Is Voice of America hobbling along? – Ariel Cohen, Blanquita Cullum, David Ensor, Dan Robinson respond

BBG Watch Commentary

Heritage Foundation Panel 4-21-14At the Heritage Foundation panel discussion today (April 21, 2014) on “Propaganda, Disinformation, and Dirty Tricks: The Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare,” all panelists were highly critical of the management of U.S. international media outreach, particularly management of the Voice of America (VOA). Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia Studies, The Heritage Foundation, said  that VOA, together with the rest of U.S. international broadcasting, needs to be reformed because “it keeps hobbling along like a three-legged cat.”

We had posted earlier a link to C-SPAN video which shows most of the discussion but did not include Voice of America Director David Ensor’s remarks that VOA is not hobbled. (“Don’t think VOA is hobbling along.”) or a response to Ensor’s statement from a former VOA senior White House correspondent Dan Robinson that “VOA has been hobbling along — very clearly hobbling along.”

The 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. A VOA Russian Service Facebook post on Biden was also not updated 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 provided the Ukrainian Service with sufficient help and resources to do its job during the crisis. “We are stretched very thin,” a key member of the VOA Ukrainian Service said. 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 said at an open meeting of the BBG Board.

We are posting audio files and partial transcripts of some of the remarks about Voice of America at the panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation on Monday, as well as a YouTube video from the Heritage Foundation which is now available online.

Ariel Cohen

Ariel Cohen: “Secondly, we need to yet again, and I’m afraid I’m sounding like a broken record, because I’m here at this organization for 21 years. We need to reform the VOA [Voice of America], we need to reform [U.S.] international broadcasting, we need to reform the BBG [Broadcasting Board of Governors]. It’s … nothing happening. It just keeps hobbling along like a three-legged cat. We need to rethink it. We need to decide whether it is a separate agency, which we probably need in terms of public diplomacy and international broadcasting or we need some kind of a dotted line between the State [State Department] and that…”

Blanquita Cullum

Blanquita Cullum: Good morning, I’m Blanquita Cullum and I served on the Broadcasting Board of Governors for eight years. And in some cases, I will have to say it was great honor and a pleasure to serve our country and those amazing journalists that represent our country. I do agree with many of the things that you have said about fixing the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The problem I would tell you is a bit complicated and I’ll try to be short, to the point. First of all, you have to really understand what’s going on. The Governors that serve, they serve at the pleasure of the President. They are paid when they serve. They have to respond to the concern of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives of what’s going on.

On the other hand, they do meet only monthly, but many of us who live here met more frequently. And the bottom line is they rely on the information that is delivered to them about the various entities that we were responsible for by a tier of a Senior Executive Service career management. So basically, you’re hearing a filtered source of information, much of which is — what you are talking about — has been dead wrong.

A strategic plan that was flawed. The idea — and many of us, I included, have fought for and continue to fight — for the preservation of shortwave radio. It must be protected. Also, trying to protect.

Russia, which we could have stopped. The question is I think we have to look at the term. Winning the hearts and minds, I’d throw that in the toilet. I would return and come back with the term called strategy.

The other thing is, look, you can sit here and come up with wonderful ideas about what you would do in the future and how you would change it. There is a couple of things that you have to think about first.

You have to go the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee and encourage them to beef up the money because, figure this out. Do you know that China outspends us eight to one. That’s not even figuring out how much Russia outspends us.

So we’re dealing with what? 750 million dollars to be able to run all these language services. And the most important thing that I’m going to tell you to go and fix immediately, immediately, in the Voice of America, is the Newsroom.

The [VOA] Newsroom is dysfunctional, its operation. We [VOA] can’t even keep up with BBC. We [VOA] were the last ones to talk about Ukraine. We [VOA] were talking about little puff pieces.

Look at the Charter of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, of the Voice of America, what our mission really is, what are we supposed to do. If you’re going to fix it, you’ve got to have these guys and gals to be able to do journalism.

We have wonderful, wonderful journalists who have been serving at the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, at Marti — and they are being turned impotent. They are bullied. They are not allowed to to their job by a senior-level tier that is crippling them. And I speak as a former Governor. And I’m working behind the scenes trying to help them.

The other thing is — you’re talking about Russia, and the Balkans, and all of the Eastern European Division — yes, we have to focus on them. But if you are doing strategy, if you’re really going to play the game, you have to think: who else is playing ball. When you think about Venezuela, if you’re talking about “Aló Presidente” [A talk show that was hosted by then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.], who’s there right now?

The Russians. The Iranians. The Chinese. The Cubans. But the most important influence on the air right now are the Russians. So we have to look at the map.

I know I sound frantic about it because I do believe it is dysfunctional. But I think that if you, and the great powers that you have, just even siting here, and a lot of you here, and the voice and the connections that you have to some of the people in the House and the Senate to be able to help.

