A Good Swift Kick
US Government International Media Information War Lost
By The Federalist
Professor Martha Bayles is an erudite chronicler of US Government international broadcasting. Much of the time, we find her observations to be exceptionally well-thought and well-argued.
In her latest commentary, Professor Bayles reviews the chronology and other events resulting in the Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service finding itself a hotbed of controversy over an interview with a Chinese businessman turned whistleblower Guo Wengui.
The Chinese government wasted no time finding a whole lot that it objected to even before the interview was conducted by experienced VOA Mandarin journalists. The Chinese issued vague threats of retaliation against VOA correspondents and visitors to China if the interview were to be aired. The live interview was aired in part, but VOA Mandarin Service journalists received instructions not to allow Mr. Guo to make allegations of corruption against Chinese communist officials unless these officials could be asked to respond to them first, even before the interview were to be conducted.
After one hour on live satellite TV, the interview continued briefly as a live online presentation on Facebook, but it was shortened because of a previous instruction to Mandarin Service journalists issued by VOA director Amanda Bennett. Instead of promised three hours, VOA audiences in China got about one hour and fifteen minutes. In turn, shortening of the interview enraged Chinese Internet users and others, triggering protests outside the Cohen Building housing VOA. Last but not least, the agency placed a number of VOA Mandarin staffers on paid administrative leave. In making a bad situation worse, the agency appears to have exceeded the parameters defined by government-wide regulations in the use of administrative leave. In one instance, the agency went to a favorite modus operandi and frog-marched an employee out of the building – a routine practice senior BBG and VOA bureaucrats excel in when they want to publicly humiliate an employee.
Professor Bayles’ piece is titled, “Don’t Kick VOA When It’s Down:”
Where the commentary falls short and does so significantly is its lack of strategic vision: the big picture focus of what the agency has become and not what it used to be.
As one observer has remarked, “(Professor Bayles) did fail to draw obvious conclusions.”
And the malaise has been in place for a long time.
In essence, senior officials of the VOA and the appendage known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have placed the agency in precipitous and apparently irreversible decline.
The VOA Mandarin Service incident and the treatment of the VOA Mandarin Five is a symptom of a disease that permeates the agency top to bottom.
These officials are incapable of elevating the agency to a level of superior performance and decent treatment of employees. They have created a hostile working environment. It has earned the title of being one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government. These officials have demonstrated that they are intent in keeping things just the way they are. They have no interest and perhaps are incapable of making substantive internal corrections. Often, much of what takes places inside the Cohen Building is a cover for gross management incompetence.
Reform has to be imposed on the agency. And that process is underway, even though the agency tries to continue with its “business as usual” posture, making it appear the Broadcasting Board of Governors is still in charge when it has been legislated to an advisory capacity and on the way to being dissolved as it should be. It has what amounts to a bureaucrat in place as chief executive (of nothing) officer who obviously abrogates his authority and responsibility and lets the BBG and VOA bureaucracy and do its thing. The underperformance of senior officials like John Lansing (the CEO), Amanda Bennett (the VOA director), both Obama administration holdovers, and the senior career bureaucrats surrounding them (and pulling down hefty six-figure salaries) is beyond contemptible.
As Professor Bayles knows full well, the image of the United States has been purloined by the entertainment industry. The agency has demonstrated it is no longer capable of countering the exploitative content of the entertainment industry with overseas audiences.
Worse, the agency is having little if any impact in countering severe anti-American sentiment running rampant throughout the Arab and Muslim world and elsewhere.
Examples abound and readers of BBG Watch will find many examples of how the VOA fails and fails miserably to execute its mission. Think about that promotional video portraying Uncle Sam as a blood-sucking zombie. The intended target audience: Pakistan, a country with more than enough anti-American vitriol without an agency of the US Government adding to it. A more recent example is a click-bait video of a love triangle among fish while human rights are being suppressed around the world right and left.
When it comes to this agency, business as usual is not an acceptable operating parameter. Things must change and change dramatically IF the agency is to be worth salvaging.
And every step of the way, the agency is fighting the process, including facilitating and enabling defiance of reform and reorganization initiatives.
In particular, don’t believe that the agency provides unbiased and balanced news and information. The VOA newsroom has openly put on display its bias in a number of blatant postings, mimicking in sometimes crude and juvenile ways what is seen in US domestic media. In our view, the VOA newsroom has become a blatant part of the partisan media environment in the United States far outside the principles of the VOA Charter.
Let’s put it this way:
We wouldn’t waste one moment of our time on this agency’s program content. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) continues to be the standard for international broadcasting. At this juncture and likely far into the future, the BBC is a much better choice: on radio, television and online. And it is way, way ahead of VOA and the useless BBG.
People who deal with the daily realities of how bad this agency is know that it has collapsed top to bottom.
But more than anything else, the agency’s problems start at the top and the corrosion from the Third Floor offices of the Cohen Building has become pervasive throughout the agency.
Professor Bayles would be best served to see the reality and not make excuses for how badly this agency has fallen.
What this agency traffics in is a false narrative of its successes, its audiences and other examples of disinformation and misinformation regarding the character and nature of the agency.
- “Regular Bottom Feeder” ; “Going Backward” Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson “Federal Insider,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2016.
- “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)
While the congressional remedial process is underway, it should be reinforced by action within the Executive Branch: and that means replacing Lansing and Bennett with all deliberate effort.
The longer they are in place, the more likely the agency will find itself reconstituted in some other form.
And though never likely to admit it, the agency has brought it on itself.
The BBG has a so-called “Management Accountability Charter.”
It is a crock.
As demonstrated in the VOA Mandarin incident and the treatment of the VOA Mandarin Five, the top priority of senior agency officials is the avoidance of accountability starting at the top of the management structure.
If there is an agency that deserves a good, swift kick, this one is it.
As a long time supervisor at BBG, I’ve never seen this so called Accountability Charter but then again, Mr. Lansing could only be bothered to meet with us one time and that was with numerous Sr. Level managers in the room. Needless to say, nobody left the meeting with thoughts that the agency would be improving.
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