Let Hysteria Ring!
By The Federalist
It’s been a bad year for the bulk of America’s media siding with the political Left. Having allowed itself to become intoxicated with easy access to power and favorable treatment for eight years and thinking it had a chokehold on the national agenda, it got the shock of unexpected proportions on November 8 with the election of Donald Trump.
To be fair, large parts of the media associated with the political Right also did not get the Trump phenomenon quite right, but they were not as completely off the mark as the so-called “liberal” media. We don’t take sides; we merely observe.
Now, parts of the media are acting out their rage and hysteria.
To all appearances, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA) have given in to the temptation to take up the agenda of only one part of the American political spectrum and allow that single perspective, in violation of the VOA Charter, to seep into and dominate its program content along with the demeanor and temperament of some of its VOA newsroom employees. (There are VOA English newsroom and VOA foreign language journalists, both Republicans and Democrats in their private political life, who are absolutely opposed to the current level of partisanship in VOA program content.)
Let’s make one thing very clear:
We are opposed to partisanship of any kind, Right or Left, in Voice of America US taxpayer-funded programs. The VOA Charter, which is US law, is quite clear. But the VOA newsroom has not been a paragon of journalistic virtue under the current Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America leadership. Unprecedented bias and spectacular partisanship have been observed in VOA program content in recent months. Nothing shows it more clearly than this video.
VOA has slipped off its supposed lofty perch and taken a tumble and along with it the agency as a whole.
Some would argue its fall off its pedestal may have been self-inflicted.
Political bias at the Voice of America appears to include depictions of Mr. Trump, the President-elect.
Examples have been regularly commented on by BBG Watch in its examination of posts to the agency’s English language and foreign language websites, as well as posts by a few individual VOA reporters to their personal but publicly accessible Facebook pages where they self-identify as VOA journalists, including one with a Nazi swastika superimposed on Mr. Trump’s face and Mr. Trump as a sexual organ.
In addition, some VOA newsroom reporters, editors and managers have resorted to composing and telling a sex joke about the future First Lady Melania Trump and lampooning Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump. This was reportedly done by U.S. federal employees on government time in a federal building.
In the lead-up to the national election and the aftermath, it would seem that some individuals in the agency have lost control of their emotions and are acting out their displeasure – not limited to its content but now also acting through surrogates to launch into a campaign of fear and hysteria in the mainstream press over the consequences of a Trump presidency on what may be derisively called their “sanctuary agency.”
Such an unguarded display of political biases, via a series of articles and commentaries in The Washington Post, Politico, Foreign Policy and other publications, some quoting BBG employees anonymously, may have the cumulative effect of being an act of bureaucratic suicide.
Whether the BBG or the VOA, there is nothing to say their existence should be guaranteed in perpetuity. The people acting as the driving force behind these Facebook posts, articles, and satirical skits may have given away the last rational argument for keeping either entity in any capacity.
Indeed, the first blow has already been landed on the BBG Board, reducing it to what amounts to a non-binding “advisory” role in recent legislation. Ironically, the first blow came not from Donald Trump, but from President Obama and a bipartisan group of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
But other more severe consequences may be in the offing for VOA, by virtue of its temper tantrum of willing and intentional fear-mongering and defiance, built around the speculation that the agency would be transformed into a propaganda mouthpiece during the Trump Presidency, but ignoring that it already is a dysfunctional political mouthpiece for some of its employees, editors, managers and executives.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)
The main focus of attack by supporters of doing “business as usual” at the BBG/VOA is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) recently passed by both the House and Senate and signed by President Obama.
This blizzard of print and virtual (online) commentary may have had an intended outcome of the President not signing the bipartisan bill, but more likely it is designed to protect the BBG bureaucrats from losing their jobs down the line.
President Obama signed the reform legislation with only minor reservations that will have no practical effect during the waning days of his Presidency. In fact, the White House came around and supported the bipartisan BBG reform bill, although the Obama administration support for the bipartisan bill was most likely largely based on the wrong assumption that Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, would be the next President of the United States.
While the post-election objective of some of the BBG and VOA officials, executives and managers may have been to derail the reform bill, the attempt carried a significant downside regarding other aspects of the bill beyond the language regarding the BBG.
There is broad, bipartisan support to reform the agency – at the end of a long road recognizing the agency for what it has become through most of the 21st century:
- “Regular Bottom Feeder” ; “Going Backward” Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson “Federal Insider,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2016.
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
The end result still is:
- “This Broken Agency is Losing the Info War to ISIS & Putin,” House Committee on Foreign Affairs Blog, February 23, 2016.
Indeed, it was then-Secretary of State Clinton who appropriately labeled the agency as “practically defunct” some years ago (2013). At this juncture, it can be argued that the agency has passed from the “practically” to the almost-terminal “totally” defunct stage.
At the end of the day, what the agency has done with great frequency is (a) deny the collapse of its mission effectiveness, (b) take no responsibility for what has happened, (c) attempt to ascribe blame to others (the Congress, among others) and (d) make not even a token effort at remedial action.
Looked at collectively and in context, what this represents is a combination of defiance and incompetence, none of which surprises anyone familiar with the cast of characters among the agency’s bureaucracy and represented on the agency’s SES and senior management staffing pattern.
