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Making America’s Voice Heard Around the Globe

Ex-CTAM, Scripps chief John Lansing brings real news to international hotspots 7/31/2017 8:00 AM Eastern
BBG chief John Lansing
TakeAway

John Lansing explains the BBG | Full-length Q&A excerpted in the July 31, 2017 issue of 'MCN'

John Lansing, former head of Scripps Networks and the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, oversees all U.S. government-funded independent international news media. He has headed up the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its five networks — Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks — since September 2015.

hired by the board, chaired by then Chair Jeff Shell. Only the board was nominated by the WH

He was hired by the BBG board, which was nominated by the White House (Editor's Note: The story initially said he was a presidential appointee, which was not correct).

In addition to running the Scripps cable networks and the cable marketing association, Lansing brought a TV-news background to the job of providing unbiased and uncensored information “to people who need it the most,” along with providing a model of free and independent news to the people who lack it.

There has been concern, with recent changes to BBG oversight and a new administration with a “fake news” fixation, that the mission could become clouded or co-opted. That’s not happening, Lansing said, and it won’t on his watch. But what has been happening is a tech-focused upgrade and use of the tools of the cable network trade, ratings and research, to help make the case for BBG on Capitol Hill, where money is tight.

Lansing talked with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about BBG’s impact in the current administration and more. Here’s an edited transcript.

MCN: Can you explain the Broadcasting Board of Governors’s mission?
John Lansing: To inform, engage and connect people around the world in service to freedom and democracy. We broadcast in 61 languages in over 100 countries and parts of the world that either lack a free press or have a press that is under some control by their governments.

MCN: BBG is not a U.S. government controlled outlet, correct?
JL: It’s not, but that is a really good question and I’m glad you asked it. We are an independent agency of the federal government and by law there is a firewall that prohibits the government from interfering with the independence of any of our journalists or networks.

That firewall not only exists, but it has been my experience over two years that it is fully respected. I have never had anything come up that was even approaching related to government interference in our editorial independence.

MCN: There has been some concern outside of BBG, and some inside it, that the Trump administration could use BBG as a propaganda arm. It is not a farfetched concern in the world in which we find ourselves. Can you further assuage any concerns?
JL: I can only tell you my experience with this administration, and that is, as with all agencies of the federal government when there is a new administration, they assigned in our case two individuals for transition purposes and, on the first day they came aboard in January, I sat down and explained to them the sanctity of the firewall and I was very impressed with their understanding. They were willing not only to abide by it, but actively support it in their communications back to the White House.

So, they became advocates for the firewall. And there was never any pushback from the White House. So, notwithstanding how it might seem and what some reporters around town may have assumed, and I would be the first one to raise my hand, there has not been any attempt by the administration to put any spin of any kind on our editorial decisions.

MCN: We assume that you would not only raise your hand, but perhaps ball your fist, if that were the case?
JL: Yes, that’s my job. It’s not a hard thing to explain to you, because you get it, but it has been pretty well understood when we have explained it at the State Department and the White House that the credibility of our information is really what makes it effective and useful.
If people in, say, Cuba or North Korea or China or Venezuela or the Philippines, you name it, believe that what they are hearing from Voice of America, or Radio Free Europe in the Ukraine, or Radio Free Asia in Southeast Asia, or in the Middle East, is tainted and non-credible, then it really would have no meaning or purpose and be ineffective.

MCN: What are some of the BBG’s big current initiatives?
JL: Most significant is we launched a Russian- language cable network in Eastern Europe on the Russian periphery that is doing very well. A top priority of most everyone you meet on the Hill is, “what are you doing in response to Russian misinformation” and that is staying in our lane and doing objective journalism. It is the first substantial initiative in that regard and has gained a lot of support for us.

MCN: Are there any parts of the world you are particularly focused on?
JL: We are expanding in many areas, including the Philippines and the Middle East, of course Venezuela. Cuba continues to be a great concern of ours notwithstanding the rapprochement. Certainly North Korea right now is a key focus. We do our very best to stay in tune with U.S. foreign policy. We understand what parts of the world most need our resources.

MCN: But you are not promoting that foreign policy, correct?
JL: No. The analogy that I would use is that at a newspaper or TV network or station, you have beats that are important to your audiences. You’re on the D.C. beat, or someone is on the transportation beat. So, these organizations make judgments about where to put their resources based on the particular outcomes they hope to have and we did the same thing.

MCN: What impact does the “fake news” tag this administration keeps sticking on journalists have on your ability to maintain that credibility on the world stage?
JL: That is a fair question. I think different people and audiences hear that term and react differently. I think it is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as credible news that could be fake, and I think that credible news and information is easily discernible based on the quality of the reporting and the writing. I think in certain sectors and audiences it may resonate and call into question any publication, but I don’t know how big that receptive audience is.

MCN: How did running the Scripps Networks or CTAM prepare you for this job, or was it a leap into another dimension?
JL: Early in my career [starting at age 17] I was a news photographer and editor, then became a local news director in Kalamazoo, Minneapolis and later Chicago, WBBM, then when I joined [E.W.] Scripps my first several years as managing TV stations in Cleveland and Detroit, before I took over the broadcast group. So I began as a journalist in the field and led some very good newsrooms. We won the [Edward R.] Murrow Award for station of the year. And I have always been a journalist at heart.

