Obama signed defense bill that clips wings of part-time board and empowers CEO.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose management structure and complaint-prone workforce produced years of conflict, has embarked on a statutorily mandated reorganization just in time for influence from the incoming Trump administration.
President Obama on Dec. 23 signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contained a long-discussed provision to replace the BBG’s part-time, nine-member board with a more-powerful permanent CEO. Coming after a series of leadership changes, legislative debate over reforms and a new freedom to circulate broadcast materials within U.S. borders, the provision replaces the bipartisan board with a smaller advisory group “with no decision-making authority,” the Voice of America reported. “Its power will be transferred to the chief executive officer, a new position established in September 2015. Future CEOs will be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.”
The move was championed by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., who said it would “help better deliver real news to people in countries where free press does not exist,” while also countering “the weaponization of information by ISIS and Russia.”
He added: “The United States’ response to this onslaught of propaganda has been crippled, in part, by bureaucracy. Our agencies that helped take down the Iron Curtain with accurate and timely broadcasting have lost their edge.”
Obama, despite some resistance from current board members, expressed support in his NDAA signing statement, saying the final language affecting such outlets as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty “streamlines BBG operations and reduces inefficiencies, while retaining the longstanding statutory firewall, protecting against interference with and maintaining the professional independence of the agency's journalists and broadcasters and thus their credibility as sources of independent news and information.”
But the outgoing president raised doubts about the transition to a new structure, saying it “raises constitutional concerns related to my appointments and removal authority. My administration will devise a plan to treat this provision in a manner that mitigates the constitutional concerns while adhering closely to the Congress's intent.”
Also skeptical of the presidential appointment power was board member Michael Kempner, who told VOA that: “No president, Democrat or Republican, should be able to have unfettered control of these vital U.S. media properties. It's the independence of the media properties that makes them so credible and effective around the world. And without that independence, it just becomes more discredited propaganda.”
But the current BBG CEO John Lansing, a veteran of Scripps Networks TV empire, said the agency's independence is still protected. In an email to staff in December, he said that "maintaining our journalistic independence, and our credibility worldwide, remains of the utmost importance."
Some coverage and commentary on the change has posited that Trump—who before winning the White House had expressed interest in building his own TV channel—will exploit the BBG in self-serving ways. The conservative Weekly Standard, however, mocked such “panic” at a bipartisan move.
“As long as Hillary Clinton was assumed to be Obama's heir apparent, boosting the president's control over government broadcasters was a perfectly reasonable, even enlightened idea, its editors wrote on Dec. 16. “Now that Trump is about to occupy the White House, those very same reforms put the organizations at risk of being run by a "propagandist." Is that because Donald Trump poses a unique danger, or just because when the left is pushing its agenda it never counts as propaganda?”
Longtime BBG outside critic Ted Lipien’s blog BBG Watch also mocked some of the resistance to the new CEO powers, calling out Chairman Shell for recently praising his team despite what Lipien called an “ineffective and chaotic tenure,” and blasting VOA for what he sees as an anti-Trump bias.
Shell’s “first agency CEO choice, a distinguished media manager Andy Lack, left the BBG only after several weeks for a better job at NBC News,” the blogger said. “His next choice, John Lansing, had far less journalistic experience than Lack, while new Voice of America director Amanda Bennett, who had previously written for The Washington Post, has tolerated partisan and one-sided reports in VOA programs, including unprecedented personal attacks on Donald Trump.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story had the wrong first name of board member Michael Kempner.