Robinson and Thomas on H.R. 4490 Voice of America reforms

BBG Watch Commentary

Reforming International BroadcastingDan Robinson was one of the few if not the only Voice of America English news correspondent who while still working for VOA would make public calls for management reforms. He left Voice of America in early 2014 in protest against mismanagement. He explained his reasons for leaving in a letter to the supervisory Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). You could not find a VOA journalist more committed to VOA’s journalistic mission, independence and integrity than Robinson.

He and another recently retired VOA senior correspondent Gary Thomas, also a strong critic of the management, are now engaged in a debate about the bipartisan bill, H.R. 4490, which is pending in the U.S. Senate after its unanimous passage by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and in a by the House of Representatives. The bill is designed to reform U.S. international broadcasting and to “clarify” VOA’s mission.

Both Robinson and Thomas are far from being favorites of the current dysfunctional VOA management. In private comments to outside media and observers, VOA managers reportedly had tried to attack their professional reputation. According to Thomas, VOA also had tried unsuccessfully to spike his article for Columbia Journalism Review. BBG Watch defended both of them, but especially Thomas when he was attacked by VOA management.

The current debate between Robinson and Thomas can be followed through comments for a web article on the appointment of Bloomberg Media Group chairman Andy Lack to be the first CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). BBG has oversight of the Voice of America and other U.S. international broadcasters. Before Thomas’ comments were posted, BBG Watch had reported on the article on Andy Lack’s appointment which appeared on MediaBistro.com FishbowlDC website.

Like many current and former VOA journalists, Robinson has concerns with some of the wording of the bipartisan H.R. 4490 bill. He talked about it in an interview with The New York Times, although not everything he said in that interview was printed, according to one of his Facebook posts.

FORMER VOA CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON, Facebook, May 21, 2014: My clarifying comment to NYT: A good snapshot of the controversy, but for obvious length reasons, it cannot possibly get into the many complex aspects of the story. A correction, and clarification:

I worked at VOA for more than three decades, from 1979 to 2014. I accelerated my departure because I saw too much mismanagement of news coverage, and mistreatment of employees at VOA.

Second, the report may leave the impression that I am opposed to HR 4490. I actually see it as a predictable and understandable response by lawmakers to numerous documented failures and weaknesses in VOA news coverage, as Congress carries out its responsibility to conduct oversight.

My former colleagues at VOA understandably see HR 4490 as an assault on VOA’s journalistic role. There are worrying aspects, to be sure. But it contains language that strongly supports the VOA Charter signed by President Ford in 1976.

It requires U.S. international broadcasting activities to be conducted in accordance with the “best professional standards of broadcast journalism while remaining consistent with and supportive of the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”

Of course, anyone who has worked in U.S. government funded broadcasting knows well that there are all kinds of loopholes in this, and similar language in legislation. Those who choose to remain at VOA will have to remain vigilant.

Throughout his 33 years at the Voice of America, Dan Robinson was known as someone who was willing to stand up not only to management under successive directors, but also spoke out for VOA outside the building. Given his long history as a correspondent, and leadership of the Burmese Service, very few can accuse Robinson of being willing to cave to political forces.

But Robinson, while strongly opposing any attempts to interfere with VOA news reporting, does not appear to reject H.R. 4490 outright, as he had stated in his Facebook post. He certainly welcomes many of the bill’s proposed management reforms, but also appears to welcome the clarification in the bill that VOA is not merely a news organization like any other, but does serve a special role for the United States in order to receive public funding from Congress.

This role is already stated in the 1976 VOA Charter and Robinson appears to be supportive of this role as long as it is properly acknowledged in the revised and final version of the legislation. This also seems to be the position of many currently employed VOA journalists, especially in VOA more than 40 language services. It is also the position of the AFGE Local 1812 employee union. By various accounts, most employees and AFGE Local 1812 generally support H.R. 4490 legislation, with only some reservations. AFGE Local 1812 union is reported to be working with members of Congress to get some of the wording changed while preserving management reform provisions of the bill.

Robinson believes that while the Voice of America is and has always been a “state” broadcaster (as VOA Director David Ensor himself recently acknowledged), it is also one that has an important journalistic history that should be respected. At the same time, given the changes in view on Capitol Hill about why U.S. international broadcasting exists at all, any journalist who chooses to remain at VOA should be under no illusions that they work for some non-government “media company.” He believes that it’s time for VOA employees, particularly those in the VOA Central English Newsroom and VOA English Service correspondents, to look reality squarely in the face and admit that VOA does indeed have at least a partial “state broadcaster” role, as stated in the VOA Charter. That’s what he apparently calls his “end the hypocrisy” position.

