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Does U.S. International Media Need One CEO or Two?

Nov 26, 2015


The debate over how to reform America’s government-supported media operations has begun to zero in on the question of governance: Should there be one combined enterprise, with one CEO and one oversight board, as there is now with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)? Or should the entities be divided into two groups, each with its own CEO and board?

Witnesses for both options made their case at a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing by comparing the operations of the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) to a business, a sports team, and even a ship. You can’t have two captains of a ship, one argument went, or two head coaches of a team, while another said no, this would be like having one head coach for two different teams.

The current BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and the BBG’s newly-hired CEO John Lansing came out strongly in favor of one CEO and one board, and I agree with them.

Underlying this debate is proposed legislation that would reduce the BBG and its new CEO to overseeing only the two federal entities (VOA and OCB, which includes Radio & TV Marti), and then create a second board and CEO to oversee the other entities, which are all non-governmental grantees.

The best argument against splitting up the broadcasters is that it would not only fail to resolve one of the biggest problems in the current structure, it would make it worse. That problem is the internal competition for scarce resources. Having five media organizations under one board, all competing for funds and manpower, has been bad enough. But dividing them into two separate groups with two separate boards won’t fix that problem, it’ll institutionalize it.

As a former VOA director who competed for resources with my fellow entity heads for more than four years, I know how much time and energy can be wasted on internecine squabbles over funding.

The BBG has up to now been able to strategically allocate resources across all of the entities from a 30,000-foot perspective because its members also conduct a lengthy review process every year of each entity’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs. But having two competing boards – and they will be competing – each tasked with overseeing only a piece of the big picture will make funding decisions as well as cooperation between the entities more difficult. For example, it would be much easier for one CEO (and board) to ensure that both a federal and a grantee entity had what they needed to cooperate on a joint project, and quickly.

Having five media organizations under one board, all competing for funds and manpower, has been bad enough. But dividing them into two separate groups with two separate boards won’t fix that problem, it’ll institutionalize it.

Both supporters and critics of the proposed reform legislation agree that Congress erred in 1998 when it gave the part-time members of the BBG (who convene formally less than once a month on average) the responsibility of overseeing journalistic organizations that have to respond to breaking news around the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The BBG says it has now addressed that problem by creating a full-time CEO position and filling it with a candidate they want to empower to manage the entities on their behalf. They just need legislative authorization from the Congress.

In following this debate, it’s important to keep in mind that the board’s role does not include directing the journalistic content of the entities, beyond ensuring that it’s faithful to their mission or charter. All journalistic production will (and should) be overseen by trusted entity heads – and if they aren’t trusted, they can be easily replaced since they’re all appointed by, and serve at the pleasure of, the board.

It also shouldn’t matter that the entities have different missions, or that some employ government employees and some don’t. The private sector is full of CEOs who have successfully led occupationally diverse multimedia enterprises as well as business conglomerates because they know how to manage people.

John Lansing has that kind of experience. We should let him use it. 

Photo by Cqeme | CC BY-SA 3.0


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more than 'two boards'

You're right with your conclusion. The "two boards" discussion is, however, based on a false equivalency. These boards do not have similar mandates. As they say, the devil is in the details, and the details are governance and accountability..

First, the Executive Branch has no say in the selection of the new board or of the CEO. The current presidents of RFA, RFE/RL, and MBN are solely empowered to select the new board of 9 members. The new CEO is selected by and serves at the pleasure of this new board.

Second, the Congress has a limited consultative role in selecting the board and a high threshold for rejecting a seated member. Candidates for the new board are identified "in consultation with the appropriate congressional committees," however there is no approval process and the current presidents of RFA, RFE/RL, and MBN appoint the members. The Congress may reject a board member only when a "joint resolution of disapproval is enacted."

Third, the board is structured to be an advisory body. Members are only reimbursed for expenses. They are not paid for their services.

Fourth, the new entity, and its board, are disconnected from the executive branch and wholly separated from foreign policy. The new entity cannot be made to even appear to be "an agency, establishment, or instrumentality of the United States Government.” The legislation expressly forbids the revised BBG, which would fund the new organization through a grant, from using the funding mechanism in a way that may be "construed as inappropriate supervision, oversight, or management."

While members of the new board are selected and appointed by three individuals, the process for the board of the revised BBG continues: nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate. The revised BBG would have, as now, eight members plus the Secretary of State as the ninth.

This is about more than simply "two boards." It is about creating a new agency funded by the tax payer, led by people not selected or vetted by the executive branch or the Congress, and disconnected from foreign policy. This is about governance and accountability.

Good reasons to look closely at this proposal

Matt, I certainly agree that this is about governance and accountability. Your description of the differences between how the two boards would be chosen, by whom, and to whom they would report, deserves attention and raises other good reasons to question the strategy of creating an entirely new board and governing model.

I chose to focus on the fact that it would not resolve the problem of the internal competition for resources because I know from firsthand experience what a corrosive effect that has had on the relationship between the entities.

As for accountability: I believe the best way to oversee the performance and editorial output of these entities is to do it close up, through entity leaders who are journalists, who understand the unique and often nuanced role these entities have, and who have been vetted by, and report to, an independent oversight board. I am not in favor of any direct oversight role by the State department, the White House, or Congress because of the inevitable institutional temptation to exert editorial control.

There are other details in the 68 pages of the proposed legislation that warrant scrutiny. The more discussion this potential law provokes, the better for all involved.


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