At long last, broadcasting agency nominees to move forward
After months of gridlock, the Senate is finally set to confirm all eight of President Obama‘s nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent agency that oversees U.S. media efforts abroad, now that Sen. Tom Coburn has agreed to lift his holds on the nominees. "We have eight great nominees and I’m looking forward ...
After months of gridlock, the Senate is finally set to confirm all eight of President Obama‘s nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent agency that oversees U.S. media efforts abroad, now that Sen. Tom Coburn has agreed to lift his holds on the nominees.
"We have eight great nominees and I’m looking forward to working with them," Coburn told The Cable in a brief interview. He said that Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, had agreed to hold a hearing on international broadcasting after the nominees are seated, with Coburn — who is not on the committee — as his invited guest.
So ends a long period of uncertainty at the BBG, where only four out of the eight board members held over from the Bush administration still remain. The full Senate could confirm all eight nominees by Wednesday night by unanimous consent, according to Senate sources.
When they take up their posts, the new board members will be charged with invigorating an agency that has been widely criticized as ineffective, while navigating the charged politics of oversight on Capitol Hill.
They’ll have to contend first and foremost with Coburn, who is on a one-man mission to reform — or blow up — the BBG, which was founded in the 1990s to supervise the U.S. government’s media organizations in the post-Cold War era.
Coburn said recently that the BBG, which gets more than $700 million of taxpayer funding each year, is "the most worthless organization in the federal government." He sent each board nominee a list of 14 detailed questions, obtained by The Cable, to answer before he would remove his holds.
The first four questions concern the Persian News Network, a subdivision of the Voice of America that broadcasts news and commentary into Iran. Coburn has complained about the programming at PNN for a long time, alleging that the channel has often broadcast messages that run counter to American values and especially U.S. foreign-policy objectives.
In March, 70 members of Congress signed a letter to President Obama saying, "We implore you to investigate the anti-American rhetoric reported to be coming from Voice of America – Persian."
Critics also allege that PNN is staffed by journalists who harbor anti-American biases. One piece of evidence often cited was this YouTube video made in 2007 by two PNN employees, one of whom was dismissed and one of whom is still on the job. The clip, a five-minute song accompanied by a mock newscast, portrays "demoKracy" as little more than a rhetorical cloak for American imperialism.
Last month, VOA management shook up the staffing of PNN by removing Alex Belida as director of PNN and firing PNN executive editor Hida Fouladvand. The staff at PNN, who believe they are simply pursuing balanced journalism whether or not it conforms with U.S. foreign-policy messaging, saw the move as a carrot to Coburn in exchange for him letting the board members go through.
A spokesman for VOA rejected that explanation. "VOA Director Dan Austin decided it was time to make a change and continue the progress PNN has been making," he said. "Alex Belida, who served as PNN director with distinction from September 2008, is now working with VOA’s critical South Asia division to improve that division’s programming to Afghanistan and Pakistan."
As for the critics’ complaints about the tone of PNN’s coverage, the spokesman said that VOA is "continuing efforts to improve the quality of PNN’s programming. We have in place our own regular internal reviews to closely monitor programming."
Multiple insiders tell The Cable that Coburn played no role in the changes at PNN. More likely, they say, VOA was trying to head off the concerns about PNN before the new board arrived.
The entire affair speaks to what many observers see as a confused and unresolved definition of the BBG’s mission and role in U.S. public diplomacy. The law calls for the BBG to be both a tool of American foreign policy as well as an independent source of journalism — which can lead to editorial dilemmas in a region where U.S. policies remain deeply unpopular.
The new board, led by former Time magazine editor Walter Isaacson, will have to find a way to address this inherent tension. Observers will also be looking to see whether Isaacson exerts control over the organization, which is currently run mostly by BBG Executive Director Jeff Trimble, rather than the board, according to Hill sources, employees, and officials there.
The State Department plays a role in the management of the BBG. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the ninth board member, but she is represented there by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale.
The Cable had hoped to ask McHale how she views the overall direction of the BBG and its role in the administration’s overall public-diplomacy strategy, but she declined several requests for an interview, citing a completely full schedule for the entire month of June.
Trimble did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.