Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting Rejects Recommendations in S. Enders Wimbush’s WSJ Op-Ed
As directors of a non-partisan, non-profit and independent citizen watchdog group (CUSIB – cusib.org) for U.S. international broadcasting, we agree with S. Enders Wimbush that radical reforms are needed (“S. Enders Wimbush: The Fading Voice of Liberty, WSJ, July 18, 2013), but our organization believes strongly that none of his proposed solutions is good for the United States and for people deprived of freedom and free media overseas. U.S. international broadcasting is a critical national security asset focused on news reporting, free exchange of opinions, media freedom and human rights. It is too important for America and the American people to be “privatized,” as Mr. Wimbush suggests.
We adamantly disagree that the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should be abolished. It provides critical public oversight. On the contrary, it should be strengthened. Board members should include more media freedom and human rights activists and fewer private US media executives doing business in Russia and China, fewer members selected only on the basis of their financial political contributions or members who can’t be bothered to attend board meetings. To our knowledge, Mr. Enders has not been involved in private business activities in Russia or China, and is not believed to be a big contributor to politicians, but by his own admission, he missed many meetings of the board, which he now blames for not working well.
In our view, the problem is not anymore so much the BBG board, which now has some outstanding members: Secretary of State John Kerry, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, social action campaigner and former Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Susan McCue, communications strategy and public relations expert and former senior Congressional advisor Michael Meehan. But the BBG board lacks a quorum, an effective staff, and ability to hire and fire top executives. The agency has been left to operate without an adequate budget for its important mission and without sufficient support from the administration and the U.S. Congress. Its composition, structure and role need reforming, but the bipartisan oversight board must not be abolished or U.S. taxpayers will lose all control over this very important 100% government-funded institution. In the light of the current controversy over “domestic government propaganda,” the U.S. Congress also needs to reaffirm to government officials in no uncertain terms that the mission of U.S. international broadcasting, whose journalists do not engage in propaganda, is overseas, not in the United States.
The main problem is the permanent federal bureaucracy of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) which, to our knowledge, Mr. Wimbush worked closely with and strongly supported during his government tenure. We have reasons to believe that he embraced IBB’s initiatives to end Voice of America (VOA) radio (Internet and shortwave) and direct satellite television broadcasts to China and VOA radio broadcasts (Internet and shortwave) to Tibet–moves which CUSIB strongly opposed as harmful to U.S. interests and to those fighting for their rights.
IBB’s government officials were also pushing for the change in the Smith-Mundt Act, which was done quickly, largely in secret and is now harming the reputation of Voice of America journalists who have been working hard to provide objective news to those who need them overseas but are being badly managed and denied needed resources.
We saw no evidence that the IBB bureaucracy or Mr. Wimbush himself did anything when dozens of brave and experienced Radio Liberty journalists in Putin’s Russia were fired without any warning in September 2012, which triggered protests from Mikhail Gorbachev, Lyudmila Alekseyeva and other democratic Russian leaders. It is our understanding that Mr. Wimbush supported the management team, now replaced, which ordered these brutal dismissals.
If it were not for the other BBG members–Mr. Wimbush’s colleagues with whom he did not get along well–this human rights crisis would have turned into a true public diplomacy disaster for the United States. It was already becoming one and was damaging America’s reputation.
Thanks to these other BBG members, many Radio Liberty journalists have now been rehired. We have no reason to believe that Mr. Wimbush played any role in this rescue. But the BBG board showed that a bipartisan American institution is capable of correcting its mistakes. It is the only thing that stands between the journalists and the largely unaccountable bureaucracy.
That is why we also disagree with Mr. Wimbush’s proposed solution of merging U.S. international broadcasting entities under one central control. We are disappointed that he talks a lot about program duplication and unneeded surrogate and VOA broadcast and other media services but nothing about shrinking and reforming the central IBB bureaucracy that under his vision would become even larger and even more difficult to control, especially if it were “privatized.” Such a move would severely limit accountability and ability of U.S. taxpayers to monitor how their money is being spent, because “privatization” Mr. Wimbush proposes would still require a continuing 100% investment from taxpayers.
Bureaucrats, government or “private,” whose salaries are paid by taxpayers, do not produce programs–journalists do. Mr. Wimbush is looking for savings in the wrong place. He is also proposing to put U.S. international broadcasting in the wrong place. He is wrong that the United States no longer needs both Voice of America and surrogate media for strategically important countries like Russia and China.
