BBG Watch Commentary

JamesWarren-NYDailyNewsJames Warren wrote in an op-ed for New York Daily News, “The uncertain Voice of America,” New York Daily News December 22, 2013 that “instant disclosure of screw-ups” is provided “via an influential independent website (BBG Watch).”

Warren also wrote that VOA Director “David Ensor may be at once on the side of the angels and the wrong side of history.”

New York Daily News columnist reported that at “an unusual session last week, a revamped and seemingly improved board [Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)] “held the first in a series of ‘deep dives’ to better understand what each big entity actually does.”

Warren wrote that “The earnest and capable Ensor justified the VOA’s existence in a scripted 45-minute presentation with video — and then was left a bit defensive and plaintive amid fair and predictable questions.”

One of the questions posed to David Ensor came from BBG member Matt Armstrong:

“Every time there is a breaking news event — I’m not talking about a car chase or a white Bronco on a freeway — I go to VOA websites, not just English, but the other websites, those that I can sort of ascertain, realize … I’ve actually studied three other languages … not that I can speak any of them, and I also use Google translate to try to help me, and then I get the pictures and look at the general layout, and what I find surprising is what appears to be the lack on the website of any event and that we lag significantly behind other media outlets whether they would be our direct tier-one competitors, whether it it is CCTV, Russia Today, CNNI, BBC, whatever it’s going to be. And then when we do file a story, it seems it’s thin at the least, especially when I compare it to these other offerings.”BBG Governor Matt Armstrong

BBG Governor Ambassador Ryan Crocker also suggested to Director Ensor that VOA should pay attention to the third requirement of its 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. (Public Law 94-350)”

Ensor blamed any shortcomings in news reporting on insufficient resources and did not acknowledge any problems with his own leadership or that of his senior managers. He has inherited these managers, but instead of replacing them because of numerous reports of incompetence and dismal employee morale going back several years, he gave them his full support, approved their outstanding performance bonuses, and allowed them to continue in their ways.

Since the publication of James Warren’s op-ed in New York Daily News, BBG Watch noted that despite its legal obligation to report on U.S. foreign policy, U.S. taxpayer-supported Voice of America (VOA), had only one sentence on the VOA English website on the U.S. State Department press statement quoting Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction to the release from prison in Russia of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russia’s state-funded broadcaster, the Voice of Russia (VOR), on the other hand, quoted Kerry’s statement almost in full and posted a separate news report on it on its English website.

See: “Voice of America had one sentence on Kerry’s statement on Khodorkovky’s release – Voice of Russia quoted it almost in full,” BBG Watch, December 22, 2013.

Since BBG Watch has been reporting on serious problems with IBB and VOA executives, VOA English newsroom, and VOA English website for the entire time David Ensor has been with VOA, as much as we appreciate James Warren’s reference to us in New York Daily News as “influential,” we must conclude that while the Broadcasting Board of Governors members have paid attention and sometimes VOA News responded to our criticisms by posting a short sentence or a news item a day later, David Ensor has not addressed any of the underlying management issues his deputies have created. They refuse to change and cannot be trusted with solving any of these problems.

There is, however, some hope that the new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will intervene. Richard Lobo, former director of the BBG’s management arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), also had refused to make any substantive personnel or management changes. He retired at the end of November. Lobo likewise gave his senior associates, whom he had also inherited, his full support, approved their outstanding performance bonuses, and allowed them to continue in their ways.

Last week, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell announced that Lobo’s deputy, Jeff Trimble, would be leaving his managerial post for an unspecified journalistic assignment. He will be replaced at IBB by an interim three-person management team while the BBG is looking for a permanent CEO. It appears that Shell and the new BBG board are serious about changing management culture at IBB, and by extension also at VOA.

There may still be hope for reforms at VOA.