BBG Watch Commentary
Current and former Voice of America (VOA) employees have spoken up about management problems at the U.S. taxpayer-funded international news organization and what its future may look like if the bipartisan Royce-Engel reform bill is passed by Congress and signed by the President.
Some of the comments were made during a highly confrontational meeting Voice of America Director David Ensor had with VOA Newsroom and English Programs employees last Tuesday. Other comments were posted on former employees’ Facebook pages and on BBG Watch Facebook page.
READ: VOA Editor to Director Ensor: “Nobody Believes Anything Management Has to Say Anymore”, BBG Watch, June 5, 2014.
READ: Ensor – Staff Meeting – Expert Describes Squandering of VOA’s News and Digital Potential, BBG Watch, June 6, 2014.
Dan Robinson, who retired from VOA earlier this year, has posted on his Facebook page a partial transcript of Director Ensor’s exchanges with VOA Newsroom journalists. In his last position, Robinson was VOA’s chief White House correspondent.
FORMER VOA CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON: Read the remark by a broadcaster that led off tough questioning of VOA director about widespread problems…remember, current management has had years to address these issues.
VOA NEWS BROADCASTER: I am a little concerned about the lack of material that we [have available to put] on the air. The scenario that you described earlier, just a few minutes ago, about a correspondent having a report needing to go on the air in about 15 minutes, that isn’t happening. It used to. It used to be like that. It isn’t happening.
DAVID ENSOR: At all?
VOA NEWS BROADCASTER: I mean, I can’t speak for the long form programs.
DAVID ENSOR: Most things are taped these days.
VOA NEWS BROADCASTER: No, sometimes there is no material. I fill in on a weekend. I am asking the writers, who wrote their story, to voice it for me, because I have no material. No voice, five minutes of me, a couple of actualities, for a 7 or 8 [minute] newscast, doesn’t cut it. So, what you described…that is what VOA used to be. That doesn’t happen anymore. So, my concern is [with this] “Digital First” — that is great, however, you know, one of the critical aspects that we are always told, newscasts always go out, newscasts are a very important commodity, and yet it is being rubbed out. We see it time and time again, several of us newscasters, and I am concerned because other than “Digital First”, which sounds fabulous, I have got nothing to air.
DAVID ENSOR: Well….
VOA NEWS BROADCASTER: I only need 30 to 40 seconds, the long form program a minute or a minute-and-a-half. We used to do that. My concern is how we’re going to address that now, moving forward. We’re saying one thing with one side, but at the same breath we’re just dropping into the ether.”
DAVID ENSOR: You’re raising a very legitimate problem that you have, and people doing what you do have, right now at VOA, and one that is going to have to be addressed, as we try to figure out what the right work flows are here, it may be that we need to have people more clearly identified to do, to record pieces that can be run on the radio newscasts, as you say. I am talking about, I am kind of, I am at 10,000 feet and I am happy to come down, because I prefer down, but I am trying to set a direction for the whole place, and there are a thousand details, that is one of them, I am not saying it is not important, but it is a detail compared with what I am talking about here. What I am talking about here is how you think about this news organization and how it, what is it, when you have a story, what is the next thing you do, and how you orient yourself. Umh, part of the reason that we need to go digital is because we need to be faster and we need to have everything in one place, and we need to make it easier for the language services that surround us here to quickly know what it is we know, or they know in some cases. They don’t know what they other language service knows in some cases, and Central is where they find out in many cases, and the regional editors have done a great job of making that more the case than it used to be, but. . .
VOA EDITOR: “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt. But did you listen to a word she just said? She just said that she doesn’t have enough material, we’re not gathering enough news, and you’re going on about some great strategic plan you may have. Address her question. We don’t have enough people in the newsroom to turn out product. That is what we’re here to do. We have had so many changes, so many times we’re all supposed to come together and reorganize, and all it’s done is make sure our broadcasters don’t have enough material, and if they don’t have enough material, the languages don’t have enough material, [Matthew] Baise doesn’t have enough material, and you’re going on about how we have got to start changing [again]. You want to know why people have bad morale here? It’s because no one believes anything management has to say anymore, because we have gone through five years of constant reorganization and change and we have ended up in this position where we can’t put stuff on the air.”
