U.S. international broadcasting strategy again landed under congressional scrutiny in Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
Representative Brad Sherman (D–CA) wanted to know why the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) ignored the congressional mandate to keep broadcasting to Pakistan in several local languages. In spite of a specific $1.5 million appropriation for broadcasting to Pakistan, everything has been cut except programming in Urdu. “You would not dream of broadcasting to Los Angeles in only one language,” said Sherman.
While Secretary of State John Kerry did not offer an explanation, the problems at the BBG cry out for a solution. The agency leadership time and time again has angered and frustrated Congress by ignoring its mandates to keep radio broadcasting lines open to areas of the world where free and dependable media do not exist. Instead, the broadcasting governors and the BBG bureaucracy are grappling with their own agenda and the impact of technological advances, with the result that the core mission gets short shrift.
In the President’s fiscal year 2014 budget request, the BBG accounts for $731 million, a not insignificant amount of funding. Yet at the same time, deep cuts in language services positions and broadcasting hours are proposed in the budget following already announced cuts resulting from sequestration.
According to the BBG’s press release, the cuts will fund a number of new items, including the creation of a “multi-channel, multi-language information and engagement initiative targeting youth in the Trans-Sahel region of Africa.” (As worthy as this sounds, the Counterterrorism Strategic Communication Center at State is already busy doing work like this independent of the BBG.)
Included in the budget is also a legislative proposal to establish a chief executive officer for all civilian U.S. international media, a proposal intended to improve operations. However, as this CEO would be answerable to the board itself, the result would be the addition of a layer of bureaucracy, of which the agency has plenty already. A CEO with real clout would be one nominated by and answerable to the President himself and confirmed by Congress.
There is no doubt, though, that the BBG structure itself stands in dire need of overhaul. The nine-member, part-time board (on which the Secretary of State or his designate sits) is a poor mechanism for executive oversight of a complex broadcasting system, and board member terms are routinely allowed to expire without timely replacement. The most recent board meeting on April 12 was attended by just two board members.
A composite map of the world at night produced by NASA shows the vast areas of the globe—mainly Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—where there is no power grid to light up cities at night. Many of those areas, where reliance on Internet or television is impossible, are precisely the beneficiaries of U.S. international broadcasting. Let us not lose sight of that fact.