Strategic U.S. Broadcasting Plan from Absentee Board Raises Many Questions — Free Media Online
FreeMediaOnline.org Washington, D.C – Truckee, CA, November 1, 2011 — Free Media Online Commentary
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has released what it calls “the framework of its new strategic plan to enhance the global impact of U.S. international broadcasting through innovation and integration.” Apparently, not even BBG members have seen a copy of the full plan, which was developed by the executive staff, but what has been published Tuesday in Washington raises many doubts about the direction of U.S. international broadcasting. Here are some of Free Media Online concerns:
1. Absentee Board During the crucial time in the development of the strategic plan, most BBG members did not show up regularly for board meetings. Starting July 2010, only three BBG members (Ashe, Isaacson, Mulhaupt) have a perfect attendance record. Others were often absent, which may indicate low level of their interest and involvement in what should have been a period of close scrutiny of numerous staff reports and recommendations regarding the strategic plan.
This raises the question whether the BBG bureaucracy has received proper guidance and supervision from the absentee, part-time Board and to what extent the plan reflects the staff’s own bureaucratic interests, which may be incompatible with the expectations of Congress and the American people.
2. No Cost Estimate There is nothing in the plan that would tell Congress and the American people how much it is going to cost U.S. taxpayers. Other than making unsupported and unrealistic claims of expected gains in audience reach, there is also nothing in the plan to indicate what the United States would gain from its implementation in terms of program impact and savings, if any.
3. Failed Management Team The strategic plan was developed by the same BBG executives who proposed to terminate all Voice of America radio and satellite television transmissions to China on October 1, 2011, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This proposal was criticized by human rights activists in China and in the U.S. It was rejected by Democrats and Republicans in committees both in the House and the Senate.
The same team had proposed and the previous Board had approved the termination of VOA radio and television to Russia, a decision that — despite strong objections from key members of Congress — was implemented in 2008, just 12 days before Russian armed forces invaded and occupied part of the Republic of Georgia. The team that developed the strategic plan opted for the Internet-only program delivery for VOA in China despite Beijing’s effective Internet censorship and blocking of VOA websites.
4. No One to Explain America to the World The framework of the BBG strategic plan ignores Public Law 94-350, which requires the Voice of America (VOA) “to present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and [also to] present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.”
5. VOA Ignored; Its Employees Considered a Liability The BBG’s new mission statement: “To inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy” also fails to reflect Public Law 94-350’s mandate that in addition to providing news, VOA “will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
Nor does the new mission statement confirm that “VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.” In fact, the BBG plan seems to favor de-federalizing the Voice of America, which runs the risk of giving the job of explaining America to the world to inexperienced, poorly-paid and poorly-trained contract employees. The BBG management team has been accused of exploiting contract employees and has been rated in employee surveys as one of the worst in the entire federal system. The issue of employee morale and the poor treatment of contract employees was raised last month at the BBG public meeting by BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe.
6. News Agency Mission Incompatible with Broadcasting Mission Abroad The BBG’s strategic objective: “To become the world’s leading international news agency by 2016, focused on the agency’s mission and impact” appears highly unrealistic and has the potential of detracting from the mission of specialized news reporting and analysis for individual countries and regions.
7. Unrealistic Goals The BBG’s performance goal “To reach 216 million in global weekly audience by 2016” also appears highly unrealistic — unless the BBG plans to include the U.S. audience in the count or to change its audience measurement methodology, and even then reaching the set goal is extremely unlikely.
8. Program Content and Program Quality Ignored The framework of the strategic plan focuses on audience reach and technology but completely ignores program content, program quality and impact issues.
9. Costs of New Media Exaggerated; TV and Radio Broadcasting Ignored While the plan rightly focuses on innovation, BBG executives tend to greatly exaggerate the costs of the Internet and new media, which are largely free and used by millions of individuals and institutional content providers, while the number of international broadcasters is limited. The BBG executive staff has been eager to eliminate satellite television and radio broadcasting to key areas of the world and has shown no concern that under their plan 750 million Chinese citizens would have no access to any VOA programs and that 45 VOA Chinese Branch journalists specializing in human rights reporting would lose their jobs.
10. Domestic Distribution A Great Danger to Mission Abroad The BBG’s call to end the legal restrictions on domestic distribution of programs runs a great risk of distracting the BBG from the mission of serving America’s interests abroad. The BBG can barely manage to fulfill its mission now. The quality of many programs is woefully poor. Music has replaced news and information because VOA and other BBG broadcasters lack proper resources. Many programs have already been eliminated, dozens upon dozens of experienced journalists have lost their jobs while the BBG bureaucracy keeps growing and is likely to expand rather than shrink under the new consolidation proposal. This proposal seems a sure way toward expanding the bureaucracy even further and to shifting the focus from international audiences to U.S. political and commercial domestic concerns. The authors of the plan are disingenuous in implying that BBG program content cannot be used in the U.S. Private individuals and commercial media outlets in the U.S. can use VOA programs. The BBG is simply prohibited from actively marketing these programs in the U.S.
Overall, the framework of the BBG strategic plan lacks a clear sense of mission. Its key components will distract journalists and broadcasters from achieving impact abroad. The part-time, absentee Board members failed to scrutinize the plan, which has all the highlights of being produced by in-house bureaucrats trying to protect their jobs and to hide their failures from Congress and the American people. The least BBG members could do is to attend all of their rather infrequent public meetings, analyze closely what their staff is proposing and pay more attention to what members of Congress, independent journalists, and human rights activists are saying.