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 – Essential Ingredients: Threats, Deception and Management By Clichés
By The Federalist
It’s not often that one witnesses a political appointee publicly burning bridges behind him. But that is what David Ensor appears to have done as he departed the halls of the Cohen Building as the latest Voice of America (VOA) director in May 2015.
No high road here. Clearly, Mr. Ensor is a very angry person. In that regard, the last thing someone should do is vent that anger publicly, as he did. The setting was one of the regular morning meetings of the VOA newsroom staff, the last week in May. Apparently, Mr. Ensor must have believed he was speaking to a sympathetic audience: in essence, perhaps some employees opposed to congressional legislation intended to reform US Government international broadcasting.
The meeting was concurrent with a statement by Mr. Ensor appearing on the VOA English website. In both the newsroom meeting and the statement, Mr. Ensor made a bald-faced statement of defiance, carving out a hostile and adversarial position to the legislation.
That is bad enough as it is. But he made things infinitesimally worse for himself and his reputation and also for the agency.
As reported in The Washington Post, Mr. Ensor implied that he would “kill” the grantee broadcasting entities of the agency if the legislation put VOA in an inferior position and somehow limited its capabilities, particularly its news content.
According to sources, Ensor reportedly said,
I am telling the surrogates to knock it off (apparently referring to his interpretation of language in HR 2323 and the respective missions of the grantees and VOA). I am pointing out to them that RFE/RL and RFA have big offices in Washington that could be closed if this happens. We all need to keep making this argument.
Rather bold rhetoric.
Maybe we missed something, but contrary to Mr. Ensor’s view, the US grantee broadcasters appear to be down below the radar. All the bombast seems to be coming from VOA; Mr. Ensor’s warning being the loudest and most noticeable.
Many times we have talked about the atmosphere inside the Cohen and the attitude of its senior officials. We have talked about the attempt to hold the Congress and American taxpayers hostage to a failed mission and block necessary reforms to the agency.
Mr. Ensor made a sterling representation of all this in his remarks to VOA newsroom staff.
He didn’t do the agency or its employees any favors with his comments. Perhaps, he may have accelerated the VOA’s demise.
Let’s be mindful of something we remarked upon recently:
There is nothing written anywhere that says the VOA is entitled to exist in perpetuity without regard to being a failed agency, with a failed mission and without necessary accountability.
If there was any doubt about this before the Ensor remarks, most assuredly, those doubts, if they existed at all, have been erased. It’s time for changes to be made.
We have long had zero tolerance for the nonsense inside the Cohen Building. At this juncture, there need to be consequences for remarks which may be intended to embolden employees to publicly adopt a hostile and adversarial posture toward the Congress and others who support agency reform.
Timing Is Everything
‘Tis the season: This is one of those times that senior officials of the worst -managed agency in the Federal Government fear the most: the annual Federal workplace survey in which agency employees are asked to rate their managers and agencies.
The Broadcasting Board of Governments has consistently ranked at/or near the bottom in these surveys since they began years ago. It is a consistent pattern that one would expect from an agency that is:
Sources report the following inside the Cohen Building during “survey season:”
- Messages on video monitors in the building and in emails taking note that it’s survey time. These same messages try to lay claim that the agency has “improved.”
- Senior officials visiting employee workspaces, talking cliché-ridden platitudes again laying claim to “how much better the agency has gotten recently.”
Some officials have made a direct connection to the surveys and “how influential they can be,” encouraging employees to take the survey and then pitching the line that the agency has made “improvements.”
The tactics are as blunt as the personal agendas of these managers: they want to preserve “business as usual.”
Seemingly, Mr. Mendes is fond of clichés. Consider Andre Mendes, the interim CEO offering this, as a source noted,
“We have moved mountains and people are still looking at the valleys. This criticism is about where we were three years ago. But we need to be a relevant media organization in the 21st century. There is a book on Amazon called “What Brought You Here Won’t Get You There.” Adaptability to market conditions has to be our guiding star.”
No mountains have moved.
And criticisms have mounted about the current VOA.
The Voice of America has adapted to market conditions: the Voice of America has tanked. This is especially and plainly visible on social media.
Audiences have gone elsewhere, not counting questionable paid placement of pre-censored programs, often in countries with their own free media.
