BBG Watch offers a wide range of commentaries on current issues in U.S. international media outreach, public diplomacy, disinformation, and propaganda.
The following commentary is by The Federalist, one of our longtime observers of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets providing news programs to audiences abroad.
All views expressed are those of the author.
Voice of America Information War Lost: The Departure of David Ensor
By The Federalist
On Wednesday, May 27, 2015 David Ensor described his tenure as the 28th Voice of America (VOA) director. In leaving, Mr. Ensor posted a “Farewell” statement on the VOA English language webpage.
We believe we have an obligation to the national and public interest to challenge some of the views Mr. Ensor asserts and put his tenure in a perspective that we believe may be closer to the reality of where the Voice of America finds itself today.
The complete text of Mr. Ensor’s statement can be found on the link below. (Looking at a VOA photo of “Farewell Celebration” for Mr. Ensor, taken when VOA Division Chiefs presented him with “an award for his service to Voice of America,” we can see only one woman on the podium. Some faces are obscured, but it’s clear that VOA leadership lacks diversity.)
It appears that not once in the statement will you find a reference to the VOA Charter, the public law which governs the Voice of America. The omission is glaring, for a VOA director.
Otherwise, Mr. Ensor’s statement represents a significant departure from commonly held views, both inside and outside the Federal government, regarding the status of US Government international broadcasting in general and the Voice of America in particular. These views are supported by testimonies of U.S. Secretaries of State in congressional hearings, Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports and studies by non-governmental organizations.
As we see it, Mr. Ensor could have taken the opportunity to take ownership of how and where the agency has fallen short in its mission. Instead, he chose to maintain positions that have long been dismissed as erroneous regarding agency claimed “successes.”
Worse, Mr. Ensor continues to voice opposition to congressional legislation intended to intervene in the agency’s roiling implosion and put it on a path to recover its intended mission.
In short, his presentation is disappointing at the very least.
Below, we make note of some of the points Mr. Ensor presents:
Mr. Ensor: “The VOA team can be enormously proud of what we have accomplished together. In the last four years, VOA has faced many challenges: from shrinking budgets, to propaganda broadcasts from Russia and China, to the rise of ISIS and an outbreak of Ebola.”
The agency always likes to point to “shrinking budgets” as an obstacle to its performance. However, in truth, the agency’s budget numbers often increase slightly from one year to the next. It’s a game of semantics: what the agency is really talking about with “shrinking budgets” is the difference between what is asked for in the President’s annual budget request and the money ultimately authorized by Congress. Even there, these are hardly significant cuts or are the budgets much smaller than they were years ago. The agency’s entire budget is far larger than what Russia’s RT media outlet spends on its operations.
As to the rest of this excerpt: the agency has indeed been challenged as the statement suggests. But what isn’t spoken to is how the agency has failed badly on all counts:
- Voice of America has no meaningful broadcast presence in Russia and is being drowned out globally by the Russian point of view.
- The Chinese effectively block most VOA programs, particularly on the Internet. Add to that, radio broadcasts by the VOA Mandarin and Cantonese services have only one live satellite TV news segment in a 24-hour period putting it a full day behind breaking and developing news in China.
- ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has demonstrated a robust media effort which continues to draw recruits to its banner. During Ensor’s tenure, the agency lobbied heavily for changes to the Smith-Mundt Act to allow for its broadcasts to be more easily used in the United States. The agency used as an example reaching the Somali community in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. The effort has backfired, with real or potential ISIS recruits coming out of that community in the time since the new legislation was enacted.
- On the Ebola front, BBG Watch has noted that updates on the VOA website regarding the Ebola virus have suffered from time lapses of a few months. We also recall a stunt of the VOA newsroom asking for volunteers to be injected with experimental and unproven Ebola vaccine at the height of the crisis. On its face, this appeared to be bizarre publicity theater. It was quickly dropped when revealed in outside news accounts.
Mr. Ensor: “VOA has also had to defend itself from sometimes ill-conceived legislative and internal reform proposals.”
