Is unexplained absence of Broadcasting Board of Governors interim chair due to alleged conflict of interest?

BBG Watch Commentary

Michael Lynton Gives Steve Korn Thumbs Up

Michael Lynton gives RFE/RL president Steve Korn, who has since resigned amid controversy, thumbs up at October 2012 BBG meeting.

While the remaining members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have been working hard in recent months on reforming U.S. international broadcasting after recent public criticism of the agency, long and unexplained absence of BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton makes their job difficult and sometimes impossible, sources close to the federal bipartisan BBG board told BBG Watch.

In the last few months, Lynton has been fully or partly absent during several BBG board and committee meetings and missed separate board meetings for BBG-funded grantee broadcasters, which include Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Radio Free Asia (RFA).

There has been speculation that Lynton’s unexplained recent absence may be due in part to a growing controversy over alleged conflicts of interest between his part-time public office and his more than full-time corporate job. Nominated to serve on the BBG Board by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Lynton is is CEO of Sony Entertainment, Inc.  Monumental Pictures, one of Sony’s international holdings, is a Russian motion picture studio formed on February 2, 2006 as a joint venture between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Russia-based Patton Media Group producing and releasing Russian language films in Russia, the CIS, and Mongolia.  

RFE/RL programs in Russia, funded by U.S. taxpayers and managed by the BBG, have been the subject of intense controversy in recent months, which led to the reportedly forced resignation of former RFE/RL president Steven Korn and the appointment of new acting president Kevin Klose. Lynton had been one of Korn’s strongest supporters on the BBG Board. He gave him a public thumbs up, calling him a seasoned media executive, even as it was becoming clear that Korn’s dismissal of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists, selection of Masha Gessen to lead the Russian Service and her new programming policies, have turned the entire human rights and democratic opposition community in Russia from strong supporters to enemies of the U.S.-funded media freedom station, while its newly-redesigned website reportedly lost many visitors repelled by fluff journalism from this previously serious news organization. (New RFE/RL president Kevin Klose has promised to return Radio Liberty to its former journalistic standards.)

It is important to realize that the BBG’s mission of supporting freedom and democracy through objective journalism is often in conflict with power brokers in countries like Russia who control business access for multinational corporations like Sony and have close links to the Kremlin. While no smoking gun can be produced to prove it, Lynton may not have wanted to alienate these Kremlin power brokers on whom his company’s commercial success in Russia depends. He would be in violation of his corporate fiduciary duties if he acted otherwise, hence the alleged conflict of interest with his BBG duties. 

Fortunately, the majority of BBG members have recently made a number of decisions to reverse previous management actions which, according to human rights organizations and other critics, weakened Radio Liberty’s independent investigative journalism in Russia known to annoy President Putin.  

Again, as with most conflict of interest issues, there is no clearly visible proof that active corporate leaders like Lynton are swayed in their part-time government posts by their private business interests, but Radio Liberty crisis has for the first time focused public attention on this potential dilemma for private sector executives serving on the BBG board.

Regardless of whether alleged conflict of interest is part of the problem, the persistent absence of Michael Lynton has made proper functioning of the BBG as a board and as a federal agency more difficult and more controversial in terms of public relations. Because of his absence, the BBG board could not hold a formal meeting in February and met the last time only in informal closed and open sessions. Lynton also did not participate in subsequent BBG committee meetings and RFE/RL board meeting. Agency officials could not get an answer whether he plans to participate in future committee and board meetings, administrative sources told BBG Watch.

Frequent absences of its interim chairman and of other, now former absentee members who fortunately had already resigned, may have been one of the reasons Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called the BBG “defunct” before she left office. As the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was an ex officio BBG member and was represented at meetings by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who has had an excellent BBG attendance record.

But Michael Lynton’s conspicuous absence has become a public embarrassment for the BBG, especially in light of Clinton’s well-publicized criticism of the agency. Lynton’s disappearance also does not look good on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress need to be convinced that U.S. international broadcasting is being reformed and deserves more money to fulfill its national security function, as it clearly does provided any extra money is well managed. Most observers interpreted Clinton’s remark that the BBG is both mismanaged and underfunded.

Since Hillary Clinton’s “defunct” comment, other BBG members have made a strong effort to reform the image of the agency by becoming more engaged in monitoring the performance of their dysfunctional executive staff in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and trying to address a management crisis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. But they have been forced to work without an interim chairman and may not be able to vote on critical issues. The Board needs a quorum of five BBG members to take formal votes. There was a quorum at the last meeting in February, with two members taking part by video and phone, but primarily because of the uncertainly over Michael Lynton’s participation, the meeting was not pre-announced in the Federal Register and could not be formally held.

There is an additional mystery of Michael Lynton’s recent behavior. Sources within the BBG administration told BBG Watch that he has not been returning phone calls or responding to emails from senior IBB officials responsible for setting up BBG board and committee meetings. His absence and silence are becoming more and more puzzling, these sources told us.

To what extent corporate activities in Russia and China–two strategically important nations where the BBG should be giving support to media freedom but where authoritarian governments can easily threaten to veto commercial deals by multinational companies like Sony–may be responsible for Michael Lynton’s recent disengagement from BBG’s public business is not clear.

