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: Consequences
By The Federalist
The sudden and precipitous departure of Andrew Lack as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) first officially appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO), official title BBG Director, barely more than a biblically symbolic forty days, does not portend favorably for the near and distant future of the agency.
We may never have a full and accurate accounting as to the circumstances surrounding Mr. Lack’s departure. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of possibilities, you can be assured his departure has negative consequences of great magnitude.
The Last, Best Hope
Some people inside the Cohen Building have developed a cavalier and dismissive attitude toward Mr. Lack and the brevity of his appointment. Such feelings are dubious and naïve.
People both inside and outside the agency invested in the belief that Mr. Lack represented the agency’s best chance for rehabilitation. Those with limited perspective within the Cohen Building do not appreciate the time and expense represented by the search for a private sector executive with the right skill sets relative to the size and scope of the agency’s problems.
Add to that whatever vetting was conducted by congressional staff, the Office of Personnel Management and the White House.
This is not an agency that requires some minor tweaking to get it moving in the right direction. Words commonly used to describe the agency’s status are:
There are no positives here. Do not look for resolution of the agency’s immense problems of its own making to come from within. The agency is as described and it gets worse with each passing day. Its federal part is not deserving of taxpayer funds under its current management and with its current overall performance, excluding some of the better performing non-federal grantee organizations, although some of them also have problems. Overall, it does not serve the national and public interest. It is the worst agency in the Federal government. It has no effective reach or resonance with global publics. Its officials and public relations employees make wild and largely unsupportable claims of “successes” in the agency’s operations. BBG chairman Jeffrey Shell remarked in an interview that he felt good about the agency for the first time with Lack’s appointment. Statements like that make Shell appear detached at best, in deep denial at worst, with Lack’s departure within days of this statement being uttered.
At the end of the day, what we are left with is this:
For the mission it is charged with, the federal agency is a total, unmitigated disaster.
In its own way, the agency is a monument to bureaucratic malfeasance that goes far beyond standard definitions of waste and mismanagement. It is a culture of waste and mismanagement that has become the agency’s “new normal.” It is not normal at all, particularly within the sphere of government and public administration funded at taxpayer expense.
A cornerstone to this “new normal” is appearing to operate beyond and without regard to law, rule, regulation or accountability. One sees repeated instances of this in the agency’s attempt to disregard decisions made by arbitrators, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the courts in its dealings with the employee AFGE union and its blatant disregard of limitations placed on the hiring of contractors, among many other things. To their credit, Jeff Shell and the new board put a stop to the agency’s managers and lawyers years-long effort to prevent illegally RIFed Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s (OCB’s) journalists from getting their jobs back.
One of the most important consequences to take from Lack’s departure is both the appearance and the fact that the agency is beyond reform. It is too compromised and tainted by its senior officials. Working through the agency’s senior staffing pattern reads like a “Who’s Who” of people contributing to the agency’s decision-making that have put it in very negative territory. Few if any would escape the taint that they bring to themselves and to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
And just as bad are some individuals below them who have allowed themselves to accept the debilitating atmosphere created by its senior officials. Most often, they are quick to place blame on others: the Congress, BBG Watch, the BBG itself, anyone other than those deserving of censure. In the deep psychosis of the agency, no one is prepared to take ownership of the agency’s implosion. It is always someone else’s fault.
Back To Business As Usual
With Lack out of the picture, the agency is back to conducting business as usual. Front and center in that posture is the agency’s FY2016 budget with cuts to language services, personnel and radio broadcasts that senior officials would very much like to see happen. Claiming that it is pursuing new technologies, the reality is that the Voice of America has no global mass audience to its English news programs, with or without these new media platforms. Senior officials want to boast of having the latest technologies but in actual fact, they are no guarantors of an audience.
In the FY2016 BBG budget, cuts to Voice of America (VOA) include:
Eliminate Indonesian Radio – 13 FTEs & 3 Contractors
End Central African Broadcasts (Kirundi & Kinyarwanda) – 7 FTEs
End Lao Service – 5 FTEs
Reduce (Rationalize is the term they use) Afghan Radio Broadcasts – 15 FTEs
Total: 40 career employees and 3 contractors.
