BBG Watch Commentary

Former VOA Senior Correspondent Gary Thomas
Former VOA Senior Correspondent Gary Thomas
Former VOA Senior White House Correspondent Dan Robinson
Former VOA Senior WH Correspondent Dan Robinson

Voice of America (VOA) executives, whose salaries are paid by American taxpayers, describe these former senior VOA correspondents as disgruntled. But after talking to inside sources and reviewing documents, BBG Watch can report that Gary Thomas and Dan Robinson are highly respected by their VOA colleagues for their journalistic work, work ethic, and courage.

We have also discovered that many current and former VOA correspondents feel exactly the same way about the senior management as Thomas and Robinson do and have also expressed their criticism in various forms over the years.

Other VOA employees have not been as vocal as Robinson and Thomas, fearing reprisals in an agency with a hostile management and one of the lowest employee morale ratings in the entire federal government, but they have made their views known to us, as well as to members of VOA’s oversight board, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

It is no secret to anyone that Voice of America has been badly managed for the last several years.

These former and current VOA employees have tried to bring their concerns to senior managers numerous times. Like Thomas and Robinson, several other former VOA correspondents also had left the agency or retired in frustration with the way VOA has been managed in the last few years. Their appeals for reforms and relief had been ignored, BBG Watch was told.

A group of current VOA reporters has recently drawn up a list of reform recommendations similar to many others presented to the management and discarded by senior executives in recent years:

VOA journalists: ‘BBG, Please Save Voice of America’ – ALL RECOMMENDATIONS I THRU VII.

For many weeks, VOA executives failed to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. When they try, they seem unable to arrange for most basic coverage, such as streaming President Obama’s statements on Ukraine live online and prompt posting of text summaries.

Justin Bieber in CourtMost recently, they failed to arrange for sending a VOA correspondent with Vice President Biden to Europe and did not even bother to find a local stringer to report on Biden’s visit to Poland and Lithuania, which would not have been a great expense. Both Voice of Russia and Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) reported extensively on Biden’s remarks in Warsaw long before VOA posted its first one sentence.

Eventually, in response to criticism from BBG Watch, VOA issued a separate report on Biden’s comments (231 words) about security of NATO members on the border with Russia, but that report was far shorter than a recent VOA report with video on Canadian pop star Justin Bieber’s drunk driving arrest.

Joe Biden437 words for Justin Bieber plus video; Biden report had no video. (In fact, VOA has posted more than half a dozen of different reports on Justin Bieber since January and had more than forty reports in English alone on the British royal family in 2011-2013)

VOA executives still claim that there is no money to send correspondents or hire stringers to cover such things as Vice President Biden’s mission to Central Europe to reassure NATO allies of U.S. commitment to their security.

Here is what two former Voice of America senior correspondents have written:

FORMER VOICE OF AMERICA SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON: Dan Robinson Just watched Obama’s live remarks on Ukraine here in Pennsylvania, via over-the-air RT. Couldn’t see them on VOA. Could see them on BBC, C-SPAN, and other channels. Here are some thoughts recently delivered here in PA to the group of fine people at the annual shortwave listeners conference:

For decades the main anchor of U.S. government-funded international broadcasting, VOA is now just one among a number of outlets under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

VOA and other journalists have over the years taken big risks to cover the news. Some have lost their lives or remain missing. You can see a display of some of these names if you visit 330 Independence Avenue.

The news business has been transformed. Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, You Tube and other channels allow us all to basically operate our own personal news agency (and tell everyone what we had for lunch).

Associated Press or Reuters “news alerts” are now relayed instantaneously. The moment a President, or White House spokesman, or a foreign leader say something, the Internet is filled with Tweets and re-tweets, photos that are Instagramed…something someone says or sees amid a gun battle in Syria, or Libya, in whatever language, is all instantly seen.

VOA and other government-funded broadcasters have been challenged to adapt to technological changes and the imperative of maintaining relevance amid shrinking budgets, and questions about usefulness and efficiency.

The tensions involved in what John Chancellor, who headed VOA at one point in the mid-1960’s, called “the crossroads of journalism and diplomacy” continue.

I was an enthusiastic supporter of international broadcasting. But when necessary also a critic, trying to ensure we do the best job possible. Because for me, that kid from Levittown, Pennsylvania with his ears glued to the radio, the job we do and who we are doing it for, always mattered.

In a letter to the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) I made some blunt criticisms about news coverage and management issues in a place many Americans, and still many people overseas, don’t know still exists, or why.

Little reason to wonder why, by the way. VOA lacks a 24 hour live global TV presence, like BBC or CNN. It’s unlikely you will see it in your hotel room, and VOA simply does not have the resources to compete on such a scale.

Despite recent modifications to a 1948 era law few Americans know exists (the Smith-Mundt Act) government-funded broadcasters still cannot direct their programming at audiences in the United States.

Russia’s military intervention in Crimea, and other major stories laid bare the damage done over the past decade to VOA’s news gathering capabilities, especially its central newsroom, from a string of poor management decisions, and deficiencies hobbling its ability to compete.

All too frequently VOA’s English website has been unable to quickly reflect breaking news about Ukraine and U.S. responses, including statements by President Barack Obama and members of Congress.

