How Voice of America Destroys Itself

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Bureaucracy Warning SignVoice of America – Information War Lost: How VOA Destroys Itself

By The Federalist
 

Alex Belida and Sonja Pace, former chiefs of the agency’s Central Newsroom, have posted a commentary on the BBG Watch website (“Don’t Silence America’s Voice”).

The authors make another argument opposing H.R. 4490, a bill of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, co-sponsored by Chairman Edward Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY). The bill was adopted by the committee unanimously in an extraordinary demonstration of bi-partisanship.

Chairman Royce, Representative Engel, the Members of the committee and the congressional staff who worked on this legislation fully understand how seriously this agency has imploded and needs purposeful remedial action to salvage its mission effectiveness. They know what needs to be done and have spelled it out in detail.

 

This legislation is very necessary. We support it. It should be passed by both houses of Congress and be signed by the president. Absent the legislation, the agency, particularly the Voice of America, represents money wasted on a failed agency whose senior officials steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the agency’s undoing and intend to further carry out actions to compound the failure.

 

Both Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida have also had assignments as VOA correspondents or heads of VOA language services.

We offer the following comments regarding their argument:

 

The most egregious threat to silencing the agency comes from within the agency itself. Consider if you will the unilateral (and certainly premeditated) action to suddenly terminate VOA international radio broadcasts on June 30, 2014 with no prior announcements to the effected audiences, including Worldwide English, “Learning English” (formerly called “Special English”) and a host of other language broadcasts.

No audience equates with either no or diminished credibility. Absent being seen, heard or read the best journalism has no impact or resonance. Credibility comes not solely from the news broadcasts themselves: it comes from the credibility the audience attaches to those broadcasts. But the key point remains: you need that audience.

Generally, opponents to the legislation offer no solutions to the agency’s problems and regale in immersing themselves in doom-and-gloom hysteria about the consequences of the legislation, none of which we see as material.

Unlike these other opponents to the legislation, Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida make the effort to demonstrate better inward focus to the source of the agency’s problems. In this regard we find some points of general agreement. We don’t have a great deal of regard for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as an entity nor for the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) the great incubator for the agency’s failed mission, loaded with self-interest and a “strategic plan” which is neither.

However, the authors are incorrect when they view remarks by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as focused solely on the BBG. The focus is on the agency as a whole which is identified on the Executive Branch organizational chart as the BBG.

(Please note: In her autobiography, Secretary Clinton once again takes aim at the failed mission of the agency. Check the index for “Voice of America” and you will find it.)

The core arguments that opponents to the legislation offer is that it will undermine the agency’s “journalistic integrity” and reduce the agency to a propaganda mouthpiece.

For the agency’s mission, integrity and credibility are important issues.

But add to that the fact that senior agency officials have so run the agency into the ground that equally important issues arise in terms of oversight and accountability in how effectively (or not) the agency carries out its mission.

Eliminating audiences as the agency has done clearly comes with a significant, negative consequence on the perception of the agency’s credibility, journalistic integrity and reliability. Remember what the VOA Charter says on this point:

 

“VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”

 

The actions by senior agency officials make the agency not at all a consistently reliable or an authoritative source of news:

 

  • No broadcasts equates with not being consistently reliable.

 

  • Reliance upon third party news providers and removing some or all news content at the request of some affiliates means the agency has relinquished its responsibility to be itself an authoritative source of news in its own right.

 

Only A Partial View Of The VOA Charter

 

Opponents to the congressional legislation want the agency to be one-dimensional: a news outlet.  They conspicuously absent any discussion about what the rest of the Charter requires the agency to do:

The second provision of the Charter requires the agency to “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”

The third provision of the VOA Charter causes the most irritation among opponents to the reform legislation:

 

“VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.”

 

Without acknowledging the agency’s mission as a whole, the opposition argument falls apart.

On top of that, legislators have stated emphatically that the agency is not going to have a news outlet-only focus. For the agency, that would be a one-way ticket on the “Oblivion Express.” Good-bye.

Clearly, the Congress is outraged with the failures of this agency, particularly provisions 2 and 3 of the Charter. They see – correctly – that other international broadcasters with a more negative view of the United States have increasing impact with global publics. They see the agency as a train wreck of mission failure. In its current organizational and operational construct, it is an agency of diminished effectiveness and value.

Solely broadcasting the news is not getting the job done. It is readily apparent that the agency cannot stand on its own as only a news outlet and Congress is increasingly unwilling to fund such an enterprise.

And it doesn’t aid the opposition argument when the agency makes it increasingly difficult for potential audiences to see, hear or read agency news content.

What keeps the agency treading water is the value added content of provisions 2 and 3 of the Charter.

This is what opponents to HR 4490 characterize as “propaganda.”

It isn’t.

Not by a long stretch.

Especially when what is called for is “responsible discussion and opinion on these (US Government) policies.”

 

We would invite both Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida to explain what provisions 2 and 3 of the VOA Charter mean to them and how the agency should be expected to execute these provisions. Indeed, we would also invite Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida to describe how they carried out these provisions of the Charter when they were VOA managers.

 

In the media saturated global environment of the 21st century, other international broadcasters have demonstrated far greater traction with global publics. This is particularly true with regard to the concept of “confirmation bias,” in which people gravitate toward media outlets which affirm their own values and world view. When that world view is consistent with international media providers for Russia, China, Iran and others, the United States is in big trouble.

