BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of America Information War Lost: Critiquing David Ensor In His Own Words

The Expanded Edition

By The Federalist

 

David Ensor, the Voice of America (VOA) director committed what might arguably be described as the worst act of personal and official judgment for a senior agency/government official.

The setting was an annual event of the VOA newsroom referred to as the “VOA Follies.” In previous years, this event was mostly an inside-the-newsroom holiday season affair, spoofing various events over the course of the year.

As we remarked previously, it used to be funny and clever.

 

It isn’t any more.

 

It is now a platform to launch highly personal attacks against retired employees and others, all private U.S. citizens and taxpayers, with superior portfolios of public service.

On Tuesday, December 16, 2014 various agency employees assembled for the presentation in an area off the newsroom. Front and center as the leading attraction of the event was Mr. Ensor. The content of this year’s “Follies” appeared to be almost exclusively structured around the independent oversight blog, BBG Watch, launched and supported by a non-profit 501 c 3 NGO. The watch dog website provides information and commentaries by many contributors, former and current VOA journalists, some writing anonymously, others under their own name.

None of the persons who are active with BBG Watch is compensated for their support of the BBG Watch activism in oversight and accountability of operations that collectively represent US Government civilian international broadcasting headed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). All contributors to BBG Watch devote their time and often their personal funds to keep it going. They don’t accept any taxpayer subsidies or any outside donations. The site does not even carry commercial advertising. It is free for everyone. It provides free oversight of a critical government agency for US taxpayers, including members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) who consult not only the website but also individual contributors to the BBG Watch content.

We have obtained Mr. Ensor’s remarks. It is evident from a reading of his remarks that the intent was to discredit BBG Watch and its writers. Although presented as a humorous holiday skit, it was nevertheless remarkably tasteless and offensive even for a holiday party, not only regarding BBG Watch, but especially to former VOA correspondents and others completely unconnected with the watch dog media website.

The following is an analysis of Mr. Ensor’s remarks. His remarks are in bold type.

 

” . . . [in response to] parties urging that we all be accurate, objective and balanced, I have as promised, 10 fun facts about BBG Watch.  

 

And the first one is, on BBG Watch, [former VOA Foreign and Intelligence Correspondent] Gary Thomas is writing far more than he ever did.”

 

First, these are not “fun facts about BBG Watch.” They are not facts at all, but fictions or remarks intended to discredit BBG Watch.

 

Here we see what has long been a pattern, taken to extremes during Mr. Ensor’s tenure, of VOA executives trying to personally discredit critics of the agency’s performance or the management policies and decisions made by Mr. Ensor or other management officials. The intended target here is a retired former VOA newsroom correspondent, Gary Thomas. Mr. Ensor intimates that Mr. Thomas contributes to BBG Watch demonstrating more written output in this capacity than when he was an agency employee.

 

Mr. Thomas had numerous assignments during his service with the agency. We have no doubt that Mr. Thomas was both an outstanding reporter and contributed regularly on various events and issues relevant to his assignments.

 

Mr. Thomas has contributed not only to BBG Watch, but also to other publications since retirement, including the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). At the time of his first article in CJR, the agency issued one of its pro forma denouncements, standard procedure for the agency that attacks anyone critical of the agency. Mr. Thomas has also commented, often critically, on some of the views expressed on BBG Watch. However, it would be erroneous to identify Mr. Thomas as generating a lot content of the website, although BBG Watch as an editorial group welcomes his contributions and provides for expressing a diversity of opinions.

Gary Thomas spent 27 years at Voice of America before retiring in 2012. He was a senior correspondent and news analyst specializing in national security and intelligence issues. He served in Islamabad and Bangkok and covered stories throughout South and Southeast Asia. The last post was as the national security correspondent, a position which does not appear to have been filled since Mr. Thomas’ departure.

Thomas is the author of Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) July 2013 article, “Mission Impossible: Is Government Broadcasting Relevant?,” and July 2014 article, “End of an era? Congress tries to neuter Voice of America’s journalism.” VOA had refused to answer questions from Thomas for his first CJR article.

When the article was published, Director Ensor’s spokesperson, in a comment posted on the CJR website, attacked Mr. Thomas’ professional reputation by accusing him of errors and malice, even though VOA refused to answer questions. VOA never identified the alleged errors. Ambassador Ashe, who was then still a BBG Governor, apologized to CJR and Thomas for VOA’s refusal to answer questions for the article and treating an American journalist in a way communist regimes treat independent journalists who dare to ask difficult questions.

 

“The second one is kind of a interrogatory.  Here’s my question — where the hell is Truckee, California [managing location of BBG Watch website] anyway?”

