BBG Watch Commentary

Layoffs of experienced journalists, closing down of foreign language services, recent hiring of former domestic CNN editors and the absence of Voice of America (VOA) director contributed to the VOA English news website ignoring President Obama’s gaffe in describing the Nazi-run Auschwitz extermination camp as a “Polish death camp,” sources told BBG Watch.

The VOA English website did not report on the remark made by President Obama during the Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House on May 29 and for the next three days had nothing on the firestorm of protests and criticism in Poland, from Polish American leaders, and from commentators in mainstream American newspapers. All major US and foreign media were reporting on the story, including VOA’s international competitors such as BBC and Russia Today.

Sources told BBG Watch that active censorship or an attempt to protect President Obama’s reputation was probably not a factor in this case. They blamed, however, personnel and programming policies of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages VOA, for the breakdown of effective and balanced VOA news reporting with an international focus.

Executives of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) have been eliminating foreign language services, laying off experienced international journalists and replacing them with poorly-paid and poorly-trained contractors. Their personnel policies allowed for hiring a number of former domestic CNN staffers who were placed in leadership positions at VOA. BBG/IBB executives have also been pushing for the repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions of domestic distribution of Voice of America programs. They have been getting ready to beef up targeting of the domestic US media market through their proposed Global News Network.

Sources told BBG Watch that BBG/IBB executives are also responsible for deemphasizing news reporting to increase the number of site visitors who prefer non-news oriented lifestyle reports. They also blame the absence of VOA director David Ensor who is on an extended trip to Asia. While he is also a former CNN staffer, Ensor was a foreign correspondent with extensive international experience. BBG Watch sources also blame him, however, for deemphasizing news reporting by VOA.

The only VOA report on the White House ceremony on May 29 did not mention the controversy, but in fairness to a VOA reporter, the first reports put out by other media organizations also did not pick up on the fact of Obama’s wording error. President Obama said it quickly reading from a teleprompter and the offensive remark was first noticed mostly by Polish journalists. Later in the evening, however, there were already numerous news reports on President Obama’s gaffe and reactions emerging in various accounts and feeds on the Internet. The Voice of America English news website did nothing to update the original report on its English news website until June 1.

Sources have told BBG Watch that this reflects the overall picture in the VOA Central English News and the closing down of foreign language services combined with massive layoffs of experienced international journalists. One sources said that in previous years someone on the VOA central newsroom Europe desk or a foreign language service editor would have phoned VOA English reporters covering the story to alert them to this emerging controversy after main core hours.

It remains to be determined whether the story was written up at any point by any regional desk in the newsroom as a short news item and which VOA foreign language services reported on the controversy. David Ensor has ordered that daily newsroom production of these items, which were for decades the bread and butter for VOA language services, be reduced to a maximum of 10 per day. He was implementing the plan devised by the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) strategic planners and executives.

In their FY2013 budget proposal sent to Congress, BBG/IBB officials presented a plan to consolidate and reorganize Voice of America Central News and English Divisions and to cut their budget by $5.6 million and eliminate 71 positions.

As part of this budget request, VOA’s Central News will accelerate its transition from a large scale producer of English-language content, much of it based on wire services, to a much leaner newsroom, producing original content, and a short menu of top stories. Central News would also act as a clearinghouse for original content produced by VOA language service journalists. VOA Central News will be at the heart of a global newsroom for all U.S. international broadcasting entities. Under this budget, VOA will continue successful efforts to produce content for web and other digital platforms (including audio and video) for targeted English-speaking audiences. Radio functions and corresponding staff would be consolidated. Learning English would absorb Special English functions, and take on a broader strategy of producing effective American English teaching products for a global audience. Seventy-one (71) positions will no longer be required under this proposal.

The BBG/IBB plan to consolidate and reduce VOA Central News and English broadcasts was, however, rejected by the Senate Appropriations Committee along with some of the other cuts and reductions proposed by IBB executives.

Proposed Reductions- The Committee does not support the following reductions and terminations proposed by BBG and includes adequate funding to sustain current levels: reductions to staffing, broadcast hours, and original program hours of VOA and RFA East and Southeast Asia services, including Mandarin and Tibetan; discontinuation of VOA Cantonese broadcasts; closing of the BBG Poro medium wave transmitting station; the consolidation and reorganization of VOA Central News and English Division; realignment of BBG shortwave and medium wave transmissions; reductions to staffing and radio broadcasts of VOA Georgian, VOA Turkish, and VOA Ashna; termination of radio broadcasts of RFE/RL Tartarstan, Bashkortostan, Avar, Chechen, and Circassian; and transition to Russian-language broadcasts to the North Caucasus. The Committee supports the proposed reduction in TV Marti operating costs, including the termination of the Aeromarti contract, as long as such action will not reduce its current broadcast schedule of 166 weekly hours.

Despite the bipartisan rebuke BBG/IBB executives received from Congress, VOA central newsroom staffers and English service broadcasters still fear massive layoSources also told BBG Watch of extremely poor morale in the VOA central newsroom after an unpopular manager was put in charge along with newly-hired former CNN staffers.

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