Some of CUSIB members listened to VOA and Radio Free Europe radio broadcasts under communism and later became VOA journalists, program managers and executives. We know how the bureaucracy works and doesn’t work. IBB already consumes more than 35 percent of the BBG budget and does not produce a single program. As bureaucratic managers become further and further removed from their audience and the production of programs, which is what centralization means, the more useless and arrogant they become.
Centralization and central planning being proposed by Mr. Wimbush would be fatal to the mission of engaging foreign audiences. It did not work in the Soviet Union and it will not work for U.S. international media. It already doesn’t work under IBB. What we need are clear and distinct missions for both VOA and surrogate broadcasters, perhaps a complete divorce, so each could do independently what it is designed to do.
What we also need is a strong bipartisan oversight board actually capable of controlling and shrinking the bureaucracy instead of listening to bureaucrats clamoring for shrinking programs. We’re afraid that Mr. Wimbush spent a little too much time in their company. Theirs and his solutions have not succeeded, will not succeed, and will not save money.
Some of CUSIB members are former political prisoners in countries like communist China. We know that the only thing that works for those who struggle for freedom are individual language services, both surrogate and VOA, that specialize in what they do. They should retain as much independence as possible and be given resources to accomplish theirs and America’s goals.
Not the bureaucracy, but the U.S. Congress and a strong, bipartisan board open to various points of view should decide which Voice of America and surrogate services are needed. The central staff should be shrunk to a bare minimum, work directly for the board and given a budget of no more than 2 percent to cover only the most essential administrative costs. The rest of the money should go directly to the media entities and people who produce these important freedom-enriching news and opinion programs.
Ann Noonan, Executive Director
Ted Lipien, Director
The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org)
New York, New York
July 19, 2013
The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) has received a response from former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member S. Enders Wimbush to our Letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal in response to his article “S. Enders Wimbush: The Fading Voice of Liberty,” WSJ, July 18, 2013.
CUSIB is an organization of unpaid volunteers who support U.S. international broadcasting and an Advisory Board dedicated to promoting media freedom and other rights worldwide.
We welcome Mr. Wimbush’s response as a further contribution to the debate on the future of U.S. international broadcasting in which we hold differing views and positions.
Response from S. Enders Wimbush
Dear Ms. Noonan and Members of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting,
Your “response” to my WSJ op-ed is a poorly disguised effort to avoid debating the critical issues surrounding reform of U.S. international broadcasting by trying to discredit the messenger. It is full of innuendo and suggestion about me and my motives that cannot be supported by facts. You purport to speak for your “Committee.” May I ask as a preface to my remarks: How many members of CUSIB actually read and approved your “response”? Do they all agree? It would be helpful in the future if those members who support with your arguments would sign CUSIB’s communications.
You labor mightily to attach me to positions I never held, distort or misrepresent positions I have taken, create a narrative to tie these inventions together, and make claims about my opinions and activities about which you can have no knowledge. When I ran Radio Liberty during the Cold War, this kind of contrivance was called agitprop: weaving together a few faint facts; building a largely fictional edifice around them in service of regimes, activities or individuals; impugning the motives and character of the target through inference and innuendo; then beating this drum remorselessly hoping that you can sell the snake oil to ignorant peasants. The astonishing non-sequitur with which you begin should tip off serious readers what is to follow: “To our knowledge, Mr. Enders [sic] has not been involved in private business activities in Russia or China, and is not believed to be a big contributor to politicians but by his own admission, he missed many meetings of the board, which he now blames for not working well.” This nonsense reveals little more than CUSIB’s need of a clear-headed editor.
Agitprop is useful so long as facts remain distant. But they emerge clearly when CUSIB attempts to connect me to recent upheavals at Radio Liberty’s Moscow office. “It is our understanding that Mr. Wimbush supported the management team, now replaced, which ordered these brutal dismissals.” Alas for CUSIB’s spinners, I had resigned from the BBG long before any of these actions were raised or debated. I took no part before, during or after these events, and I expressed no opinion publicly except to offer my services to the BBG to help fix the problems once they had erupted.
But it is helpful to have CUSIB raising this issue because it shines light on CUSIB’s own explanation of what happened, as you describe in great detail in many communications. That explanation goes basically like this. The BBG was surprised by the actions of RL’s management, but, once discovered, an outraged member of the board rushed to Moscow to staunch the bleeding. It’s a pretty good story. Unfortunately, it’s not true, as all BBG members know. After my departure from the BBG in May 2012, remaining board members were briefed in advance at least three times by RL management on the planned changes in Moscow, including the firings. And every time all members of the BBG agreed. The minutes of the BBG’s September 2012 meeting are explicit on this, leaving no doubt as to who supported the changes in Moscow. You may wish to publish these minutes, then consider rewriting your narrative.