Contrary to Mr. Ensor’s view, there is nothing “ill-conceived” in the efforts by the Congress to legislate a process of reforming an agency that is routinely described by high level U.S. government officials, members of Congress from both parties and others as and lives up to a reputation for being:
- “Fallen behind the techniques employed by Russia, ISIS, and others”
These are parts of comments from U.S. Secretaries of State, members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, former Broadcasting Board of Governors members, and other prominent Americans. Mr. Ensor entertains the fiction that the agency would be harmed by congressional legislation to grapple with the agency’s precipitous mission failure. He supports a position adopted by some VOA employees regarding alleged infringement on the news component of the agency’s mission which was, is and remains a position based on false premises and hysteria.
(Not) By the Numbers
Mr. Ensor goes on to repeat a familiar mantra he has offered in his tenure about the Voice of America’s audience numbers. The claim of late is 172-million weekly. He believes that this gives VOA “credibility and real global impact.”
These numbers are suspect, as they now include non-news, self-censored or pre-censored placement programs from VOA, and a newly acquired or newly measured audience of several million to such programs in Latin America, mainly Mexico. This is hardy an area of severe media censorship or press freedom deficiency, with the exception of Cuba and Venezuela. Even allowing for pre-censored, non-live, non-news programs to countries — many of which may already have free media — these numbers appear substantial only in a superficial sense. One has to consider in China alone there are close to 1.3-BILLION people. In the world as a whole, there are over 7-BILLION. Unlike the audience measurements offered in the statement, which does not distinguish between direct uncensored news programs and feature placement programs, these numbers are not abstract. They are real.
In effect, the reality of “VOA credibility and global impact” becomes noticeably diluted. The numbers don’t work in the Voice of America’s favor on a strategic, mission level, particularly in regions where the agency has no effective presence.
Last but definitely not least, the agency’s survey methods are even more suspect. It has budgeted to spend $50-MILLION dollars spread out over five years in a contract to conduct audience “surveys” in which there appear to be no direct questions related to whether or not people can hear, read, or see VOA program content across all media platforms and/or identify that content as generated by VOA, an agency of the United States Government. Survey questions are most likely approved by agency officials. If so, these surveys seem to have more to do with avoidance – asking the penetrative questions that need to be asked about the effectiveness of what the agency is doing.
The more likely scenario is the agency’s impact is essentially flat-lining or declining and perhaps has been doing so steadily for years. Bureaucrats of the agency’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) attempt to “trick” the numbers by using methods well known in the broadcasting industry: in the case of VOA, by attempting to purloin estimated audience numbers of foreign radio and television stations where it has placed agency programs, often of low impact value, some in countries that already have free media, and make them its own.
A VOA newsroom That Is Just A Name
Mr. Ensor does not recollect in his statement that when he first arrived at VOA and met with the VOA newsroom staff, he opined that there would be “blood on the floor” (in the form reducing the number of newsroom personnel) and “no turning back” for the newsroom in the model that would be pursued into its future.
Mr. Ensor was prophetic and correct. But the outcome was not a miracle in enhanced VOA news coverage. It has been an unmitigated disaster. Rather than a reliable core news operation servicing the VOA as a whole, the direction decided upon by Ensor and until very recently VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch (recently moved by Mr. Ensor to another executive position) has been “43 newsrooms” — each VOA language service operating as its own “newsroom,” where limited resources compared to a functional central news facility make consistently reliable news coverage problematic at best, comical at worst. We have cataloged a succession of notable VOA newsroom and English website failures. And, contrary to Mr. Ensor’s claims in his statement, the agency is now more dependent on third party news surrogates for its reports, not less so. VOA-originated content seems to be slip-sliding away.
Mr. Ensor: “A new Opinion page on the English website is providing readers with varied views curated daily from American newspapers and websites – an ongoing example of the open debate that flourishes in our great democracy.”
Here we have a game of sleight of hand played by the agency in response to valid criticism from current and former VOA journalists and others.
“Varied views from American newspapers and websites” is fine. But does that satisfy the agency’s requirements under the VOA Charter?
Section 3 of the Charter states,
“VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.”
Presenting the points of view of American media reflects their point of view. That does not equate to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.”
Once again, the statement appears to sidestep the agency’s Charter obligations by accepting the latter portion of this section of the Charter and assiduously avoiding the first portion. You can’t do one without the other and comply fully with requirements of the Charter.
Lost In The Babble
Mr. Ensor: “Four years ago, like many media organizations, we were still relative newcomers to social media. Now, we’re social media stars in many of our target countries.”
