Congressional criticism of Voice of America programs to Iran should serve as a reality check for VOA Director David Ensor

BBG Watch Commentary

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) asking questions about mismanagement within Voice of America and its Persian News Network  (PNN) to Iran, June 26, 2013.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) asking questions about mismanagement within Voice of America and its Persian News Network (PNN) to Iran, June 26, 2013.

Voice of America (VOA) Director David Ensor said on August 6, 2013 during an all-staff meeting that “the state of VOA is strong and is getting stronger all the time.”

David Ensor can sing “It’s Getting Better All The Time” all he wants, but his all-staff meeting was yet another completely wasted opportunity to face and address some very serious problems with his own leadership and his discredited management team.

Rather than working on improving programs and employee morale, Ensor hired a staffer to do public relations on Capitol Hill — a bureaucratic illusionary fix he proudly announced during the all-staff meeting. Ensor continues to defends and rely on managers who are being blamed for intimidating the workforce and for attacking independent journalists on the outside who voice criticism of VOA management. One independent journalist, Matthew Russell Lee, nearly lost his UN press credential because of accusations advanced by a VOA official.

The all-staff meeting on Tuesday showed that David Ensor has joined the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives in offering misleading public relations propaganda as a substitute for desperately needed reforms. There seems to be no hope for any positive changes because the leadership refuses to admit that it has a problem.

Critics accuse Ensor and his deputies of undermining original news production at the Voice of America and ruining VOA programs to Iran. IBB officials are just as much to blame for this, especially Director Richard Lobo’s executive staff, including those in charge of strategic planning.

To answer Congressman Ted Deutch’s question raised at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in June — “What has to happen so that they actually behave like a news networks so that the Iranian people can get good, can get clear, real news from this outlet?” — IBB and VOA executives responsible for de-emphasizing news reporting by Voice of America and record low employee morale need to be replaced.

On the morning of Director Ensor’s meeting, BBC had a number of reporters on the ground in Yemen filing stories on the evacuation from the country of U.S. Embassy personnel. VOA did not have anyone in Sanaa and only managed to produce a short news item in Washington based on wire service reports. The BBC story had over 1,100 Facebook “Likes.” The VOA story had 6 (six). This kind of news and social media audience engagement performance is repeated at the Voice of America day after day, news story after news story.

During the staff meeting on August 6, no employee dared to ask a question that could be viewed as even remotely critical of Mr. Ensor and his top managers. Yet, they along with IBB executives — and not VOA journalists — are responsible for the crisis the organization is in.

If Mr. Ensor and his deputies did their job well, there would be no talk of de-federalization of VOA, moving PNN from VOA to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or putting all of VOA and U.S. international broadcasting within the State Department.

Contrary to claims made at the Congressional hearing, VOA’s federal status does not prevent it from producing effective programs if good managers are in charge at the top as well as at the service level. When General Wojciech Jaruzelski had declared martial law in Poland in 1981 and temporarily crushed the Solidarity labor movement, VOA Polish radio programs were expanded from one and a half hour to more than seven hours daily within a period of just a few days and eventually became almost as popular among the Polish audience as Radio Free Europe broadcasts. It can be done at a federal agency with the right kind of vision and leadership. VOA’s federal status was no barrier to creating an effective VOA program to a country in deep crisis.

In fact, non-federal Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty experienced recently an even greater crisis than the one the Voice of America is going through right now after RFE/RL’s previous management fired dozens of experienced human rights reporters working for Radio Liberty in Russia.

If it were not for a few members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the RFE/RL meltdown could have produced eventually an even greater disaster than mismanagement within IBB, VOA and PNN. The important public oversight role of the BBG board was affirmed when it intervened to address this problem. The Radio Liberty crisis proved that calls for abolishing the BBG board or de-federalizing Voice of America will not eliminate similar problems but instead may increase them by diminishing public and Congressional oversight. In fact, what the previous RFE/RL management did to create the crisis by firing dozens of journalists could not have happened in such a short time at a federal agency.

What the BBG board eventually did was to replace the previous management at RFE/RL with a new one which is now conducting a successful rescue operation. The same thing needs to happen at the IBB, at the Voice of America and at VOA’s Persian News Network.

On some of these points we are in full agreement with one of the witnesses at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, former BBG member Mr. S. Enders Wimbush. The Voice of America is sick; its Persian Service is badly mismanaged.

Major management changes are needed urgently, but not changes that would diminish public and Congressional oversight and eliminate the oversight role of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The whole Voice of America should not be punished for the faults and shortcomings of its top leadership and the leadership of the International Broadcasting Bureau — top executives who have created this crisis over the last several years. They are the only constant factor that can account for the current mess since the membership of the BBG board underwent several changes during those years but most of the top IBB and VOA managers are still there.

As to the suggestion from former BBG Chairman James Glassman that the White House, the National Security Counsel or the State Department could do a better job of directing U.S. international broadcasting, one simply has to look at the history of official interference with Voice of America programs to see that such a change would be nothing short of disastrous and destructive.

But again, there would be no calls for such misguided changes if Voice of America and International Broadcasting Bureau executives provided real leadership instead of talking about how they need to present their non-existent achievements through misleading propaganda aimed at the Congress and American taxpayers. They simply refuse to acknowledge that they themselves are responsible for making the agency “defunct” and “dysfunctional.”

During the staff meeting, David Ensor was quoted as having said about new Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Jeff Shell, “he and I talk shorthand together.”

