BBG Watch offers a wide range of commentaries on current issues in U.S. international media outreach, public diplomacy, disinformation, and propaganda.
The following commentary is by The Federalist, one of our longtime observers of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets providing news programs to audiences abroad.
All views expressed are those of the author.
OPINION Voice of America Information War Lost: A Day For Stifling Debate
By The Federalist
They are at it again. You know who we are talking about: those few individuals of the VOA newsroom: the “Back Off Congress” group.
They have gotten themselves all upset, this time over a meeting at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, DC “think tank.” Its president is Ken Weinstein, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The event was called, “BBG Editorial Retreat on Extremism.” [sic] It was held on July 23, 2015.
Interesting juxtaposition of words on the title of the event. In the view of certain people, that is precisely what the effect of Voice of America (VOA) program content has been: ineffective babble–ineffective in countering the messaging of Islamic extremists and the threat they represent globally, in the Middle East and to the US homeland. A digital content with hardly any audience engagement according to social media metrics. Often just 10-20 Facebook “Likes” shown on individual posts on the VOA English news website, often with one, two or zero comments from readers worldwide. Yet a few of these VOA English news reporters draw $100,000-$150,00 salaries, and some even hold special U.S. Foreign Service appointments.
We must say that BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials would have been better served to have come up with a different title for the event, as you will learn below. But there was nothing wrong with having a seminar, especially when outside experts are invited.
Participants included current senior managers of the IBB and the BBG. Some of them we consider to be responsible for the demise of US Government international broadcasting, particularly the Voice of America. They should have stayed away.
Some of these agency attendees were described as “experts.”
Perhaps in-house experts in creating an agency that is:
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
With some of the failed veteran IBB officials still hanging around, as these kinds of events go, we see it largely as representative of “motion without movement,” creating the appearance of doing something but essentially accomplishing nothing or very little.
Otherwise, we are for a vigorous discussion, if it results in actual reforms and improvements. We are not sure whether the Hudson Institute discussion will have such an effect.
This particular one also provided an opportunity for the “Back Off Congress” group to work themselves up into a frenzy and wrap themselves in their shroud of so-called “journalistic credibility and integrity” and viewing the discussion/debate/meeting as a threat. Their reaction would have been probably the same if the seminar was titled differently and better organized, but it was a telling reaction by a small group employed by the federal government, taxpayer-funded agency whose stated mission is “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” “Engage and connect” means to discuss and debate. Debate may require exposure to views and ideas some individuals and groups may not like.
Subsequently, the “Back Off Congress” group met with Ms. Chao and other managers on July 24. The tactics of this group is well known: group intimidation to silence any debate not to their liking about journalism, mission, impact and reform. They used it on Andrew Lack and others.
And so they did.
We no longer think of the VOA newsroom as a core news and information operation inside this agency of the U.S. Government. It might be more aptly titled, “The Room of Hysteria and Paranoia” by virtue of the anti-debate behavior exhibited by these employees.
Congress has made focused efforts intended to pass legislation to reform US Government international broadcasting. We have given this group of newsroom employees the identifier of “Back Off Congress” following the publication of an editorial by the same name in The Los Angeles Times last year at the time the Congress first introduced a legislative overhaul of US Government international broadcasting. These employees say they want management reform, but they oppose structural agency reform that is not to their liking. (See: “Op-Ed Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real,” Al Pessin, Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2014. Note that the op-ed, written by a VOA English senior foreign correspondent refers to the bipartisan Royce-Engel bill as “the Royce bill.”)
We have obtained copies of the Hudson Institute meeting agenda, an email summarizing the newsroom meeting with Ms. Chao and a list of questions for Andre Mendes, the temporary chief executive officer (CEO) of the agency.
In our review of the email summary of the meeting and from other source material, our impression is that Ms. Chao tried but did not succeed in changing opinions of the group of VOA English newsroom critics. We don’t think they can be persuaded. They concluded that there was a hidden agenda to the meeting. Newsroom employees clearly took the Hudson Institute seminar as an attempt to undermine the VOA Charter as they interpret it.
In our view, this is a highly egotistical group of agency employees. One of the messages they convey in this matter is one of BBG Board members like Dr. Weinstein, IBB, BBG and VOA managers, and the Hudson Institute needing the blessing if not approval or permission of these employees to hold a discussion. They would also like to determine the participants and subject matter.
Hijacking the VOA Charter
It is important to distinguish what the VOA Charter is in its entirety and conversely what the “Back Off Congress” group attempts to present it to be.
The “Back Off Congress” crowd focuses solely and intentionally on Part 1 of the Charter that addresses VOA being an “authoritative source of news.” The intention is to convey the impression that this is the only thing the Charter addresses as the agency’s mission.
It is not.
There are two other important components to the Charter that these individuals do not address. They are: “a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions” and “presenting the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and presenting responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.”
The “Back Off Congress” group does not want to do these things any other way than their way and does not want others who don’t agree with them to discuss it and debate it.
In effect, they want to be a news-only operation, as determined by them. They have been explicitly told that this is not an option for the agency. They have not consulted with or received a permission to speak on behalf of hundreds of journalists working in VOA foreign language services.
By focusing solely on the first section of the Charter, to the exclusion of its other component parts, the “Back Off Congress” VOA English newsroom employees are engaged in disinformation and misinformation about the full scope of the agency’s mission as defined and desired by Congress, supported by U.S. taxpayers, and envisioned by some Administration officials.
To all appearances, these employees are promoting an agenda. That agenda includes doing “business as usual” inside the Cohen Building routinely – and correctly – described as:
In short, the position staked out by these people has no positives attached to it. It undermines the agency’s mission effectiveness.
