BBG Watch Commentary
All views expressed are those of the author.
One Year Later — Dysfunction, News Failures, Self-Promotion and Pandering at the Voice of America
PART I: Looking Back: Lack of Accountability, Continuing Maximum Hubris, and Facing Realities
By Dan Robinson
A year ago, after considerable soul-searching, I left the Voice of America, where I spent nearly 35 years in virtually every journalistic and on-air position — from news writer, editor, program anchor, and language service chief to foreign, congressional, and White House bureau chief.
In late February, I was briefly back in VOA’s White House news booth, just as the press corps was being notified of an imminent appearance by President Barack Obama.
A few minutes later, as Obama spoke about Ukraine, I was walking through the northwest gate of the White House, despite my impulse as a reporter to cover the breaking story.
Leaving was difficult, but a relief, because in my final years I observed, and had more difficulty tolerating, a level of daily dysfunction exceeding anything I saw since I first arrived at VOA in 1979.
Writing in mid-2014, amid a then heated debate over bipartisan congressional legislation to reform the BBG, I made some predictions.
There would be little or no accountability, I suggested, “at least that which could be easily discerned by the taxpayer, for those responsible for mismanaging VOA’s news product”, and other issues.
I predicted that “[those] at the top of the ladder in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the VOA director and his executive editor, [would] probably remain in place.”
Indeed, that is the case today. Officials who presided over, and in many cases made, some of the worst decisions for what remains of VOA global radio broadcasts, and in the digital realm, still sit in comfortable offices at 330 Independence Avenue, drawing GS-15 and Senior Executive Service (SES) salaries.
Recall that in 2014, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), issued a statement calling the BBG “broken” and eligible to be “scrapped”.
H.R. 4490, passed by the committee and later by the full House only to stall in the Senate, was the subject of fierce controversy. My former colleagues warned that it would make VOA a mouthpiece for administration policy more than it already is. One even predicted that the CIA and the Pentagon would be on the ascendancy at 330 Independence Avenue.
But like the snow this winter in Boston, as this debate raged example after example of news coverage foul-ups, other scandals, and the ongoing morale catastrophe at BBG, kept piling up.
Largely somnolent when it came to the dysfunction in U.S. international broadcasting, since President Obama’s election in 2008, the White House finally woke up.
Indeed, there is reason to believe that key White House figures, notably adviser Ben Rhodes but also other officials, helped ensure that House-passed H.R. 4490 at least in the form it took at the time, would not get to a Senate vote. That does not mean the bill will not re-emerge in the Republican Congress.
As irksome as it is for some at VOA, an increasingly influential role was played by BBG Watch, the independent website regularly read by employees, and in official Washington, especially on Capitol Hill.
Its piercing commentaries based on institutional knowledge of former reporting and other staff, and by leaks from within BBG, had a huge impact, prompting one official to remark in a staff meeting that he was “vulnerable” to the criticisms.
Last December VOA director David Ensor decided to try to capitalize on anxieties that had built up in the building regarding the reform legislation, and sentiment against BBG Watch criticisms, which were having a greater impact.
In a first for any VOA director in the poor taste and miscalculation category, he foolishly used a holiday skit program to launch highly personal attacks against retired correspondents (myself included) and other private U.S. citizens and organizations, all supposedly in the interest of good fun.
No Emmy for Ensor. But he does face FOIA requests, and was berated by a public representative during a BBG session broadcast live on the Internet, in front of the BBG chairman and incoming CEO Andy Lack.
I also predicted that there would be no “mass exodus” from VOA, despite warnings by my former colleagues about further encroachment of policy into the journalistic role, something they said reporters would not tolerate.
VOA journalists have always lived in a strange world, working as reporters (VOA’s Charter from 1976 contains language aimed at protecting, and separating, the journalistic role from policy), while receiving federal paychecks and full benefits.
VOA, and other BBG entities are sanctuaries, providing steady federally-funded employment for those who have left mainstream non-government media, and a few over the decades some, like myself, who spent entire careers there.
Some VOA reporters, and managers, did depart or threatened to, citing embarrassing examples of mismanagement of the news product, and bureaucratic bungling. But there have been no mass departures.
My reason for choosing to retire from the sought-after position of White House correspondent was entirely based on principle. I enjoyed the work, and might have stayed had things not become so intolerable, and standards not plummeted.
There were also few signs that managers were listening to and acting upon warnings from the rank and file about issues driving VOA into the ground. At one point, I was threatened by a senior official known throughout the agency for his temper issues.
In Congress, meanwhile, some lawmakers had reached the conclusion that many Americans, as seen in a range of comments to published articles about BBG dysfunction, had come to.
In the view of many on Capitol Hill, and members of the public who know VOA and government-run media still exist, these broadcasters born in the post-WW II and Cold War period, may have outlived their usefulness, and become an unnecessary drag on the federal budget.
VOA’s effectiveness at this point is clearly hobbled, a description Ensor has vehemently attempted to deny. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) proposed de-funding VOA altogether — the first time in VOA’s history that has been proposed, though the initiative was deferred as the more extensive reform bill proceeded to House passage.
