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A Very Washington Scandal


Yesterday’s Washington Post had an important op-ed by Jackson Diehl, the paper’s deputy op-ed editor, on what is emerging as Washington’s latest scandal. It doesn’t include under-age hookers or mountains of cocaine. But it’s a very Washington scandal all the same because it’s about how the permanent bureaucracy runs the government somewhat irrespective of the wishes of the president, Congress, and their appointees. And it may have a happy ending: The bureaucrats are getting worried that their bosses may rebel.

Mr. Diehl begins the story with an account of the recent turmoil in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty where the mass firing of journalists in Moscow led to an eruption of protests from a human-rights community in Russia that relies on Radio Liberty for accurate and full coverage of politically sensitive issues.

As he points out, the appointment of Kevin Klose as RFERL’s new president has now calmed the turmoil at RFERL. Everyone trusts him to restore the high journalistic standards and tough reporting that is Radio Liberty’s heritage. They’re standing back and leaving it to him.

But how was this fiasco allowed to happen in the first place? And were things much better at the other large institutions of United States International Broadcasting — including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks? 

The debate moved quickly on to the two Washington bodies that regulate the broadcasters — the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and its technical arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau.

Even most Washingtonians have never heard of these bodies, so it was a great surprise when Mrs. Clinton, in her farewell address to Washington, delivered the following brutal and apparently off-the-cuff judgment on the BBG: “We have abdicated the broadcasting arena. . . . Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”#more# 

Mrs. Clinton’s unexpected criticism almost certainly reflected a report on the BBG from the Office of the Inspector General that had appeared two weeks previously. It was a most extraordinary document by any standards. It launched a savage general attack on the entire BBG — it was said to be disorderly, riven by disputes, etc., etc. Also, however, it fingered for attack one governor in particular, Victor Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, who alone on the board had opposed the Moscow firings and the general drift of RFERL towards a journalism of soft social features.

This open attack on a board member was both unprecedented and against the convention of anonymity. It was also a transparent hit job. The passages attacking Ashe read as if they had been dictated by senior board bureaucrats who found Ashe a constant thorn in their side (by contrast Ashe is a hero to the rank-and-file broadcasters and their unions). It was plainly designed to force his resignation or at best to prevent his re-nomination to the board.

Still more extraordinary than this, however, was the kind of arguments used in the report to indict Ashe and the other governors. They were accused of such mortal sins as not following the five-year plan for USIB devised by the bureaucrats; exchanging harsh words in board discussions on policy; refusing to be bound by former majority decisions when they believed conditions had changed; demanding information (including about spending) which the bureaucrats thought should be above their station; and in general acting like political appointees who thought their job was to run a government agency sensibly and in the light of the latest information. In other words, as well as a hit job on Ashe, the report was also an attempt by the bureaucrats to extend their own power and influence over the board.

That was not an unrealistic ambition. There was a plan, under long gestation but finally on the table, to create a joint CEO at the head of a new BBG/IBB leviathan to whom both the presidents of the broadcasting entities and the agency bureaucrats would report. He would inevitably be a very powerful figure, formally reporting to the governors but in reality running them. And the report painted a picture of the Board that seemed to justify their subordination to a CEO in such a new managerial structure.

But the report was a victim of poor timing. Only a month before it was due to come out, the Board developed second thoughts about what was happening at RFERL. It looked both into the Moscow firings and into the wider question of the kind of journalism that Radio Liberty should practice. As a result it decided to make a change in the leadership of RFERL in accordance with Ashe’s criticism.

Ashe was vindicated. Even before the change, moreover, other governors had begun to suspect that he had been right. They became more skeptical about some of the permanent bureaucracy’s other ideas—and even to declare their independence of their apparatchiks. After all, the BBG senior managers had strongly backed RFERL’s previous management which in turn had justified its actions as a necessary part of the BBG five-year plan. What other failings in USIB might stem from grand plans made by these remote officials far from the microphone?

The grand CEO scheme that seemed merely businesslike common sense a few months previously suddenly looked ominous in the eyes of some governors. At least one of them said of the proposed CEO: “Will he report to us or will we report to him?”

It’s a good question. Indeed, it’s the question that should be asked of any proposal for the managerial reform of USIB that both Mr. Diehl and Mrs. Clinton very reasonably favor. If the governors have been more right than the apparatchiks, then reform should ensure that the broadcasting heads report the radio directly to the governors with the intervening bureaucratic level reduced to a subordinate advisory role.

Maybe those governors should be full-time paid appointees, but the more important qualification is that they should be independent-minded, courageous, and serious people. A way to ensure this is to reappoint those governors who have already shown such qualities. 


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