BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Watch has learned that Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members are having a difficult time these days getting hold of Voice of America (VOA) director David Ensor. He is reported to be going on an extended summer vacation while the crisis in Egypt continues and VOA English news coverage is so inadequate due to the management’s restrictions on hard news generation and newsroom positions that Al Jazeera beat VOA with its English news report on President Morsi’s ouster 43 to 1 in social media outreach in the Middle East and throughout the world. Even Russia Today English news report from Egypt on Morsi’s ouster got up to 27 times better social media engagement than VOA’s report. This pattern is repeated day after day, news story after news story.
English happens to be America’s official language. It is not Russia’s official language or official language in the Middle East. Yet Russia Today and Al Jazeera beat Voice of America hands down in English-language news coverage in terms of online and social media reach. BBC English does as well.[aside]
Last weekend David Ensor was reportedly attending Aspen Ideals Festival in Aspen, CO just as the Cambodian government banned news coverage by Voice of America and other international media within the country for a month before national elections. Sources told us that BBG members had a difficult time trying to get hold of him and had to deal with the crisis themselves. With the help from the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, the Cambodian government was persuaded to suspend the ban. BBG Governor Victor Ashe was apparently actively involved in these efforts.
In early June, Ensor had decided or approved a decision not to send a VOA English staff reporter to cover anti-government protests in Turkey. As a result, VOA English News had to rely mostly on wire service reports, which were being condensed and posted on the VOA website. Without on the ground access to protesters, VOA English coverage leaned toward quoting from statements by Prime Minister Erdogan.
Again, Al Jazeera and Russia Today, both of which had reporters in Turkey, had a vastly larger impact on the web and through social media for their news coverage in English. A Russia Today video news report on self-censorship practiced by most Turkish mainstream media received over 150,000 YouTube views to less than 300 views for a VOA news report filed from Washington.
Ensor defended the coverage as balanced and responsible. But he and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) director Richard Lobo, who said recently, “Today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before,” may have a difficult time explaining to American taxpayers, members of Congress and BBG members Al Jazeera’s and even Russia Today’s overwhelming advantage in reporting English-language news online and through social media from the Middle East.
According to agency sources and critics, both executives have spectacularly failed to deliver on their promises for expanding digital and social media outreach. Their failure is best illustrated by the differences between Facebook “Likes” for Al Jazeera English and VOA English news stories from Egypt: over 14,000 for an Al Jazeera’s story to 71 for a VOA’s story. Where Ensor and Lobo and their top deputies Steve Redisch and Jeff Trimble did not fail was in spending hundreds of millions of dollars to digital and social media tools and projects, most of which could have been obtained and implemented for free. Critics charge that they all took money and resources from news production, programs and programming positions. They have nothing to show for it except an almost empty Central English Newsroom and social media engagement statistics putting Al Jazeera 43 times ahead of VOA.
What VOA and other BBG employees are also bitter about is that both Ensor and Lobo kept and rewarded completely discredited top executives who have been responsible for the agency’s lowest employee morale ratings for many years as measured by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
The latest response to critics came from Ensor’s spokesperson, VOA Director of Public Relations Kyle King. He has launched an unprecedented attack on professionalism of a highly respected former VOA senior correspondent Gary Thomas who published a critical article in Columbia Journalism Review. VOA management had refused earlier to answer Thomas’ questions for the article and then in a Soviet-like fashion accused a journalist with over 30 years of experience in reporting from such places as Afghanistan and Pakistan where he risked his life, of errors, bias and hostility. Critics see it as yet another example of IBB management culture that his hostile to employees, former employees and any other critics.
How long can these officials continue to do their damage to U.S. international broadcasting, allow Al Jazeera and Russia Today to beat Voice of America hands down, and make work of VOA journalists extremely difficult and unpleasant?
Sources told BBG Watch that current BBG members are asking the same questions in conversations with trusted associates.
BBG Governors Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan had succeeded in reforming the management at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), but according to agency sources they are being stymied by IBB director and his deputy in their efforts to change management culture at IBB and VOA. According to agency sources, BBG members can’t even hire their own chief of staff who could help them deal with the bureaucracy because Lobo and Trimble will not cooperate. Time will tell whether they will eventually succeed.