The Voice of America is not a “media organization,” nor is it a “news company” or “state broadcaster” as often and variously described by Mr. Ensor.
The Voice of America is by law an agency of the United States Government engaging in news journalism and presenting views, opinions, cultural and other non-trivial programs on behalf of the entire United States — programs U.S. taxpayers would want to pay for. Its most important mission is to provide news, information and opinions, as codified and directed by the VOA Charter.
The Voice of America under Mr. Ensor has failed to stay on course. It has wandered aimlessly, lost its focus and sense of purpose. It has become pedestrian in the world of international media where others have an elevated and often sinister sense of purpose and far greater discipline and management. By comparison, the agency has become arrogant, lazy and slothful.
The claim of being “social media stars” is absurd. Routinely, this agency gets slammed by other international broadcasters across all social media platforms. Thousands or tens of thousands of Facebook “Likes” for individual reports on Russia’s RT and BBC websites compared to barely a few dozen for VOA reports in English and in many other languages, sometimes less than 10. With a few exceptions, many VOA reporters have only a few Twitter followers, while reporters from such news organizations as BBC or Bloomberg can have tens of thousands. The disparity in hits, comments and other audience engagement measurements is staggering.
In terms of social media, as a whole, the Voice of America is an international big time loser. VOA English News Facebook page has even fewer followers than the U.S. State Department’s Facebook page and is far behind BBC or RT. VOA’s Russian and Iranian Facebook pages also have far fewer followers than these language pages from BBC. On YouTube, Russia’s RT has hundreds of millions more views than the Voice of America. Even Germany’s Deutsche Welle beats some of VOA’s foreign language services in terms of Facebook and Twitter popularity. Many of the very few post comments VOA was getting appeared to be from pro-Kremlin trolls, although their number has diminished lately, perhaps due to some actions taken in response to this being pointed out on this blog.
And worse in this situation is that some of the other international broadcasters who attract tremedounsly greater social following have an adversarial posture toward the United States and its policies.
The only statement that we can corroborate independently on this subject is the success of the VOA Khmer Service broadcasting and social media to Cambodia. It is similarly mirrored by the Khmer Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA). Both appear to know their audiences very well including sources close to or inside various human rights movements in and outside of Cambodia. This should be the case with the vast majority of VOA language services, including English — not just a few.
As a rule, in the vast majority of cases, the claim of VOA social media stardom is way off the mark. Once again, monitoring by BBG Watch shows an entirely different dynamic in which VOA is barely noticeable in a meaningful way on social media: it is anemic and has no impactful traction.
One of the most glaring strategic failures of this agency has to do with Russia, going back to 2008 when the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) decided to largely eliminate direct radio and satellite television broadcasting to Russia by VOA.
Mr. Ensor neglects to note that in its belated efforts at recovering an audience among the independent states neighboring Russia, some VOA programs have been dropped for lack of audience or due to decisions by affiliates or governments driven by other factors. In some cases, it may also reflect some measure of fear in angering the Putin government. Whatever the reason, the Russian point of view prevails and dominates in the entire region among ethnic Russians and many other Russian speakers.
Mr. Ensor rattles off a list of new programs the agency has started. It is the broadcasting equivalent of splattering paint against a wall, trying to see what sticks. Adding a new program does not equate with sustainable success. Increasingly, this appears beyond the agency’s reach. Programs come and go – an indication that the agency has lost its resonance with global publics. We recall the VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN) service which claimed a highly successful “Parazit” program, only to see it, and its successor, suddenly disappear, most likely due to poor leadership and poor management, without much explanation – even though the agency claimed “Parazit” was still on the air until that deception was exposed.
Claims of success in China and other countries where media is closely controlled and monitored and which has a robust effort to block unwanted programs from abroad are also not to be believed.
Mr. Ensor goes on at length to talk about agreements with non-US broadcasters to take VOA programming. The agency has long used the term “affiliates” to describe these stations. These stations are not “affiliated” with the United States Government or even the Voice of America. What the agency is engaged in is mostly “paid placement” — establishing agreements with overseas stations to take VOA programs, often at a large cost. In many instances, the placed programming, some of which is pre-censored by VOA to eliminate objectionable news content, is only possible if its local rebroadcast time is purchased by the agency with American taxpayer monies. Even then, these stations have enormous leverage as to what they will accept for broadcast, knowing full well that if they put something on the air that is offending to their national government or part of their audience and advertisers, the station could be fined, their license revoked, taken off the air and the owners potentially thrown in jail.
