Long ago the United States Information Agency was established to tell America’s story abroad. Lauded for its independence and professionalism, the USIA was sometimes confused with the independent Voice of America (VOA), with its high credibility reporting of what was happening in our nation. And there was Radio Free Europe (FFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), which confronted the Soviet Union and its satellite nations.
In the USIA’s Golden Age under President Richard Nixon, its leader, the formidable Frank Shakespeare, saw himself as a salesman for America. Legendary documentary filmmaker Bruce Herschensohn, who ran USIA’s acclaimed movie division, proudly said, “I am a propagandist.” His films effectively challenged international communism. Under his stewardship, USIA’s hard-hitting film (for foreign consumption) on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia won an academy award for best documentary.
All that is history. Today we have a hybrid and awkward creature called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which includes VOA, RFE, RL, and also operations that broadcast to Cuba, Asia, and the Middle East. The sharp messaging that characterized the old days is gone. Herschensohn likely would not recognize what we have today.
A quarter-century ago the Voice of America was headed by Tucker Carlson’s father, Richard Carlson. And Dick was more than a veteran newsman. He was a serious thinker who valued content. Dick saw VOA as fair and objective, above politics, but he had a strategic objective of telling America’s story, in a positive way. All this was well before the Obama era, with President Obama’s repudiation of American exceptionalism and his “apology tour” that seemed to define our international messaging.
Since its creation, the BBG has been disjointed. Under the Obama Administration, Congress passed overdue reform legislation to reduce the power of the BBG’s politically appointed oversight board of second-guessers, properly in favor of a strong chief executive officer. Good idea. Except that the newly appointed CEO John Lansing himself was political, so much so that the legislation expressly retained Lansing as the initial CEO. Odd.
That was two years ago.
It’s time to make a change.
President Donald Trump promised to clean the swamp. Lansing has maintained a low profile, with few public pronouncements in two years. He is, you will be happy to know, for freedom of the press. He has an impressive background in corporate media machinations, including the Food Network and Cooking Channel. But we need a new chef.
The CEO is supposed to protect the BBG against political interference, and he should. But that doesn’t mean that President Trump cannot appoint his own man (or woman) who will be faithful to the president’s vision yet not politicize the BBG. The Trump Administration has been slow to fill many important positions in government, and even in the Department of State, where uncertainty remains. But that’s no reason not to move ahead at the BGG. With so much at stake, this CEO position cannot be a holdover.
The ideal nominee will not be controversial or subject to caricature as a divisive interloper with a hidden agenda. The president must nominate someone who understands our international messaging: integrity and credibility are paramount, but we need strong content that serves our strategic interest. In other words, BBG needs a CEO who is a super-bright strategist knowledgeable on policy and issues. It’s easy to find former broadcast executives or technical types, but difficult to find someone who has worked on Capitol Hill and traveled abroad for our government, and who also understands from the old USIA that institutional memory is necessary. We need a proven salesman who knows how to research and reach target constituencies, that is, a numbers guy with substance. We need a BBG CEO with hands-on experience in creating and crafting, writing and editing, producing and directing, and who is congenial and collaborative, but still tough: for extra credit, the right person will have read Adam Smith, the Federalist Papers, and Alexis de Tocqueville.
There are now inmates in this BBG asylum who control it. They need the adult supervision of someone who knows their game.
Swamp Drainer, the pseudonymous author of this piece, has been in sensitive government positions and worked on contract for the U.S. Information Agency.