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Big Changes Coming to U.S. International Broadcasting?

Defense bill includes provision to sweep away the current Broadcasting Board of Governors; Trump watchers worry, Royce scoffs

A major overhaul atop U.S. federal radio and television broadcasting entities could be on the way.

An amendment to a defense spending bill that passed Congress would change the leadership of those broadcasts by placing the five broadcast networks under the control of a CEO with expanded powers who is appointed by the president and requires U.S. Senate confirmation.

The amendment would “permanently establish the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position as head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that oversees all U.S.-funded non-military international broadcasting, while removing the nine-member bipartisan Board that currently heads the agency.”

The amendment to the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act modifies the United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994 and creates an international broadcasting advisory board to assist the CEO.

Critics of the BBG have been beating the drum for an overhaul for years, and BBG has been the subject of some reform efforts already. VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting are taxpayer-funded federal broadcasting entities of the BBG; the board also oversees three grantee organizations: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).

Current CEO John Lansing would remain in his position until a new CEO is appointed by President-elect Donald Trump.

The BBG lists its priorities as providing objective news and information to “priority areas in support of the war against terrorism” as well as regions “where freedom of information is suppressed or denied.” It’s not clear what a change in leadership structure could mean for the five networks, experts say, but change would likely come.

Industry observers say the proposal leaves open the possibility of drastically changing the scope of U.S. international broadcasting.

“I’ve always favored a CEO, with the board playing more of an advisory role,” said James Glassman, former BBG chairman. “A bigger problem for international broadcasting is its position outside the foreign policy structure. The new legislation moves in that direction but not forcefully enough.”

Gregory Newton, associate professor of Media Arts and Studies and interim assistant dean at Ohio University, says he is uncomfortable with the president of the United States nominating the CEO that would oversee international broadcasting.

“My primary thought is the latest changes are a bad idea and run contrary to the international services’ mission. Elimination of the BBG, leaving the CEO directly responsible to the president, makes the position feel like a partisan appointment,” Newton said.

The Radio Television Digital News Association opposes the legislation, saying it “would threaten the independence of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the journalistic organizations it oversees.”

The BBG itself briefly discussed the House amendment at its meeting in late November but had yet to see the final version of the amendment.

Some critics have been quoted in media reports worrying that the change will give the new president the media network he allegedly wanted via roundabout means; others have expressed concern that the change will muddy the mission of the networks in relation to Russian interests.

Politico quoted Michael Kempner, a Democratic member of the board and Hillary Clinton donor, saying “No president, either Democrat or Republican, should have that kind of control. It’s a public jewel. Its independence is what makes it so credible.” The Washington Post editorialized last week, “If Congress’s intention was for U.S. broadcasting to rival the Kremlin’s, it may well get its wish.”

But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who introduced the amendment, said at the time of its introduction that reform to international broadcasting is needed “to tackle new threats, including the weaponization of information by ISIS and Russia. The United States’ response to this onslaught of propaganda has been crippled, in part, by bureaucracy.”

Royce said in a statement in early December, “Our agencies that helped take down the Iron Curtain with accurate and timely broadcasting have lost their edge. They must be revitalized to effectively carry out their mission in this age of viral terrorism and digital propaganda.” He said the provision “takes an important first step in this process by replacing the BBG’s part-time board with a permanent CEO to help better deliver real news to people in countries where free press does not exist.”

And a Fox News column by Howard Kurtz today notes past bipartisan support for such BBG reforms and argues that “a legislative change that would have been unremarkable in a Hillary Clinton administration has become, for some in the media, a story about Breitbart and the alt-right.” It quoted Royce saying, “I’ll never allow the BBG to be transformed into some kind of White House propaganda machine, nor will Congress.”