Noted and reported by BBG Watch:
“Due to the severe weather forecast for tomorrow, we [IBB and Gallup] are rescheduling our briefing on media use in Russia for Thursday, February 6 at 9:00 a.m. We hope you will be able to attend on the new date, and apologize for any inconvenience.”
A public U.S. institution funded by U.S. taxpayers, whose flagship news organization — Voice of America — fails to send a Worldwide English Service correspondent to report news from Ukraine and often does not report on important foreign policy statements from the White House, the State Department and the Congress, is again proposing to spend public money to share commonly known information with a largely empty room: that Russians use the Internet and social media in large and increasing numbers. We might also learn that more than 50% of Russians think the U.S. is the greatest threat to world peace today. That number (twice as large as the already frightening 24% worldwide average) keeps growing while Internet use is increasing. Trust in America and President Obama in Russia is at record low and keeps declining.
We also took note what was reported in this BBG Watch post:
“U.S. Embassy in Ukraine beats Voice of America in fast news and social media popularity,” BBG Watch, January 20, 2014.
When VOA fails to produce timely, accurate and balanced news and when even a U.S. Embassy abroad is able to post important White House information faster and get for its posting on U.S. policies many times more Facebook “Likes” than a late and incomplete VOA news report — what good does audience research conducted under a $50 million, five-year contract with Gallup do for VOA and its audiences? Have IBB and VOA executives learned any lessons from audience research over many years they have been in charge?
The Federalist, one of our regular contributors, tries to answer this question by looking at the dysfunctional VOA Newsroom and IBB’s “strategic plan.”
International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunction and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost: Back To The Newsroom and a Side Trip
by The Federalist
We are back in the Voice of America (VOA) Central Newsroom.
Same Newsroom. Same problems, with one exception: it’s gotten worse.
On Thursday, January 16, 2014 a meeting took place in the Newsroom to discuss the results of the latest Federal employee survey as applies to the Newsroom specifically. And there’s a reason:
Of all VOA – of all US Government international broadcasting for that matter – the most negative results came from the Newsroom staff: lower than the Persian News Network (PNN), lower than Worldwide English (for reasons that don’t surprise us, given the management that has traveled back and forth between PNN, other troubled places and Worldwide English).
In making the call to the staff to attend the meeting, Newsroom chief, Sonja Pace, sent out an email which reads in part:
The results of the most recent annual employee survey are coming out. While detailed results are still being analyzed, the basic outcome is known. The BBG and VOA are still low in the rankings, but there has been some inching upwards. (emphasis added)
We want to begin a series of open discussions in the News Division to talk about the findings and to discuss and brainstorm about what we can do to improve our standing…”
“Inching upwards.” Remember what we said about the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and its approach to addressing the disasters it has created, including what is reflected in the Federal employee survey: an approach comparable to watching glaciers receding from the last Ice Age. It’s all part of the same thing:
Delaying accountability in order to avoid accountability.
According to our sources, the meeting itself was almost surreal. If someone wasn’t familiar with just how long the agency has been tanking in these surveys (each and every one that has been conducted), you would think this was some kind of big surprise. Indeed, it was intimated that somehow, senior agency officials were “surprised” by the results.
This is plainly ridiculous.
The agency has always performed badly in these surveys, at or near the bottom.
Adding to the record, let’s go back to one of the first pronouncements by David Ensor when he became the VOA director. In one of his first meetings with the Newsroom staff, he talked about “blood on the floor” and there would be “no turning back” from the direction being laid out for the Newsroom. He also talked about cutting roughly one-third of the Newsroom staff.
In this context, being “surprised” by the results of the survey goes way beyond being disingenuous.
The results of “blood on the floor” and “no turning back” speak for themselves: this agency is off the radar as a credible and effective source of news and information for global publics, thanks in large part to the notorious IBB “flim flam, Soviet-style, five year, strategic plan.” It’s the plan that is neither “strategic” nor a “plan.” This is the result. This and other examples of the disaster abound, often reported by BBG Watch.
Along the way in the discussion was raised the issue of trust between managers and employees. It would be more appropriately labeled the absence of trust.
This is a no-brainer.
First, you have the record of Mr. Ensor, VOA executive editor Steve Redisch and Bruce Sherman and Jeffrey Trimble of the IBB (the “Dynamic Duo” behind the “strategic plan”): actions that have the effect of reinforcing the agency’s dysfunctional and defunct status.
Second, you get the downward flow to the Newsroom.
As head of the Newsroom, Sonja Pace tries to put a happy face on what is clearly a very bad situation. Her emails to the staff wax on over “happy news” that has no material effect on staff morale or improving the Newsroom’s performance.