There is hardly anyone abroad or in the United States familiar with the Voice of America who does not already think of VOA as being closely linked with the United States government and the country it represents. The VOA Charter defines VOA as a public broadcaster and protects it from direct policy control over its news output. But the Charter also assigns VOA a certain role in reporting on and explaining U.S. policies, U.S. institutions and political debates. That role goes far beyond what commercial, non-publicly funded U.S. media would be doing on their own.

For those who know Dan Robinson well, it would be grossly unfair to accuse him of being willing to acknowledge VOA as an overt state organ subject to policy control just in order to correct management flaws or accuse him of wanting VOA to become a propaganda mouthpiece for any political group. He was by all accounts an outstanding VOA correspondent and language service director. He also seems to share the view of many current and former VOA employees and their union that the recent management meltdown at the Voice of America is a far greater danger to VOA’s journalistic integrity and its very survival than the reform legislation which itself is undergoing revisions.

FORMER VOA CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON: “Legislative language has already been modified a number of times to respond to concerns reporters at VOA have voiced about potential interference with journalism at the government-funded outlet.

Failure to pass the legislation would kick the reform can down the road, and delay critically-needed management changes, resulting in more waste and incompetence at an agency that costs taxpayers more than $700 million every year.”

Gary Thomas took a different view. Thomas spent 27 years at Voice of America before retiring in 2012. He was a senior correspondent and news analyst specializing in national security and intelligence issues. He served in Islamabad and Bangkok and covered stories throughout South and Southeast Asia. In his comments, under the FishbowlDC article, Gary Thomas wrote in part:

FORMER VOA SENIOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT GARY THOMAS: “I believe Dan oversimplifies the beneficial impact of H.R. 4490. Far from the comprehensive cure that he portrays, the bill is, from a journalistic point of view, a potential recipe for disaster. The soothing words that VOA will not become a propaganda mouthpiece ring hollow in the face of language that remains in the final version of the bill sent from the House to the Senate. Far from strengthening VOA’s journalistic integrity, it has the potential to greatly undermine it. Moreover, the bill is nothing less than a total emasculation of a once-proud and effective institution.”

FORMER VOA CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON:Through the decades, VOA reporters including myself often preferred to focus on the fact that, for the most part, our individual journalistic roles were shielded from policy interference. But the fact is that VOA is, and always has been, a government-funded entity in which policy promotion has always played a role.

(…)

In many quarters of this town, the argument that appears to frame VOA as a news-only operation no longer holds sway. If those in the VOA news division don’t fully grasp this – what one congressional aide told me, that VOA’s usefulness is now sharply questioned on Capitol Hill – then its days could well be numbered.

FORMER VOA SENIOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT GARY THOMAS: Dan seems willing to cave in to the political forces and abandon any independence, pretense or no. He would acknowledge VOA as an overt state organ subject to policy control in order to correct management flaws.

I take sharp issue with this “destroy the agency in order to save it” school of thought. To trade in VOA’s journalistic soul in order to effect reform – and reforms which are questionable as outlined in the bill – is a Faustian bargain. We simply cannot cave in so cravenly. Frankly, I would rather see it put out of its misery than become a policy lapdog.

To read the entire exchange of comments between Robinson and Thomas see:

Bloomberg Media Chairman Andy Lack Named CEO of Broadcasting Board of Governors, By Nick Massella, Media Bistro.com, FishbowlDC, September 24, 2014

Background

As with nearly all former and current Voice of America employees, while highly critical of the management, Robinson remains a strong supporter of VOA as a journalistic institution. He has expressed reservations about some of the wording in the bipartisan H.R. 4490 reform bill with regard to VOA’s future mission.

Gary Thomas who found himself a target of an attack on his professional reputation by an agency manager when he published a critical article about Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau in Columbia Journalism Review, had praised Dan Robinson in earlier comments published at the time of Robinson’s retirement.

GARY THOMAS: It is indeed sad to see Dan depart. Like Dan, I left with a distinct aftertaste of bitterness about what has been done to eviscerate the once-proud, vibrant organization into a hollow-eyed hulk of its former self. Platform has been elevated over process.

As Dan correctly notes, true journalism – thoughtful, incisive, and timely – is disappearing at VOA, only to be replaced by cobbled-together wire reports. Precious human resources are routed away from news coverage and misdirected into time-intensive, stale video packages.

VOA has become a soulless place to work. Humor and good cheer are in short supply. Management is organizing “game nights” for employees in its laughable bid to boost rock-bottom morale (which, as Executive Editor Redisch once pointed out, is the employee’s responsibility).

But the real, deleterious games are being played on the third floor. Is it any wonder that Dan decided it was time to go?

