Tuesday, January 3, 2017

U.S. International Broadcasting – A Way Forward


U.S. International Broadcasting – A Way Forward

Monday, January 2nd 2017
Joseph B. Bruns
Here's a guest post by Council Member Joseph B. Bruns, who served the Voice of America and PBS affiliates WETA and KQED as a senior executive.  He was also director of the U.S. Government's International Broadcasting, with oversight of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio and TV Marti and WorldNet Television.
Now that the National Defense Authorization Act has been signed into law removing the Broadcasting Board of Governors from managerial and operational authority over U.S. international broadcasting, it is time for those who care about it to cease the hand-wringing over the loss of the so-called firewall, roll up our sleeves and get down to the practical work of operating in the new paradigm.
After all, U.S. international broadcasting was effective before the invention of the BBG (some would argue more effective) while under USIA and the Board for International Broadcasting, and there is no reason why it cannot do so once again. In fact, the real firewall was not the BBG, which has stated that it had never received pressure from the White House or State Department to violate its editorial independence, but rather the VOA Charter, signed into law in 1976, the editorial principles adopted by RFE/RL, and, most importantly, the professional integrity of managers and editorial staff throughout the organizations. Without the latter, no amount of asbestos lining, and no nicety of legal language could suffice.
But it is obvious that work needs to be done. The structural change to international broadcasting, which received bi-partisan Congressional as well as Obama Administration support, came about out of a sense of deep dissatisfaction with the managerial and editorial performance of the BBG.  Yet it is people, not structure, who will lead U.S. broadcasting out of the miasma in which it finds itself. Leaders need to lead.
As a once leader and now observer of U.S. international broadcasting, I suggest starting with the following:
Reassert bedrock principles of the VOA Charter and incorporate the RFE/RL and other broadcasters’ mission statements under that protective umbrella. Work with Congressional leadership to provide positive affirmation of those principles in future legislation.
Streamline management structure, empower line managers and hold managers and supervisors accountable. Begin to turn U.S. international broadcasting into a high-performance organization by establishing standards and enforcing them. Weed out unnecessary and redundant layers of bureaucracy and emphasize the roles of ‘doers’ over ‘watchers.’  Too often, VOA has appeared to be slow and lack either the agility or the will to respond to rapidly moving world events. Managers point to Civil Service rules, while workers point to ineffective management. This dysfunction needs to be aggressively, and immediately, addressed.
Embark on a critical examination, with input from a wide array of diverse voices, of the role in international broadcasting in the twenty-first century. With the range of media and distribution methods now available, it will be impossible to do everything everywhere. It is better to do fewer things, and do them well.  Devise a plan, make it public and then execute it with enthusiasm and the commitment of staff at all levels. It will require effort to attain buy-in, but it is essential. Set measurable goals and objectives. Again, hold organizational units and individuals accountable for meeting objectives and standards of performance.
Examine the proliferation of enhanced propaganda techniques and ‘fake news’ that have recently mushroomed internationally. What is the role of U.S. international broadcasting in confronting them and countering disinformation? Make a statement as to how U.S. international broadcasting will meet this challenge in a manner consistent with its mission and editorial independence.
Evaluate how to carry out most effectively the third element of the VOA Charter, which requires that VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.  Too often it has been treated as the orphan element, or one that will occur organically while carrying out the first two elements. Is this sufficient in today’s environment? How can this element of the Charter, equal in importance to the first two, be undertaken while not compromising the integrity and credibility of the journalism?  It must be done.
Raise the performance bar. While the website BBG Watch tends to be hyper-critical and seems almost gleeful in its findings of editorial shortcomings, they often do make a point. Even if only a fraction of findings of lapses and sloppiness in coverage is completely valid, it paints a pretty negative picture of the core work of a journalistic enterprise. Everyone throughout the organization needs to step up his or her game. You cannot have a high-performance organization without high-performing people at every level. It will take individuals who take individual responsibility, it will take standards and it will take accountability. It will also take teamwork, which requires mutual confidence that individuals at every level will effectively do their respective jobs.
Performance will be the best defense against attacks on journalistic standards. It is always possible that at some point a President will appoint a CEO who is willing to defy the law and the stated intent of Congress. U.S. international broadcasting is not unique among federal agencies in facing that danger. But the combination of a history of strict adherence to the Charter, and the esprit of an organization that understands its mission, is committed to that mission and believes in its effectiveness in carrying out that mission will provide more protection than any part-time board ever could.
This list is not exhaustive, nor is it informed by intimate recent knowledge of the day-to-day operations of VOA, RFE/RL or the other broadcasters. It is, though, provided by an interested and sympathetic observer who has watched with some chagrin as these once fine institutions have crumbled. The new operational structure should be viewed by those who care as a new opportunity to move forward. The fear of a Presidential appointee running rogue should not be allowed to paralyze positive action, to build on the past, to discard what no longer works and to embrace the future.

Author: Joe Johnson

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