What is clear is that U.S. international broadcasting is a national security asset for the United States and  continues to play a critical national security role, as it did during the Cold War. When the Soviet Union posed a strategic threat to the United States, nobody would have suggested that Armand Hammer, who was doing private business deals with the Kremlin, should have been put in charge of Radio Liberty broadcasts to Russia. While the Cold War is over, President Putin’s war on democracy and free media in Russia continues and he continues to promote anti-Americanism among the Russians and in his foreign policy. Since Putin is clearly not going to allow Radio Liberty and Voice of America (VOA) to operate in Russia as he allows Sony Entertainment and other commercial Western non-news media that do not threaten his authoritarian rule, it is fair to ask how Michael Lynton or any other private media executive can be both objective and helpful in furthering BBG’s media freedom mission.

The United States needs BBG members who can devote their full attention to critical issues and not be distracted by private business activities or corporate conflicts of interest. We would not tolerate the U.S. Secretary of Defense doing private business with defense companies in Russia. By the same token, there is no justification for appointing BBG members with extensive private media business interests in Russia and China to deal with media freedom issues in these countries, which are critical for U.S. strategic interests and national security.

This does not mean that these individuals are not highly accomplished and otherwise qualified to hold important public jobs, including Jeff Shell, President Obama’s new nominee to become BBG member and chairman. But as president of NBCUniversal International, Shell may face the same corporate conflicts of interest issues as Michael Lynton. What works in Shell’s favor is his demonstrated keen interest in U.S. international broadcasting issues and his reaching out to various USIB constituencies even before his nomination is confirmed. The U.S. Senate must, however, carefully examine his company’s dealings in Russia and China and if conflicts of interest are found, he should decline the nomination or take a leave of absence from his corporate job.

It is important to point out that these executives are not doing anything wrong in their private media activities, which in most cases may even be good for U.S. public diplomacy interests abroad.  If they must, they should, however, serve the United States in other capacities, where conflict of interest is not an issue.

The problem here is that their corporate business activities and interests cannot be easily reconciled with the  BBG’s mission of supporting freedom and democracy  through balanced and credible journalism. You can’t sell movies to Putin’s business mafia bosses and at the same time expose their corruption through investigative journalism on Radio Liberty. If the BBG had an outside advisory board, then perhaps input from these corporate media executives could be useful if combined with advice from other individuals with experience in human rights advocacy, international civic journalism, foreign affairs and public diplomacy. But as BBG members, they must be without any conflict of interest.

The immediate problem, however, is that Michael Lynton continues to be AWOL at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  At the very least, he should not be Presiding Governor if he cannot attend and lead BBG meetings. As long as there is no permanent chairman, other BBG members can select someone else to be Interim Presiding Governor. The current Alternative Interim Presiding Governor Dennis Mulhaupt did a good job leading the last informal BBG open meeting, which included an interesting debate over the role of VOA and surrogate broadcasters initiated by questions from Secretary Sonenshine. There was also a public comment from the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) Executive Director Ann Noonan.

Ambassador Victor Ashe was also present at the last meeting and, as one of the most active and engaged members, has attended all other BBG meetings. Michael Meehan participated by phone and Susan McCue by a video link. After dealing with the leadership crisis at RFE/RL, all seem now much more engaged and united than they had been in the past. But the absence of the Interim Presiding Governor detracts from their renewed attempt to improve the agency’s management and to set the BBG on a new course of supporting tough objective journalism in nations without free media like Russia and China.

One official admitted that he has not heard from Michael Lynton in two months, which is highly unusual for any BBG member, but especially for the interim chairman. Whether in light of potential corporate conflicts of interest, Lynton’s input at meetings and his advice would be helpful to the board in facing critical issues of media freedom and in reaching difficult decisions is questionable, especially with regard to Russia, China and Tibet.  But some BBG members believe that if Lynton is not resigning, he should still be heard from. All agree that if he stays on the board, he should not ignore his public duties, other BBG members, and the agency’s staff.

We do not know the real reason Michael Lynton is unavailable, but we are  concerned that his corporate loyalty is and will continue to be in conflict with the BBG’s mission. Perhaps he has been absent because as a person of integrity he realized that he cannot in good conscience serve two masters. If that’s the case, he should resign immediately to save his own and BBG’s reputation. If he believes that he faces no conflicts of interest but still can’t find time to devote to BBG business and attend meetings, he should also resign immediately.

The White House, in any case, should nominate new members to fill the existing board vacancies, while keeping those members who have acquired critical experience and are serious about doing their job. There are now fewer Republican than Democratic members. Two more new Republican members need to be nominated, but replacing all current BBG members whose terms have expired would not be a good idea. It would place the agency again in the hands of the IBB executive staff, which had contributed to the RFE/RL crisis, was responsible for other serious missteps, such as the failed proposal to end VOA broadcasts to Tibet and China, and has been rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys as the worst management team among federal agencies of similar size.

Above everything else, the BBG needs more members with international media freedom and human rights advocacy experience. As for Michael Lynton, it might be better for everybody, if President Obama, whom he has supported with large private contributions, would appoint him to a different public position, where he could use his obvious talents and private sector experience without controversy and in a more productive manner. Unless, of course, his job at Sony keeps him so busy that he simply does not have time for any public office, which may very well be the case. U.S. international broadcasting is a serious national security enterprise, which needs an oversight board working full time without any distractions or conflicts of interest.

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