Broadcasting Board of Governors: Walter Isaacson Exits The BBG – The Federalist
by The Federalist
On Friday, January 27, 2012 Walter Isaacson announced his resignation as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Mr. Isaacson’s stated reason for resigning was to pursue a new book project, closely following his bestselling biography of the late Steve Jobs, the former head of Apple, Inc.
We don’t know what Mr. Isaacson’s instructions were from the administration at the time of his nomination, confirmation and appointment. However, looking back over his tenure, we can offer some comment.
As others have noted, this is the only agency of the Federal government that is run by a board. It’s a bad idea that has since gone really bad. Many comments have been made over the years about the part-time nature of the board and the fact that it is bipartisan. In today’s totally partisan political landscape, reaching consensus just among the diverse personalities and political perspectives of individual board members is a tall order, let alone trying to manage the agency operationally.
There are many problems facing the agency, some of them self-inflicted. Two of the big ones that come to mind are the agency’s seriously flawed “flim flam strategic plan,” and the institutionalized hostile and anti-employee working environment. The pursuit of both, as agency policy, has made optimum conditions for the mission of US international broadcasting almost non-existent.
For Mr. Isaacson – and all Board members for that matter – the agency is a no-win proposition. The agency is a failed agency with a failed mission. As Secretary of State put it correctly, “We are losing the information war.” The agency in charge of the information war is the BBG/IBB. And in Mrs. Clinton’s context, the act of losing is in-progress. There is no turnaround. There is not even the hint of a turnaround. While there are some pockets of the operation that are still hanging on and maintain some resonance with overseas publics, the agency as a whole has taken on the characteristics of an anachronism from the 20th century that has lost its way in the 21st.
The Board cannot be singled out for the lion’s share of the blame for where the agency is at present. For that we must turn to the IBB and other senior agency officials – the full-time, 24/7 opportunists.
These careerists have their own agenda, part of which is to obstruct any decisions made by the Board that do not comport with their grand schemes. These are the people who advocate vigorously for the “flim flam strategic plan.” These are the people who perpetuate a hostile work environment as evidenced in the negative results of the annual Federal employee survey, from the very first one to the last. These are the individuals who possess absolutely no positive leadership qualities. They can’t – because they have exposed themselves as being guided by self-interest. This self-interest manifests itself in the huge bonuses they hand out to each other, up to the outrageous sum of $10,000 in some cases. Their self-interest also manifests itself in their all-or-nothing approach to their flawed strategic plan and the sales pitch they use to support it. Their only interest in the agency’s mission is limited to the extent that they can manipulate it to support their personal self-aggrandizement.
Their self interest is also manifest in a mindset that would have a BBG executive sit behind the Board chairman’s desk with his feet up – a deliberate gesture of contempt for the chairman and the board as a whole.
What this agency needs isn’t a Broadcasting Board of Governors. What it needs is a Board for Oversight, Accountability and Responsibility. However, at this juncture, it may well be too late. The damage has been done and it is pervasive, toxic.
It is too convenient to lay the demise of the US international broadcasting at the feet of one individual. It lets too many other people off the hook who don’t deserve to be getting a free pass for their role in the demise of US international broadcasting.
For those who think they know what the problems are inside the Cohen Building, consider the following:
Disabuse oneself of the notion that the BBG has any real power. It doesn’t. Board members are political appointees. Their appointments are limited. In short, they are transients. The power rests in the hands of senior agency officials. These individuals have demonstrated that are guided not by the national or public interest. They are most certainly not contributing to the national defense or national security. We can’t say it often enough: they are guided and motivated by their self-interest, particularly monetary self-interest as reflected in their salaries and those huge bonuses they hand out to themselves. Be assured that they will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their self-interests. And they are becoming ever more brazen with each reconstituted BBG that comes walking through the doors of the Cohen Building. They are not beyond denying information requested by board members. They are not beyond making veiled threats to anyone standing in their way. They are not beyond engaging in acts that may meet the criteria for misconduct and insubordination. And they can get away with it because the BBG is not constituted to take them on and remove the offenders. In short, this agency, with its failed mission, isn’t worth the risk to the present and future political and professional careers of most board members. At this juncture, most choose to stay away or get away from the toxic environment that these self-serving careerists have made of the agency.
For whatever reasons individuals signed on to be board members presiding over a snake pit was certainly not on their “things to do” list.
The IBB puts out a constant stream of disinformation and misinformation to disarm the gullible – part of the game they play to divert attention from what they are doing and blaming a variety of others: the BBG, the Congress, the employee representatives, BBG Watch. They throw stuff out to see what sticks. And what they throw out and pontificate is bogus.
Dealing with this agency and the gallery of characters on the Third Floor requires a political solution. Part of that solution means abolishing the board. It’s not working. The next thing that needs to be done is empower whoever and whatever follows to clean out the house, one official at a time. Once the ball starts rolling on that process, one would be amazed at what it does to improve the environment.
And that happens to be the necessary first order of business with this agency – not reorganization, attempting to privatize the agency or wasting even more taxpayer dollars on an operation that has gone bust and is staying bust with the current cast of characters.
There is much more to the story of what has taken place on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building. It only waits for a time and place for those with knowledge of the details of that story – in documents, emails and the like – to tell it.
If the Congress and the administration want to salvage what remains of value in US international broadcasting, the entities need to be re-deployed to another agency prepared to expand its world communications effort. Sounds like Armed Forces Network to us – one of other alternatives to the corrosive IBB environment.
In the meantime, consider putting the criticisms of Mr. Isaacson to rest. He’s not in the picture. The agency’s problems have less to do with him and a whole lot more to do with the entrenched group on the Third Floor. That’s where the focus needs to be.
January 31, 2012