VOA is a notorious practitioner of “motion without movement.” These kinds of remarks are nothing more than showboating: trying to sell damaged goods.
VOA is in as bad or worse standing than it was three years ago.
And Mr. Mendes repeats the terminology of ex-VOA director Ensor by referring to the agency as a “media organization.” Forget the “relevant” part. It isn’t – no more than being a paragon of “journalistic credibility and integrity.” In substance, that has disappeared as well. It’s been all downhill since that “Back Off Congress” editorial in The Los Angeles Times in 2014.
This is an agency of the US Government. It is a communications and information agency. People who refuse to acknowledge this contribute to the agency’s decline and what appears to be a growing likelihood of its restructuring and possible demise.
The agency has set aside $50-MILLION dollars for alleged audience surveys that say nothing about whether global publics are able to see, hear, read and identify “uncensored” VOA programs over radio, television and the internet. In so many words, these surveys take on the appearance of avoidance.
Here’s the real deal:
The American taxpayer could have been saved much of this wasted $50-MILLION dollars by simply looking at the number of hits to stories on VOA websites or on the Facebook pages that its language services maintain. The traffic is anemic, except in some very rare circumstances.
Let’s say it again:
The traffic is anemic.
A few “Likes” for a VOA story, compared to hundreds, thousands and sometimes tens of thousands for an RT, BBC, or New York Times story – when you have a global population of 7-BILLION.
We, the American taxpayers, have been ripped off by this agency and its flim-flam smoke and mirrors game with “audience research.”
We Know This Game – And So Do You
Look at things this way:
An agency that loses its top pick to be its first Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is not an agency making “improvements.” Some people would like to believe that there is no place to go but up. To the contrary, it is steadfastly burrowing deeper into the nightmare it created.
The sales pitch is tacky. It is insulting. It is offensive to people’s intelligence. It is unprofessional. And most important, it is largely false.
But there is an even more insidious aspect to this:
Symbolically, the agency is taking on more and more characteristics of delusion.
The worst example of this is video messages on monitors throughout the building exhorting employees to take the survey and followed up by the fictional claim of agency “improvements.”
In the case of this agency, all that is needed is an agency caricature for a “Dear Leader.”
The status of this failed agency makes it imperative that new leadership must come from outside the agency.
Everyone in senior management has been tainted by the agency’s abysmal record and is seemingly working very hard to make that record the agency’s permanent state of being.
That tells you everything you need to know: the folks on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building are incapable of doing anything other than what they are doing daily to cement the agency’s failed mission status.
It is blatantly obvious.
As is a tendency for shameless self-promotion.
Indeed, it is worse than that. It is a spawning ground for megalomania, narcissism, deceit and delusions of grandeur.
If you want a case study in how a Federal agency’s mission is suffocated from within, look no further than the 3300 corridor of the Cohen Building.
Resuscitation must come from elsewhere.
It wouldn’t surprise us if some senior official would try to claim responsibility for Ensor’s departure. It is total nonsense. At the end of the day, it may be more accurate to say that, in word and deed, Mr. Ensor is responsible for Mr. Ensor’s departure. But certain individuals within senior management may be willing to stoop to this level of self-promotion.
What Needs To Be Done
If you are an agency employee, your best resource against the deception that has run amok in this agency is the employee survey. You need to know that. You need to know that senior officials of the agency are more than just worried. They are terrified. They have been found out.
Reform in the Federal Government is a process: lengthy and laborious. Your job is to keep the pressure on. Tell it like it is. None of the characters who encumber senior positions in this agency would survive in a mission-driven environment. Expose them for what they are.
You would be doing the country an important service by taking this survey and reflecting the true character of this agency.
It is not – repeat NOT – a futile exercise.
In the hands of these individuals, they have created a very serious and palatable vacuum which threatens US national interests. This situation cannot be tolerated. Employees of this agency need to send a clear and unmistakable message that this degree of mission degradation cannot and must not be tolerated nor accepted as “business as usual” in the hands of these individuals who are the antithesis of good government and administration.
Let’s be clear: you don’t have leaders in this agency. You have placeholders on an organizational chart.
Left in place, this agency is not long for this world in its current configuration. These individuals are not the least bit concerned about the agency’s mission, the national and public interest or its employees.
Their primary concern is self-preservation – at all costs.