Why a political CEO of a news organization is a bad idea (as if this needs to be explained).

Posted: 28 Jan 2013   Print   Send a link
AFGE Local 1812 (undated but recent): "What this operation [US international broadcasting] really needs is an Agency Director, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate as well as a change in the law that created this monster: the International Broadcasting Act of 1994. Ostensibly, that law created a fire-wall that was meant to prevent government (particularly the State Department) interference in the mission of the BBG and the Voice of America so that the broadcasts could remain journalistically sound. However, the senior executive staff has used this provision to justify ignoring congressional inquiries. A Director would be accountable to Congress, the overseer of the taxpayer’s money, in open hearings where tough questions should be asked and management would be required to answer honestly under oath. We have seen many letters from the BBG to members of Congress which say, in effect, you are sticking your nose in our business and that’s a violation of the separation of powers. We are part of the executive branch and you are part of the legislative branch."

I am, by way of disclosure, a dues-paying member in good standing (for now) of AFGE 1812. And what my union writes here is largely nonsense. No executive agency, BBG included, has ever been able to deflect Congressional scrutiny by saying "we are part of the executive branch and you are part of the legislative branch."

The firewall function of the BBG is to keep the administration and Congress from influencing the content of US international broadcasting. In decades past, when VOA directors were appointed by presidents (or by USIA directors who were appointed by presidents), some VOA directors went native and protected the VOA newsroom from interference. Other VOA directors shifted newsroom management to result in output in line with administration policy. This historical inconsistency of VOA's news product prevented VOA from achieving the reputation and the audience size enjoyed by BBC World Service.

Of the firewall functions of the BBG, none is more important than the depoliticization of the hiring of entity heads. The bipartisan board, and no longer the president, selects these executives.

Let's imagine what could happen with a presidentially nominated, Senate-approved CEO of US international broadcasting. A future president is visited by corporate leaders who supported him/her in the campaign. These leaders make their profit by selling cheap manufactured goods from overseas to American consumers. But now they have a problem. Unions are beginning to form in the countries where the factories are located. Workers are seeking higher wages, better working hours, and, perish the thought, benefits. This will cut into their profits. So they would like the Voice of America to help counter these union activities abroad.

The White House chief-of-staff calls in the CEO of US international broadcasting. VOA should do some stories about how much better things are in the right-to-work states. And about corruption in the leadership of US unions. And that big AFL-CIO rally planned for the Mall? Don't send a camera crew. We don't want to give folks overseas ideas about how to organize.

The CEO of US international broadcasting complies. He/she, after all, serves at the pleasure of the president. The CEO passes on these orders to the VOA director, who resists. The CEO says, okay, I'll just turn off your transmitters.

VOA journalists are dismayed that they must abdicate their professional standards, but at least they keep their jobs. The president and Congress are pleased by the content, so funding for USIB keeps coming. Who cares how big the audience is?

The next president and Congress care, and they ask for audience data. The data show that the audience for VOA has plummeted because it has obviously become a mouthpiece of the US government. Funding for USIB is cut, and massive RIFs ensue.

And, so, union brothers and sisters, be careful what you wish for.