OPINION – ROBINSON – Andy Lack’s Friday the 13th Note: Why aren’t journalists asking the questions?

Commentary

All views expressed are those of the author.

ANDY LACK’S FRIDAY THE 13TH NOTE: WHY AREN’T JOURNALISTS ASKING THE QUESTIONS?

By Dan Robinson

 
 

Andy Lack spent about one month as CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors which oversees U.S. international media operations funded by Congress to the tune of $750 million annually.

Lack chose Friday the 13th to send his first formal comments since abruptly leaving the high profile position he occupied for nanoseconds, to conduct as it appears from all indications a rescue mission at NBC.

His memo was emailed Friday from the anonymous address of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), one of several bureaucratic entities under the BBG that manages, among others, the once proud but seriously hobbled Voice of America.

Since news emerged of Lack’s negotiations with NBC, and later his decision to bail (no other description fits) from his BBG position, media reports stated that he “worked” at BBG.

“Worked” is a bit misleading. Few can identify a specific thing Lack did during his brief time atop the BBG, though one of his first orders relocated embattled VOA director David Ensor and other staff from comfortable offices with one of the best views of the U.S. Capitol.

A Politico report on March 3rd appears to have been alone in putting Lack at BBG “since September.” That is hard to figure, because Lack appears to have spent only about 42 days actually doing things at BBG, or in its headquarters . . . doing something, but we don’t know.

His first formal remarks came at a BBG session on February 18th, after which he made his first, and as it turned out, last face-to-face remarks to employees of Voice of America’s news division.

In his comments on February 18th, Lack talked a good game, heaping praise on various BBG media outlets. He memorably vowed to VOA journalists that he had not come to cut agency operations, but to grow them.

Lack also got to fly off on the traditional fact-finding mission. He visited Prague, where Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are based, and Ukraine where he met, according to his own description with at least one government official, and had a selfie taken with a well-known VOA Ukrainian broadcaster.

That’s about as far as things got, until reports broke about his negotiations with NBC where it’s speculated Lack could attempt to rehabilitate suspended Nightly News anchor and old friend, Brian Williams, and revitalize the news division.

That’s the same Brian Williams, by the way, whose troubles went unreported by VOA for several days.

But let’s return to that desolate and so often surreal land known as the BBG. For good reasons (mismanagement, bungling of its news product to name just two) it has the reputation of being the most dysfunctional federal agency. Many employees would not disagree, though others call that unjust.

There are many excellent questions that should be asked about Lack’s brief tenure at the top of the BBG.

What meetings did he hold? Did he confer face-to-face with managers who bear most of the responsibility for driving VOA’s reputation as an international broadcaster and provider of breaking news, into the ground?

Did Lack utilize government computers for communications? Did he send any emails that would be subject to FOIA requests? Did BBG/IBB/VOA and other officials send any emails to Lack that are open to FOIA inquiries?

There are also questions for BBG chairman Jeff Shell, who in remarks to employees described himself as having been surprised when he first saw the reports that Lack was in negotiations to go to NBC.

Really? Did Shell utilize federal email in his communications with Lack? Perhaps it was all by phone. Maybe Shell used only private email. Anyone care to go on a server hunt?

Remember, Shell led the months-long executive search that eventually identified Lack as the best choice as BBG CEO (Shell headed NBC Universal International from 2011 – 2013).

Yet, after only approximately a month, Lack bolts for NBC, and Shell (whom Lack calls an “honest friend”) knew nothing, despite what must be numerous connections throughout the NBC system? Was Lack fully honest with Shell? Was Shell fully honest with employees?

What about Congress? Who did Lack confer with on Capitol Hill, including lawmakers and staff? Any official email on that would provide some useful enlightenment?

How about the White House? What reaction did the Obama administration, and notably key foreign policy advisers to President Obama, have on hearing that the person who was supposed to help lead U.S. government media, decided instead on executive suites in New York City, and jets?

As noted, Lack appears to have received a pass from assignments editors at non-government news organizations, quite satisfied to usher him from one position where he engendered high hopes (BBG employees, and Congress) to NBC where he feels far more comfortable — and happier with far higher pay.

All hail the King! No one, it seems has any desire to tangle with Andy Lack.

In his March 13th memo to employees, Lack cites “deeply personal reasons” for his decision to leave “with great sadness.” “Sometimes, Lack adds, “life has a way of intervening just when you’ve set out making other plans.”
 
Lack declares “the future of U.S. International Media “bright and a breathtaking opportunity for your next CEO” and vows to “proudly and loudly champion your remarkable efforts.”

Upon what evidence does Lack base this assessment? Reading his carefully-worded memo, no one knows. Based on the lack of curiosity demonstrated so far by government and non-government journalists, we’re not likely to find out.

It speaks volumes that employees at VOA, which has a director who had been in the habit of calling the federal agency a “news company” until he changed his tune to call it a “state broadcaster”, have declined to delve more deeply into this story, to seek out additional facts, if not for their own satisfaction, then for the historical record.

That’s entirely understandable. Many VOA news employees (including several correspondents) looked on in horror in Washington and from abroad, as VOA’s reputation declined in recent years. Some threatened to leave the dysfunction of the BBG behind. . . but stayed . . . for the secure government salaries.

Lack’s insult to BBG journalists notwithstanding, NBC and other networks are places many government journalists ultimately aspire to work for. Why upset the media titan who, though he flipped you the finger, could still be instrumental in getting you into the big leagues?

It should also be noted that in his memo to employees at BBG, Lack refers to VOA, the radio and television operations for Cuba, Radio Free Asia, and MBN for the Mideast, as “an extraordinary set of assets.”

That should not be lost on anyone. As I have pointed out in commentaries, U.S. international media/broadcasting outlets and those drawing government salaries, can no longer parade around as if they are purely journalistic enterprises.

They’re not — and never have been, as everyone knows, or should know who has read all of the history.

Increasingly, BBG communications with Congress justify sustaining VOA and other operations on the basis of their success, or lack of it, in being efficient tools of U.S. foreign policy, and their role in various information wars, against Putin, ISIS, and others.

So, Andy Lack is but a footnote now in the history of U.S. international media. Undoubtedly, a new search is underway for someone else. . .which prompts additional questions, such as who else was on the list?

It remains to be seen whether other current, or former and unemployed executives, would still jump at the chance to obtain a top-level CEO position in Washington, but with an agency with the worst reputation in federal government.

A recent commentary in BBG Watch put it well. This person, said an anonymous observer, would have to deal with “idle bureaucrats. . . hungry for power but short on knowledge and capability [who have] exhausted resources, strangled the life out of journalism, and irreversibly damaged the morale of the rank-and-file reporters, broadcasters, web content producers, and program-support employees.”

That’s one heck of a tall order. Ironically, it will take someone with the corporate horsepower of Andy Lack to have any hope of succeeding in that kind of atmosphere. And HE took a ticket out of the morass before even getting started.

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