BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from Dan Robinson, former Voice of America White House senior correspondent, foreign correspondent and VOA language service chief. Views expressed are only those of the author and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.
We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.
BBC, VOA: Mid-Summer Reflections on Things That Need Fixing
By Dan Robinson, former Voice of America Senior White House Correspondent
It’s been a summer of intense news, with events and upheaval around the world: the World Cup in Brazil, ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the shooting down of MH17, deterioration in Iraq and the advance of ISIS, the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, all with global implications.
In the United States, the violence in Missouri occurred just as President Obama began a two week vacation, and Congress is on its summer break. Add to that, the loss of some famous and loved people, including Robin Williams.
In July, I was driving from Pennsylvania back to Washington, DC and for want of better news programming than on radio stations along the I-95 corridor, I used my phone to connect to one of many stations in the United States carrying live BBC programming.
When I returned to Maryland, I made a point of noting what I had heard on Newshour, the award-winning program produced by the BBC in London, and which recently added another station in the Washington area, WAMU at The American University.
According to a news release, Newshour is “carried on more than 1,000 partner stations worldwide, as well as via BBC World Service network.”
What I heard that day provided yet another reminder of why the BBC remains among the most powerful media forces in the world today.
There was a live report from Afghanistan on the visit of Secretary of State John Kerry, another live on-the-scene report from Gaza and the site of an Israeli air attack, an extremely informative report from a school in Washington, DC about the success or failure of Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve American’s eating habits.
I also recalled a previous listening session when I heard engrossing BBC programming from Brazil on the World Cup. These weren’t short packaged radio reports, or audio from some short TV version, but live, exciting material from the scene.
Even farther back in time, I remember waking one morning to hear the BBC broadcasting a live program from Kabul, Afghanistan, with their globally-respected correspondent Lyse Doucet, discussing an election there.
And as I wrote this, I heard the BBC’s World Have Your Say program, with its fast-moving, engrossing, hour-long phone-in format on the unrest and police response in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of a young black man by a local policeman.
Whether it’s Newshour, World Have Your Say, or others, longtime listeners to the BBC are never surprised when they hear this level of international reporting from BBC channels.
For decades, before and during the post-Cold War decline of America’s VOA, and even when it had a more robust English radio operation, BBC has been a destination of choice for people seeking comprehensive and timely reporting, analysis, and independent views about global events.
Whether via shortwave, which the Broadcasting Board of Governors is now all but eliminating, FM relays, or Internet radio, it is often the BBC rather than the Voice of America that people gravitate to, especially now as VOA stands at a crossroads, damaged by decades of mismanagement.
For decades, BBC radio news programming has been far superior, in content and frequently in technical implementation, the gold standard for rapid, reliable, multi-faceted reporting on global news events, and absorbing commentary, 24 hours a day.
VOA, according to one official’s own admission to me in 2014, “long ago lost the opportunity to become a destination of choice” where its Internet website operations are concerned.
BBC’s superiority is not only in radio, but obviously on television, and on its Internet pages, in foreign coverage and coverage of the United States, a trend we now see being repeated with al-Jazeera, and even RT in Russia, which are stepping up coverage in the United States.
Examples are too numerous to recount, but VOA has been hobbled (a word current VOA director David Ensor has denied applies to VOA) by a range of systemic problems, from equipment to staffing and implementation issues, preventing it from being competitive with other media organizations, small and large.
It was only in 2013 and into early 2014 after unrelenting pressure from BBG Watch, that the VOA English website began to carry live video streams of President Barack Obama.
The contrast was quite striking. Frequently, BBC and numerous other websites had live coverage on their front pages. Users of the VOA site were forced to wait until bottlenecked processes playing out in the decimated main newsroom finally spit out some short item on the front page.
By this time, the BBC already had multiple links to news items (albeit often of varying length) connected with a main lead story. BBC was also capable of producing multiple updates of a first story within minutes, and making them visible on their front page, something VOA has often seemed incapable of doing in recent years.
A prime example was the controversy over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie involving allegations that he ordered lane closures on the George Washington Bridge connecting his state with New York City.
Christie’s first major news conference on this was carried live by the BBC, which had separate links expanding on various angles. In the VOA newsroom, one person wrote the main story, for the front page. No live Christie, just a standard VOA report tacked on the page.
Which of these, I would ask, provided global and U.S. and American users of the BBC or VOA websites with better coverage?
When I pointed out this contrast, in a conversation with VOA’s national correspondent (VOA has only one person designated as such by the way, which tells you something about its ability to handle multiple breaking U.S. domestic stories simultaneously) and others in VOA’s newsroom, the reaction was one of resignation.
To my knowledge, no one went running to the third floor of the Cohen Building (where VOA, IBB and BBG executive suites are located) to point out the embarrassing contrast between what was essentially superior 21st century programming by the BBC, and business as usual by the VOA.
Remember too that the taxpayer-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors, and especially its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials, have made a big deal about changes to the Smith-Mundt Act, attempting to make a case that BBG programming is also an important source of news for Americans.
Technically, BBG programming still cannot be specifically aimed at or produced for American consumption, though much of VOA’s Internet traffic comes from the United States.
