Well into the second year of the Obama administration, U.S. international broadcasting services remain in a leaderless state of vacuum. Nor are these important public diplomacy assets of the government likely to emerge from limbo anytime soon, which is deeply unfortunate given the intensifying global competition for information dominance.
At a time when China’s Xinhua news agency announced the launching of a global English-language channel, China Network Corp., or CNC, and the Russian government’s English language Russia Today channel is building up capacity with 40 staffers right here in Washington, the U.S. government appears incapable to getting its broadcasting act together.
Observers of U.S. international broadcasting have been watching for the Senate confirmation vote of the eight new members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the operations of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Marti, Radio Free Asia, Al Hurra television, Radio Sawa, Radio Free Asia, and the other entities under its umbrella. Despite the fact that the terms of the old board members were running out, it took the Obama administration eight months to send up the names, including that of the new chairman of the board Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute, TIME magazine and CNN. It further took another eight months to get six of the names voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April.
Hearings on the other two board members are pending hearings — Michael Meehan and Dana Perino – have been delayed due to objections from Sen. Jim DeMint. (Meehan, who worked as press secretary for Massachusetts senate candidate Martha Coakley, shoved a reporter to prevent him from asking questions of the candidate. Perino is the Republican tit-for-tat in this equation.)
And now, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has stated that he is not about to let the Senate move forward with a floor vote on the six that have been voted out of committee unless he has a chance to interview each nominee personally about their views and qualifications, this according to Josh Rogin, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. The senator has a track record of demanding accountability from the BBG and of delving into mismanagement and waste at the broadcasting services. “The BBG is the most worthless organization in the federal government. It’s full of people who know nothing about media or foreign policy. All they are doing is spending money and somebody’s got to look into it,” the Senator fumed in an interview with the FB blog. (In the President’s FY 2011 budget request, the BBG is slated to receive $755 million.)
The Senator is on to something. The board members are political appointees. Over the years, some have been well-qualified, some ineffective and some focused very much on their own agenda and business interests. Some have been so hands-on as to function like executives, running afoul of other management structures. In surveys by the Office of Personnel Management, the BBG ranks routinely by far the lowest of any U.S. government entity in job satisfaction among its employees. And recently a letter from 69 members of Congress went to the BBG demanding an investigation into problems with the Voice of America Persian News Network, which was accused of bias against human rights and democracy activists in favor of radical Islamist voices. This was only the last in a long series of letters from members of Congress trying to get accountability from the BBG.
Nor is this the first time Sen. Coburn has tried to force the issue of oversight. When James Glassman, President Bush’s last chairman of the BBG, was nominated for the post of undersecretary for public diplomacy in December 2007, Sen. Coburn held up his conformation vote for months in the hope of shining a light on irregularities at Al Hurra television, the U.S. government’s Arab language television channel.
The nomination of the new BBG provides an excellent opportunity for Congress to exercise oversight of this troubled institution. The BBG has the important mission of presenting the message of the United States to the world, based on the values and principles on which this nation was founded. It desperately needs the right kind of leadership.
Helle C. Dale is Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation.