Revolution’s in the air at the agency that oversees the U.S. government’s broadcasting to the world. Directors are in high dudgeon, and staff have threatened a mass walkout. The reason: Congress has finally had enough with the mismanagement of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and is moving reform legislation.
Some profess outrage that Congress would dare “interfere.” “Back Off, Congress, And Keep Voice of America Real” blared a Los Angeles Times commentary by a VOA foreign correspondent. A Washington Post editorial fumed that H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act moving through the House, “would take a dangerous step toward converting the most venerable and listened-to U.S. outlet, Voice of America, into another official mouthpiece.”
The “mouthpiece” concern seems terribly overwrought. The bill states repeatedly that Voice of America will continue to “provide accurate, objective, comprehensive information with the understanding that these three values provide credibility among global news audiences.”
Moreover, the longer the BBG goes unreformed, the more likely it becomes that Congress will simply wash its hands of the whole enterprise and find other uses for the more than $700 million budgeted for U.S. International Broadcasting. That is how high dissatisfaction with the agency is running on the Hill.
It’s not just lawmakers who are frustrated with the agency. The Office of Management and Budget has long rated personnel morale at the BBG as the lowest in government. Much of that derives from the Board’s repeated decisions to cut services.
Those decisions have proved unwise. For example, the BBG all but eliminated broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia over the last several years. That left the U.S. unable to broadcast into Crimea as Vladimir Putin’s Russia gobbled it up. As Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Committee on Foreign Relations, the BBG is “practically defunct.”
Bipartisan, bicameral legislation is practically unheard of these days, but broadcasting reform enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved H.R. 4490 unanimously on April 30. The bill now awaits action by the full House, and a nearly identical bill is close to completion in the Senate.
Sponsored by Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican, H.R. 4490 calls for a “recalibration” of VOA’s mission. It requires VOA to produce news that is “consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States,” thus giving VOA “greater mission focus.”
It includes much-needed management reform too. The governors are part-timers, attempting to do the full-time job of running multiple international broadcast services. The legislation would establish a full-time, day-to-day chief executive officer.
And it separates the missions and management of the two distinct types of broadcasting done by the U.S. government — Voice of America on the one hand and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network on the other.
The latter would be consolidated into the Liberty News Network “grantee organization.” Operating privately with grants from the U.S. government, these broadcasters would provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies who have no access to independent news.
The House bill is good; the Senate version could be better. For example, H.R. 4490 calls for the board to be responsible for the hiring and firing of the chief executive officer — power that certainly exceeds that of an “advisory” body. The Senate bill could improve that by making the CEO a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate.
Another item ripe for improvement: The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) remains a federal broadcaster, along with Voice of America. The OCB’s mission is closer to that of the “liberty radios.” Making it part of the “Liberty News Network” could give Cuba broadcasting a boost and more independence.
The Congressional reform effort is not about producing government propaganda. VOA will not become like Russia’s RT or China’s CCTV for the good reason that the United States is not Russia or China. Reform is needed, however, to communicate America’s message of freedom more effectively throughout the world.
• Helle Dale is the Heritage Foundation’s senior fellow for public diplomacy.