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Is anybody listening? SFRC report weighs in on the BBG June 16, 2010

Posted by Elizabeth Cutler in Analysis.
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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report with political and strategic motivations last Thursday in response to the ongoing efforts by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to hold up the confirmation process for members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Senator Coburn has delayed confirmations of all eight pending BBG governors (including the role of Chairman, vacant since 2008) while describing the BBG as “the most worthless organization in the federal government.” The review, titled “U.S. International Broadcasting—is anybody listening?—Keeping the U.S. Connected” was commissioned chiefly by Ranking Member Dick Lugar of Indiana and focused largely on the BBG, an independent federal agency funded through the international affairs budget function.

The bipartisan board includes all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including Voice of America and Middle East Broadcasting Networks. BBG broadcasters produce programs in 60 languages for approximately 171 million people worldwide through radio, TV, Internet, and other new media productions. Although Congress initially created the Board in order to protect broadcasting operations from political complexities, it seems to have spiraled into quite the opposite, with partisan politics preventing the confirmation of most of the Board thus slowing its operations significantly.

In spite of these procedural challenges, BBG’s budget has steadily increased over the last decade, reaching $746 million thus far in FY2010, as BBG represents a significant portion of total US public diplomacy efforts.

The Lugar report does not mince words when acknowledging the shortcomings of the BBG with regard to demonstrable success of its programming in closed countries such as Iran as well as organizational and strategic flaws. With regard to the bureaucratic slowdown marked by partisan infighting at BBG, the report states that what was intended to be a political “firewall” has instead become a “football,” as we see here with Senators Lugar, Coburn, and others tossing the issue back and forth while a $750 million federal budget allocation is allocated without a full Board of governors, let alone its Chairman. In playing football with the BBG, have we all but dropped the ball when it comes to BBG effectiveness?

The report states that the “chronic dysfunction of the confirmation process has had a profound impact on our broadcasting efforts” due to the paucity of clear leadership and thus ability to plan over the long term. Dealing with challenges such as the Iranian government’s ability to obliterate access to BBG broadcasting seems to remain on the backburner. The report states that “efforts to ensure that our programming gets through should remain a top priority,” but without a sufficient infrastructure in place to generate and implement an actual plan to achieve efforts, it seems unlikely that this could actually happen.

Moreover, comments made by BBG Governor Jeffrey Hirschberg do not bode well for the BBG’s fate on the budgetary chopping block. He stated that a “one-to-one correlation as to whether or not for every dollar we spend we can change hearts and minds” simply does not exist. Concern runs rampant in Washington that American dollars are supporting the promulgation of anti-American views that are often espoused by local broadcasts made possible by the BBG. On the other hand, if the ultimate goal of the BBG is to support democracy worldwide, then diversity of views is necessary. Hirschberg’s statement thus demonstrates the vulnerability of the BBG right now as it tries to defend its purpose in the broader context of U.S. foreign aid while scrambling to establish an actual full board of governors.

Lugar had hoped that the confirmations would have occurred by the time this report was published on June 9, but that did not happen. As we move towards the August recess, it is unclear if hearings and/or confirmations for the BBG make it to the top of the packed legislative agenda.

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Comments»

1. Barak - June 16, 2010

This is unfortunate. I hear the VOA all over the place in sub-Saharan Africa. It is an excellent way to connect people in the region to the US. Many people listen to it because they want to learn English, so this is an opportunity to exploit. What is sad is that the BBC World Service does a much better job than the VOA. Production qualities are higher, stories are more in-depth, and they do a lot more regional reporting, such as the daily Focus on Africa. Plus they broadcast English Premier League football on the weekend. It’s not clear to me why people in Nairobi are obsessed with the outcome of a match between Aston Villa and Everton, but they are. The VOA could learn a lot from the BBC.

2. Randolph - June 17, 2010

VOA is becoming increasingly hard to hear on the radio, everywhere. It’s almost as though they are ashamed of being associated with anything American. If you can even find an English program, it will probably be nothing but “music” (if you call people screaming about bitches and hoes “music”.) VOA even abandoned its Red, White and Blue logo, probably because it looked somehow American. Generations of people listened to VOA and respected it. They have somehow turned it into a very bad joke. BBC has long been a joke in much of the world, but they continue to just dodder along, slowing meandering downhill. VOA seems to have leaped off the cliff, like some bad cartoon.

3. Elizabeth Cutler - July 2, 2010

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