Last week, an amendment buried deep in the text of the National Defense Authorization Act disbanded the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), putting in its place an executive directly appointed by the president of the United States. The idea of handing control of the agency to Donald Trump has left some in the media reeling: Politico wrote this week, “Trump is finally getting his Trump TV—financed by taxpayers to the tune of $800 million per year.” And a Washington Post headline blared, “A big change to U.S. broadcasting is coming—and it’s one Putin might admire.”
Brooke talks with Emily Metzgar, associate professor of journalism at the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington, about just what the BBG does—and what this latest development might mean for the future of state-funded journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. If you’re a rabid news consumer, you might have encountered a small story that's becoming a big one. An amendment buried deep in the text of the National Defense Authorization Act will disband the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, and put in its place an executive directly appointed, with Senate approval, by the president of the United States.
So what’s the BBG? It oversees the five international broadcast outlets produced by the US, including the Voice of America, with a mandate to tell the people the truth. The idea of handing over the keys to such a powerful media tool to Donald Trump has raised some hackles. Politico wrote that, quote, “Trump is finally getting his Trump TV - financed by taxpayers to the tune of $800 million per year.” And a Washington Post headline blared, “A big change to U.S. broadcasting is coming — and it’s one Putin might admire.”
Emily Metzgar is associate professor of journalism at the Media School at Indiana University Bloomington and she says that the changes don't necessarily herald the end of independent journalism at the VOA.
EMILY METZGAR: Although it’s important to distinguish between the different missions of these broadcasters, Voice of America is intended to tell America’s story to the world. The other broadcasters have an entirely different mission, to operate as an independent free media outlet might in places where the government does not allow a free press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All of these are supposed to provide real information, information that isn't purely invented in the head of somebody involved in public relations for the US.
EMILY METZGAR: That’s correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about these recent changes to the Broadcasting Board of Governors that have engendered bipartisan willies in Congress.
EMILY METZGAR: [LAUGHS] Well, they may have engendered bipartisan willies but it was also passed with bipartisan support and with the support of the White House. The current structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors for years has been the target of bipartisan criticism, focused around everything from being administratively very top-heavy, to having notoriously low employee morale, to questionable contracting practices, to questions about the appropriateness of the languages being selected for broadcast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did they change the Broadcasting Board of Governors to deal with so many of these things?
EMILY METZGAR: The current board of advisors is a nine-person part-time advisory board that has four Republicans, four Democrats, with the Secretary of State sitting ex officio and no single authority responsible for decision making.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it’s a Quaker meeting.
EMILY METZGAR: [LAUGHS] With a $750 million budget. This new legislation appoints a chief executive to be appointed by the president, with a five-member advisory board, again, with the Secretary of State ex officio and then four other members who are appointed, again, by the president but from a pool of candidates recommended by Congress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This fix was all done on the assumption that we would have a more traditional commander-in-chief.
EMILY METZGAR: I think it's fair to say that it was passed with that assumption, but we don't pass and implement public policy with particular personalities in mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we’re not talking about particular personalities, are we? Michael Kempner, one of the Democratic members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said recently, Congress unwittingly just gave President-elect Trump unchecked control over all US media outlets.
EMILY METZGAR: I think that is alarmist. First, the Trump transition team has not demonstrated any interest in the agency, to begin with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the purposes of this conversation, let us assume he isn't interested in anything. What are the safeguards and checks and balances that keep the CEO from being a direct pipeline actor from the White House?
EMILY METZGAR: The same sorts of safeguards that operate to keep Cabinet officers in line. This is an appointee who will serve with advise and consent of the Senate. The same sort of oversight and firewall that was in place hasn't been removed. The difference is there is now a single person to whom those with concerns about the way the agency is operating can go to get decisions made.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As of 2013, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is no longer barred from broadcasting in the US. Now, we know that initially the statute that kept things like Voice of America from broadcasting here had to do something with a noncompete clause. We didn't want them taking up airwaves that other places could use. But later, it was definitely reinterpreted to mean that we don't want to be subject to our own propaganda, directed by our own government. That went away as of 2013.
EMILY METZGAR: That ban had been widely viewed across the public policy community as anachronistic. Digital communication didn't know borders. It was easy enough to get access to that content. We had a lot of people overseas pointing to the irony of the United States broadcasting messages about the importance of freedom of information, with a law on the books that said it was illegal for American citizens to consume this content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you read the coverage of this decision, what do you expect to happen?
EMILY METZGAR: I think it's a very good thing that we're paying attention to the mission of this agency, to its place in American foreign policy. It has been long neglected and it requires attention. It is ironic that this agency may finally get the attention that it has so long needed, only because we have sort of a nontraditional president coming into office.
I don't think this is going to lead to propagandizing of the American public.
If you look at The New York Times from, I think it was the 10th, there was an op-ed by John Hamilton and Kevin Kosar about US government agencies essentially propagandizing the American public. And they were talking about the Department of Labor -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
EMILY METZGAR: - and EPA and Department of Justice. There are a lot of agencies whose efforts to propagandize the American public have been documented. There is no evidence that the BBG or its broadcasters have attempted to do that within the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily, thank you very much.
EMILY METZGAR: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily Metzgar is associate professor of journalism at the Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.