We feel that a reality check is badly needed for VOA Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch. Redisch until recently was in charge of VOA Iranian programs, the Persian News Network, which was a target of severe criticism from both lawmakers and witnesses at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in June.

Rep. Ted Deutch
At the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Reforming the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), held on June 26, 2013, members of Congress from both parties voiced serious concerns about VOA programming and management. Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (D-FL) was especially critical of VOA programs to Iran known as the Persian News Network or PNN. One witness, former Broadcasting Board of Governors member S. Enders Wimbush proposed removing PNN from the Voice of America and placing U.S. government-funded news programs to Iran within Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) which is also overseen by the BBG.

Link to video on YouTube.

“REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R-FL) Mr. Deutch, my Florida colleague, is recognized.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL) Thank you Madam Chair and the Ranking Member. Thanks for holding today’s hearing. And I understand that you touched on this issue briefly, but I’d like to pursue just a little further the role that we play in Iran. While I believe that public international broadcasting is vital around the world, it is especially true there.

We’ve got few opportunities to speak directly to the people, present accurate information about their government’s choices, about American values. And our primary tool for reaching out to the Iranian people is the Voice of America Persian News Network.

PNN has long been considered an ineffective diplomatic tool, however, plagued by poor programming. low-quality production, and mismanagement.

It is tremendously unfortunate in a country where an estimated 90 percent of the populace gets their news from TV.

The U.S. via the Persian News Network is missing an opportunity to have an influential role in Iran too often by presenting unprofessional, low-quality newscasts, often with an incoherent message.

Less than two weeks ago, as the Iranian people went to the polls in historic numbers, BBC Persian provided 24/7 coverage of the elections, yet PNN ( Voice of America Persian TV ) instead chose to broadcast a music program and a show about historical maps instead of continuous election news.

Unfortunately, none of these criticism is new. As Iran remains a top foreign policy concern, I’m seriously concerned that we’re missing a vital opportunity to reach an estimated 25 to 30 million people in Iran.

So, my question is this. Why is the production quality and editorial content of PNN so lacking? What barriers are there that are preventing the hiring and training of top journalists?

I’m also asking, in a hearing before the Middle East Subcommittee … of the Carnegie Endowment suggested that PNN become a public-private partnership, this was alluded to earlier, if you could elaborate what your thoughts are on that and help us understand what can be done to make this a more effective diplomatic tool.

FORMER BBG MEMBER S. ENDERS WIMBUSH Thank you, Mr. Deutch. I agree with your assessment. I have not looked closely at PNN for about six months or so, but everything you just, every characterization that you just made, I would agree with. PNN is a real tough nut to crack. It wasn’t put together well in the beginning. It was rushed. It went from about one hour and a half of programming to six hours over a year period. I can’t think of any commercial station that could do that.

I did a very thorough, I think a very thorough study of PNN when I joined the Board in 2010 at the request of Senator Coburn. I’d be happy to share that with you. It answers all of the questions you’ve just raised.

But let me address one of the possible solutions for you.

PNN is unlikely to be fixed because the issues are largely connected to personnel. It is unlikely to be fixed as long as it remains within the Voice of America.

If you want a solution for PNN, take it out of the Voice of America, like you did the Iraq broadcasting when you had created the Middle East Broadcasting Network and attach PNN to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty where it would be with its sister station, Farda.”

The entire legal regime that affects the management of personnel will change and you will see, my guess is, something happen very quickly.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL) I’d be happy to look at the report. But what, if you could just give me the upshot of the conclusion. And I understand the suggestions that you’ve just described. But what is it when you say it’s mostly personnel? What does it mean? What needs to happen for this to change? Who makes the decisions to show, to put programming on about historic maps on the election day with very significant implications for the entire country and the world?

FORMER BBG MEMBER S. ENDERS WIMBUSH Those decisions are taken by the chief editor of the Persian News Network, and I don’t know who that is these days.

The stories like that are just legendary and PNN doesn’t seem to overcome them. I could tell you a bunch of them myself, but I won’t waste your time with them.

But, presumably, a chief editor, a head of service is making those decisions.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL) Do we have these problems anywhere else in the world to this extent?

FORMER BBG MEMBER S. ENDERS WIMBUSH I would say from my experience. I mean, look. These are media organizations so every now and then there is going to be a slip-up. And there is in almost everyone of the services at one point or another. The big services, the most high profile services, are the ones that get the attention. And we all wring our hands and say, my God, why are we doing this so badly. The reality is in most cases we do it really well. We’re really good at this. But there are going to be slip-ups.

I can’t think in my experience of any component of U.S. international broadcasting that has been so consistently below the curve as PNN.

FORMER BBG CHAIRMAN JAMES GLASSMAN Mr. Deutch, I think your question reflects something that I have been trying to say about mission and strategy. So imagine if the mission were clarified for the BBG. And forget about the restructuring, but if there were restructuring it would be even easier. But, there is election coming up in Iran and the National Security Advisor or the Secretary of State or both of them bring the CEO of the BBG into the White House and they say, hey, this is really important, we would like you to direct these resources at this issue. That doesn’t happen now and in fact it can’t happen now in any way where the BBG actually has to take notice of that.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL) Why? If I can just ask, is the mission so unclear? Is it so muddled that it would be impossible for the editors, for the people who run the station to know, that on the election day, when the entire world is focusing on your country, that the news network might actually cover the news taking place in that country? And if so, how do we fix that? How do we clarify the mission? Who needs to do it? Who needs to be told? What has to happen so that they actually behave like a news networks so that the Iranian people can get good, can get clear, real news from this outlet?”

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