To turn your question around, it was a challenge for me to move into the [Scripps Networks Interactive] cable nets. I had been so steeped in broadcast news I didn’t know whether I could transfer my skills to lifestyle programming [HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel and others]. I think I was able to successfully do that.

MCN: Talk a little about technology. We are thinking about the aerostat used to get a TV Marti signal to Cuba, which at one point broke free and was shot down by a jet fighter as a precaution and, if memory serves, recovered by fishermen, which sounds a little like the Keystone Cops meets Rube Goldberg.
JL: My No. 1 priority coming in here two years ago was to drastically evolve all of BBG to a much more digital-first posture. And that is true with all of the services, VOA, RFE/RL. We understand now that we have a target audience just like we do in the private-sector media. And of course I come from Scripps, where targeting the audience is really the art of the business model.

And now we understand that our target is not necessarily 50-plus men listening to radio, but it’s 15-to-25-year-old future leaders, young people getting the bulk of information off digital, social, mobile platforms. So, that has been our very, very aggressive push all across the BBG for the last few years.

MCN: BBG created an office of internet freedom. What is that and why do you need it?
JL: It existed when I came and I enhanced it when I learned more about it. But it is a direct investment in tools that help citizens in repressive societies gain access to the internet and to be safe in gaining access to the Internet.
It allows them to talk to one another without being spied on, or access independent media without being persecuted.

MCN: Enhanced it how?
JL: More money. We went to Capitol Hill and demonstrated the impact we’re having. One of the things that has resonated there is my insistence that the BBG measure our impact, whether it be through digital media, or TV or radio, objectively and bring our scores, if you will, to hold ourselves accountable on Capitol Hill so we can show with some objectivity that we are having a greater impact. In this case that was true about the Internet Freedom initiative.

I was also able to show that, last year, we increased our total audience by 52 million, but also increased the impact on our audience through Gallop research around the world that measured actions people take based on the consumption of BBG media, whether it be sharing content, commenting, “liking.”

We have a whole impact model that we now hold ourselves accountable to. And that gives us credibility with Capitol Hill. It is really no different from private media, where we measured not just ratings at Scripps, but also the quality of those ratings. It is the same approach.

MCN: Why did you want this job, which would seem to us like herding multilingual cats?
JL: Jeff Shell [chairman of the BBG] two years ago called me. My contract happened to be coming up at CTAM, and he asked if I would consider taking this over as CEO. They had hired Andy Lack, but he only lasted about six weeks because of the Brian Williams situation, when they brought him back to NBC.

I said I would be willing to consider it. I became convinced that I was at a point in my career where I could invest my time and energy and experience in something that had a national service aspect to it.

I’ve never done that. My father served in World War II and I always admired that. I saw this as a chance to get involved at a senior level and really do something supportive of building and growing more free and democratic societies. If felt like a career capstone for me.

MCN: Did you advocate to Congress for concentrating the governing power in the CEO position? Congress ultimately voted to phase out the “board of governors” of the Board of Governors and concentrate that power.
JL: No, I didn’t advocate for that. That was something that was done in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I got a phone call last May from a staffer over there that this is what the reform measure was going to do. I actually worked with my board to see what their reaction was and how they wanted me to represent them on the Hill. It really was a runaway train and happened of its own momentum.

MCN: How do you think that phasing out of the board of governors is going to change the dynamic?
JL: On Dec. 23, President Obama signed the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act, which included the BBG restructuring]. There was a signing statement that dealt with what the Justice Department felt like was a Constitutional concern that the Congress didn’t have the authority to eliminate a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed board of governors, and that until the CEO is nominated and confirmed by the Senate, whether that is me or someone else, the board will stay in place until the new CEO is confirmed.

So, we’re in that period where the board continues to serve and I am grandfathered in as the CEO until I am either confirmed or replaced and there has still not been any indication from me whether there was going to be any action on that from the White House one way or the other.
I expected to hear something months ago, but never had.

MCN: Is there a lame-duck quality to not knowing, or are there things you want to get done before you go?
JL: I don’t know whether I will be gone. Theoretically I could be nominated, or I could not be, but there isn’t a lame-duck feeling.
In fact, the report we are receiving through the appropriators based on the work we have been doing over the last two years indicates a lot of support, at least on Capitol Hill.

MCN: Can you give us an example of that work?
JL: Most significantly is we launched a Russian-language cable network in Eastern Europe on the Russian periphery that is doing very well. A top priority of most everyone you meet on the Hill is, “what are you doing in response to Russian misinformation” and that is staying in our lane and doing objective journalism. It is the first substantial initiative in that regard and has gained a lot of support for us.

MCN: Any final thoughts?
JL: Three key things, and I will just underscore them, are targeting audiences that we want to impact; modernizing our approach to those audiences through digital, social and mobile platforms; and holding ourselves accountable for not just reaching bigger audiences, but how much we are impacting those audiences. Those are the things we think about the most.

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