A commentary by BBG Watch

Cute High School Intern

Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) officials have gotten so used to running their small federal agency like their own private country club that they still frequently forget that at least some of their meetings can now be viewed online.

While the video from the last BBG meeting was streamed live, the on demand link to the video has not worked since then.

Last Friday, the American public got a taste of the new corporate culture emerging at the agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting even prior to the implementation of the current restructuring plan to remove the BBG as much as possible from the government and public sphere.

While the American people might not begrudge a little bit of humor in public meetings, because of its history of discrimination against various groups of employees, the BBG is not exactly the place where joking about young women seems appropriate.

At the BBG meeting on Janurary 13, Radio and TV Marti which broadcast to Cuba and are managed by the BBG, showed a short video of their recent broadcasting achievements. The video was narrated by a young female intern.

After the presentation of the video, which apparently impressed everyone in the room, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Steven Korn said that he was planning to hire a cute high school intern to narrate his organization’s next promotional video. People laughed.

While the remark at the BBG meeting was greeted by most in the room as funny, some of those present, perhaps including BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson himself, might have felt just a little bit uncomfortable. Recently hired BBG officials, many of whom happen to be former CNN employees, are known to be prone to making socially awkward comments. We’re not talking here about Isaacson and VOA director David Ensor. But some of the others are apparently not as familiar with the etiquette of working for a public institution.

Old White Guys

As we have reported earlier, one top BBG official wrote not too long ago about “old white guys” in discussing his personnel decisions. BBG Watch sources identified the person as a former CNN associate of Chairman Isaacson. Anonymous sources also told us that some BBG members wanted to have the official fired but the majority decided to let him stay after first reversing some of his personnel actions and reaffirming their commitment to opposing discrimination.

BBG Watch wonders who it might have been.

First Amendment at the Broadcasting Board of Governors

In light of our disclosures of this and other scandals, it’s not surprising that some BBG members and members of their executive staff don’t like BBG Watch.

We have received a credible report that a presidentially-appointed member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors has urged other BBG members to take an unspecified action against BBG Watch for publishing anonymous posts and comments which this member found highly objectionable. Our sources did not report on the nature of the action sought by the BBG member.

There are also no reports that BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson or any other BBG member responded positively to this request. Our sources tell us that the BBG member was particularly incensed that BBG Watch has anonymous sources within the agency. Credible sources told us that this particular BBG member called us “cowards.” (Or was it Prime Minister Putin speaking about his political opponents in Russia? We’re not absolutely sure.)

Another source speculated that some BBG members can be more easily influenced than others by BBG bureaucrats who want to create panic to divert attention from their own mistakes.

Anonymous Speech

We take very seriously any report that a high level U.S. Government official questions the right of free speech, including anonymous speech, or any implication that our media activities may be countered by government action. We have already taken additional measures to protect the BBG Watch website, including creating mirror sites.

We also want to assure all our readers and contributors that we will not be intimidated and plan to continue our investigative reporting and commentary in the same manner as before.

The irony of a Broadcasting Board of Governors member questioning the right of using anonymous sources and anonymous speech to expose bad judgement mismanagement on the part of U.S. government officials is that the BBG’s stated mission is “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

The BBG website also states that U.S. international broadcasting serves “as a trustworthy source of news and as an example of a free, professional press in countries that lack independent media.”

The BBG website also states that “BBG broadcasters engage with audiences and promote dialogue through interactive programs and social networking.”

Questioning the First Amendment protections of free speech would not be good public diplomacy for an agency that is still part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and is also a journalistic institution.

This particular BBG member perhaps also does not realize that much of the social media content on the BBG websites is in fact anonymous and the BBG has no idea who originates most of the comments. The BBG is in fact engaging in promoting anonymous criticism of autocratic foreign governments by investing heavily in Internet censorship circumvention technologies. In fact, the U.S. Congress gave the BBG $10 million for the project to enable anonymous Internet users overcome cyber censorship in countries like China.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that “anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment.” A much-cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.

Culture of Fear versus Transparency

BBG Watch anonymous contributors do not particularly like using anonymous sources, but reporting from and about a federal agency where top officials freely use phrases such as “old white guys,” “cute high school interns,” and “cowards,” leaves little room for maneuver. We are satisfied that BBG Watch reporting has already produced important reforms at the BBG.

We are also pleased that BBG Chairman Isaacson and senior Republican member Victor Ashe are supportive of greater transparency within the BBG as exemplified by their efforts to expand public access to BBG meetings. We hope that other BBG members will follow their example if they don’t already. But the culture of fear at the BBG is still extremely strong despite Governor Ashe’s efforts to improve employee morale.

About BBG Watch

BBG Watch is an independent website run by former and current BBG employees and other volunteers. It is sponsored by Free Media Online, a media freedom nonprofit NGO registered as a 501(c)3 public institution. BBG Watch reporting has contributed to a number of reforms at the BBG and saving jobs of journalists specializing in human rights reporting.

We have criticized the BBG decision to end Voice of America broadcasting to China, which was subsequently blocked through bipartisan action in Congress. We have also reported on discrimination against foreign journalists at the BBG-managed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and exploitation of Voice of America contract employees, including long delays in the payment of their salaries. After our reports were published, some of the contractors received their long-delayed payments.

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