BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from Dan Robinson, former Voice of America White House senior correspondent, foreign correspondent and VOA language service chief. Views expressed are only those of the author and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.
Robinson submitted his op-ed in response to “Don’t Silence America’s Voice — Belida and Pace Op-Ed,” posted by BBG Watch on July 17, 2014.
We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.
Maximum Hubris Revisited: Some Predictions, and Cutting Through the Propaganda
By Dan Robinson
As the House of Representatives moves closer to a full vote on HR 4490, the discourse has grown even more heated, with proponents and opponents of the legislation sounding off using a variety of media, from major publications to Facebook and Twitter.
This has included editorials and two articles in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and the Op-Ed in The Los Angeles Times by VOA correspondent Al Pessin, the last one apparently fully endorsed by the VOA director David Ensor, and which in its title, which may have been written by the paper based on the op-ed’s content, loudly proclaimed: “Back Off Congress.”
Conservative former members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Dennis Milhaupt and Enders Wimbush, made the case that while not perfect, HR 4490 is necessary, and bipartisan. A range of former VOA and older USIA officials have added their voices to the debate.
Indeed, as the momentum behind the legislation became clearer, a war erupted inside the Cohen Building at 330 Independence Avenue. This featured a group of my former colleagues in VOA’s news division waging a battle against AFGE 1812, which supports HR 4490 for its management reforms with necessary language revisions with regard to VOA’s mission.
Five months after I left the endless morass at VOA, here are some predictions and additional observations that should be informative for members of Congress, and taxpayers with an interest in where things go from here.
OPPONENTS OF HR 4490 WILL DECLARE VICTORY
Though anything can and does happen on Capitol Hill, regardless of the outcome opponents of HR 4490 will essentially declare victory. They will cite changes in language aimed at strengthening journalistic protections, attribute this to what they will describe as a strong show of unity among VOA reporters — though the internal war of words revealed just how fractious the work force is in this embarrassment of a federal agency.
Let’s be honest about it — there is likely to be no accountability, at least that which can be easily discerned by the taxpayer, whether or not HR 4490 passes. As has happened so many times before at 330 Independence Avenue, those responsible for mismanaging VOA’s news product, for wasting tens of millions of dollars on everything from flawed digital systems to violating U.S. law on contracting, at the top of the ladder in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), including the VOA director and his executive editor, will probably remain in place.
Thus, the BBG/IBB — which Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) called “broken” and eligible for being “scrapped” — will match the image most taxpayers have of government, which is of an agency and those in it who encouraged a state of chaos and wasted public monies, being largely unaccountable.
Unless, that is . . . members of Congress take steps to ensure that changes in leadership occur. And this must not be limited to the comfortably-carpeted hall on the 3rd floor of the Cohen Building, but must occur in other divisions as well, including VOA’s newsroom.
NO MASS EXODUS
Despite the sirens of alarms sounded by some of my ex-colleagues in VOA’s Central News Division, there will be no mass exodus. Those who often spoke, privately but never publicly, of throwing “sand in the tracks” of members of Congress from both parties who drafted HR 4490 will roll out the usual rationalizations for prolonging their stay in what will, despite the increasingly likely passage of the legislation, remain at the top of the list of broken federal agencies.
Ultimately, VOA and the U.S. international broadcasting structure provide a comfortable stable place for a range of people who found their way there, whether they arrived straight out of college as I did in 1979, or from non-government funded media outlets, or from foreign countries or emigre communities.
So, members of Congress should simply ignore this canard. If lawmakers strongly believe that VOA and other U.S – funded international broadcasters are now basically legacy operations, and an unnecessary drag on the federal budget budget, they should draft legislation to scrap them, as did Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ) (http://salmon.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/fifth-shrink-our-spending-sos-initiative-eliminates-federal-funding-for).
MAXIMUM HUBRIS WILL CONTINUE
Maximum Hubris was the title of a four-part series published by BBG employee union, AFGE 1812, in 2012, a description not only of VOA managers responsible for destroying VOA as a competitive, impactful news organization but of ideologues who advocate more fully “subsuming” VOA and all of U.S. international broadcasting into the foreign policy and national security structure.
However, after the recent bloodletting in the Cohen Building, in which some employees attacked others for their personal philosophies and positions on HR 4490, hubris can and should be applied to those holding federal positions who parade around as if they work only for a news organization, rather than a federal agency dependent on and ultimately accountable to Congress.
On this subject, it becomes necessary to address a recent commentary which appeared in BBG Watch, a joint Op-Ed by two former VOA figures.
In it, Alex Belida and Sonja Pace say that HR 4490 would “sow the seeds of the organization’s ultimate demise”, though they acknowledge what they call “mismanagement and bungling by the agency’s oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors, its bureaucracy and VOA’s own senior management.”
This is quite interesting for a number of reasons, some of which underscore the impressive ability of former and current agency employees to practice revisionism, or downright conceal facts known to everyone.
Left unmentioned is that much of the mismanagement that damaged, likely permanently, VOA’s capabilities and reputation as a “go to” news source, occurred in VOA’s Central News Division headed by none other than Pace, between 2010 and 2014.
For a refresher, here is an excerpt from the four-part series published by AFGE 1812:
LASTING EFFECTS OF A CONTROVERSIAL PERSONNEL DECISION
[EXCERPTED FROM MAXIMUM HUBRIS, PUBLISHED BY AFGE 1812 [See Maximum Hubris, AFGE 1812 ]
Employees report that poor morale was made markedly worse by a decision in 2010 to re-appoint the present newsroom director. A correspondent since the 1980’s, she had been reassigned from the position of news chief more than a decade earlier.
