BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton is not confirming participation in April board meeting

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG interim presiding governor Michael Lynton

BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton has been absent from BBG meetings in recent months.

Sources told BBG Watch that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton has not confirmed to the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive staff whether he will attend the BBG open board meeting in April. Mr. Lynton has frequently missed board and committee meetings and was not present at the last board meeting in February. Some of the other BBG members and key BBG/IBB staffers have not heard from him since January, sources told BBG Watch.

BBG Watch has also learned that Mr. Lynton, who in his private sector career is CEO of Sony Entertainment, Inc., was recently in touch with the White House and reportedly hopes that his BBG appointment will be extended. We do not have an independent confirmation of this report. It would be, however, a controversial re-appointment by the Obama White House considering that Mr. Lynton has not been able to find enough time to devote to BBG business or even to attend board meetings in recent months. He had been also frequently absent earlier in his tenure, had been seen texting on his phone during open board meetings or left some before they concluded. His most recent absence has been both prolonged and unexplained. It prevented the BBG from holding a formal board meeting in February because members were not certain whether they would have a quorum.

Mr. Lynton’s continued silence can lead to the same problem in April, although technically the board would have a quorum if all other members attend. Fortunately, BBG members can hold board meetings for independent entities such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) with fewer numbers. But the absence at BBG board meetings is not an issue that can be ignored much longer.

This disengagement from public duties is definitely having a significant negative impact, especially since Mr. Lynton was designated by the other members as the Interim Presiding Governor. Sources told us that he had informed the White House that despite having missed some meetings, he remains very much engaged with BBG issues. We cannot find any evidence of this, especially in the last few months.

Fortunately, other BBG members have remained engaged and significantly increased their workload on agency matters. Susan McCue, Michael Meehan and Victor Ashe have been especially active in helping to resolve the management crisis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Dennis Mulhaupt presided over a productive open board meeting in February, although technically it was not a formal meeting. All the remaining BBG members were instrumental in directing the IBB executive staff to avoid employee furloughs due to sequestration budget cuts. There are positive signs that during Mr. Lynton’s absence, other BBG members are finally beginning to make some progress in reforming the agency and its bureaucracy.

Considering how much is at stake and the dismal performance of the IBB executive staff–the worst managers in the federal government according to OPM surveys–BBG members need to work nearly full time just to avoid major mishaps, and even that is not always sufficient. The BBG chairman should, in our opinion, be a full time position. While a new chairman had been nominated, Mr. Lynton remains the Interim Presiding Governor until Jeff Shell is confirmed by the Senate. Mr. Shell, president of NBCUniversal International, has greatly impressed many people by reaching out to various constituencies and seeking their input.

Sources told us that as part of its budget submission, the Administration plans to propose a permanent agency CEO who would be selected by the board and report to it. While this proposal would limit congressional oversight, it might make it easier for the board to deal with the entrenched IBB bureaucracy, which is the main reason behind most of the agency’s problems. IBB Director Richard Lobo was not able to replace key executives or to reform IBB. Whether a CEO would be able to do what Mr. Lobo did not remains to be seen. It is possible that instead of reforming it, a powerful CEO would try to expand the central bureaucracy, which already consumes most of the BBG’s budget but has not increased BBG’s global audience since 2008 and alienated nearly all of the agency’s traditional supporters. Mr. Lynton’s presence and guidance were needed.

In the meantime, we hope that Mr. Lynton will at least confirm his attendance at the April meeting and will attend. No one denies his obvious professional accomplishments in his private sector career. But if the White House re-appoints him to continue to serve at the BBG for another term, there will be controversy due to his prolonged absences, justifiable concerns because of his inability to attend to his BBG duties, and lingering conflict of interest questions because of his company’s business activities in countries like Russia. A BBG member should not have to choose between defending media freedom and getting access for his company to do legitimate business in countries ruled by regimes that fear media freedom.

It would be better for the Obama Administration, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Michael Lynton himself if the White House nominates somebody else. We need someone who can devote more time and attention to international broadcasting and its important journalistic and media freedom role. It is a job that has a tremendous impact on both U.S. public diplomacy and national security. It requires full commitment.

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