Isaacson was an absent leader, a BBG insider's view


This comment from a BBG insider was originally published in response to Matt Armstrong’s post, Looking for Part-Time Work? The Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors just opened up on his MountainRunner.Us blog, about the resignation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Walter Isaacson.
From a BBG Insider:
Come on, Matt…you are far too kind to the BBG, and to Walter Isaacson, who was largely an absentee. Most employees never met him (same is true for other board members when it comes to “connecting” with rank and file). While he was off putting finishing touches to his Steve Jobs biography, morale at 330 Independence Avenue (admittedly never good) and elsewhere in the BBG structure, plummeted. That’s the dirty little secret that news organizations who covered his book launch never covered.
In an ultimate display of insensitivity, Isaacson granted interviews (audiences, like the Pope) to every major TV network and print publication, but only much later with anyone from BBG. He basically gave BBG broadcasters the finger (a few signed copies of his book were offered like crumbs to the masses though a for-charity raffle — not a replacement for true access).
But enough on Isaacon’s book and self-promotion. Still in last place in government employee satisfaction surveys (despite small improvements cited by the board) the BBG under Isaacson embarrassed itself with the China fiasco. It then ran in a panic to repair its relations with Congress, and with VOA Chinese broadcasters. Key officials rushed to a reception on Capitol Hill celebrating what was basically a victory over a BBG blunder. The new VOA director went scurrying to the China division in the headquarters building.
Isaacson’s plan to create a GNN, or Global News Network, is dubious at best. Staff members in Congress need to make sure that there is a thorough airing of views, rather than simply a rubber-stamping of this plan. That means calling to testify not just BBG members, and the usual collection of entrenched Washington policy ideologues, but also actual journalists in the BBG structure who have been subject to the hubris of the board.
BBG will use familiar tactics to ram legislation called the International Broadcasting Innovation Act of 2012 through Congress, sending slick videos and publications to the Hill at a time when members of Congress are preoccupied with election year political battles and re-election. The board has been shrewd, hiring a former staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, most recently at State Department, as the new head of BBG public relations.
BBG, assisted by the report produced by Deloitte at a cost of $1 million or so, has a long term goal of slimming down the U.S. international broadcasting structure to a neat and tidy structure it can more easily control. Beyond consolidation of grantees, which will surely happen, the simple fact is that BBG wants to finally achieve what some in DC have sought for years – to finally and permanently get rid of federal employees in VOA.
Isaacson and BBG, and we might as well throw in to the mix certain newer senior IBB managers (many of them refugees from cutbacks at CNN and other media organizations) also want to persuade Congress that this GNN will become some kind of journalistic miracle, emerging in a beam of sunlight from the previous jumble of international broadcasting duplication.
But let’s look at the facts — Isaacson and the board have approved a plan that will maintain all of the grantee organizations in name/brand, and in organizational structure, though BBG is making a big deal about some steps it is taking that will allegedly streamline staff.
RFE/RL won’t be going away. RFA won’t be going away. And at least for the time being, and especially while it continues to have support on the Hill from Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and like-minded legislators, Radio/TV Marti won’t be going anywhere.
The BBG subterfuge, already being implemented and likely to be touted publicly in coming days, is a plan being implemented to turn VOA into some kind of central gathering, processing and coordination hub for all BBG entities. Remember, RFE/RL, RFA, R/TV Marti (VOA obviously too) have all spent years developing their own separate news operations, methods and sources. These processes will not stop.
In theory, as it has been explained so far this could result in RFE/RL reports appearing on VOA programs, or R/TV Marti material (which since the 1980s has had a very specific surrogate broadcasting purpose) also appearing on VOA. Some questions need to be asked about the propriety of this. All of this will be playing out in months ahead.
Embedded, by the way, in the subterfuge of the Isaacson/BBG plan is what, based on various remarks by BBG and IBB officials, is now the very open acknowledgment, being expressed in increasingly bold terms, that the entire USIB structure is there to “serve national security interests” (an aspect of this emerged in 2011 at an open BBG Town Hall session when one veteran VOA journalist asked board members to explain contacts between the BBG and the U.S. Central Command).
This should not necessarily be a surprise, given the history of how USIB developed since World War II. What is notable is that this “national security” justification for the continued existence of ALL entities under the BBG structure is now a major part of the sales pitch being made to Congress for what sounds (GNN) to the average person like a NON-government CNN-type media conglomerate. It may be that in appearance. But no one should be under any illusions – this is government-funded, government-influenced broadcasting, whether in the long run all the entities retain their brand names or at some point they all literally fall under the GNN label.
Back to Matt’s latest post in which he says “clearly the BBG is neglected, both by the White House, regardless of who is in it, and the Congress, who has failed to demand or push forward nominees.” Agreed – the BBG is being neglected by the White House (though Secretary Clinton, technically a member of the board, drew attention to problems under the BBG in her testimony on Capitol Hill).
However, successive administrations and members of Congress have failed utterly to pay enough attention to what has really been going on at 330 Independence Avenue. Congress should not want to be seen swallowing a bill of goods, especially in an election year dominated by national debate over deficit spending and debt, by rubber-stamping plans of a discredited board and its now outgoing most recent chairman, without adequate hearings (and that means more than just one) seeking a sufficiently-broad range of views.