The union representing Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employees is publishing a series of articles on its website highlighting problems at the U.S. international broadcasting agency, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described recently as “defunct.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812, is focusing in its latest article on the Voice of America Central Newsroom.
One year after employees working in U.S. government-funded international broadcasting were threatened with the most extensive layoffs in decades [43 positions were originally targeted in VOA’s central newsroom among 171 for VOA and 289 across the structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)], the threat isn’t over.
Though somewhat reduced by the failure of a polarized Congress to approve a budget, and action by employees to raise awareness on Capitol Hill, the BBG (recently the subject of a State Department Inspector General report labeling the agency “dysfunctional”) has been determined to undertake “substantial additional restructuring”, including consideration of eliminating VOA’s federal status.
Meeting with VOA Central News staff in 2012, VOA Director David Ensor warned that while the overall picture was a bit brighter, he would not hesitate to order sharp reductions to the news operation if faced with future “draconian” budget pressures. “I will cut you,” employees quoted the former network and NPR correspondent whose previous position was as head of U.S. embassy public diplomacy and information operations in Kabul, Afghanistan, as saying.
The situation spotlights the direction that the nine-member BBG, which includes among its members the Secretary of State ex officio and controls all government-funded overseas broadcasting, has set. The Board and Ensor sent the message that VOA and other broadcasters BBG controls needed to change, even faster than they already had.
That meant more social media, especially more TV and video (most of this is for the Internet since BBG TV operations pale in comparison to the BBC’s 24-hour TV programming). Ensor, a missionary of mobile content delivery, declared radio to be on the way out, eventually to be replaced by new media. Employees report that he has also said radio remains important, but this likely refers not to English-language radio which BBG has long wanted to kill, but radio in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
VOA employees said Ensor made what sounded like the right noises about the importance of solid journalism and news coverage, as every VOA director has done over the 70 plus years of the station’s existence. Yet, they also described a steady march toward turning the VOA newsroom away from its decades-long mission of covering breaking news, and toward being little more than a room full of service workers (“hunter gatherers” was an oxymoron used by officials) whose primary role is to serve other BBG entities that are more directly part of the U.S. government’s “propaganda” or “soft power” efforts.
This has had some unfortunate effects that continue to play out in the large newsroom at 330 Independence Avenue just off the national mall, a short walk from the U.S. Capitol.
This report is about maximum hubris by managers in a government entity that has struggled for decades to shake the reputation of being the “sickest federal agency”. It is based on personal accounts and internal communications from current and former employees, who describe an atmosphere of toxicity that has spread throughout the agency, raising serious questions for Congress, and more than reasonable doubts about decisions made by the BBG, officials at the International Broadcasting Bureau, and those in VOA’s central newsroom.
PITFALLS OF 43 NEWSROOMS
Within VOA, a primary objective of achieving a sharply slimmed down central news operation was to maintain a flow of material — video packages, audio and video “elements” and graphics — for use by VOA language departments in their programming. But there was also a larger purpose.
Professional staff in what is left of VOA’s Central News division report that they have been turned into “aggregators” for the numerous brands that, under a strategic plan the BBG sold to Congress, will still exist as the Board continues its drive to turn the entire U.S. international broadcasting structure into a “Global News Network” (GNN), or as it was described in public BBG sessions, a “global newsroom.”
BBG and Ensor set about sharply reducing what for decades was a critical function of VOA’s central news operation — the writing of news stories based on major news services such as AP and Reuters, and the reporting of VOA’s own correspondents. According to emails reviewed for this report, management actually repeatedly praised news staff for drastically curtailing the number of stories they produced.
This shifted to VOA’s already over-burdened language departments, with their limited experience in tight deadline processing and writing of news, additional responsibilities for which they were not adequately prepared. Employees report that it also created numerous opportunities for error and omission.
Staff members asking to remain anonymous to discuss what they called “troubling changes” said all of this was implemented without sufficient discussion and steps to ensure accountability. Some in VOA’s central newsroom who were farmed out to help language departments adapt, described the decision to transfer the news burden as “a disaster” because these offices were under-resourced to begin with.
As explained by Ensor and others, by eliminating this decades-old function of serving as the centralized source of news, VOA’s newsroom could then have the staff and time required to devote to the new mission, what he and others have called being a “clearinghouse” for all broadcasters under the BBG.
At the same time this sharp reduction was ordered, production of what managers labeled “Original Content News (OCN)” was ramped up. Employees reported that the addition of this product had the effect of replacing the work of VOA’s corps of correspondents, and strengthened the case that managers could make for eliminating the historic role of VOA journalists in filing on breaking news events.
Other broadcasters under the BBG (known as “grantees” in contrast with VOA and its federal workforce) such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio/TV Marti, had spent decades developing their own newsrooms. RFE/RL, founded as an anti-Communist voice under the CIA, has a well-oiled news machine not to mention an efficient public relations apparatus which helped it become a permanent fixture of U.S. international broadcasting.
It’s difficult to see what a centralized “clearinghouse” based in the VOA newsroom will do for RFE/RL. The same is true for Radio Free Asia (RFA), which has also avoided being legislated out of existence, and hard to imagine a drastically slimmed down VOA newsroom significantly assisting a Radio/TV Martí.
Ensor himself recognized, gleefully it seemed to some who sought to persuade him of the folly of the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity, that where for decades one central core at VOA churned out a solid list of carefully-written daily news stories, there are now “43 newsrooms.”
Here is how one former veteran VOA news employee put it::
“[There will be] no central control. . .43 different newsrooms [is] a recipe for disaster. [Ensor] has been so misinformed…now they are wrecking the [place]. . .this is so opposite what they should be doing, they should be strengthening [the central news operation] instead they have chiseled the newsroom down to nothing.”
The BBG also wanted Congress to rubber stamp plans to create the Global News Network, the brainchild of former BBG chairman and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. BBG and officials in the International Broadcasting Bureau, the management structure with hands on control of VOA and other broadcasters, claimed VOA and its newsroom would be the core of the “global newsroom model.”
At the same time, the BBG targeted for elimination nearly four dozen positions from the very same newsroom.
As has been reported, this came as the board was spending $50 million in increments with the Gallup organization on a new research contract, which the BBG public relations apparatus promoted with new “VOA Polls”, seemingly an attempt to get VOA more visibility in the already-crowded polling field.
If an Obama budget is eventually passed by Congress, or if it isn’t but the BBG persuades skeptical lawmakers that cuts should proceed anyway under some special authority, the most likely to go are newer employees, including those with the experience crucial to efficiently carrying out the GNN project. As one journalist put it: “The very center that [they] point to as the primary example of consolidation will be disemboweled,” a process that is well underway as this is written.