Andrew Lack classes Russia Today the same as ISIS and Boko Haram
U.S. Seeking a Stronger World Media Voice
Broadcasting Board of Governors Names Chief Executive
By RON NIXONJAN. 21, 2015
WASHINGTON — Andrew Lack was sworn in this week as the first chief executive of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, putting him in charge of an agency with a $700 million budget and an outsize influence on shaping world opinion about the United States. Foreign policy experts and some critics say the appointment of Mr. Lack, the former president of NBC News and a prominent news media executive, represents a sea change for the often-criticized agency, which oversees United States government-supported civilian international news media such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio Free Asia.
Before Mr. Lack’s appointment, day-to-day international broadcasting operations were overseen by a board that had become known more for its dysfunction than for managing broadcast programs that reach more than 200 million people every week. Now, with Mr. Lack at the helm, the feeling in the agency and in Congress is that the broadcasting board is better positioned to counter the increasing hostile and suspicious views of Americans aboard, and more forcefully engage international rivals such as China and Russia in the high-stakes information war.
“Andy Lack is the perfect person for the position given his background as a journalist who has run several major media organizations,” said Jeffrey Shell, the president of NBC Universal and chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America staffer and prominent critic of the board of governors, agrees. “I’m quite optimistic, and if anyone can turn the organization around, it’s him, given his background,” Mr. Lipien said. “But he faces immense challenges.”
Mr. Lack takes over an agency that many staffers and foreign policy experts say has floundered even as rival broadcasters financed by China and Russia have grown. Russia has poured millions into foreign-focused news media like Russia Today and Sputnik News, a new website and radio service that leaders at the Kremlin say is being set up to counter the pro-American bias of the western news media. Russia Today already has a significant American presence.
China too had continued to expand its international news media programs. China Central Television, or CCTV, now has global offices in Washington and Nairobi, Kenya, with 70 other international bureaus, many in places where the United States and China compete for influence.
Critics of United States international broadcasting, particularly the Voice of America, say the services have been slow to report major news and slower to embrace digital technologies.
Mr. Lacks said he was aware of the issues at the agency.
“But I’m less concerned about where the agency is at and more focused on where we are going,” he said. “My hope is that if we are behind Russia and China, and that’s a big if, that will change.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Lack said that he was still getting his bearings at the agency, and that he has spent the first days on the job visiting newsrooms and meeting with staffers. In the next several months, he said, he will begin implementing a number of reform initiatives by the board of governors.
“We are facing a number of challenges from entities like Russia Today which is out there pushing a point of view, the Islamic State in the Middle East and groups like Boko Haram, “ he said. “But I firmly believe that this agency has a role to play in facing those challenges.”
One of his first tasks will be improving staff morale. Since 2007, the board of governors has been at or near the bottom in the Best Places to Work in Government Survey, issued by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. The survey is taken from data collected by the federal Office of Personnel Management.
Mr. Lack will also have to contend with a staff that has been up in arms about pending legislation that would change the organization into what many journalists say would be an overtly propaganda arm of the United States government.
A bipartisan bill passed by the House Foreign Relations Committee last year and was written by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, Republican of California, and Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat of New York and he committee’s ranking member, would make the current board of governors an advisory board, create a new communications agency and alter Voice of America’s charter to make it more of a mouthpiece for American policy. The bill is expected to be introduced again in the House, and a similar one is in the works in the Senate.
The bill has caused a split between journalists in the Voice of America newsroom and the American Federation of Government Employees over the union’s support of the reform bill.
Timothy Shamble, the president of the union, said that although members supported having an executive to run the day-to-day operations at the agency, most did not expect much to change. “Our members are taking a wait-and-see approach, but don’t expect much because many of the middle managers that they see as the source of the problems are still in place.”
The board of governors will be Mr. Lack first job in government. He came to the agency from Bloomberg Media Group, where he was responsible for expanding the company’s television, radio, magazine and digital businesses.