BBC, al-Jazeera, and Russian government outlets routinely clean VOA’s clock even on U.S. domestic news. Chris Christie’s January news conference was live on the BBC, but not VOA.

Indeed, alarms should go off when an American president grants more interviews to foreign broadcasters and social media channels than to something called Voice of America, and officials in such places as the Pentagon bluntly question VOA’s reach and effectiveness.

VOA White House correspondents used to travel with the president on every foreign trip and years ago on domestic trips as well, but not anymore. VOA veteran reporters shook their heads when managers excluded them from attending the 2012 U.S. political conventions.

Because VOA and other U.S. government broadcasters operate under the radar, so to speak, of more intense public scrutiny or congressional attention, other problems continue year after year.

These range from the aforementioned failings in breaking news coverage to a multi-million dollar digital production system widely acknowledged as a disaster, and a reputation for poor management, and a hostile working environment that has placed the BBG at or near the bottom of employee satisfaction surveys.

Anyone visiting VOA’s website will find some superb journalism. But many current and former employees wonder whether money, employee hours, and other resources devoted to TV products moves the meter in measurable ways with verifiable impact of programming and enough “engagement” with foreign audiences.

Another issue involves “mission”, now being defined ever more unambiguously by the bipartisan Board as a tool for U.S. policy and national security interests.

VOA journalists are supposed to be shielded from policy-related interference. But some reporters were admonished last year by one official to ensure that reports support the “BBG mission” — differentiated from the VOA Charter which upholds news standards.

In the Columbia Journalism Review last year, former VOA correspondent Gary Thomas wrote:

“The core problem afflicting the BBG and its various entities is institutional schizophrenia. It is simultaneously a news organization trying to be a government agency, and a government agency trying to be a news outlet. . . If the mission of US broadcasting is to be “messaging” and policy advocacy, then stop hiding behind the label of journalism.”

Things are at a crucial juncture. At a proposed FY 2015 level of $721 million, taxpayers and Congress should ask: Does the United States still need government-funded broadcasting (here referring also to social media and other methods)?

If the answer is yes, can a new international broadcasting CEO, as is planned [with the BBG moving into more of an advisory role] do more to help VOA journalists and support staff undertake consistent, quality work across media platforms, absent action to significantly increase funding?

The new BBG chairman, Jeffrey Shell, has carried out some key personnel changes and also identified improving worker morale as a priority.

More needs to be done, including identifying bad managers in the International Broadcasting Bureau (under the BBG), and in VOA’s central newsroom, which many believe has been permanently damaged as some of its best talent fled.

VOA and other U.S.-funded media organizations have many excellent people, and reporters who take big risks to cover the news. But the overall appearance is of something that still just isn’t working very well, perhaps unfixable in any short period of time.

Decisions Congress makes will determine whether VOA and the numerous brands in the BBG alphabet soup trying to compete with CNN, al-Jazeera, China TV, and RT (Russia) for global audience share will survive the budget axe.

These issues may be seen as inside the beltway, but taxpayers across the country deserve at least to be aware of them, and if they so choose, have a voice in what happens next.

FORMER VOICE OF AMERICA SENIOR CORRESPONDENT GARY THOMAS: Gary Thomas BBG needs a healthy reality check (in addition to a thorough housecleaning). The so-called “strategic plan” calls for BBG entities to “become the world’s leading international news agency by 2016, focused on our mission and impact.” Such ambitions are ludicrous, given the double whammy of managerial and budgetary shortfalls.

VOA has already been wrecked, perhaps beyond repair, by incompetent managers who try to bully the place into accepting their warped, myopic, and delusional vision of the place. They have gutted the Central News Division, which throughout VOA’s existence has been the standard bearer for accurate, thorough, and timely journalism. The decline had started under various boards, but was exacerbated when top managers were brought in from the outside, bringing with them a commercial-like focus wholly inappropriate to this unique institution.

BBG and its entities have struggled to cope with two concurrent trends: the end of the Cold War and the explosive proliferation of 24-hour global media. It has answered neither challenge very well. The Cold War gave VOA and its sister entities much of its raison d’être. With its end, they have constantly tried to reinvent themselves to justify their existence. Indeed, the BBG was created in response to that event as the U.S. Information Agency was abolished.

Round-the-clock media has further undercut BBG. Like Dan, I was out in the field on many stories where we were outgunned by the overwhelmingly superior and better-organized personnel and technical resources from the likes of the BBC and others.

Unfortunately Congress’ interest in BBG entities is usually short-sighted or nonexistent. Instead of working to bring things into a rational framework, Congress has resorted to stopgap measures of creating a “Radio Free Fill-in-the-Blank” whenever there is a world crisis. This has only compounded the problem by creating more bureaucracies that struggle to justify themselves and war among themselves over the limited resources at their disposal. Bureaucracies, once created, are like vampires – they suck the lifeblood out of creative work and are very difficult to kill off.

Dan is thus absolutely right when he says things are at a crucial juncture. Should U.S. international broadcasting continue to exist? If so, it should clearly and unambiguously define itself.

If you are interested in reading further, I point you to my CJR piece that Dan cites.

Mission Impossible by Gary Thomas, Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2013

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