And there are trends in that direction now – and they have been in place long before HR 4490 appeared above the horizon. “Losing the information war” is not some theoretical, academic debate. It’s real. It’s happening right now. Worse, it has been happening for the better part of the 21st century.

 

Working the Congressional Language

 

In one respect, the language of HR 4490 needs some fixable clarification.

Wording in the legislation calls for news that “promotes” the broad US policies.

We do not believe that the Congress intends that typical VOA news broadcasts should be US policy content only. We believe the intent is expanded coverage of US policy. Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida know what we are referencing here: what is commonly referred to as “feature” programs or “back-half” programs that follow the agency’s primary news broadcasts of breaking and developing news.

The legislative language needs to be changed from “promotes” to “reports” news regarding US Government policy. Add to that the reporting needs to be balanced and comprehensive which would be consistent with the requirements already in place in the VOA Charter.

Language in the legislation is important and speaks to intent. At the same time, there is no guarantee that the intent of the legislative language will be carried out by the agency. Self-directed accountability is not a strong point inside this agency. There are too many people marching to their own agenda doing what they want to do (remember that Uncle Sam zombie video for an Urdu language television program) as opposed to what the agency is even today directed and supposed to do.

 

Not-So-Easy Fixes

 

The remedies suggested by the authors are not as easy as they portray them, particularly when it comes to removing, replacing or reassigning senior officials responsible for the agency’s implosion.

There are a variety of rules and regulations in place that protect Federal employees – particularly senior Federal employees – from acts that may appear to be retaliatory in nature.

But more than that –

 

  • We already know that most BBG members are opposed to the key organizational reform provisions of the legislation. They would get a group demotion under the legislation from an operational entity to one that is advisory in nature.

 

  • The IBB is even more opposed to the legislation. They get legislated out of existence. One should not expect them to go quietly in the night. We already know how visceral they can be in protecting their agenda. That agenda is all about self-interest. It has nothing to do with what is in the best interests of the United States.

 

  • And then you have senior VOA officials who have publicly opposed the legislation and supported editorial comment opposing the legislation (comment which, in our view, is seriously deficient in presenting the agency’s mission requirements in their entirety).

 

  • You also have other senior officials opining that it would take “years” to implement the remedial action contained in the legislation, something of an advanced declaration of obstruction.

 

In short, these officials are heavily invested in business as usual.

As we have remarked in other quarters, an agency in this state of disarray has to want to be fixed. These officials make it clear they are opposed to any fixable solutions. They are interested in self-preservation and by extension will do anything to stall, delay and otherwise obstruct implementation of necessary changes.

Taken in its entirety, this represents a substantial effort to undermine the legislation and perpetuate the dysfunctional and defunct status quo.

 

The Congress and the American taxpayer cannot be held hostage by a group of bureaucrats who by their actions intend to reinforce failure, to the tune of about $750-MILLION dollars a year.

 

If reform legislation doesn’t get the agency turned around, the next piece of legislation will likely propose to close the place. Indeed there is already at least one proposed piece of legislation to do just that. Fortunately, at present the legislation with the most traction is the reform legislation.

 

Some Housekeeping

 

Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida describe some elements of the VOA newsroom as being in “virtual revolt” against the provisions of HR 4490.

What exactly does that mean?

At its core, HR 4490 reaffirms the VOA Charter. Does “virtual revolt” mean that these employees are not carrying out the provisions of the VOA Charter?

If one chooses to be revolting, we suggest that opponents to the legislation need better reasoning than what has been offered to date.

At the end of the day, what is likely to be rescued from the dysfunction within the Cohen Building will be the grantee broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) reconstituted as a “Freedom News Network.”

The authors also bemoan making the Persian News Network (PNN) a component to the grantee operations.

Please keep in mind the proposal to change the status of PNN originated within the BBG, in a motion offered by BBG Governor Michael Meehan. It is not a recommendation contained in congressional legislation.

As an aside, Mr. Belida should recall from his own experiences temporarily heading up PNN that the service is its own worst enemy, a hotbed of intrigues and factionalism. We are not sure if there is any remedy for what ails PNN. However, leaving it as part of the even greater agency dysfunction is an already known negative. Senior agency officials are not going to fix it. On its face, Mr. Meehan’s motion may reflect the only remaining course of action attempting to rehabilitate the service.

Also, Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida go to some length describing what they see as negative consequences from the congressional legislation to the agency’s broadcasts to Africa.

On the other hand, we have seen numerous BBG press releases on its so-called “audience research” conducted by the IBB in concert with the Gallup organization, particularly in Africa.

Our issue is not with the Gallup organization which does as it is directed by the IBB.

What we see the IBB doing is what we call “steering;” namely, shifting focus to specific African countries instead of a broader, integrated vision for the continent as a whole. It should not come as a surprise that a consequence of this tactic could be a legislative judgment as to what the strategic broadcast interests of the United States should be in Africa and how they should be carried out. As we have said before: don’t blame the Congress. The problem is the Pandora’s Box opened by the IBB as it goes searching desperately for some traction to its failed “strategic plan.” Predictably, this approach creates more problems for the VOA.

At the end of the day, in the existing paradigm VOA does more to destroy itself than any piece of congressional legislation. It begins with refusing to acknowledge its failings and continues by resisting the legislation that intends to do what agency officials steadfastly refuse to do: fix the place.

 

The Federalist

July 2014

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