Is VOA hobbling?

BBG Watch Commentary

Myroslava GongadzeThe latest example of VOA’s hobbled state was observed on Sunday, April 20, 2014. VOA’s English, Ukrainian and Russian services provided no online original reporting, much less news analysis, on the White House announcement about Vice President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Kyiv on Monday.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) had not just one but two lengthy news analyses of Biden’s trip to Ukraine and on U.S. policies vis-a-vis Ukraine and Russia. Voice of Russia also had a lengthy report on Biden’s trip. VOA first posted a very short news item from Reuters and later replaced it with an equally short VOA news report with very little information or substance.

Social media pages of VOA’s Ukrainian Service (Facebook and Twitter) were not updated on Sunday evening for up to eight hours. It’s not that Ukrainian Service journalists do not want to update their social media pages. Even months into the crisis, one of the most significant in post-Cold War history, and some would argue post-World War II history, VOA management has not provided the service with enough staff to update their website and social media pages on a regular basis.

Both VOA Ukrainian Service and VOA Russian Service are stretched very thin. A VOA Russian Service Facebook post on Biden was also not updated Sunday for many hours and did not include the latest information from the White House or any original reporting or analysis from VOA.

Earlier this month, the host of a highly popular VOA Ukrainian television news program confirmed what critics have been saying all along: VOA management has not consulted with the Ukrainian Service, failed to make proper plans for news coverage, and has not provided the service with sufficient help and resources.

“We are stretched very thin,” Myroslava Gongadze said at an open meeting of the BBG Board on April 11. The Voice of America Ukrainian Service saw the crisis coming half a year ago, but no one asked them for advice. “Nobody really asked us much,” Myroslava Gongadze told BBG members.

Video from April 11, 2014 BBG Board Meeting

Link to Video on YouTube.

Voice of America Director David Ensor disagrees with his many critics. He complaints that Voice of America — which has posted dozens of reports on the British royal family, reported recently on a 1980s obscure British music band, and produced a video for Pakistan with a blood-thirty zombie dressed as an Uncle Sam character attacking a Pakistani — does not have enough resources, but he told a Heritage Foundation panel on Monday he “does not think VOA is hobbling along.”

“VOA talks about freedom of speech. We export the 1st Amendment,” Ensor said.

He was challenged by a former senior VOA correspondent Dan Robinson who said that “VOA has been hobbling along, very clearly hobbling along.”

“I and others made a specific effort over the last few years to bring to the attention of the outside world things that the public relations apparatus of VOA, and to an extent the BBG, didn’t want to discuss and in recent months actually responded to with defensiveness and with arrogance,” Robinson said.

At the same Heritage Foundation panel, former BBG member Blanquita Cullum said that VOA journalists “are being turned impotent.”

“They are bullied. They are not allowed to to their job by a senior-level tier that is crippling them,” Blanquita Cullum said. She echoed criticism from Dan Robinson and many other former and current VOA reporters that “the [VOA] Newsroom is dysfunctional.”

VOA journalists blame these problems, both in news reporting and in poor employee morale, on lack of leadership and direction from senior executives who have created a hostile work environment. Hostile managers, whom Ensor defends, have caused several experienced and talented VOA correspondents to leave the organization.

It is true that some VOA services, including the Ukrainian Service, are doing outstanding work in many areas. But they fail in some other areas and cannot achieve their full potential due to being neglected by the senior management, which fails to plan and does not know how to lead the organization. Voice of America is rudderless.

See: Is Voice of America hobbling along? – Ariel Cohen, Blanquita Cullum, David Ensor, Dan Robinson respond, BBG Watch, April 21, 2014.

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