BBG Watch Commentary
We find it ironic that while many rank-and-file Voice of America journalists and other employees represented by AFGE Local 1812 union support the bipartisan Royce – Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Legislation, although they may want to see some edits in its wording, the strongest criticism of the bill comes from a handful of VOA correspondents some of whom actually hold Foreign Service limited non career appointments, while they argue that the bill might make them more closely linked with the U.S. government, undermine their journalistic independence and even force them to engage in propaganda (absurd).
We have respect for the work of these journalists, but they truly seem to be living in the past. If some of them honestly believe in what they say, then even if the bipartisan bill does not become law (which would doom the Voice of America and perhaps the whole agency), they might consider giving up their Foreign Service limited non career appointments with many of the benefits of U.S. government employment abroad if they so strongly object to being associated with the U.S. government, which includes the U.S. Congress representing U.S. taxpayers who have their own views about what they want to pay for.
If they still want to work for the Voice of America as independent reporters, not as U.S. government employees, they have an option of applying to work for VOA abroad or in the United States, not as federal employees, but as contractors – freelancers — with low pay, no benefits, no job guarantees and no protections. This is not what the vast majority of VOA rank-and file employees wants.
We believe that VOA correspondents are in fact in most cases safer abroad as U.S. government employees and that the proposed reform legislation will make their work safer, better and more productive. The problem is not the legislation, which may require only a few edits, but the mismanagement of U.S. international media outreach by senior Voice of America and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives that the fully bipartisan bill, supported unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is trying to address.
ALSO READ: LAT Op-Ed: Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real, by VOA corespondent Al Pessin, BBG Watch, June 2, 2014.
International Broadcasting Bureau – We Call Failure A Success! – Information War Lost: Living In The Past
By The Federalist
The latest attempt to derail fully bipartisan congressional legislation intended to recover and rehabilitate US Government international broadcasting is another inside job – an op-ed piece by Al Pessin, a veteran Voice of America (VOA) correspondent (“Back Off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2014).
Mr. Pessin is a longstanding VOA correspondent. He can be described as representative of some of the veteran “Old Guard” of correspondents.
We have a great deal of respect for these and other VOA veteran employees, including those in the VOA language services.
That being said, we are severely disappointed in the narrow view some of these individuals take of H.R. 4490, passed unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr. Pessin attempts to portray the bipartisan legislation as an effort by the Congress to transform VOA into a government broadcaster in the model preferred by China and Russia.
This is misleading at best, completely false at worst.
Mr. Pessin and others similarly disposed attempt to narrow the focus of the VOA Charter to one provision and one provision only: that which calls upon the agency to be “…a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”
That is certainly a very important priority.
But it is not the only one.
The second provision of the VOA Charter directs the agency to “…present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
The third provision directs the agency to “…present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinions on these policies.”
What Mr. Pessin and a few others inside the Cohen Building have done is an attempt at sleight of hand; namely, they appear to put under wraps two-thirds of the Charter for the sake of building a bunker around its first provision.
That is dead wrong.
It presents to the public a view of the agency that is incomplete and unbalanced. In its effect, it undermines that which Mr. Pessin and others proclaim they want to protect: the VOA Charter.
Taxpayers’ money goes to more than just the one tier of the Charter. It is intended to support all three.
Mr. Pessin raises the specter of all kinds of ills to the agency’s mission if the legislation is passed into law. He claims that its audiences will seek news elsewhere.
Regrettably, Mr. Pessin is living in the past.
The agency has been losing critical audiences precipitously for some time – and that has everything to do with how the agency is being mismanaged and absolutely nothing to do with H.R. 4490.
Mr. Pessin and his colleagues know full well the attempts by David Ensor (the VOA director) and Steve Redisch (the VOA executive editor) to mold VOA into a cheesy version of CNN Headline News. Mr. Pessin and his colleagues have often railed at the cacophony and disarray inside the VOA Newsroom.