It’s important to understand that such sentiment was fueled by none other than the proven disarray at BBG, which has repeatedly ranked at the bottom of federal government employee satisfaction rating and was labeled as “practically defunct” by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Another obvious reality comes in the form of the threat from ISIS, what many have called the new Cold War with Russia stemming from actions by Vladimir Putin, and increased geo-strategic and economic challenges from China.
These have created an atmosphere in which one would be hard-pressed to identify members of Congress, or the public, who think VOA and other government-sponsored media should exist unless they are expressly, and with vigor, fighting a new information war, not being an employment ground for journalists.
Include in this, BBG members and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel (Stengel is a former TIME managing editor).
They talk a good game about the importance of straight journalism. But listen carefully, because every other sentence is punctuated with comments about the urgent need to respond to the Russian propaganda threat, or the sophistication of the ISIS information campaign.
For VOA journalists working those long hours in the VOA newsroom, assurances that reporting will not be interfered with or directed or shaped in any way by policy powers at the White House or State Department, may be momentarily comforting.
But anyone considering additional defend-the-VOA-Charter histrionics, should recognize the reality. They work not for some “news company” (a favorite Ensor term), but for the U.S. government, and are part of the weaponry that will increasingly be used in the new war.
My former colleagues at VOA attacking the bipartisan reform bill persisted in describing it as a Republican initiative, though it was passed unanimously out of committee, and later by the House.
It was ironic, in my assessment, that they appeared unaware that the drafting process had been underway for at least a year prior to passage. Democrats were as much exhausted of all patience with BBG and VOA, as were Republicans.
They also seemed reluctant to acknowledge that foul-ups and lame decisions by their own managers had destroyed VOA as a reliably comprehensive source of breaking news, while issuing highly-suspect and likely bogus audience reach figures (compare those to VOA’s minuscule audience engagement numbers through comments on its website, Facebook “Likes” and Tweets which are harder to manipulate), were the real reason for the bill’s existence.
Last year, I also predicted a continuation of what I described as “maximum hubris” — my description for those responsible for destroying VOA as a competitive, impactful news organization.
That term originally also applied to political ideologues outside of government committed to further “subsuming” VOA and all government-funded overseas media into the foreign policy and national security policy and decision-making apparatus.
It should be noted that some of these individuals also worked for VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and consulted for the CIA at times during their careers, something that many VOA journalists turned a blind eye to.
I now offer a revision, amid what can only be described as blatant pandering to policy interests, by the VOA director, and some of the organization’s journalists.
Let’s begin at the top. David Ensor, the VOA director and his deputies — pay lip service to the pursuit and performance of pure journalism. But they also see nothing wrong with prostrating themselves before policymakers.
In 2014 speaking to the AFSA (American Foreign Service Association), Ensor genuflected to former and current State Department officials, attempting to burnish a VOA reputation tarnished among the U.S. public, and abroad due to news coverage failures and absence of traction for its digital products.
He referred to VOA as a “media company”, but at the same time a “state broadcaster” (which he asserted could “open doors” for VOA) and, astoundingly, a “national security agency”. He had no problem with the duality.
“[VOA works] closely with our colleagues at the Department of State,” Ensor said, “to maximize our effectiveness where it matters most to American foreign policy.”
In one jaw-dropper, he said that cooperation with State had “gotten some transmitters and towers that are literally sitting on the roofs of embassies in the African countries, so if there is trouble in the streets it is at least more likely that the Marine guards will be able to keep our signal on the air.”
Wow. Marine guards defending VOA transmitters? Talk about maximum hubris. Ensor was likely referring to the reported placement of VOA equipment on the grounds of at least one American embassy in an African capital. We can only deduce that there are more such arrangements.
Suggesting that U.S. Marines have a role in defending facilities of a Voice of America that he labeled on numerous occasions a “media company”? Sign CNN, MSNBC, and FOX and their correspondents up for that kind of protection!
Responding to my question at the end of the AFSA session, Ensor prevaricated, saying: “I would not be the right person to respond to the question . . .” and “I don’t know, I can’t speak for the State Department. It probably depends which embassy, which ambassador. . .”
It remains to be seen to what extent new CEO and former non-government media executive, Andy Lack, participates in this pandering, as he exerts increasing influence over an agency that Ensor said everyone should think of as a “news company”.
By the way, though mainstream media journalists and commentators don’t often discuss it, they generally hold out an ongoing suspicion of VOA and BBG because they accurately see the organizations as not being independent of government influence and control.
And too many former non-government media figures let VOA officials like Ensor and BBG members off the hook by declining or failing to ask pertinent questions about mismanagement and news coverage shortcomings.
In January, at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, one would have expected Frank Sesno, who briefly worked at VOA decades ago and must be aware of the BBG’s plummeting reputation, to ask Ensor about that. He did not, but did note that Ensor was a “friend” from their days together at CNN.
Unfortunately, a prodigious level of pandering and self-promotion is also observed below the level of VOA director, in social media and other activities of certain reporters, raising important questions that would be debated in public if VOA were not so off the radar from public scrutiny.
Keep checking BBG Watch for PART III: A LOOK ACROSS THE TERRAIN . . . DECEPTIVE PRACTICES by Dan Robinson.