Mr. Ensor: “For these affiliates – as elsewhere in the world – we leverage our domestic reporting assets and correspondents to provide stations with what they would have, if they had a full-blown Washington Bureau. We do stand-ups from our rooftop overlooking the Capitol – and from the White House, State Department — and we do them from the New York Stock Exchange. We provide partner stations with something they cannot get otherwise: the U.S. perspective.”
The essence of what Mr. Ensor is saying is that the Voice of America is serving as a “Washington news bureau” for the foreign stations it services in this manner and in which the stations determine what editorial content to accept or reject.
In some cases, VOA may be able to suggest news stories, but some of these foreign stations have been known to insist on stories and features they want to get, avoid any kind of news content that can get them in trouble, sometimes even eliminate the VOA logo and in some cases describe US Government employees as reporters for their own station because an open association with Voice of America may be unpalatable.
For the Congress and the American taxpayer this is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable, especially if self-censorship of political news is involved and is made a requirement for such placement. The US State Department and other agencies of US government can just as easily pay for and achieve placement of non-news, cultural and other public relations content. It is an abuse of the agency’s codified mission and the funding authorized for that mission. This description of what the agency is doing puts it in a servile position to the foreign broadcaster and foreign governments who can demand what they want from the agency in terms of content and reject serious news and commentary.
Returning to the last sentence in this segment,
Mr. Ensor: “We provide partner stations with something they cannot get otherwise: the U.S. perspective.”
What exactly constitutes “the U.S. perspective” in this broad, vague and overreaching statement? As we have noted, if “the U.S. perspective” runs substantially contrary to the prevailing views of the in-country national government or clashes with the local station’s preferences, does this perspective make its way onto the air? We think likely not.
And what of the perspective of the US Government? Does that make its way into the content provided by VOA in its servile position to foreign broadcasters on whose stations the agency has placed programs? Is the agency reduced to nothing more than a creampuff infotainment provider? What steps are taken to offer and ensure balanced perspective?
Mr. Ensor goes on to comment on what he believes the agency needs:
Mr. Ensor: “– U.S. international broadcasting needs a better management structure with a fulltime, qualified leader – something the BBG fully recognizes and is working hard to achieve.”
This agency needs better management, period. Better management with known leadership qualities must come from outside the agency. It is nonexistent within the Cohen Building. Everyone in the management structure is tainted by the agency’s earned and deserved reputation for being:
- “Fallen behind the techniques employed by Russia, ISIS, and others”
The latest comment is from House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel (NY). “Practically defunct” was the term used by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to describe the agency when she was still ex officio member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Rudderless is synonymous with leaderless and the lack of an effective leadership philosophy to successfully accomplish the agency’s mission. In its place, the agency is awash with shameless self-promoters and personal agendas.
For its part, the BBG has been adept at shirking its management responsibilities.
If the BBG is remarkable for anything it would include being disengaged, disconnected. It has proven effective in passing off its responsibilities to others – most of the time to the agency’s senior career bureaucrats who are largely responsible for making the agency the unmitigated failure that it has become.
Consistent with its “pass off the responsibility to someone else” operating model, the BBG hoped that Andrew Lack would shoulder all the responsibility for turning the agency around as its first Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
It didn’t happen.
Mr. Lack beat it out of the building after being in the position for about 40 days.
That is not a positive on a variety of levels and is seen as such both in and outside of the Federal government.
Mr. Ensor: “– It also needs more resources. For America to respond adequately to the RTs and CCTVs of the world, the U.S. will need to fund our efforts appropriately. It is time for our country to take international broadcasting – and public diplomacy generally – more seriously.”
The short answer here is that the agency is not going to get those resources in its current state. They are unavailable. The Congress would be deficient in its fiduciary responsibilities to American taxpayers to throw good money after bad to an agency in such disrepair. It is a sterling example of waste and abuse in the Federal Government.
And members of Congress know it. The Congress provides funding to keep the agency on life support until its future is determined, in part by way of reform legislation making its way through the legislative process. That is what the Congress should do at this point: pass the reform legislation and present it to the President for his signature.