Dan Robinson reported that “Devastation in VOA newsroom under current management [was] discussed during VOA director’s Q&A with news staff. . .”
NEWSROOM EDITOR: I would like to follow up a bit. . .you’re talking about what a fine quality newsroom this is, and how it can produce great work, but I recall that about three years ago you came down here and told us that 33 people had to go, 33 jobs had to be eliminated, and shortly after that [the Office of Program Review] told us that the CN [news items prepared by VOA newsroom based on multiple sources] was an unwanted species. . .we were told that you wanted to have no more than 10 CNs a day, maybe it was closer to five. Is that all water under the bridge now, we’re going to ignore whatever you said back then?
DAVID ENSOR: No, no, no I will tell you what I said the first time, and the second time. First of all let’s talk about job cuts. I hope you don’t think that I choose job cuts, because if you think that you don’t understand how things work around here.
NEWSROOM EDITOR: You told us that management was choosing to focus the job cuts on Central rather than in the language services as I recall.
DAVID ENSOR: Well, we can make recommendations, but they will give us numbers, and we have to meet those numbers, and the numbers as you know, they might come from the BBG, they might come from the White House, and they might in the end come from Congress. It is a messy, complicated process the budget with all sorts of players involved and we live with this sort of swirl, which I hate, and which I fight for your interests in every day. When I say your interests, I mean what I perceive to be VOA’s interests. And you might not agree with me always on what VOA’s interests are, but we can have a reasonable discussion about it I suspect, and whether we could afford to lose more Central News jobs or more Latin American jobs or more Chinese jobs, we can have a discussion about it, if we have to lose jobs at all. What we mostly try to do is not lose them, and we fight very hard and more often than you realize to keep this place as intact as possible.
NEWSROOM EDITOR: But in point of fact that drumbeat of negative information flowing down into the grassroots here, has caused a massive loss of jobs, people took buyouts, people retired, young people with promise left and foUnd other jobs. The numerical strength of the newsroom now is very small.
DAVID ENSOR: I know, I know. I am trying I hope with all of your help and support to keep this company strong, to keep this entity strong, and make it work well, so it is harder to argue against when one is having a budget discussion.
Sonja Pace, a former Voice of America correspondent and manager, posted a comment on the BBG Watch Facebook page. (BBG Watch Note: the legislation referred to as the Royce bill is H.R. 4490 – the Royce/Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Legislation. The legislation is fully bipartisan and was passed unanimously by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.)
Ms. Pace was commenting on LAT Op-Ed: Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real, by VOA corespondent Al Pessin, BBG Watch, June 2, 2014.
Direct LINK to Al Pessin’s op-ed.
SONJA PACE: Thank you Al Pessin for speaking out! As a veteran VOA correspondent and long-time staffer (just recently retired), I was heartened to read such a clear and succinct expression of what we’re all about. We’re about honest journalism and we strive to give our listeners, viewers and readers the real story — as best as humanly possible. What’s wrong with that? Nothing!
We all know (whether we are civil service or foreign service employees) that VOA is a government organization, funded by Congress with taxpayer money. We are also journalists and it is admittedly not easy to tread that fine line. But, we try and many of us who oppose the Royce bill believe and fear it would tip the balance away from journalistic independence and honest and critical reporting and towards “messaging” and propaganda. That would not serve our audiences nor the American taxpayer.
The Royce bill is right — we need to reorganize the structure for international broadcasting and we definitely need top management that knows who we are, and what we do — management that stands up for us and supports us in carrying out the journalistic mission.
But, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes to reorganizing, yes to new and better management, but no to diminishing VOA’s journalistic mission and integrity.
Sonja Pace, 38-year veteran employee of VOA — as programmer, correspondent and manager. Served as managing editor of VOA News Division from 2010 until retiring in 2014.