The elimination of VOA Indonesian Service radio broadcasts seems to be a noticeable departure for the agency which in the past has held up the service as a “success” story. Apparently, the agency finds itself being backed into a corner by a country which has legislated restrictions on broadcasts or rebroadcasts of news from foreign sources. Not to mention that Indonesian television stations with which the agency has placed its programs have myriad ways of editing program content or not broadcasting it at all. Under the budget proposal, the end of VOA Indonesian radio programs has been set in motion. But the expensive and underproductive television element (in content and relative to the agency’s mission) may not be far behind.
As to the Central African broadcasts, the question would be: with all the instability in much of Africa today, what US interests are being served by ending these broadcasts when many conditions on the ground remain contested or in doubt?
The VOA Lao Service has managed to beat the odds and hang on for many years. But those days may be ending, for broadcasts to a small, landlocked country which seems to have become strategically devalued by the agency or the Obama administration.
With the Afghan radio broadcasts, we take note that the Afghan president (Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai) is here in Washington (March 23) making the case for continued US support, citing a new season of military operations against the Taliban and foreign jihadist fighters. And we can’t help noticing the term “rationalizing” used by the agency to describe its actions.
When it comes to this agency, “rational” is an oxymoron. There is nothing rational about an agency that is dysfunctional and defunct. In effect, what the agency is doing its own version of “cut and run,” in another strategic arena that is being contested by forces opposed to US interests.
Meanwhile, From The Tower of “Babble”
Perhaps the smugger among the occupants of the Cohen Building is the “Back Off Congress” crowd, who immediately pounced on Lack with questions about his position regarding legislation to reform the agency which stalled in the last Congress but is likely to be reintroduced in the current Congress.
Let’s make one thing very clear: this group of insiders uses the phrase “journalistic credibility and integrity” as a canard, a type of “code” to support doing business as usual.
It is important to note that the VOA Charter should be the agency’s Top Priority. Within the Charter, the first order of business has to do with the importance of the agency’s news content. This output of information has top priority because it is intended to be what draws people to listen to other agency information content called for in items 2 and 3 of the Charter.
Clearly, the agency isn’t getting the job done with regard to the #1 provision of the Charter.
Fourteen years and a few months into the 21st century, the single, most notable “accomplishment” of the agency has been the demolition of the VOA Newsroom. This wasn’t something accidental. It was deliberately set upon by policies of VOA director David Ensor and VOA executive editor Steve Redisch. They did a great job of it, dispersing resources and laying claim to “43 newsrooms” among the VOA language services. With this goal accomplished, the agency is left with a fragmented news effort marked by inexcusable delays in its own reporting of breaking and/or developing news.
Add to this the growing dependence on third party news content provided by news services like the Associated Press and Reuters. The issue isn’t these news services. The issue is the absence of regular, daily news content originated by the VOA newsroom. If you are looking for news and information generated by a US Government information agency, delivering the news and explaining US policy, look elsewhere.
And there is also the matter of editorial content provided by third parties, without responsible discussion presenting alternative points of view or discussion of official US policy. Of late, one would think that the agency has become the partisan Voice of the White House, the Voice of Putin, the Voice of Hamas or the Voice of Hezbollah when you see some content from contract and other providers on the VOA website that clearly does not meet the VOA Charter’s requirements for accuracy, objectivity and balance.
You might also throw in another David Ensor contribution by creating what we call “mission schizophrenia,” by alternately calling the agency a “news company” to one audience and a “state broadcaster” to others.
In all of this, we think we may have struck upon the salient issue for the demise of this agency:
A Potential Missing Ingredient
While all of these things above may be major contributors to the agency’s overall demise, the one thing that may be pushing the agency over the cliff is the absence of moral clarity.
This concept was recently discussed in an op-ed piece on Forbes.com and reposted on BBG Watch:
BORSHCHEVSKAYA Moral Clarity In Countering Anti-Western Propaganda, BBG Watch, March 14, 2015
Whether it is promoting business as usual or becoming an all about hating America mouthpiece, the absence of moral clarity appears to stand out in VOA content, particularly on its main website. It shows up in ways large and small: the turn of a phrase, a headline, editorial content by contractors and others. This may be the common denominator coupled with the agency’s other self-inflicted negatives that has pushed global publics away from the agency and diminished both its credibility and effectiveness.
At the end of the day, we don’t hold out much hope for this agency without outside (congressional) intervention. Absent that action, the agency is pre-ordained to continue on a trajectory of a painful collapse, sometimes incrementally and other times accelerated.