At the same time, at least one of her deputies has garnered a reputation for advising people to keep quiet or else they might endanger their jobs.
That creates a negative, hostile work environment which is death for any part of an organization but is certain death for a core operation represented by the Newsroom. Not surprisingly, there is a palpable fear of retaliation for speaking to the myriad deficiencies in the Newsroom, its managers and the manner in which it attempts to gather and report news.
Forget all that nonsense from Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch about “global news network” or “43 newsrooms.”
If the Newsroom isn’t working, the agency isn’t working.
The Newsroom isn’t working.
Next up in the meeting was the formation of discussion and working groups.
This is an all-too-familiar agency response. The results are the same: no material impact on the agency’s performance or in its survey results. It is a colossal waste of time, save for one thing: reinforcing Einstein’s (attributed) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. The underlying problems remain the same, as is the failure to acknowledge, take ownership and responsibility for the problems and go about fixing them.
As we like to put it: motion without movement.
These diversionary tactics don’t address the obvious: at the very least, thanks to the contribution to the failed “strategic plan” from Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch, the Newsroom is under-resourced, understaffed and made incapable of carrying out its core responsibilities. Daily work processes are in disarray. To get the Newsroom back to a posture where it can do the things it is supposed to do and do them well is not going to happen overnight. We’ve seen the numbers on the agency budget for FY2014. In essence, the budget is flat-lining. The fiscal resources aren’t there to get the Newsroom or the agency back on track.
Keep in mind, the longer the agency languishes in this state of disarray, the longer it will take to fix. And then the question becomes, will it be worth the effort when other international broadcasters are making a quantum leap over the agency.
Here is a Webster’s New World Dictionary definition of “defunct:”
“…no longer living or existing; dead or extinct.”
It’s bad enough that former secretary of state Clinton slapped the twin label of defunct on the agency (and she was right in doing so).
It’s bad enough that we feel the agency is dysfunctional and defunct.
It’s bad enough that the American taxpayer is paying for something that is dead: to the tune of slightly less than a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money for a dead thing, with the IBB treating American taxpayer money like it was play money in a “Monopoly” game. The IBB “Monopoly” game being the not so “strategic plan.”
Now comes a new book by humanities professor Martha Bayles of Boston College: “Through A Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.”
We haven’t read the book yet. However, we did listen to Professor Bayles on the WBUR radio program “On Point,” hosted by Tom Ashbrook. You can hear the interview by downloading it from the program website:
In general, Professor Bayles argues that US public diplomacy has been conceded to or purloined by the US entertainment industry. Based upon interviews conducted personally by Professor Bayles, the image that foreign publics have of the United States is that presented by Hollywood with its penchant for exploiting graphic violence, wanton sex, drug abuse and other forms of deviant behavior.
In the course of the interview, VOA was mentioned as something from the past. The program even featured the opening to Willis Conover’s “Time For Jazz” and a discussion about the effectiveness of this program, along with the tours and exhibits of the former (and sorely missed, in our opinion) United States Information Agency.
In place of these combined efforts, we now have serialized (and widely available globally) episodes of “Sex and the City,” one of the examples used by Professor Bayles to make her point about the pervasive reach of the entertainment industry.
During the interview, there was no mention of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) or any of the entities it manages in the present tense. The agency is off the radar, an anachronism from another era.
Couple this book with surveys conducted by international polling organizations in which respondents see the United States as a threat to global peace.
Add to this the Obama administration taking the posture of “leading from behind,” which in today’s world is synonymous with “leaving behind” a whole host of problems and the US abdicating its strategic responsibilities.
Connect the dots and what you have is a serious level of US international disengagement. And the IBB contribution to that disengagement is the not so “strategic plan.”
We’ve said it before: Mr. Shell and his BBG colleagues do not encumber presidential appointments to admit defeat or failure.
However, they are looking at a structure that is on the cusp of irreversible implosion. Even though BBG members publicly acknowledge what the IBB refuses to in the way of a failed “strategic plan,” we have reservations concerning the Board’s ability to push the agency forward, having to deal with a calcified and resistant IBB and other senior officials.
The VOA Central Newsroom is the foundation upon which the agency rests. The foundation is crumbling and seriously compromised.
And no one inside the Cohen Building has an actionable plan to restore what is vital and necessary to the agency’s mission effectiveness.
What this is leading to is maintaining an extinct relic from another age that contributes nothing to the vital interests of the United States abroad:
In a manner of speaking, the skeletal remains of what once was something more substantial and effective.