As a practical matter, the VOA Newsroom has already imploded: the failure of the Ensor/Redisch model – coupled with the ancillary effort to have the agency’s language services attempt to replicate the news production of the VOA Central Newsroom.
If anything, all that remains of the VOA Central Newsroom is the wreckage wrought by Ensor, Redisch and others – including the present management of Worldwide English.
It is a fairly audacious move by Mr. Pessin to engage in what amounts to defending what is already dysfunctional and defunct.
The Ensor/Redisch model has taken the Voice of America out of the top tier arena of international broadcasters.
Mr. Pessin also makes constant reference to the bill as the “Royce bill” when in fact it is a fully bipartisan Royce-Engel bill that has received unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In so many words, this creates the appearance of a partisan bias on Mr. Pessin’s part, as is the appearance of some deep-seated resentment that the Congress can write legislation that determines how the agency is supposed to function.
And when the agency falls flat on its face, the Congress can – and should – write legislation that holds the agency accountable across the board.
This bill was a bi-partisan effort and was passed – we say it again – unanimously.
It seems like everyone except people connected to the Cohen Building seem to recognize the reality of the situation.
Mr. Pessin distinguishes VOA from the grantee stations of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and others which would be organized under a separate Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Mr. Pessin describes VOA as the Federal Government’s flagship international broadcasting operation.
Which it is.
The problem is the flagship is dead in the water. At best, its steerage is busted. Often-repeated are comparisons to the Titanic.
Mr. Pessin leaves considerable detail out of his op-ed narrative:
- He neglects to note that when David Ensor became VOA director and addressed the VOA Central Newsroom staff, he talked about there being “blood on the floor” and “no turning back” from the direction he and Redisch were establishing for the operation. It was clear then and starkly apparent now that the intent was to under-staff and under-resource the Newsroom: two goals that they have largely met.
- He neglects to note that the “43 newsrooms” concept created by Ensor and Redisch and intended to replace core Central News functions has been a catastrophic disaster.
- Perhaps even more revealing, Mr. Pessin fails to note how correspondent reports have been comingled with third party content, either while still maintaining the correspondent’s by-line or other derivations such as having the piece reported as a wire service report. You can best believe that this did not sit well with the correspondents affected.
Mr. Pessin also fails to note how the agency failure is virtually total and complete in strategic broadcast areas like Russia, China and Iran:
- Russia’s RT (Russia Today) routinely clobbers VOA in Internet website hits and audience engagement through social media. READ: RT hammers VOA in social media, BBG Watch, June 3, 2014.
- The Chinese have successfully blocked VOA websites – keeping in mind that Chinese cyber countermeasures are entrusted to the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) – and the agency itself has reduced its Mandarin language radio service to one live report of the day’s news per 24 hours.
- The Iranian Cyber Army has in the past demonstrated that it can block all VOA websites at will,
Not a pretty picture by any means.
But that’s the reality.
There are some people who subscribe to the view that the only thing left to do with VOA is to close it.
We aren’t there – yet.
But opinions from inside the VOA Central Newsroom as expressed in the Pessin op-ed piece put us much closer to that outcome.
In essence, the piece supports what can be factually and rationally deduced is a failed agency.
A few highly-paid VOA English correspondents, who are U.S. government employees, no doubt supported by the maestros of failure in senior agency management, want H.R. 4490 to fail or be so watered down as to be ineffective and thus allow the status quo to prevail.
But the truth of the matter made clear by Mr. Pessin’s piece and others similar to it is that any attempt to rehabilitate this agency will be declared an outrage by the purveyors of self-interest and self-preservation inside the Cohen Building.
Ironically, the best arguments for passage of the legislation unaltered and in its entirety come from these narrow op-ed pieces from inside the Cohen Building.
In a manner of speaking, these opinions take on the appearance of precisely what the folks in the VOA Central Newsroom say they oppose:
H.R. 4490 is necessary to the national and public interests of the United States. It should be signed into law and the reforms of US Government international broadcasting it calls for to be executed without delay.
“Ne Incautus Futuri”