 

Here, Ensor attempts to belittle the part of the state of California where the NGO head supporting BBG Watch resides. Mr. Ensor should take heed of the fact that BBG Watch has been described in the national press as “independent and effective.” BBG Watch and its contributors have been quoted by or published in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Washington Examiner, National Review, NPR, Fox News, CNN, Congressional Record, in other US media, as well as in foreign media.

 

It doesn’t matter where BBG Watch is.

 

BBG Watch has a long reach, is better-focused and more effective than public relations assets of the VOA.

 

“No. 3.  BBG Watch has its own version of the two source rule.  Unfortunately, the two sources are [former U.S. Ambassador to Poland] Victor Ashe, and [former VOA White House Correspondent] Dan Robinson.”

 

Here, Mr. Ensor propels himself onto a very slippery slope. In official Washington, it is often considered seriously bad judgment for public officials to make fun of people who are either private citizens or who have distinguished themselves through exemplary public service unless you are the President of the United States making fun of yourself and the media or your close personal friends and associates in a truly fun manner, at an event to which these individuals were invited. Mr. Robinson is both a private U.S. citizen-taxpayer and a respected former Voice of America senior White House correspondent, in addition to his other former VOA assignments both in the United States and abroad. He and others who were lampooned had not been invited to be present. They are no longer associated with the Voice of America or the US government. Some have never worked for Mr. Ensor. One is his former boss.

 

Victor Ashe is formerly muti-term popular mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, a former US ambassador to Poland and a former member of the BBG. He has a biography on the Broadcasting Board of Governors website.

Victor Ashe was confirmed to the board on June 30, 2010 and served until August 1, 2013. Ambassador Ashe holds the distinction of being the longest serving mayor of Knoxville. During his time in office, from 1988 to 2003, he was the President to the U.S. Conference of Mayors from 1994 to 1995 and received their Distinguished Service Award for Leadership in 2003. Ashe served as the United States Ambassador to Poland from June 2004 to October 2009. In 2004, he was a Fellow at Harvard University’s JFK Institute of Politics.

 

Again, the pattern of lampooning people with close familiarity with the agency’s problems, but who are no longer with the agency, was part of Mr. Ensor’s repertoire for the “Follies” event.

Ambassador Ashe was known to take on some serious, hard issues regarding US Government international broadcasting while serving on the BBG. One issue in particular stands out, having to do with the agency’s abuse of federal regulatory authority in the hiring of contractors, especially at VOA. This issue was recently the subject of an article by Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson, who quoted BBG Watch, as well as the subject of several commentaries on BBG Watch. It is a serious issue with substantive consequences for the agency’s operations as well as the contractors directly affected by what appears to be serious and deliberate abuse of government regulations.
 

Dan Robinson served twice as an overseas correspondent in Asia and Africa, spent 8 years covering Capitol Hill, headed VOA’s Burmese Service, and covered President Obama as Chief White House Correspondent. Shortly before retiring, Robinson sent an open letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors in which he explained why experienced VOA correspondents are leaving the organization.

At the time of his retirement, Dan Robinson’s service encompassed over 30 years with the agency. It included both foreign and domestic assignments. When he retired earlier this year, current and former colleagues praised his excellent work, integrity and courage.

“VOA is losing a top-notch reporter!!” was one of many similar comments on Robinson’s Facebook page. “Dan, Thanks for telling it like it is. You did some excellent work here at VOA. And I’m sorry to hear that we are losing yet another great journalist,” was another.

Since retirement, Mr. Robinson has been outspoken in his analysis of the agency and its problems. Mr. Robinson’s collective experience with the agency far exceeds that of Mr. Ensor. Mr. Robinson writes from that experience and comparative observations of VOA performance against that of other international broadcasters including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and others.

 

Most if not all of those mentioned by Mr. Ensor probably risked their lives on foreign assignments for VOA. One of them was shot at and could have been killed by a sniper in Bosnia in the 1990s. Ambassador Ashe and Dan Robinson have not responded publicly in any direct way to being lampooned by Mr. Ensor. BBG Watch as an informal group of former and current VOA reporters and other contributors also has no comment. BBG Watch stands for freedom of expression, but public comments by public officials are always open to criticism. Mr. Thomas said that since he has criticized VOA management numerous times, he is not frazzled by a humorous holiday skit and stands on his record as a former VOA reporter.

 

Fun fact No. 4.  Ted Lipien is more in love with himself than with Kim Jong Un.”

 

What we have here is an apparent display of Mr. Ensor’s personal animus. It is petty and mean-spirited, attempting to liken an American, whom he does not know well personally, to the North Korean head of state. This is interesting only when linked to the fact that the VOA played a key role in helping to spread North Korean disinformation with its “exclusive” news report in which a North Korean diplomat denied that his government was responsible for the alleged North Korean cyber warfare directed against Sony Pictures Entertainment in advance of one of its movies, “The Interview,” a fictionalized scenario of an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un.

In its “exclusive” report, VOA did not challenge the North Korean diplomat, did not mention statements from numerous experts who said that it was a North Korean attack, did not quote Sony Pictures or its chairman Michael Lynton, a former interim presiding governor of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and said nothing about the history of North Korean regime’s lies. Several U.S. and international media outlets picked up on this “exclusive” VOA news report, and while most cast doubts on the North Korean denial — which VOA did not — U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America was indeed behind the spread of North Korean disinformation because it failed to observe the VOA Charter requirements for countervailing balance.

After the FBI and President Obama blamed the North Koreans, VOA quickly completely forgot about its “exclusive” report and the North Korean proclamation of innocence, but again failed to offer a full explanation from Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton. VOA also forgot to mention on Friday that until last year he was the BBG’s interim presiding governor.

A North Korean diplomat got more play on VOA than an American media executive and a former BBG Governor and almost as much text as President Obama got on the VOA English news website on Friday. North Korean diplomats claims were not challenged in any way by VOA in its “exclusive” report. Lynton’s decisions were criticized by President Obama, although Obama did not mention him by name. VOA reported Obama’s criticism and had two sentences from Lynton in response to it, but VOA failed to report on the essence of Lynton’s defense of his decisions, which was that Sony had no choice in the matter once movie theaters refused to show the film, although that explanation was somewhat tortured and Lynton had trouble to explain why the film was not released on other platforms. Nevertheless, his full explanation should have been reported by VOA.

Most certainly, the North Koreans are not treating this as a laughing matter. While other media made the tie-in, VOA took a statement by an official at the North Korean embassy in New York (for the United Nations) at face value and tried to pass it off as an “exclusive.” It might be better described as “exclusively incomplete.” At the time of this writing, movie theaters have announced that they will not show the movie and Sony Pictures Entertainment has delayed its release.

 

Ted Lipien, whom Mr. Ensor compared to the North Korean dictator, spent over 30 years with the agency. Early in his career, he was in charge of one of the most successful VOA language service, its Polish Service, during Solidarity and martial law in Poland in the 1980s. He was later BBG/IBB regional marketing director for Eurasia and placed programs in the Balkans, Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was later director of VOA Eurasia Division, and VOA acting associate director. He launched a VOA television news program to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution and a VOA Russian television program. He started a multimedia online VOA opinion journal and recruited Vaclav Havel and prominent Americans to be on its advisory board. He is a published author and his op-eds on history, media and foreign policy have appeared in major American newspapers and a national magazine. He co-founded with Ann Noonan the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), started BBG Watch with the help of another NGO, and continues to follow and comment on U.S. international media issues. He is partially credited with helping key BBG members resolve a management crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in 2012 and helping most of the unjustly fired Radio Liberty journalists in Russia get rehired. He and Ann Noonan also worked with others, including members of Congress, on stopping the BBG from eliminating Voice of America radio broadcasts to China and Tibet and contributed in some measure to at least a partial resolution in the case of illegally RIFed Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) journalists. Lipien has not responded publicly to Mr. Ensor comparing him to the North Korean dictator.

 

The key element here is that Mr. Ensor reveals a rather unflattering side to his personality: bitter, resentful, not willing to accept ownership of his leadership failings. To outward appearances, Mr. Ensor has become frayed around the edges when it comes to a major, effective critic of the agency’s performance.

 

“No 5.  Even people who argue a lot, like say … [ names of two VOA newsroom staffers], even they can agree how bad it [BBG Watch] is.”

 

Let’s compare:

 

BBG Watch: “independent and effective,” quoted by NPR and Washington Post, noted and quoted extensively in Congressional Record.

 

BBG: “The BBG is the most worthless organization in the federal government” — U.S. Senator.

 

BBG – “practically defunct” — Former Secretary of State.

VOA – “A Broken Voice of America” — The Wall Street Journal

VOA – “The Voice of Anti-Americanism” — The Wall Street Journal

 

“Bad” is a much better descriptive of the VOA rather than BBG Watch. And it has been amplified in numerous mainstream media accounts, the latest of which being an editorial by the Wall Street Journal which described parts of VOA as “The Voice of Anti-Americanism.”

 

“This is one you may not know.  [Head of Digital Strategy] … secretly hired BBG Watch to drive traffic to the VOANews.com website.  And it’s working.”