The Tantrum Continues
In addition to their harangue against Ms. Chao, the group drafted a list of questions to be presented to Andres Mendes, the temporary CEO of the agency, for a response.
The questions were co-mingled with demands, one of which included that
“1) We ask for a swift and complete renunciation of the idea that VOA would engage in countering violent extremism.”
We have to say, that is an unbelievably ludicrous and outrageous position for these Federal employees to take.
It puts the “Back Off Congress” group on a very slippery slope. In effect, it puts the agency on a fast track to be abolished and replaced.
Decisions about the agency’s mission are made way, way above the pay grades of these employees, although some of them do hold very high grades when it comes to pay. In effect, they are demanding that the agency not carry out determinations to be made about its mission and what priorities are attached to the mission.
Someone among the group of critical VOA English newsroom employees made the claim that Mr. Mendes had no knowledge of the meeting. That appears to be odd at best, since the meeting at the Hudson Institute emptied more than one office of the multitude of senior managers on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building. It can hardly be seen as a secret seminar.
Mr. Mendes must know that aligning himself with the group or a wrong reaction could put him on an expedited trajectory for a windowless office in the basement of the Cohen Building, perhaps reduced to the role of a “senior advisor.” He must know that every word of any response verbal or written would be parsed, re-parsed and dissected by this small group of VOA English newsroom critics in their warped vision of the agency’s mission, either twisted around to support their point of view or repudiated as contrary to the their demands.
The same would apply to Kelu Chao and any other senior manager who would give in to pressure to stifle free intellectual debate these employees do not want.
A small group engaged in determining what can be discussed and by whom and a management structure sufficiently cowed by such pressure would leave us with an agency in what appears to be a perpetual state of being:
This is a small group. We did not hear about any Voice of America foreign language service journalists, who are the great majority of VOA program-creating employees, expressing any concerns about the Hudson Institute discussion.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) journalists also have not protested. They seem not to be afraid of debate, comfortable that they uphold high journalistic standards, and grateful for taxpayers’ support, as are their audiences.
Let’s Talk About Reality
It is important for readers of BBG Watch, particularly those who follow these posts internationally to know:
This small group of complaining VOA English newsroom employees does not determine the agency’s mission.
The agency’s mission is determined by the actions of the legislative and executive branches of the US Government and has been generally in line with what U.S. taxpayers want. One could even say that U.S. taxpayers are more suspicious and less generous when it comes to funding foreign broadcasts than the U.S. Congress.
This small group of employees does not get to pick and choose what parts of the Charter to follow, ignore or interpret. Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Charter are not discretionary. They are an aggregate reflection of the agency’s complete and total mission.
These employees seem to forget who their employer is. It is the United States Government. They have “duties as assigned.” If the United States Government determines that “countering” the propaganda of ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) is in the national and public interest, and the agency has a role to play in this effort, their responsibility is to carry out the agency’s mission accordingly and to its fullest. They can express their views, and if their views are not accepted, they should resign. If others want to hold seminars and discussions on what “countering” means, these employees have to respect it.
If they don’t like it, they should leave. Calling for silencing an intellectual discussion they don’t like serves no useful function in this agency. They are drawing handsome salaries and benefits at the expense of the American taxpayer and the agency’s mission.
Why should the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America not have a discussion, or even better a series of discussions, on how to “counter” the enemy of the United States responsible for the deaths of thousands, including American citizens specifically targeted and publicly executed, particularly journalists? No one to our knowledge has suggested that VOA should counter lies and hate with lies and hate. “Exposing” and “countering” lies and hate with accurate news and alternative opinions is the essence of great journalism that can make a big difference in some peoples’ lives and can save many lives.
Last but not least:
The VOA newsroom is not the paragon of virtue and impact it once might have been during some periods in VOA’s history. It has become as described, “The Room of Hysteria and Paranoia,” where some $100,000-plus salaried reporters have fewer than a hundred Twitter followers and post reports getting fewer than a dozen Facebook “Likes” and very few if any comments on the VOA English newsroom website.
There are still a few VOA reporters left with more significant social media following, but they are not the majority among the decimated and poorly managed ranks of English-language content producers. Some of the best VOA newsroom reporters have left in recent years unhappy with the management of VOA and the agency. The VOA newsroom is barely holding on, relying heavily on third-party news providers to keep it afloat. Those third-party news items and reports have almost zero social media impact on the VOA English news site and on VOA foreign language news sites.
There was a time when we would have argued against breaking up the VOA English newsroom as was once proposed.
Those days are over.
It is time to break up this group. Send them out to the individual VOA foreign language divisions.
Congressional legislation is intended to reform this agency, from top to bottom. It is very necessary. The behavior of this group of agency employees makes the case for reform very clear.
Even so, with the debate-stifling behavior of some of the VOA newsroom employees and a grossly incompetent and inept management structure, it may already be too late.
At some point, the focus of the Congress may shift from reform to reconstruction, what we call “the nuclear option.” By this we mean reorganizing this agency and putting something else in its place with new management -– and as a consequence of the behavior of the “Back Off Congress” group — perhaps with new employees.
BBG And Broadcast Entity Mission Statements
The mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.
The agency’s mission is reinforced by those of the individual broadcasters that are overseen by the BBG.
Voice of America
From the VOA charter, signed into law in July 1976:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
RFE/RL’s mission is to promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.
Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí)
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s mission is to promote freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming.
Radio Free Asia
Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.
Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa)
The mission of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks is to provide objective, accurate, and relevant news and information to the people of the Middle East about the region, the world, and the United States. MBN supports democratic values by expanding the spectrum of ideas, opinions, and perspectives available in the region’s media.