BBG Watch Commentary
All views expressed are those of the author.
One Year Later — Dysfunction, News Failures, Self-Promotion and Pandering at the Voice of America
PART III: A LOOK ACROSS THE TERRAIN . . . ANOTHER BILL IN THE WORKS . . . AND SOME DECEPTIVE PRACTICES
Should Voice of America senior management encourage a deceptive style of reporting that conveys misleading impressions about VOA’s capabilities, and its trustworthiness?
By Dan Robinson
Let’s survey the terrain. Back in the headlines is the determination of Congress to re-introduce legislation that drafters and supporters say is critical to a lasting overhaul of U.S. international broadcasting, and to address management failures — but which opponents continue to assert will destroy journalism at VOA, while doing nothing about bad managers.
Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill support legislation. Most have heard from all sides in the debate, but remain insistent. That is in large part because they have also seen extensive evidence of a record of mismanagement and bungling, and even some illegality under BBG, according to Inspectors General reports.
Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) signaled his intention to re-introduce a bill and asked Secretary Kerry for his support. Sitting next to Royce was ranking foreign affairs committee Democrat Eliot Engel. Kerry was grilled about a range of crises, and about what Royce called the “dysfunctional” BBG.
No need to review what BBG Watch readers and those who watched the hearing know. Kerry and Royce are on “the same page”. Differences on wording will surely be resolved, as will questions about how many CEOs are needed to right the unwieldy ship, if that’s possible.
Keep in mind that it was likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton whose label (“practically defunct”) for BBG has stuck — kind of like the stink from a skunk squashed by a car.
Kerry knows this all too well. By the time the 2016 contest revs up, he and Clinton will insist on being able to point to progress, even if much of it is spurious and consists of grandstanding by well-paid officials at 330 Independence Avenue.
It is noteworthy that like other major stories VOA has punted, the Voice of America appears to have been MIA in covering the foreign affairs committee hearing in which the BBG and its dysfunction was a front and center topic.
The terrain of the past decade — including Mr. Ensor’s tenure as VOA director since 2011 — includes the agency expanding its record as one of the worst organizations in the federal government, with the largest drop in employee morale among mid-size federal agencies.
Employees appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach. In a move not lacking in symbolism, Andy Lack took over offices in the Cohen Building, just off the National Mall, that for decades were occupied by the VOA director and the IBB staff. Talk about sending a megawatt signal blasting through the halls of the agency.
Lack’s first formal remarks to staff contrasted sharply with Ensor, who when he spoke to staff early in his tenure vowed that he would not hesitate to “cut you” — which did not go over well with central newsroom staff.
“I am interested in growth. I didn’t come here to cut. I came here to grow” Lack said, to applause.
I have been a key critic of BBG/IBB/VOA, and in particular, mismanagement in VOA’s central newsroom. But I will say that there have been a few improvements.
As I see it, VOA’s English language website, long viewed as an embarrassment, does look better than it ever has, in terms of graphic appearance. That view is, however, disputed by many current and former employees.
With some glaring exceptions — the pathetic delay in reporting the suspension of NBC’s Brian Williams comes to mind –- breaking stories are appearing more quickly, though still usually lagging far behind other media organizations.
But let’s be clear. Without pressure from BBG Watch, it’s quite probable that little or no progress would have been made. Like an intersection that always needed a stop sign but only got it after numerous accidents, a “good enough for government work” approach would have prevailed.
It appears to have taken VOA managers years to notice that VOA was being regularly out-reported when it came to its front page English content compared to the BBC and other outlets.
Only after my departure in 2014 did VOA begin to consistently carry live, easily-available video feeds of major statements by President Barack Obama (though I remain a strong opponent of VOA always being seen as a mouthpiece for any administration).
VOA uses numerous stories from Reuters and other news agencies. This reflects Ensor’s “43 newsrooms” approach in which robust capabilities of the central newsroom were intentionally reduced.
Meanwhile, more weight was placed on ill-prepared and under-resourced language services and on the main web operation, where staff often complained about under-powered PC’s, a seriously-flawed Dalet system, and a a too-often troublesome CMS based in Prague.
VOA pays for news agency content. But using so many wire stories gives a mobile or desktop user the impression that they are getting original content from VOA from various datelines, when that is not the case.
Google alerts show a “Voice of America” identifier, and dateline. It’s only after reading the story (by which point VOA records a coveted new “hit” to boost its numbers game) that one sees Reuters, and realizes that a VOA correspondent was not actually on the ground.
It’s one thing if VOA picks up a certain number of Reuters or AFP stories in a 24 hour period — a specific legal limit is negotiated with agencies — and these are attributed directly, at the top. But VOA should not mislead people into thinking it somehow has its people everywhere.
Other stories are re-writes — a concluding attribution acknowledges some content from news agencies. But others contain no such attribution, just “VOA News” at the top. Again, this is misleading, and should be on the list of things Mr. Lack takes a look at.