 

This remark is just plain amusing, but perhaps not in a way Mr. Ensor intended. Much of official Washington knows that VOA has no remarkable Internet and social media audience and claims broadcast audiences to largely soft non-news programming, short feature reports or music programs in countries with largely free media by purloining audience projections of foreign broadcasting stations on which it has placed programs, often for a lot of US taxpayers’ money. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube show VOA leagues behind RT or BBC. There are hardly any readers’ comments on VOA English and most VOA language news websites. Many of the few comments on the VOA English website appear to be from pro-Kremlin trolls.

Last month Alexa Internet, Inc., a California-based subsidiary company of Amazon.com which provides commercial web traffic data, gave VOA’s main news website, voanews.com, 3,218 global rank for web traffic. Russia’s RT global rank was 288, BBC global rank was 66. VOA’s foreign language websites had even worse rankings than voanews.com. U.S. State Department Facebook and Twitter pages had many times more followers than VOA English News pages.

 

“No 7.  BBG Watch now has as many anonymous posters as HookUP.com [an Internet dating site].”

 

This slur directed against BBG Watch deserves no comment other than to be indicative of Mr. Ensor’s dark mindset.

 

“No 8.  It’s in the running for a literary award for best work of fiction.”

 

Indeed, it may be Mr. Ensor who is more deserving of such an award.  In addition to its own commentaries and analysis, BBG Watch reprints articles from subject matter experts in the field of international broadcasting and new digital media. It also reports and comments on legislation intended to reform US Government international broadcasting and other media outreach. These aren’t fictions and neither are social media ratings for VOA reported by BBG Watch. They are facts.

 

“No 9.  It meets the standard definition of a blog — boring, lousy, obscure, gibberish.”

 

Mr. Ensor should heed the admonition, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” VOA is home to one of the worst blogs we have seen coming out of a Federal agency, “All About America.” Remember that Wall Street Journal editorial, “The Voice of Anti-Americanism,” which dealt with another, separate VOA program, a video promo for Pakistan showing a blood-thirsty zombie dressed as Uncle Sam attacking an Asian man. This VOA blog also meets Mr. Ensor’s definition of a blog hands down, including a recent piece on the subject of men’s underwear, “tighty whities.”

 

“And No 10.  According to the Pew Internet Research Report, the BBG Watch audience rivals that of two media powerhouses, The Watchtower magazine and the weekly circular for Shopper’s Food Warehouse.”

 

For those who may not be aware, “Shopper’s Food Warehouse” is a major US supermarket chain in the United States. Annually, it has annual revenues that exceed the total budget of the BBG as part of a larger conglomerate of associated chain stores.

Its weekly circular is a simple and effective advertising tool for generating millions of dollars in revenue and in our view may reach more people than the VOA across its many media platforms.

 

But Mr. Ensor then gets on the slippery slope when referring to The Watchtower magazine, a publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

Jehovah’s Witnesses is a “small” Christian religious group. By “small” we mean in the lower 10 millions of followers worldwide by some estimates. Its core beliefs are structured around interpretations of the Bible. Its followers can be found around the world. Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department report many instances where followers of this religion are harassed, subjected to psychotropic injections and imprisonment.

We seem to recall that the BBG claims in its mission statement to support “freedom and democracy.”

As such, Mr. Ensor’s poor judgement allowed him to stumble headlong into a display of making fun of a multimedia and multilingual mass publication of a religious group that has suffered for its beliefs. As such, it exposes the agency to accusations of being, the Voice of Hypocrisy.

 

Saving The Best For Last

 

We have tried to find instances in which VOA directors of the past participated in the “Follies” and to this level of visceral expression. We haven’t been able to find a single one. It seems that all of Mr. Ensor’s predecessors have had the sense to be more circumspect.

 

Thus, what remains is to call out Jeffrey Shell, the BBG chairman and Andrew Lack, the BBG Chief Executive Officer (CEO) designate:

 

Do you condone, approve and/or support the behavior of Mr. Ensor in the “VOA Follies” presentation of Tuesday, December 16, 2014?

 

You are more than welcome to verify the statements made by Mr. Ensor at this event. As has been remarked to us, both audio and video recordings of the event and Mr. Ensor’s “display” were made by US federal government employees, presumably on government time, capturing Mr. Ensor’s unique presentation. He himself is a US government official. He was speaking in a federal building. We are told that individuals and organizations are or will be requesting from the agency the public domain video of Mr. Ensor’s remarks.

 

Mr. Shell and Mr. Lack do not need to be reminded that this agency is one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government. While many other examples abound of the failures of this agency, this is perhaps the most extraordinary demonstration of the breakdown in professional management and public service by its leading official. In the last several months, the federal part of the BBG agency has registered the steepest decline in employee morale among federal agencies of similar size, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS).

Non-response can be interpreted to mean acceptance of the dysfunctional and defunct status of this agency and its senior management.

 

The Federalist

December 2014

 

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