Don’t say the wheels of government always spin slowly. When there is an agenda at work, they can move with considerable speed, and in the deconstruction of American overseas broadcasting, things are moving fast.
Consider a new feasibility study completed on November 10 regarding a merger of three major entities of U.S. international broadcasting: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (FRE/RL), Radio Free Asia (FRA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MEBN). These are three critical components of U.S. public diplomacy—in the case of RFE/RL, going back to the beginning of the Cold War, in which U.S. broadcasting was a highly successful player.
The complex merger study was produced with almost dizzying speed by the management company Deloitte Consulting, LLP. Taking a little over a month, Deloitte surveyed the proposed merger of the three separate, private 501(c)3 organizations with combined resources of $240 million (provided graciously by U.S. taxpayers), broadcasts in a total of 39 languages, three separate headquarters, and approximately 2,000 employees—mostly based internationally.
Indeed, the Deloitte study would be a feat, were it not that the study appears to be a rubber stamp (a $275,000 rubber stamp at that) of already existing decisions contained in the new Strategic Plan for U.S. International Broadcasting. The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ controversial new strategic plan aims to drive the broadcasters toward greater integration, digital media venues, and potentially further separation from U.S. foreign policy priorities by privatization (also known as “de-federalization”). Nowhere in the document, by the way, are the words “public diplomacy” mentioned.
The new strategic plan was adopted October 13 by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the nine-member board responsible for the financial management and direction of the broadcasters. Part of the strategic plan was the proposal for Deloitte feasibility study; yet, the initial 4-hour meeting between Deloitte and members of the staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau took place on October 4—nine days before the BBG voted to give the green light. Nor was the October 4 meeting an isolated occurrence. In total, 17 meetings and interviews with broadcasting managers and staff took place prior to the October 13 board meeting. Clearly, the train was already in motion by then.
Unsurprisingly, then, Deloitte supports the existing plan for a merger of RFE/RL, RFA, and MEBN. “In the current economic environment, continuing to operate three separate structures with redundant executive management teams, administrative infrastructures, audits, etc. seems to be an inefficient use of taxpayer money,” says the Deloitte study. In the context of the current U.S. budgetary environment, who could quibble with the idea of saving money?
But there are many questions that should be asked before the BBG hands Deloitte another $1.3 million to produce a follow-up implementation plan, which will affect key parts of the U.S. government’s most important public diplomacy tool, its broadcasting complex. Will this improve the performance of the broadcasters in question? Who told Deloitte to jump the gun? Why does the study fail to examine any of the overseas locations of the three international broadcasting organizations? And, how did the Deloitte analysts arrive at the amount of budgetary savings, about $9 million annually? The numbers appear to be grabbed out of thin air, with few calculations behind them.
The Deloitte study is only the first step in a long process that could end in privatizing and reconstituting all U.S. international broadcasting. It is clear that the congressional spotlight should be directed at its conclusions and the process behind them. It is time members of Congress start to hold the BBG accountable.