At that time, there was such a hostile environment in the workplace that dozens of employees in the unit signed a petition. According to the allegations in the petition, there was a pattern of mean-spirited acts” and “arbitrary and retaliatory actions that “undermined morale.” The petition also referred to a policy of “management by discouragement” that led to the departure of some of VOA’s “most valuable and experienced employees.”
A copy of the petition and related documents reviewed for this report show a strong defense against the allegations and a vigorous debate, but in the end, the VOA director at that time (1999 to 2001) made a decision after a heated meeting with staff. The news director was reassigned a short time later.
Fast forward to 2010: An audio recording of a 2010 open meeting in VOA’s newsroom, and accounts by employees who were present, show that strong protests against the reappointment of the former news director were dismissed by VOA’s Executive Editor a former CNN employee. In the recording of the session reviewed for this report, the Executive Editor rejected staff concerns, saying “you’re responsible for your own morale.”
Though he has known of the morale crisis in VOA’s Central News Division created by the 2010 decision, current VOA director Ensor has allowed this situation to continue.
A footnote: among emails reviewed for this report is an exchange between a management official and a former, now retired, VOA correspondent in which there was an acknowledgment that the decision to reappoint the current news director might turn out to be “boneheaded”.
Employees say the record in VOA’s newsroom since that management decision in 2010 speaks for itself. They say staff have been subjected to emotional distress and a hostile working environment, including “exiling” out of the news division individuals who expressed concerns, as well as favoritism and cronyism.
Indeed, in 2012 some news division employees had drafted a second petition, two years after Pace was brought back to head VOA’s news division, against intense opposition that was ignored by then VOA director Dan Austin and the VOA executive editor, Steve Redisch.
Though ultimately not submitted to Capitol Hill, it reflected the degree to which VOA’s central newsroom had become toxic.
Emails from current and former employees between 2010 and 2014 reflected the level of resentment in VOA’s news division of the decision to bring Pace back to a newsroom that VOA directors and other officials were cynically trying to take apart, while paying lip service to journalistic and job loss concerns.
Upon Pace’s retirement in February of 2014, news correspondents who chafed under what they saw as her illegitimate second tour as head of the newsroom, voiced relief.
One remarked: “the silence greeting her announcement that she is leaving after 38 years is the perfect response. And more civilized than a round of cheers in the newsroom.”
Indeed, had this played out in any other federal agency — a top management official reassigned only to return a decade later to the same position against the will of a majority of employees — well, as I have observed in the past, it would have made headlines.
But this is the Broadcasting Board of Governors/International Broadcasting Bureau, one of the most unaccountable agencies in the federal government, and apparently largely immune from media or public scrutiny.
In an article in the July issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, by former VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, Pace asserted that the problems in the BBG/IBB bureaucracy had some impact on news coverage, but none on the integrity of VOA journalistic products.
But in their joint Op-Ed in BBG Watch, she and Belida seem to make a strong case that a range of bureaucratic failures did, in fact, have a severe impact across-the-board.
The real jaw dropper comes when they assert that some news managers “are allowed to manage through intimidation and cronyism” — exactly the approach to leadership that news division employees saw Pace implementing between 2010 and 2014.
One can only observe that it was likely the series of biting articles published by BBG Watch about numerous dysfunctional aspects of the VOA news operation, and the growing influence of BBG Watch, that led these individuals to now make use of BBG Watch to convey their views to Congress.
It also seems ironic that they now find value in adding their voices to wide-ranging concerns about “woefully low morale”, characteristics of both the Persian News Network and VOA’s news division, and “bingo nights and skating parties”.
The last is a reference to comedic and ineffectual steps taken by discredited managers to improve morale, and thus the image of the agency, brought to the attention of BBG Watch by employees.
So, here we are in mid-2014. Various individuals in the IBB structure are maintaining their defensive posture, while stepping up the offensive against HR 4490. Ironic, isn’t it, that some of the worst and most disliked managers at the top of IBB (who in an ideal world would be subject to being removed or reassigned as suggested by Pace and Belida) are in alliance with the newsroom-based group to kill or neuter HR 4490.
In VOA’s newsroom, devastated by personnel losses over the past four years, those who are unable to depart for financial reasons, or who are unwilling to simply resign, continue to throw “sand in the tracks” of Congress.
Privately, many chafe at the intimidation and cronyism, and managerial bungling mentioned in the Belida-Pace commentary. And only in private communications, as did a number who contacted me after my highly-public retirement last February, do they acknowledge that given the opportunity they would be out the door tomorrow.
In what is left of VOA’s overseas bureau structure, some of VOA’s most able correspondents consider leaving, though they would never publicly say so for fear of jeopardizing their positions, which continue to include foreign service conditional or career specialist appointments.
Meanwhile, at the top VOA’s current director and other officials dig in, attempting to position themselves to remain in this most dysfunctional of agencies, perhaps as CEO or assistants, in a place that some months ago could barely get breaking news items on its web site in a timely manner.
It’s all one hell of a picture. But anyone commenting on HR 4490, be they current, or former VOA journalists such as myself, should present the entire picture, and not leave out important and pertinent facts.
Passage of HR 4490, which its co-sponsors on Capitol Hill consider to be likely, may not please some people at 330 Independence Avenue. But the debate has certainly been revelatory for all concerned.
And it has presented the American public with a clearer view of an area of the federal government that urgently required more examination, and which will continue to demand more scrutiny and oversight if Congress decides it is worth continuing to fund to the tune of more than $700 million a year, and nearly $200 million for VOA.