We should also note: if we know the agency is leaderless and in disarray, you can be certain the Chinese, Iranians and Russians, among others, are very cognizant of the agency’s collapse.
Mr. Ensor: “– There is a need too for constant vigilance against misguided attempts to restrict VOA from reporting independently and honestly on all the subjects that audiences want to hear about. We at VOA are proud of our coverage of our own country, and are constantly looking for ways to make it better, but we also know that if VOA were ever to be limited by law to just covering U.S. news, many of our key audiences would turn elsewhere for information they currently get from us. Our country would lose valuable influence around the world.”
Our position on this subject is very clear:
Congressional legislation to reform US Government international broadcasting is not only necessary, it is imperative.
The failed mission of this agency has created a serious strategic vacuum that threatens US national interests and elevates the risk posed to Americans abroad and here in the homeland.
What this statement represents is a variation on Mr. Ensor’s theme that the agency is “a news company.”
As someone has remarked, this agency needs “adult supervision.” What that includes is making it absolutely clear to agency employees is who employs them and what their obligations are to carry out the agency’s mission. Employees do not determine the agency’s mission.
Inside the Cohen Building, “independence” also equates with lack of accountability.
Opponents to congressional reform of this agency have attempted to portray congressional legislation as a threat to its “journalistic credibility and integrity.”
It was, is and remains a false argument based largely on disinformation and some confusing wording in the original 2014 bill which has since been corrected.
Opponents to the legislation have tried also to portray the agency’s mission as news-only.
It is not.
The agency’s mission has three core components. The news is only one.
Portraying the agency as one dimensional and bipartisan supporters of reform legislation as partisan, uninformed and misguided appears to be the intent of an editorial to the Los Angeles Times in 2014 titled, “Back Off Congress.”
Opponents to the legislation have made public statements in BBG meetings in which congressional reform legislation was portrayed as having the effect of turning VOA into a mouthpiece for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon (Department of Defense). And in the most laughable argument of all, opponents claimed that there would be a “mass exodus of VOA journalists” should reform legislation be approved. In so many words, the exodus is not going to happen. These people enjoy excellent pay and benefits.
(But it would make great copy for parody websites like “The Onion.” Imagine if you will a new DC tourist attraction, “The Mass Exodus of VOA Journalists” with tourists gathering outside the C Street entrance to the Cohen Building, some sporting lawn chairs and beach umbrellas and video cameras while vendors sell lemonade, hot dogs and ice cream.)
In the meantime,
The agency has been told publicly that the Congress will not fund an agency that is one-dimensional and attempts to ignore the agency’s mission as codified in the VOA Charter.
The message to is clear and unmistakable: the Congress is not going to allow these individuals to hijack the agency’s mission or hold the Congress and the American taxpayer hostage.
Congressional legislation makes clear just how far gone this agency is in terms of its inability to carry out its mission. Being arrogant and defiant – as well as misleading – does not add to the longevity of this agency. It is not a testament to “journalistic credibility and integrity.” It has more the appearance of some kind of agenda-driven malevolence.
At The End Of The Day
The rest of the world is moving along, and seemingly away from the agency, the Voice of America in particular.
Global publics are discovering their voices and interests. They appear to believe that they do not owe some kind of fealty to the VOA newsroom or what the agency broadcasts. The agency does not have a superior position in global narratives. Global publics appear to be embracing different points of view, gravitating to media outlets that support their outlook. They have many choices.
Another thing opponents to the legislation like to do is misdirect blame for the situation the agency finds itself in. A favorite target is the U.S. Congress.
People inside the Cohen Building are into some serious denial of their own culpability in the agency’s problems. They refuse to take ownership of or accept accountability for the agency’s mission failure. They would rather be having ice cream socials.
Mr. Ensor is not solely responsible for the agency’s collapse. Some actions started long before his arrival. Unfortunately, his statement memorializes him as the public face on a very severe problem.
In delivering his “manifesto,” Mr. Ensor most likely believes he was doing the agency a favor. In our view, he didn’t. His statement may have had the opposite effect; it turned some members of Congress and congressional staffers of both parties further against VOA:
There is nothing written anywhere that says this agency is entitled to exist in perpetuity without regard to mission failure, wasting taxpayer funds and getting a pass on accountability.
It can be reorganized. It can be replaced.
The national and public interest demands one or the other.