International Broadcasting Bureau – Maintaining Dysfunctional and Defunct is Our Most Important Business – Information War Lost: Snowballs in Arizona
By The Federalist
On May 20, 2014 Ron Nixon of The New York Times offered a report on H.R. 4490, a bipartisan bill by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to rehabilitate US Government international broadcasting (“House Measure to Change Voice of America’s Mission is Drawing Intense Debate”).
The title of the piece is one we would challenge. The bill is less an effort to change the agency’s mission and more to recover mission effectiveness and correct a multitude of internal ills that cumulatively make the agency appropriately described as dysfunctional and defunct.
The bill was passed unanimously by the committee.
The bill broadly restates provisions of the Voice of America (VOA) Charter. The Charter has three specific goals: (1) be a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news, (2) present a balanced whole of American society and (3) present US policy clearly and effectively with responsible discussion and opinion of these policies.
The Charter was enacted in 1976.
Some individuals with ties to the VOA Central Newsroom have somehow gotten into a panic over the legislation, making themselves into prophets of doom. Reality speaks otherwise:
The legislation doesn’t repeal the Charter.
But what the legislation does do is illustrate, graphically, how the agency has fallen face first into an institutionalized inability to successfully and effectively execute its mission.
The legislation makes a number of Findings and Declarations to mark the extent of the failure and then explains the necessary remedial actions to reverse the agency’s implosion.
Among other things, the bill would eliminate the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) where much of the agency’s failure originated and is being perpetuated with a faulty “strategic plan” that has demonstrated itself to be nothing of the kind.
It would also split US Government international broadcasting into two segments, each managed by a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). One segment would be primarily the VOA. The other would be a “Freedom News Network” comprised of the agency’s grantee broadcasting entities such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and others.
The bill would also remake the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to an advisory role.
One would think the VOA Newsroom staff would support this development since they have regularly and often complained of the attempt by VOA director David Ensor and VOA executive editor Steve Redisch to comingle VOA and grantee content, rely heavily on Reuters news reports, and further erode the VOA Central Newsroom – a process they have been working on for some time.
Much of the media reporting on the bill contains little to no discussion of the totality of the agency’s failure. The focus is almost exclusively on the fear and hysteria of some staffers in the VOA Newsroom.
In contrast, most subject matter (US Government international broadcasting) professionals inside and outside government, including those with past service with the agency, support the legislation.
Mr. Nixon’s piece is an interesting study in those contrasts.
We consider some of them as appeared in the New York Times piece.
Support For the Legislation
Walter Isaacson, a former BBG Chairman, said the legislation was a response to changing times and that the VOA should have a dual mission. In fact, that dual purpose mission has always been in place as codified in the VOA Charter.
James Glassman, another former BBG chairman, understands the dual purpose mission, noting the contrasts but acknowledging that “Congress is right to address it.”
Helle Dale, a senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, labeled as “absurd” the contention that the bill would make VOA employees appear as policy spokespersons and not as journalists.
The Contrasting Opinion
According to the Times piece, Jeffrey Hirschberg, a former BBG member, described the legislation as “problematic.” He said, “The V.O.A. has a purely journalistic mission and it always has…It doesn’t do messaging or propaganda. Any legislation that alters the journalistic mission would be unfortunate.”
Current BBG member Matt Armstrong also opposes the bipartisan legislation for different reasons. He talks of “silos” and wants even more centralization of control. He called the language of the bill “overly harsh,” “dated” and “not fair” with regard to bipartisan congressional findings and otherwise “less than inarticulate” (sic) and “inappropriate.”
Other sitting BBG members wisely took BBG Chairman Jeff Shell’s advice not to comment, either pro or con, on the legislation. Together with the Chairman, most are believed to be supportive of major structural reforms as outlined in the bill, although individually they may not be supportive of its every provision. They are pleased that Congress will reform the bureaucratic structure of the agency, sources told BBG Watch.
VOA journalists outside of a few individuals in the VOA Newsroom do not seem worry about any serious threat to their journalistic independence. The vast majority welcomes promised administrative reforms. In fact, the House legislation does nothing to alter the journalistic mission. What it does do is get the agency back on track to execute the explanation of US policy as called for in the VOA Charter.
An employee interviewed for the Times piece and quoted anonymously said, “The only thing V.O.A. has left is its reputation, built over decades, as a credible news organization…Changing our focus from straight news to policy promotion will undercut any efforts to keep or build our audience.
“The only thing VOA has left…?”
That seems to indicate that the agency has been in the tank for some time – long before H.R. 4490 appeared.
In fact, the more likely reality is that the only thing the agency has left is a name, associated with a past that is rapidly disappearing from view. The refrain inside the Cohen Building is a repeating misrepresentation of a change in focus from news to policy.
As precisely explained in the VOA Charter,
“3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”
This does not constitute “policy promotion.”
And as far as audience is concerned, those numbers have been tanking at an alarming rate. In other US Government agencies, some hold the view that the agency has no meaningful audience reach. Some also believe that the agency’s survey data is tricked up to show audiences that are grossly overestimated.
Perhaps the most outrageous statement coming out in the Times piece is a reference to a recent staff meeting in which an anonymous employee claimed, “…the broadcast network could see a mass exodus if the legislation passed.”
Ms. Dale from the Heritage Foundation can add this remark to the “absurd” list.
This is a sterling example of fomented hysteria coming from a handful of VOA employees, perhaps tacitly encouraged by those senior agency officials who are opposed to the legislation.
There will not be a mass exodus from the agency as a result of this legislation. Period.
The truth in this matter is that everyone inside the Cohen Building is there for a reason:
Meaningful employment. Everyone in the Cohen Building needs their jobs – or they would be working somewhere else.
One doesn’t go running out of the building in a fit of pique over a piece of legislation that makes the agency more survivable and effective, not less.
These exclamations by some employees are like snowballs in Arizona: they don’t hold up for very long and evaporate quickly.
Instead of getting on board with a reaffirmation of the agency as this legislation clearly intends, some individuals seem determined to be steadfast in defending the indefensible:
Dysfunctional and defunct.
That is where the agency is at. And there is the very real prospect that it (VOA) won’t be around for very long if this agency doesn’t turn a corner away from a dysfunctional and defunct status quo and get back in the business it was intended to do via the VOA Charter.
The agency needs to recover its value. It needs to be seen as vital and relevant, with meaningful and timely impact. Otherwise, it burnishes a reputation for being a “Cold War relic.” And that means its life expectancy for the rest of the 21st century may be short.
(Note: The New York Times followed up Mr. Nixon’s piece with an editorial on May 25, 2014, “The Pitch of America’s Voice.”)