Al Jazeera, Russia Today, U.S. International Broadcasting — which will be “A Voice of the Voiceless”?

Behind the HeadlinesBBG Watch Commentary

Two media articles caught our eye this weekend.

Al Jazeera America Pitches Cable On Plan To Become A ‘Voice Of The Voiceless’” by By DAVID LIEBERMAN, Executive Editor, Deadline, June 14, 2013,

and

Digital Innovations Help Deliver News Under Repressive Regimes by Charles S. Clark, Nextgov, June 14, 2013.

After reading both articles, one can draw certain conclusions which of the two media organizations has a clearer sense of mission and which one is far ahead in achieving its goals. Al Jazeera talks about becoming a “Voice of the Voiceless” and getting on cable networks in the United States. U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB), which is managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), or more accurately by executives of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), put emphasis on technology, as if technology can be a substitute for a clearly defined mission.

U.S. International Broadcasting was at one time “A Voice of the Voiceless,” but is has become, in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “defunct” and “dysfunctional.” Some have blamed the decline on presidentially appointed members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but the real culprit in our view is the permanent bureaucracy of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the BBG’s executive and administrative division.

It is true that some former BBG members have contributed to the steady decline of USIB, some simply failed to show up for meetings, and some had business interests in China and Russia–countries where they were expected to promote democracy and human rights.

But it is the IBB bureaucrats who have devised the BBG’s strategic plan. The plan has nothing strategic about it other than confusing technology with a mission. It is a formula for killing news gathering and broadcasting to pay for gadgets and consultants to deliver fluff journalism. Technology is a given. It will not solve the lack of vision and dismal management at USIB.

Al Jazeera is a real international broadcasting player that does not confuse technology with a mission. It needs to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, IBB bureaucrats are busy destroying USIB and its reputation. They have done it again and again. They even tried to end Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Tibet and radio and television broadcasts to China.

IBB managers were prevented by Congress from carrying out their plan for China and BBG members themselves put a stop to the incomprehensible idea to silence VOA radio in Tibet. But IBB bureaucrats did succeed in closing down numerous broadcasts and language services to expand their own ranks and to pay for their consultants offering technological miracles.

When one looks at Al Jazeera, a completely different management vision can be seen. Al Jazeera America has an ambitious plan to hire 800 staffers, including seasoned pros such as former CNN business correspondent Ali Velshi, and open 12 domestic bureaus. IBB executives either did nothing or may have inspired and supported the decision by the former management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to fire dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists in Putin’s Russia.

If it were not for three BBG members: Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, the bureaucrats would have succeeded in completely destroying USIB’s effectiveness and reputation in Russia. Some of the fired journalists are now returning to Radio Liberty under a new management put in place by BBG members despite resistance from IBB executives.

How can USIB be “A Voice of the Voiceless” when its top managers are intimidating employees, denying them equal rights, suppressing free speech and resisting transparency? They have engaged in a smear campaign against BBG members who are trying to bring a measure of accountability to USIB.

These IBB executives have been rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys as being some of the worst managers in the federal government responsible for creating a workplace with the lowest employee morale. IBB Director Richard Lobo’s response to this was to give his executives high performance bonuses and to try to improve employee morale by opening a gym and putting discredited managers in charge of discovering of what they did wrong.

This approach will not work. The dog and pony show on Capitol Hill was a desperate attempt to divert attention from the real problem: a lack of vision and ability on the part of IBB executives. All one has to do to see this is to read both articles or just to compare these two quotes:

IBB staffer: “’If 10 people take a picture of the same event’, a staffer explained, the news editors in Washington figure something’s going on and prepare a report.”

Al Jazeera staffer: “‘No. 1 priority is not the bottom line’, says Lisa Fletcher, a former ABC investigative reporter who hosts Al Jazeera English’s citizen journalism show The Stream. ‘I really believe this is a philosophical thing for them, to be the voice of the voiceless’.”

Al Jazeera, and for that matter Russia Today, know what audience they want to target. Both are using questionable journalistic tactics (Russia Today in a far more shameless way), but they both aspire to be “A Voice of the Voiceless.” IBB executives think that technology will take care of the mission whatever that mission is. They have no idea.

BBG Press Release

BBG Holds Digital Innovation Expo

Paper USBs, translation tools, and mobile crisis intervention projects are just a few of the innovations on display at today’s “Innovating at the Speed of News” event in Washington, D.C.  Representatives from BBG’s Offices of Digital Design and Innovation and Technology, Services and Innovation, as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, were available to provide hands-on demonstrations of some of their latest innovations.

“Today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before,” said Director of International Broadcasting Bureau Dick Lobo. “And it’s thanks to the hard work and creativity of the great minds in this room.”

There were demonstrations on the use of social media, mobile phones and innovative tools for exchanging content with audiences along with tools for getting information into press-restrictive societies such as Cuba, Syria and China. The capacity crowd included scholars, congressional staff and members of the public diplomacy community.

The event showcased initiatives across the BBG that serve the larger purpose of providing balanced news and information to audiences who often lack it and the essential  role of U.S. international media as a model of free press.

For more photos from the event, please visit our Facebook page.

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