OP-ED – ROBINSON – TRANSFORMATION IS UPON US: HANDWRITING IS ON THE WALL

BBG Watch Commentary

In a long-anticipated Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, officials appointed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) formally announced a series of budget-related decisions, in what one official called a “transformation [that is] now upon us” which will include reductions in force (layoffs).

A BBG press release said the agency would become “more nimble and streamlined” under the FY 2015 budget request. BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell as was quoted as saying: “Our commitment to this agency’s journalistic mission is unwavering even in the face of limited resources and a volatile international operating environment.”

Former VOA Chief White House Correspondent Dan Robinson provides some views about the picture at 330 Independence Avenue, and the plan announced to close VOA’s Jerusalem bureau, and a domestic bureau that has been a primary source of quality reporting about the United States.

We are pleased to publish this first op-ed for BBG Watch from Dan Robinson.

Dan Robinson

TRANSFORMATION IS UPON US: HANDWRITING IS ON THE WALL

Dan Robinson

At VOA, with its devastated and still plummeting morale attributable to a string of poor decisions by a largely discredited IBB management structure, employees usually go from day to day hoping for some better news. They are usually disappointed.

Tuesday was such a day of disappointment as the “interim management team” appointed by the new BBG laid out initial information on impacts from FY 2015 budget-related proposals sent back to Capitol Hill.

Staff sources reporting from today’s “All Hands” meeting, and others being conducted in language services and the Voice of America (VOA) Central Newsroom, provided a summary:

— Closure of VOA’s Jerusalem news bureau, and the US domestic bureau in Houston.

— Elimination of VOA Albanian, Bosnian, Macedonian and Serbian services for a projected $2.25 million savings.

— Reductions in VOA’s Latin American service at a projected savings of $680 thousand

— A “realignment” of VOA English at a projected savings of $550,000

— Some cuts in VOA’s Indonesian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and Uzbek services

— Reduction in VOA Persian at a projected savings of $2.3 million.

The Jerusalem closure could well be a trial balloon and stands a good chance of being reversed once news of it hits on Capitol Hill. It’s likely that more than a few members of Congress would raise questions about the wisdom of shutting a bureau in such a strategically-important place.

That is, those lawmakers who still care to any degree about the comedy show (funny if dysfunctions weren’t so serious for staff) that continues just down the street at 330 Independence Avenue, and numerous questionable decisions made by the IBB bureaucracy.

As explained by the BBG-appointed triumvirate, and earlier by VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch and VOA’s Barbara Brady, the bureau closures are among proposals in which VOA would absorb approximately $10 million in cuts.

Then there is the VOA newsroom. You remember — the place that Redisch and VOA Director David Ensor repeatedly extolled saying it would be the “core” of the grand scheme to bring together BBG resources to build a more efficient and aggressive news operation. . .

. . .but which actually suffers from a wide range of technical and human capital and management issues that were largely ignored as IBB managers left for home each day, leaving employees to suffer with Dalet (production software) and Pangea (content management) breakdowns, and arrogant managers.

Remember — the Newsroom ranks at the bottom of all divisions in VOA when it comes to morale. That’s a striking record for an Agency still struggling in the morale pit (remember, said a senior IBB official — repairing it will take 3-5 years!).

In 2014, the U.S. Senate rejected proposed cuts that would have eliminated many jobs in Central News. Under the proposals now sent to the Hill, the newsroom would absorb just over $2 million of cuts. Nineteen positions, which have remained authorized but vacant, would be eliminated.

There is speculation among some staff members that the decisions to close Jerusalem and Houston could be related to the fact that veteran correspondents there could be close to retirement.

Redisch is reported to have said that VOA might co-locate in Jerusalem with MBN (Middle East Broadcasting Network). But — MBN faces its own budget difficulties, including potentially eliminating its own Jerusalem bureau. So — where does that leave things? Tune to this frequency (if VOA has any left) for further details.

As has occurred in other overseas locations, the focus continues to be on consolidation — combining what for decades were Voice of America bureaus with operations of other BBG entities (the popular new BBG-preferred word for these is “networks”).

Remember, each network technically operates under its own journalistic code, though all were informed by, and conformed to one degree or another with, the VOA Charter. What everyone knows from the statutory and historical record is that missions and methods are not always the same.