There are also instances in which the byline of a VOA staff member — not talking here about VOA’s better-known correspondents — appears with no identification whatsoever. Who are they? Where are they writing from? In Washington, or a foreign bureau? In a language service, or VOA’s newsroom?
A recent story about an Amnesty International report on human rights contained no dateline. Though it highlighted comments by an AI representative in Moscow, a reader was left to guess whether the writer was in Russia, or somewhere in VOA’s Washington headquarters.
An RSS link for the by lined writer offered no biography, as do some for outside individuals paid to be commentators for VOA, and whose material is plastered all over the front page.
I and other VOA correspondents also had our writing — content and style — manipulated by VOA’s web operation. Many reports were truncated, but the correspondent’s name stuck on anyway. Some reports from major DC bureaus were not used at all, in favor of a Reuters story.
One of the most memorable examples involved the Obama decision about potential military action against Syria because of its chemical weapons. In a rare occurrence, VOA was invited to a special briefing in the White House.
As I wrote in 2014, VOA was generally treated poorly by The White House. Remember — between 2008 to this day, Obama has granted ONE interview to VOA, while giving numerous sit-downs and social media appearances to network correspondents, You Tube hosts, and “Between the Ferns”.
I attribute this to the embarrassing mismanagement playing out in the Cohen Building, and importantly, to an attitude expressed by a Pentagon official, who famously said: “You have no [expletive] reach.”
My Syria story contained my byline, but had little of the important background information I had included from that briefing, and a lot of added wire service copy.
In my four years as chief White House correspondent, I protested to managers who seemed unaware how often this disappearing act involving the hard work of VOA correspondents was occurring.
Steve Redisch, the VOA Executive Editor, finally acknowledged at one point — involving another story on Brazil – U.S. relations — that “obviously we have a problem here.” I was never aware of another step taken to address the problems.
One reporter filing for VOA from an overseas capital speaks of having “locked horns repeatedly with [Central News and web desk editors] over the disreputable treatment of content. . . the practice continues almost as flagrantly as ever [and] I’ve also had stories bumped off in favor of material from Reuters, which the web desk people claim is “free” for them to use.”
There may be a conscious effort on VOA’s web desk, the reporter added, to “alter copy” of correspondents. Stories were “edited by the news desk and determined to be fair and accurate, but then “over-ridden” with “commentary being slipped on to the VOA website in the guise of “news.”
Also seen frequently are stories in cooperation with some of VOA’s most visible language broadcast services, such as those for Nigeria and North Korea, that fall in the category of what I would call “desperately seeking attention”.
Many claim exclusivity, as in “an exclusive interview with VOA” or “told VOA or VOA’s ______language service.” But frequently the event broke hours before, or was broken and the news maker’s comments or the information had already been distributed to multiple news organizations.
When a Venezuelan general, who has become a key dissident, was in the United States, an Associated Press report that was used most widely that day by news organizations, made clear he had spoken to journalists in New York City:
“On Thursday, Rivero spoke to journalists outside the United Nations in his first public appearance in 11 months. He said he had not seen his family in a year, and had been living in “difficult conditions. He traveled to New York to ask the world body fight for his cause.” [AP]
VOA resorted to grandstanding. Rather than noting Rivero’s availability to other organizations, VOA’s story conveyed the impression that it somehow exclusively tracked down Rivero.
“I have come to ask for protection,” Rivero told VOA reporter Celia Mendoza of VOA’s Spanish branch, in a one-on-one interview. . .”
The story added other information, on the basis of Rivero having “told VOA……” But without an Internet search, readers would never have realized that VOA was not the only news organization with access that day.
Another example involved comments by a Nigerian official of an imminent truce with Boko Haram.
“Breaking: VOA confirms #Boko Haram will release 200+ kidnapped girls as part of ceasefire….Don’t miss any updates from Voice of America….” blared a VOA tweet.
But again, as observed by some current and former staff members who followed this story, the ceasefire and remarks were being reported simultaneously, in one case hours before, by other outlets. Not to mention that the girls seized by Boko Haram have still not been liberated.
These appear to reflect an eagerness of VOA language services to overreach, to be seen as “out ahead” on stories, likely as part of an effort to impress the bosses in the Cohen Building.
They’re doing a good job of it, judging from the praise heaped them during BBG meetings. But they, and those in VOA’s management chain, who encourage an overzealous approach, aid what can be a deceptive style of reporting that conveys misleading impressions about VOA’s capabilities, and its trustworthiness.
PART IV: Out of the Breaking News Business? And…some questions
VOA maintains news bureaus in foreign capitals. Many VOA correspondents are excellent journalists who have developed, or brought with them them, the ability to undertake excellent video journalism, and social media engagement.
But time and again in recent years, VOA was seen to be…I just have to say it — lame, appearing to have taken itself out of the business of reliably providing breaking news in any short period of time on its global English website.
Keep checking BBG Watch for PART IV: Out of the Breaking News Business? And…some questions by Dan Robinson.