Agency officials know full well that they have used the NDAA in the past as a medium to get things they have wanted, most recently, a change to the Smith-Mundt Act regulating the broadcast or accessibility of agency program content within the United States.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot, as the saying goes: a congressional move right out of the agency’s playbook.
And played superbly.
Now a new administration is poised to come to town and the ideologues inside the agency are up in arms. They know:
The party is over.
This is not solely because of a change in the White House but more importantly after years of cruising along in denial or dismissal (take your pick) of how badly the agency has failed. The people in the executive offices of the agency have brought it to rock bottom in employee morale, employee engagement, and employee assessment of senior leaders. The employees know it: they’ve reported it for years in the government-wide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) previously known as the Human Capital Survey. Rock bottom: the definitive value placed on the agency by its own employees.
The task facing the incoming administration is formidable. It has to repair the agency from the top down and the bottom up. The effort needs to be made, without regard to a known group intent on obstructing any effort to restore balance, effectiveness or resonance inherent and necessary to the agency’s mission. This increases the prospect of another step to the process: to construct a new model for US Government international broadcasting.
Time will tell, but it isn’t looking good for this relic from another age, appearing to deny the changed landscape of what is required to deal with a variety of serious, sustained challenges presented by state and non-state actors to getting accurate information out to global publics.
The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling!
And right away, you could count on the current tactic: declaring the agency will become a propaganda mouthpiece. People both inside and outside the agency have made it so already: with this steady onslaught of misinformation and disinformation in some of the published commentaries and articles about a presumed negative impact of the bipartisan NDAA legislation signed by no other than America’s top Democratic Party leader President Barack Obama. But more importantly, you can watch the open sessions of the BBG or the staff meetings conducted in the agency to hear it from certain agency employees themselves. They have made the Cohen Building the epicenter of the fear-mongering universe for US Government international broadcasting.
The agency – VOA newsroom included – has not been effective in doing its job. When it comes to hard news, foreign publics have been drifting away (BBG claims illusory audience gains, which come from mostly censored news for local placement, often in countries with free media, and from fluff content, such as animal videos) and seemingly finding substance in alternative narratives offered by the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others. Dismissing the reality of effective anti-US narratives has made it all too easy for others to project, sometimes rather blatantly, their anti-American message.
Hubris may have been a key component to the failure of Secretary Clinton’s to win the presidential election in 2016.
It is not at all ironic that the same kind of hubris is rampant in the halls of the VOA, particularly its newsroom. Another BBG Watch commentator once referred to the VOA newsroom as “maximum hubris.” It is far worse now than when the commentary was written.
The flurry of hysterical “hit” pieces appearing in the national press opposing the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act have their own place in that hubris.
And they well may be sterling examples of “the law of unintended consequences:”
It is not likely that the new administration will take an admiring view of the behavior of agency employees fueling the uproar and making crude, sexist sex jokes about Mrs. Trump.
These pieces and the defiant attitude inside the Cohen Building make a scenario more – not less – likely: major VOA reconstruction under new leadership often referred to as “adult supervision.”
Last But Not Least – Sins of Commission
Every year at this time, the VOA newsroom produces what it calls the “VOA Follies.” It takes place inside the newsroom, usually around the middle of the day, within newsroom duty space and during its regular operations, while employees are in duty status. It is not conducted in an off-site, private party setting when employees are in non-duty status and can say whatever they want provided no one reports it and ruins VOA’s claims of holy political objectivity.
In the distant past, the “Follies” may have been witty and somewhat funny lampooning of the newsroom itself.
However, in recent years, the “Follies” have become mean-spirited visceral, anti-women and sexist, attacking the President-elect and his family, as well as external entities and individuals critical of the agency’s performance.
This year’s effort may have crossed a very important line. The 2016 “Follies” have included questionable parodies of the President-elect and his wife and editorializing on some other political issues.
We were told that current and former women journalists were particularly disturbed by the sexist, anti-women nature of the jokes, as well as by the recent praise by VOA director Amanda Bennett of a VOA program, which critics charge romanticizes a male ISIS terrorist who may have entered into an ISIS-arranged marriage.
It also appears segments of the “Follies” may have been live-streamed on social media pages. Anyone viewing these live-stream offerings on social media may not be familiar with what they represent. And because this isn’t the cast of “Saturday Night Live” and instead employees of a Federal agency, the mockery of the President-elect and his wife may seem rather irregular, to say the least.
It certainly isn’t a display of professional deportment.
What this serves to demonstrate is that anything goes in the VOA newsroom. And it is happening on the watch of John F. Lansing (the BBG chief executive officer) and Amanda Bennett (the VOA director).
Belatedly, without referencing the “Follies” directly, Ms. Bennett issued an advisory to VOA employees regarding the use of social media. One might say it’s more than a little too late.
We would have to do some searching, but our impression is the “VOA Follies” did not give similar treatment to President Obama or Mrs. Obama and their children before or during the eight years of the Obama administration.
A strong and unequivocal message needs to be sent. It starts at the top. Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett are ultimately responsible for everything that has happened under their watch at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America. They should do the right thing and resign.