At one time or another, every news organization has faced the difficult task of determining which foreign or domestic bureaus to close. Many factors come into play, when it comes to advantages and drawbacks, in terms of news strategy and impacts on human beings.

Are freelance stringers (and backups to stringers) available? What are the effects of losing on-the-ground presence — being seen not to have a full-time correspondent in a particular location? What impact does a decision to close in Jerusalem have on regional coverage, in places like Syria and Iraq (VOA would have to rely to a greater degree on its Cairo bureau or news reports sent from Europe).

VOA managers have made some highly questionable bureau closure decisions over the decades that ended up leaving the organization in a difficult spot amid major breaking news.

At one point, consideration was given to shutting the East Africa bureau in Nairobi. Given events in South Sudan, Somalia and Central African Republic, Uganda and the threat from al Qaida-inspired groups, and the significance for U.S. policy, the IBB would have to have its head examined if it were to propose this today.

VOA’s Islamabad bureau was slated for closure at one point, something that today would be inconceivable now given the situation in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. VOA’s bureau in New Delhi, capital of the other major South Asia nuclear weapons power, will be closing, an already-announced budget-linked decision.

Where Jerusalem is concerned, a case could be made that stringers can meet VOA needs for coverage of news. But a whole range of positives, obvious and below the surface, simply go away when a news organization shuts down an official presence.

The decision to close VOA’s Houston bureau (actually located in the home of the resident correspondent there) removes one key base VOA has had to cover American domestic news with its own correspondent, one of the few remaining veterans in the reporting corps.

Back to the big picture. Remember that the current IBB management structure was responsible for the now infamous “43 Newsrooms” approach in which language services received formal access to raw news agency content, though the historical record shows many services were unprepared to shoulder new burdens.

The current IBB group was also responsible for attempting to implement several newsroom reorganizations based on a shaky foundation by reappointing someone who was removed from the position more than a decade earlier by a former VOA director.

As has already been mentioned, VOA managers say the newsroom staffing cuts will eliminate only vacant positions that were on the books. That’s fine as far as it goes. But remember — in meetings with newsroom staff the current VOA director repeatedly vowed “I will cut you”, while largely blaming the White House and Congress for the situation.

As additional information becomes available, let’s review for a moment the record of the current VOA-IBB management team. These are individuals who:

— Stood by for years as a series of Internet/VOA website and other reporting failures played out in front of the world, and VOA was repeatedly embarrassed by BBC, Russia’s RT and other outlets (see Ukraine).

— Set out to destroy what was once a robust VOA English radio operation, and failed to appreciate the effects of correspondents being thrown into labor-intensive multi-day “TV” projects that often sacrificed breaking news coverage.

— Ridiculed staff members, including veteran reporters who repeatedly raised concerns about these and other problems.

— Failed to adequately support some bureaus, domestic and foreign, with equipment they needed to do their jobs.

— Were apparently clueless until receiving vociferous complaints, about wastes of time involving mandatory Defense Department administrative training imposed on VOA’s best foreign correspondents (VOA’s Moscow correspondent recently resigned, reportedly in part over this issue).

— Tolerated and it would seem condoned destructive personnel practices carried out against staff that included efforts, using the official evaluation system, to denigrate performance and personal commitment as a pressure tactic.

— Amid all of this, merrily traveled across the country on government-funded trips to wax enthusiastically to various groups about what a good “bang for the buck” American taxpayers were getting.

So, again as additional information emerges on the budget decisions announced Tuesday, keep all of this in mind, as well as many other aspects of the picture at 330 Independence Avenue.

It’s been observed several times in recent months that VOA may be getting a lot smaller, very quickly.

That may well be the picture for VOA, though the historical record shows that it may not be the case for other parts of the U.S. international broadcasting bureaucracy (see RFE/RL, RFA, etc) that still have more “throw weight” on Capitol Hill.

What should not be forgotten is the extent to which the record of poor management of taxpayer-funded resources — financial, physical and human — has undermined the confidence that Congress and the American public have in these efforts.

It’s going to take a lot of work by the new Board to persuade members of Congress that the dysfunctions in the agency can be transformed into something that can be described in any appropriate way as “nimble and streamlined”.





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