U.S. Rep. Engel: Voice of America was instrumental during the Cold War and is instrumental now

Rep. Eliot L. Engel

BBG Watch Commentary

Rep. Eliot L. Engel

Rep. Eliot L. Engel

In his opening statement at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing, “Broadcasting Board of Governors: An Agency ‘Defunct’,” Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) said that the “Voice of America (VOA) was instrumental during the Cold War and is instrumental now.”

Congressman Engel also expressed concern of many members of Congress with low employee morale at the Broadcasting Board of Governors under the management of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

Link to Video.

Ranking Member Eliot Engel’s statement and that of the Committee’s Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) who said that “While the Voice of America aims to provide listeners with objective news and information about United States foreign policy, the so-­‐called ‘surrogate’ broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty beam news into closed societies, offering information those citizens are otherwise denied,” seem to indicate that neither member of Congress believes those who argue that there are no longer any significant distinctions in missions between Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters.

The strongest proponent of the claim that such distinctions do not exist was former BBG Governor S. Enders Wimbush who was one of the witnesses at the hearing. He advocated merging VOA with surrogate broadcasters into a private entity. The other witnesses at the hearing were: former BBG Chairman James Glassman and former BBG Governor D. Jeffrey Hirschberg.

James Glassman stirred controversy by saying that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is not defunct and advocating putting BBG, including Voice of America, into the State Department.

Ranking Member Eliot Engel also said that many members of Congress “are concerned about the consistently low morale among employees at the BBG. Year after year, federal surveys show that the BBG ranks among the bottom of all federal agencies in terms of job satisfaction.”

Rep. Engel was referring to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys showing that the management of U.S. international broadcasting, consisting largely of top executives of the International Broadcasting Bureau headed by Director Richard Lobo and Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, is rated as being among the worst in the entire federal government.

Speaking at the conclusion of today’s House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R – FL) called for replacing the agency’s management in charge of international broadcasts and other news programs. She said that managers who do not understand what U.S. international broadcasting mission is should be changed. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen read the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ mission statement which says that the agency’s purpose is “To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” She put emphasis on “support for freedom and democracy.”

Ranking Member Eliot Engel Opening Statement at Hearing, “Broadcasting Board of Governors: An Agency ‘Defunct’

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the below remarks as prepared for delivery at today’s committee hearing, “Broadcasting Board of Governors: An Agency ‘Defunct’.”

The statement follows:

Chairman Royce, thank you for calling this timely hearing on an issue that impacts millions of people around the world – U.S. international broadcasting.

Last month, I had the opportunity to speak at the 70th anniversary of the Voice of America’s Albanian service. That event was a reminder that providing unbiased news to those who are denied access to information in their own countries remains as relevant today as it was when VOA began broadcasting in World War II.

U.S. international broadcasting endures because it has maintained a commitment to journalistic integrity. The first principle of our broadcasting is to provide news that is “consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”

In the years since the dawn of U.S. international broadcasting, the structures and technologies to deliver the news have changed dramatically. What began as VOA radio has evolved into five distinct organizations housed within the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG. Today, these entities reach over 200 million people per week in 61 languages radio, TV, the Internet, and even mobile phones.

While the BBG and its various sub-entities continue to play an important role in US foreign policy, some questions have been raised about the management of the agency. An Inspector General report issued earlier this year found that the BBG was “failing in its mandated duties” and it attributed that failure to a flawed structure and strong internal dissension.

One problem highlighted by the report is that the BBG board, originally intended to operate on a part-time basis, has in practice assumed the full-time responsibilities of supervising a massive media organization with broadcasts to more than a hundred countries.

This problem has been compounded by the large number of board vacancies, which has left the BBG without a quorum necessary to make official decisions. Currently, only four of the nine board slots are filled. These vacancies increase the pressure and responsibilities of the sitting governors to supervise the BBG. I hope the Senate will soon take action on the three nominees now being considered and that the President will nominate additional board members.

In addition, questions have been raised about the lines of authority at the BBG. Voice of America, which is a federal entity, reports to the head of the International Broadcasting Bureau while Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, a private grantee, reports directly to the Board of Governors. This can create confusion about who’s in charge, resulting in unnecessary duplication, and undermining accountability.

Finally, many of us are concerned about the consistently low morale among employees at the BBG. Year after year, federal surveys show that the BBG ranks among the bottom of all federal agencies in terms of job satisfaction.

In response to these and other issues, the Administration has proposed the creation of a chief executive officer. The CEO would be selected by the board and be delegated some the board’s responsibilities, including the day-to-day management of the agency. This approach is supported by the Inspector General.

As we examine ways to improve the governance of international broadcasting, it’s vital that any reforms maintain the journalistic integrity that’s been built over the last 70 years. This means maintaining a strong firewall between journalism and politics.

I look forward to hearing a frank assessment from our witnesses on the challenges facing the BBG, and on the board’s proposal to create a CEO, as well as other recommendations they might have for improving U.S. international broadcasting.

As the VOA adage goes, “Tell the truth and let the world decide.”

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

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