You distort my position on reducing shortwave broadcasts to China. I favored realigning shortwave—and only shortwave—broadcasts by handing that mission to Radio Free Asia, while reinvesting the substantial savings from eliminating VOA’s shortwave broadcasts to the same audience in new delivery systems for VOA to China, including direct satellite broadcasting. I took this position because shortwave has no measurable audience in China. Meanwhile technologies that allow one to drive from Los Angeles to New York without ever switching stations are within our power to deploy to China. But without the savings from cutting high cost low impact broadcasts, this is unlikely to happen. I still support this move because it is a strategy Chinese communists will find hard to counter. Meanwhile they have effectively blocked shortwave everywhere. Does CUSIB really support shortwave to nowhere when powerful alternatives are available? Whose position here is “harmful to U.S. interests and to those fighting for their rights”?
Nowhere have I claimed that “the United States no longer needs both Voice of America and surrogate media for strategically important countries like Russia or China.” America needs both surrogate and non-surrogate broadcasting, as I described in my House Foreign Relations Committee testimony on June 26, 2013, but these different emphases have not required separate organizations for a long time. Virtually all U.S. international broadcasting networks now do both. Creating new organizations to do one or the other is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
CUSIB violently misrepresents my recommendations for fixing U.S. international broadcasting and the reasons for doing so, both crystal clear from my WSJ op-ed and my testimony to the HFAC. Here they are again. I recommend creating a non-federal organization chartered by Congress for all of U.S. international broadcasting’s disparate parts. This would require de-federalizing VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. VOA’s journalists would no longer be civil servants, which would put to rest the old VOA lament that being a government journalist is an oxymoron. I also argued for grandfathering current VOA employees in their federal status, so that the transition out of the federal agency would be seamless. An advisory board of some kind would be likely. I recommend an impenetrable firewall against political interference from State or other agencies, as well as against advisory board members’ temptation to meddle in management.
All activities, including essential support services, would be put under professional media management, like virtually all other international broadcasters. This would allow truly strategic investment where US interests are at stake, something that can not happen now because division of broadcast labor is largely cemented in place by the current funding priorities for five separate networks that rampantly duplicate services and seldom share resources. This would not disconnect U.S. international broadcasting from US national security but re-connect it. It is disconnected now. My unambiguous argument—that U.S. international broadcasting is strategically disoriented—forms the greater part of my WSJ piece. Yet somehow CUSIB has read it to mean exactly the opposite.
Congress has deemed that a wide range of programs in the national interest are better performed outside the federal bureaucracy—the Department of Energy National Laboratories, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Wilson Center, and the US Institute of Peace are good examples. Much of U.S. international broadcasting—the “grantees”—already operate outside it, in theory at least. CUSIB pretends to be an opponent of bureaucracy, yet it supports leaving the largest U.S. international broadcasting bureaucracy of all, the Voice of America, unaltered. In this light, CUSIB’s pompous assertion that “[w]e know how the bureaucracy works and doesn’t work” is remarkable.
I have called for the outright abolition of the BBG. Under my scheme, the BBG bureaucracy CUSIB rails against would not simply be disciplined, it would disappear! This should be the gold medal for CUSIB members, as well as for the virtual Ponzi scheme of intersecting websites—CUSIB, BBG Watch, The Federalist—of which your organization is part. Yet you insist on the curious notion that you can have the BBG without a staff.
How anyone could read my suggestion to “privatize” U.S. international broadcasting to mean commercial privatization escapes me. First, I set it in quotation marks, which should have been an initial clue. Second, I described precisely what I meant, which has nothing whatsoever to do with commercial privatization. Third, I put it in the context of beefing up America’s strategic soft power instruments, which most people would understand as an attachment to government.
Finally, does CUSIB really intend to lecture me on the need to fight for human rights, and to assert, absurdly, that had not other BBG members stepped in I would have single-handedly caused a human rights disaster? This accusation is contemptible, as my history speaks for itself.
CUSIB’s “response” is simply a regurgitation of tired complaints, familiar to anyone who visits your multiple websites more than once. It adds nothing to the serious debate about the future shape and mission of U.S. international broadcasting. CUSIB effectively calls for doing nothing to U.S. international broadcasting beyond keeping its favorite BBG governors in place, a dubious endorsement at best. This is a pity because some members of CUSIB are known to be serious thinkers whose views would enrich the discussion. But with this poorly researched, logically incoherent, utterly predictable and ad hominem “response”, Ms. Noonan, you have served their interests, and the future of U.S. international broadcasting, poorly.