just wanted to make a comment. I very much would like the Board to see and hear the presentation on our progress on innovation and digital outreach, but we’ll do that at the next meeting.

ASHE: I hope you set aside two or three hours, then we don’t have to worry. Well, who sets the schedule? It’s not me.

MULHAUPT: It’s the staff working with the Presiding Governor doing the best they can with all the various things that have to be accommodated during the day. And people are doing their best. And I just think that we have to try to work on it. But to impune people for trying to fit everything in, I just don’t think it’s appropriate.

ASHE: I’, not impuning anyone. I’m just saying we need to do better. I renew my motion to honor Susan Andross and John Lindburg.

MULHAUPT. All right, is there a second. All those in favor say aye. Oppose? Those are agreed to.

ASHE: I move that we move the agenda to October 11 and adjourn — the remaining agenda.

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