Yea, I know those Board members. They’re not perfect. But we’re stuck with them right now. They’re going to be hiring a CEO. You can help with that. You do not need someone coming in from CNN. You don’t need to have someone with great corporate experience. You need to have people that come into the Broadcasting Board of Governors to be able to figure out the strategy, and how to be able to save what you have, and enhance what you have, get some money to boost it up, and to get those careerists who are crippling and intimidating the talent that you have in there. Obviously, they’re government employees. Just put them somewhere else, Siberia, so the place can function. Thank you.”

David Ensor

David Ensor, VOA Director: [from audience, directed at Ariel Cohen] “. . .don’t think that VOA is hobbling along . . .We reach, in fairness, with what we have, not a very large budget compared as others have said to RT and CCTV and others I think we do remarkably well. We reach approximately 164 million people. . .with news and information, information about the United States and its values, its society, which is highly valued, which is why 164 million people are interested in it. What governor Collum said is right, it is the issue of journalism. What we do at the VOA is journalism. The reason so many people want to hear us is because we do that, not propaganda. The Radio Moscow model, they had the biggest shortwave signal in the world, incredibly powerful, but prqactically nobody listened to it because they had nothing to say that was of any interest. But VOA does have things to say, has things to talk about. VOA talks about freedom of speech. We export the 1st amendment. . .”

Dan Robinson

Dan Robinson, VOA Chief White House Correspondent 2010 – 2014: “I am former [VOA] White House correspondent, as recently as six or seven weeks ago. Nice to see David [Ensor] here, thanks [to] Helle [Dale]. I would just make a few points, because now I am able to speak in public in ways I wasn’t . .when I was correspondent and worked for that organization, for 35 years.

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. Other parts of the BBG, perhaps you all saw the RFE/RL, the surrogate live TV shots on internet web sites — you might not be able to say that about other parts of the BBG structure. [On VOA] I won’t go into too much detail, if anyone wants to talk to me about the many ways I saw VOA hobbling along, including in the digital realm, you can contact me by phone or by email.

But I wanted to make a point related to what [former governor Blanquita Cullum] was saying and what you discussed also, and to John [Lenczowski] and Paul [Goble] and Ariel [Cohen], which is to ask how would you see the relationship changing [for] the journalists who work for VOA, and for other organizations, who operate under their own form of a charter, as the VOA still does under its own Charter, changing as journalistic reporters and correspondents at these places? I can tell you very clearly that if VOA was declared to have oversight [by] the NSC, there would be explanation points going off in the White House Correspondents Association. And in my opinion I think there should be valid questions asked as to whether there should be a White House correspondent representing the VOA. Now, if the goal is to take down the billboards on various bureaus for VOA around the world, and overseas bureaus, and replace them with BBG that’s another thing. But I think that is a very important question, and one I would be interested in hearing [an answer] from you [on]…there are many journalists at VOA. . .there from the beginning, and many who came in, who do not see themselves as working under any foreign policy structure or being seen by their colleagues as being attached to let’s say the NSC, White House, maybe less so at the Pentagon, State Department. . .I would be interested in your comments…”

Panelist John Lenczowski, once key Reagan NSC advisor on the former Soviet Union: “I have never advocated that VOA should do anything that could be construed as propaganda. It has never done that, it has never been charged with doing that, nobody wants that…every once in a while we know that a Secretary of State, or somebody else may call up the director of the VOA and tell him to censor a broadcast, which has happened in the past. But for most of its history VOA worked as part of the USIA, which was a separate agency that reported ultimately to the White House, under guidance from the State Department, because USIA did not make policy but was subject to State Department policy.

I don’t think the United States need to have a government-funded CNN. We need good journalists there, that is right. But this is simply not a state journalistic enterprise, the VOA is part of the foreign policy of the United States. It does so by speaking the truth. And one can be completely objective about how one reports these things, but as everyone knows there are different editorial ways, of presenting objective news, there are headlines, there are photographs and there are editorials and VOA has an editorial office which defends the policies of the United States and somebody needs to do that in the world, somebody needs to defend those policies, and CNN doesn’t do it.”

Heritage Foundation YouTube Video: Propaganda, Disinformation, and Dirty Tricks: The Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare

Link to Heritage Foundation Video on YouTube.

The main panelist were: John Lenczowski, Ph.D., President, Institute of World Politics, former Soviet affairs advisor to President Reagan; Paul Goble, Former Special Advisor to the International Broadcasting Bureau, and Guest Lecturer, Institute of World Politics, and Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia Studies, The Heritage Foundation. The discussion was hosted by Helle C. Dale, Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation.

In addition to VOA Director David Ensor and former VOA correspondent Dan Robinson, also speaking during the event was journalist, radio host and former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Blanquita Cullum. Her remarks can be heard toward the end of the Heritage Foundation and C-SPAN videos.

Link to Heritage Foundation Video on YouTube.

LINK TO PARTIAL C-SPAN VIDEO

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