In its misguided bid to chase the equivalent of ratings management has driven a stake through the heart of VOA. I fear it will not recover without a massive transfusion of new blood at the top levels of the agency.

 

SEE: Gary Thomas comments on departure of VOA White House correspondent Dan Robinson, BBG Watch, March 2, 2014

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LETTER TO THE BOARD FROM VOICE OF AMERICA CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON, FEBRUARY 22, 2014

To members of the Board,

This past Friday, I submitted my papers to retire from VOA, where I have spent 34 years. I worked under 15 directors, was privileged to serve twice as an overseas correspondent in Asia and Africa, spent 8 years covering Capitol Hill, headed VOA’s Burmese Service, and had the honor of covering President Obama as Chief White House Correspondent.

As one of the last remaining veterans who arrived in the 1970′s, I join others who have departed in recent years to take note of the decades of hard work by colleagues, and the great history of this organization.

However, in the past few years I saw much damage done to the news product, as this organization and dedicated employees were rushed down a path to a “TV” dominated future without the needed foundation of sufficient staff and technical resources.

The result of this clumsy and short-sighted implementation, was that “radio” and “TV” (and often social media) products suffered, resulting in likely thousands of hours of wasted man/woman hours across the Agency.

Particularly regarding VOA’s English website face to the world, our reputation was battered by a failure of IBB managers, from director’s level on down, to heed warnings staff made, including in face-to-face meetings in 2011, about serious problems.

On personnel management, I witnessed tactics, from the highest level of the IBB to Central News, that caused untold amounts of emotional suffering to hard-working employees – those who remained late into the night in small booths on Capitol Hill or at the White House, struggling to ensure that news got out, while many
senior managers left their comfortable offices in the Cohen Building for home.

Indeed, my decision to depart at this juncture was informed by my experience being bullied and threatened with removal by one IBB manager, who perhaps is of the mind that such tactics can be applied across-the-board, whether at major networks or in a government agency.

Never easy, the job of White House correspondent was made more difficult by systemic problems and counter-productive management tactics in Central News that battered everyone’s morale. Evidence of this can be seen in statistics ranking the newsroom at the lowest level among all divisions.

Senior IBB and Central News managers made little effort to discuss with appropriate specificity, coverage, support and access issues regarding VOA coverage of the presidency.

At one point, correspondents in Washington bureaus were discouraged from filing on breaking news. In its place, they were often tasked with producing “TV” reports that inevitably consumed numerous additional hours.

Due to staffing and technical problems in Central News, particularly relating to the production process, final “TV” products ended up being completed late, well after other media organizations had put out several layers of reports on a breaking news event.

Reporters too often ended up being mired in hours of email exchanges, phone conversations, and copy and paste exercises to produce scripts that “dumbed down” breaking events. Unfortunately, this often extended to overseas trips that I and other correspondents took accompanying the President or other high officials.

With all of this in mind, at times I was frequently embarrassed to be representing this organization at the White House, on a day-to-day basis. It is my assessment that VOA’s plummeting reputation and ongoing management issues severely impacted our access when it came to news coverage and presidential interviews.

Whether in the private sector or government, one often hears the observation that change is never easy. There is no doubt this has been and will continue to be the case at VOA and in all of U.S. International Broadcasting, whatever its future is at this point in time.

As one who took the initiative to reach out to Board members to convey many of the points herein, I urge you to continue your efforts to repair the damage done in recent years. Specifically, do what at least one member has to establish communication with those in the trenches, particularly veterans who choose to remain.

Those at various levels of management throughout the agency cannot be, as I like to put it, “In Search of Enemies”. Unfortunately, that is the picture many current and former employees have looking back on the time they spent in the Agency.

That this is the case, is a shame given the history of this organization, and the support it has received from the American people and their representatives in Congress.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak about these issues. I remain ready to elaborate on my experiences, with any member of the Board, and will continue to speak about these issues at other times and venues.

Daniel A. Robinson
Chief White House Correspondent
February 22, 2014

SEE: Voice of America White House correspondent told BBG Board why VOA reporters are leaving, BBG Watch, February 28, 2014

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While the debate between Robinson and Thomas on H.R. 4490 may continue, many former and current VOA employees have welcomed the appointment of Andy Lack as the first CEO of all U.S. government funded international media and hope that he will carry out management reforms. The White House may have a somewhat different position on H.R. 4490 than the U.S. Congress, but neither position seems to favor the arguments put forward by the strongest opponents of the bill. Both the Obama White House and the Congress have ignored their objections which, according to congressional staffers who spoke with BBG Watch sources, only seem to annoy the legislators who approve funding for VOA.

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