William Gallo, Voice of America
VOA News Center, Washington, D.C.
Control over U.S. government international broadcasting will be consolidated under a powerful chief executive, under legislation expected to soon be signed by President Barack Obama.
The changes were included as part of an annual defense funding bill, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed last week by both houses of Congress.
The bill restructures the leadership of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. government agency that supervises the Voice of America and other broadcast entities, several of which are organized as government-funded private corporations, known as grantees.
The bipartisan, nine-member board that oversees the BBG will be replaced by a smaller advisory board with no decision-making authority. 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 bill's supporters say the changes will help streamline operations and do away with a part-time board that has long been criticized for ineffectiveness.
But critics say the board serves as a crucial firewall between BBG journalists and the political establishment, and argue that eliminating it could damage editorial independence and credibility.
The bill's main backer was Republican Congressman Ed Royce, who says the changes to the BBG are long overdue.
"Our agencies that helped take down the Iron Curtain with accurate and timely broadcasting have lost their edge," Royce said in a statement earlier this month. "They must be revitalized to effectively carry out their mission in this age of viral terrorism and digital propaganda."
Any new CEO named by the president must be confirmed by the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
Under the bill, the CEO would acquire broad powers, especially over BBG grantee organizations, which include Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Specifically, the CEO would have the power to consolidate grantees into a single new corporation, hire and fire their heads, and transfer money from one grantee's budget to another.
The language of the bill predates the presidential election, and was supported by the Obama administration. But Michael Kempner, a BBG board member appointed by Obama, says the bill is a mistake.
"No president, Democrat or Republican, should be able to have unfettered control of these vital U.S. media properties," Kempner said in an interview. "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."
Some media reports have suggested the shakeup means the BBG broadcasters, including VOA, will effectively become a mouthpiece for incoming President-elect Donald Trump.
But John Lansing, the current BBG CEO, has said the agency's independence is still protected. In an email to staff earlier this month, he said that "maintaining our journalistic independence, and our credibility worldwide, remains of the utmost importance."
"This legislation makes NO changes to the firewall between the federal government and the journalists of our five networks. The firewall remains in place and sacrosanct, with the CEO legally required to uphold its function," said Lansing.
Editorial independence at VOA is also safeguarded by the VOA Charter, an act of law that protects the independence and integrity of its programming. "VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive," the charter says.
But will Trump, who has reportedly toyed with the idea of creating his own media network, be attracted to the idea of trying to influence the content disseminated by federally funded broadcasters?
"It's a danger and I think we should watch it closely," says Moira Whelan, a former deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy at the State Department. "Crossing our fingers isn't good enough."
But Whelan, who now works as an independent communications consultant for think tanks, supported the changes.
"It's a 24/7 news business, and decisions made by committee were leaving (the BBG broadcasters) not competitive with other media organizations around the world," she told VOA.
Ultimately, she pointed out, there is always a risk that presidents will try to exploit federal government agencies for partisan purposes. Under the new leadership structure, she said it will even be more important for Congress to ensure that the BBG's editorial independence is protected.
"And I think there are friends in Congress who want to ensure that," she added.