The news that the White House has sought to replace the only Republican currently serving on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), former U.S. ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, has made many sit up and pay attention.
It is rare that Americans get passionate about the BBG, which oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting to the tune of $731 million a year, but has little impact on domestic politics. The context provided by the Obama scandals, however, has made a difference. If the IRS can be used to pursue the President’s critics, and the Justice Department to intimidate reporters, could not the BBG be used as a megaphone for partisan purposes?
Ashe’s passion for transparency and battle against corruption and bad management has made him unpopular among the BBG leadership but a hero among its employees. Ashe’s departure, combined with an imbalance in filling vacant positions, would leave the BBG with a four–two majority in favor of the Democrats. That has an impact on broadcasting strategy. Ironically, the BBG was established legislatively by the Broadcasting Act of 1994, precisely as a firewall against the polarization of Voice of America and the other U.S. international broadcasters.
At this point, connecting dots becomes possible. Members of the BBG oversee both the strategic planning and the execution of the agency’s long-term goals. The stated goals include phasing out radio as a medium (even though radio accounts for the majority of the BBG’s audience) and moving to digital platforms, which are aimed at the elites, not news-deprived ordinary citizens of repressive regimes.
The unofficial goals include steering broadcasting content away from anything that smacks of the war of ideas. The assertive prosecution of the war of ideas that helped the U.S. win the Cold War has been replaced by reluctance even to name extreme religious ideologies that threaten America.
The response to the Victor Ashe fiasco proves that Americans really do want partisanship to stop and understand the importance of bipartisan public diplomacy for U.S. relations with the world. Public diplomacy and international broadcasting funded by the U.S. government have to be both about global understanding and appreciation of the U.S. and its founding ideas, and about reporting the news. U.S. public appreciation and support for these missions would be a great step forward.