Last Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) tackled an issue long overdue for congressional oversight—the state of affairs at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The title of the HFAC hearing—“Broadcasting Board of Governors: An Agency ‘Defunct’”—came from none other than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The BBG is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world,” she stated during her January testimony during the Benghazi hearing. The HFAC under Chairman Ed Royce (R–CA) has taken up the challenge to reform the government’s sprawling complex of international broadcasters. In the words of Ed Royce,
It is time to take a hard look at the BBG and ask if our resources, nearly $750 million annually, are being spent wisely—are we getting what we need from these broadcasting efforts? We aren’t, and it is time for broad reforms; “tinkering” and “band-aid” solutions are not an option, because the stakes are too great.
Witnesses at the hearing were James K. Glassman, former BBG chairman and former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs; Enders Wimbush, former BBG governor; and Jeff Hirschberg, also a former BBG governor. All three obviously have firsthand experience, yet presented very different conclusions. Where all three did agree was that some parts of international broadcasting, such as Voice of America’s Persian News Network, are completely dysfunctional.
- From James Glassman the House committee heard that (1) the BBG is not defunct, and that with an audience of over 203 million it reaches more people than ever; (2) its mission, however, is confused, as it is hard to be a voice for U.S. foreign policy and also an unbiased news source; (3) the BBG ought to be integrated into the U.S. State Department; (4) BBG journalists must maintain standards of objectivity, but their first priority must be to support U.S. foreign policy; and (5) the BBG must be in line with the larger goals of U.S. public diplomacy.
- From Enders Wimbush the message was that the BBG was a bad idea to begin with. He listed three main dysfunctions: (1) too many different organizations under the BBG’s control to be effectively managed; (2) the governance model is bad: the chairman’s role is purely ceremonial, he has no power; the BBG has become the CEO for government broadcasting; and (3) the BBG is not competitive strategically and globally. The solution, he said, lies in the creation of an entirely new broadcasting structure, integrating the existing broadcasters, cutting duplicative language services, and providing them with competent, professional management.
- From Jeff Hirschberg the word was that (1) the BBG can work if it has good managers; (2) journalistic credibility is of the utmost importance; (3) subordination to government would damage the credibility of the broadcasters; and (4) the BBG’s problems stem from lack of funding. Al-Jazeera is currently spending between $750 million and $900 million to establish an American news network. That is more than the entire annual BBG budget.
At a time of deep budgetary concerns, creating a new agency from scratch is hardly a job that Congress will want to tackle. A potential solution akin to the vision presented by James Glassman is to dismantle the BBG entirely and place Voice of America within the State Department, thus tying its mission closely to support of U.S. foreign policy. The surrogate broadcasters—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra Television, Radio Sawa, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting—whose journalistic mission is more closely allied to democracy-building, might find a home with the semi-independent National Endowment for Democracy.
Most encouragingly, Congress has finally shown a willingness to engage in oversight of this important, struggling tool of U.S. public diplomacy. Such congressional engagement is critically important for a more effective use of U.S. taxpayer dollars—and more effective broadcasting of news and American values to people around the world.