It was a conversation I had at one point with the late Jack Payton, the longtime manager in VOA’s newsroom and before his untimely death executive editor of VOANews.com, that underlined some of the big problems.
As I detailed in a commentary published by the BBG Watch website (see http://bit.ly/1l7lyc2) which has been the leading edge of criticism of what Hillary Clinton has called “dysfunction” in the BBG, Payton found himself in a kind of no man’s land.
Jack Payton was caught between gross inefficiencies in a newsroom devastated by personnel cuts, plummeting morale under a newsroom chief who lacked full support from employees, and an English web operation lacking equipment and staffing to have even a bit of hope of competing with BBC and others, and managed by another division.
Payton complained strenuously about problems with the Pangea content management system, which VOA uses but which has been based in Prague where the headquarters of the surrogate Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is located.
He pointed to numerous “glitches” and “screwups” with “nothing working right”, and bottlenecks after 6:00 PM when he said “all the TV video stuff hits the fan and has to go through special processes.”
Every night, Payton said, “we have got problems because our machines are not fast enough to deal with the video stuff” adding that computers used to sustain VOA website efforts were too under-powered to deal with huge amounts of content.
On staffing, he referred to another well-known danger zone for the VOA English web operation. “In the evenings after 10:00 PM,” Payton said, “forget it. We don’t have the staff.”
Amazingly, VOA actually hired someone (the son of a longtime VOA employee) and sent him to Bangkok, Thailand to deal with problems afflicting the Internet operations right there in VOA’s central newsroom, during the overnight period.
But all of these problems led to numerous examples of major stories falling in the cracks for hours, or never appearing at all in any timely way, including ones produced at taxpayer expense by VOA correspondents such as myself at the White House, on visits by foreign leaders and their remarks with the president.
According to Payton’s account, he and others also struggled with VOA director David Ensor and executive editor Steve Redisch over the issue of website use of wire service stories.
Today, VOA often uses Reuter or AP material, as first use or main leads. Even when stories are re-written with a “VOA News” attribution at the top, editors seek to downplay the reliance on the wires by placing a “based on Reuters…AFP…AP” note at the bottom of stories.
Referring to the dire state of VOA’s central news division and web operations, Payton said :
“I made that point to Redisch and Ensor. . .look we are not getting enough hard news out of central, that is what we need. And our web site is hurting because of it, and when we do get it, it is slow…[we have] so few people over there and they are diverting to other stuff. So we are not getting the basics from Central that we need to keep that site together. . .the argument was you have got to build up what is going on over there not tear it down. But Ensor himself said at the end of the day [VOA’s] audience doesn’t know the difference between a AP story and a VOA story. And I [told him] I take huge exception to that. . . this is where you throw your hands up and say what the hell are we doing here?”
All of which brings us back to the BBC, and its superior programming seen in the content of Newshour, World Have Your Say, and similar programs, of which there are many.
VOA today really has nothing to compete, though managers make a big deal about certain programs on what they call VOA “Television”. Remember, VOA has nothing remotely approaching the reach of BBC 24 hour global TV programming. [On social media, VOA is leagues behind the competition. Even the State Department Twitter has nearly ten times more Followers than the VOA English News Twitter.]
These managers also made a similarly big deal about producing special programs around certain events, such as presidential inaugurations, State of the Union addresses, or overseas trips. However, too often the quality of these programs left much to be desired in comparison with those one would see on CNN, MSNBC or PBS.
Quite frequently, the length of time given to participating VOA reporters to thoroughly analyze what was said say, by President Obama, was severely truncated, leaving listeners in the dark. Postmortems, when they took place, were frequently cursory and insufficient.
The question I and many others who participated in these programs often asked ourselves was, who and how many people around the world are actually listening to or viewing such programs via satellite, on the Internet, or in cases where they were simulcast, via what remains of VOA English radio?
There are some bright spots, of course, in VOA programming, specifically regarding programs to Africa. VOA has some excellent radio, video and social media reporting talent overseas, and in the United States — there are U.S. bureaus in New York, Los Angeles, the Midwest, but earlier this year the BBG announced closure of its Houston bureau.
But again, and notwithstanding grandiose claims of BBG/IBB’s audience research office, I and others have strong doubts about VOA’s true reach and impact. [BBG/IBB count audiences for VOA programs without news, VOA music programs, or even VOA English lessons placed on local stations without even being certain that these programs lacking substantive content are being rebroadcast and heard.]
It remains to be seen whether the current reform effort on Capitol Hill, which on August 13th the White House said it generally supports though with reservations about the proposed new structure of U.S. international broadcasting/media management and oversight, will truly address many of these problems.
To hear White House adviser Ben Rhodes in remarks to the BBG on August 13, one thing appears certain, and will be the subject of a second upcoming commentary based on my more than three decades of experience at VOA.
Though put diplomatically by Rhodes, a Democratic president and his aides, and members of Congress, are united in doing everything they can to ensure that serious weaknesses at VOA and elsewhere within the taxpayer-funded media structure, that have caused this country so much embarrassment and wasted so much money, are corrected.