MANAGEMENT HUBRIS AND AGENDAS
Current and former employees report that the VOA Director appeared to accept a view held by top managers that the organization was full of supposedly lazy government employees. Staff members who attended one of his first meetings recall him warning that they would no longer be working “banker’s hours.”
As one former VOA journalist told this writer, that remark suggested that present Director Ensor felt he “somehow knew more about the demands of real media organizations, and had a negative view of VOA’s federalized workforce.” Indeed, employees interpreted this as a message that they were ultimately expendable.
Where day to day operations were concerned, “higher management officials apparently shielded Ensor from a range of ground truths,” said one VOA staffer. “This is information you would think any VOA director would want to be aware of, but it appears Ensor simply has not wanted to get down in the weeds to see what is really wrong in the place.”
Even problematic top management officials were among those BBG and IBB managers who received hefty annual cash bonuses, this in a federal agency ranked at or near the bottom year after year in government employee satisfaction surveys. The latest OPM survey in late 2012 ranked BBG worst among mid-sized federal agencies.
After a major controversy about bonuses in 2011, officials banked additional cash awards (ranging as high as $10,000) but retained their jobs while Central News was decimated and other positions in language branches were targeted.
Current and former VOA news employees voiced another concern. For decades, VOA’s central news operation was the target of those who resented its journalistic functions and viewed it as too independent of government control. “We were never seen to be with the program,” as one VOA veteran reporter put it. “There has always been pressure from in and outside government to bring an end to this.”
Central News, and its many correspondents who served in Washington and around the globe continued doing their best to uphold the VOA Charter, despite pressure from members of Congress and like-minded think tank experts advocating that VOA become just an arm of the State Department, or the Pentagon which has developed its own substantial information and strategic communication structure.
Many employees fear that those who always wanted VOA to be little more than a propaganda wing in service of national policy interests may get their way. Writing in The American Interest, Jeffery Gedmin, president of RFE/RL from 2007 to 2011, called for the independent journalistic work of the broadcasters under BBG to be “subsumed as an element of American public diplomacy.” That says one VOA reporter “is essentially a call to turn the whole shooting match into a propaganda mill.”
A report by the Hudson Institute, authored by among others Douglas Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and key neocon in the George W. Bush administration, said “the BBG board should make it clear to the various broadcasting services that they are in the public sector and are part of the U.S. foreign policy team.”
Another neoconservative, former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy under the Bush administration, James Glassman said: “It’s just foolish, in my opinion, for [US international broadcasting] to be outside the strategic control and coordination of national security policy makers.”
Kim Andrew Elliott, an audience research specialist working under BBG but given considerable latitude to comment on international broadcasting issues, offered this comment in his private blog:
“So the former first guard of the USIB [U.S. International Broadcasting] firewall would like to dismantle that firewall. This Hudson paper, with Glassman’s endorsement, is just one of several recent recommendations that US international broadcasting be more closely coordinated with US foreign policy. It seems more and more likely that the “firewall” concept will go up in smoke in a future administration.”
Indeed, rarely a meeting of the BBG took place without one or another official referring to the various pieces of U.S. international broadcasting as “national security assets”.
This is how a VOA news source, speaking anonymously, puts it:
“The agenda [is] to annihilate what they have always hated, that is, civil servant journalists who were doing the job that the VOA Charter called for. You have got to annihilate these people, if we can’t do it by privatizing, we’re going to shut this place down one way or another and we are going to be regime-change little radios. . . that is all we are going to do.”
A new paper making the rounds in Washington, published by the Wilson Center, supports the complete defederalization of all BBG entities, including VOA’s civil service journalist and support force. Not surprisingly, the authors are two former RFE/RL officials.
On one hand, they endorse separating U.S. international broadcasting from soft power and public diplomacy efforts, saying continuing to use BBG operations “to defend current U.S. foreign policies will dilute or negate influence gained by effective coverage of local events and drive away audiences.”
But later they say a future reformed single organizational structure “can be a crucial and sustainable element of American soft power.” They continue the link that the BBG has made (written into its mission statement) to “support freedom and democracy” and connect credibility and objectivity with broadcasts being seen by taxpayers as “enhancing American national security.”
CO-MINGLING OF VOA AND BBG CONTENT AND ASSETS
Another troubling development, according to employee accounts, involved what Director Ensor told Central News employees in 2011 while announcing potential layoffs. Management, he said, was looking to have overseas Central News bureaus share office space with other BBG entities [RFA, RFE/RL, Persian News Network (PNN), Deewa Radio (broadcasting to Pakistan’s tribal border regions), and Radio/TV Marti for Cuba] wherever possible. “Co-mingling” could end up having VOA news bureaus, long recognized by foreign governments as such, being transformed into news bureaus of the BBG.
Radio/TV Martí was created in the 1980’s to serve as a thorn in the eye of Fidel Castro. VOA, in contrast, operated for decades on the basis of its Charter requiring it to function as an objective news organization.
Employees asked if the plan was to eventually take down the VOA name at its bureaus around the world, replacing it with GNN. Many believe this is the goal, despite claims by managers that VOA would remain the core of this new global network.
This could also risk tough questions from professional journalist associations, such as those on Capitol Hill and the White House, that have accredited VOA correspondents respected for decades for breaking radio news coverage.
VOA veterans recall that major battles were fought with non-government media in these associations opposing accreditation of VOA journalists because of their government employee status. GNN, or whatever name the BBG eventually attaches to its plan for a global network, may be seen as little more than a cover for a conglomeration of government-funded “soft power” outlets, part and parcel of State Department public diplomacy operations.
“The BBG is doing this out of the view of any media scrutiny,” says one former VOA journalist. “It seems designed to gut VOA’s Central News operation, using the shell of what is left of VOA’s reputation as a Trojan horse to establish the new GNN.”
VOA journalists also note that the BBG’s record has shown that despite firewall protections designed to separate journalism from policy promotion or advocacy, the board has grown even closer to the State Department and Pentagon.
Some VOA radio and Internet programming to Sudan, for example, has been funded by the State Department, as is at least one program of VOA’s Afghan Service. During a “town hall” meeting several years ago, one VOA journalist asked BBG and IBB officials about an account, on the BBG’s own web site, of consultations with the U.S. military. No explanation ever emerged from top officials.
Employees also cite the decision to have VOA’s web site carry material from all BBG entities. First described as an experiment, it now appears to be permanent and journalists say it further muddies the waters and raises serious questions.