A former VOA senior correspondent Gary Thomas posted a comment on the BBG Watch Facebook page under the BBG Watch report on an op-ed by former VOA Director Robert Reilly in The Wall Street Journal.
READ: WSJ op-ed by former VOA director Robert Reilly – Unmuffling the Voice of America, BBG Watch, June 5, 2014.
Direct LINK to Robert Reilly’s op-ed.
BBG Watch has also reposted an editorial from the union representing federal employees of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which includes the Voice of America (VOA). Many of the points made in the AFGE Local 1812 editorial are similar to what BBG Watch has been reporting and commenting upon in recent years, especially the anti-employee management culture linked with a handful of International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and VOA executives and the decline of news reporting by VOA combined with violations of the VOA Charter.
AFGE Local 1812 has learned that a fear has arisen, among some of the employees we represent, that the reform of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and U.S. international broadcasting, as envisioned by the bipartisan legislation now pending in Congress, might in some way compromise the integrity of U.S. International broadcasts. After hearing the opinions of many VOA broadcasters including the language services and carefully examining the proposed legislation, the Executive Board of AFGE Local 1812 does share some concerns but believes that the Bill, with a few changes, should be enacted.
We also share a belief with some that for the last dozen years or more, BBG/IBB/VOA management thought they knew better what the Agency’s mission was than the goals and directives contained in the VOA Charter. Under this management, the Voice of America was largely turned into an also-ran, imitation-commercial news service, albeit in many languages.
The VOA Charter has been pretty much ignored by those in charge these past dozen years or so. The Voice of America is not a commercial broadcaster. It is financed by U.S. taxpayers who through Congress mandated that:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.
Over the past 12 years or so, VOA, under the directives of Agency management, gradually stepped back from fulfilling this first mandate, as it padded its website with Reuters and AP stories, ignoring important statements by U.S. leaders including the President and the Secretary of State, concentrating on frothy stories from the entertainment world and failing to report on multiple critically-important international events, to the point where it has much catching up to do to regain its credibility as a source of news to other parts of the globe.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thoughts and institutions.
Over the past 12 years or so, VOA stopped fulfilling this second mandate as Americana stories were avoided like the plague. Language services were transformed into essentially surrogate broadcasters, with some services on some days not even mentioning any U.S. news, much less U.S. “thoughts and institutions.”
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.
Over the past 12 years or so, VOA stopped fulfilling this third mandate. Some language services simply refused to carry editorials. The English-language newsroom began ignoring statements from top U.S. officials, including the White House, Congress, and the State Department; such information became anathema. Audiences desiring to know about such things turned to Al-Jazeera, the BBC or even Xinhua or Russia Today to find out, in a manner suiting the presenters’ agenda, what the U.S. Secretary of State had said, or hear the statements of the President of the United States on global issues of importance.
In place of the VOA Charter, those in charge concocted a confusing new mission for the Broadcasting Board of Governors: “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy”. The result of this nebulous, touchy-feely goal was that programming suffered and audiences began to dwindle.
In the end, some of the currently entrenched senior management represent a far greater threat to VOA’s journalistic independence, indeed to the very existence of the VOA, by abandoning the Charter and trying to turn VOA into something they envisioned as a global variant of CNN. The U.S. taxpayers and Congress are not providing funding for just another news service. That is why there are three parts to the VOA Charter.
We support the passage of this Bill. However, specific wording should be included that ensures that the news product remains objective and accurate in its presentation, even as it covers news and issues affecting and concerning the United States, including political issues and policies. By doing so, the VOA will serve as an example of the American value of a free press.
VOA should be directly presenting U.S. Government policies and positions and promoting American ideals, but only when these are clearly identified as such. The status quo that avoids some Charter responsibilities is more dangerous to the existence of the VOA than the enactment of this Bill.
It’s time to return the VOA to its original mission of providing unbiased and accurate news, presenting U.S. foreign policy with responsible discussion of such, and bringing the enduring story of America and American ideals to the world. For most of the past 70 years, it was a noble mission. And it worked.