BBG Watch Commentary
Reform of US Government international broadcasting cannot and must not be held hostage by a group of individuals motivated by self-interest intent upon preserving a dysfunctional and defunct Federal agency. The latest incident at the Voice of America (VOA) confirms it.
Last week, VOA did not send a staff correspondent with Vice President Biden to Kyiv to cover the inauguration of Ukraine’s President Poroshenko, but it had money to send VOA Director David Ensor on an European trip to Poland and apparently also to Ukraine at the same time or within hours of Poroshenko’s inauguration.
A VOA English News video report from Kyiv about the presidential inauguration and political situation in Ukraine, filed by a VOA reporter who is not a Eurasia expert, did not show Vice President Biden or even mention him and the bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation, which included Sens. John McCain, Chris Murphy and Ron Johnson and Rep. Marcy Kaptur. Mr. Ensor may have been already in Kyiv and yet did nothing to ensure adequate coverage of the visit by Vice President Biden and members of the U.S. Congress.
Their visit was eventually barely noted in a short text addition on the VOA English news website posted late without a headline and without any substantive details or multimedia content. VOA English news website has worldwide reach as do Russia’s RT and Voice of Russia English language websites.
Resource-starved VOA Ukrainian and Russian services did not do much more on Biden, but they did post separate reports with headlines and some photos. As senior VOA executives travel around the world, they have not provided these services with adequate staff and resources to update their news website and social media pages promptly 24/7.
Russia’s RT and Voice of Russia had more information on Biden and his announcement of new U.S. aid to Ukraine than VOA English News, but they of course presented it with an anti-American slant.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which has a different, surrogate mission, did more on Biden and the Congressional delegation than VOA.
The Washington Post editorial does not oppose management reforms at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). It supports them, as did the New York Times editorial.
The Washington Post finds, however, issues with the bipartisan Royce – Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Legislation wording about VOA’s specific mission.
While we also have some concerns about that wording, we believe that the problem can be easily addressed in the Senate version of the bill with a few edits without undermining the bill’s reforming provisions which are absolutely necessary for the Voice of America’s survival.
International Broadcasting Bureau – Our Best Product: Dysfunctional and Defunct – Information War Lost: Taking The Washington Post To Task
By The Federalist
On Sunday, June 08, 2014 The Washington Post published an editorial weighing in on the debate over the future of US Government international broadcasting (“Voice of America needs to keep its objective voice”).
The Post editorial reads much like one published recently by The New York Times, supporting management reforms, but also repeating what we would describe as the concocted hysteria and internal doom-and-gloom, “apocalypse now” propaganda being promoted by agency officials and some Voice of America (VOA) Newsroom opponents of congressional legislation (H.R. 4490) intended to recover the agency’s mission and effectiveness.
As a result, the Post’s editorial presents an incomplete picture of why this agency is one of the worst organizations in the Federal Government living up to the label placed upon it by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “defunct.”
The Post’s editorial leaves out most of the discussion of the Findings and Declarations found in the legislation which catalogs the extent of dysfunction in this agency. So doing is a disservice to its readers.
Instead, the Post concentrates on one and only one provision of the VOA Charter, which stipulates that the agency be, “a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news…”
There is nothing in the legislation to suggest that the VOA should do otherwise.
But what the Post’s editorial does do is equates “public diplomacy” with propaganda. The two are not the same.
Furthermore – and what is perhaps most important – the agency’s public diplomacy role is already codified – in the VOA Charter. The Charter is not limited to the news component of what the agency does. It goes on to speak to, “…present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.” That is a form of “public diplomacy:” informing the rest of the world of what constitutes the American Experience.
In addition, the Charter states, “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”
This hardly constitutes a model for insinuating propaganda into the agency’s news programming.
Absenting these salient provisions of the Charter puts the Post’s editorial in the position of being co-opted by opponents of the bipartisan congressional legislation needed to get the agency back on track.
In its effect, what the opponents of the legislation are attempting to do is purloin the VOA Charter in its entirety and manipulate it to their liking.
And then there is the matter of “independence.”
This is a favorite canard of opponents of the congressional legislation.
With this agency, “independence” equates with no accountability.
It doesn’t bother the opponents to the legislation that they expect the American taxpayer to pony up $800-MILLION dollars a year so that the agency can go about its dysfunctional “business as usual.” There has to be – and the American people should expect – accountability from government officials in this and any other agency of the Federal Government.
Then there is this, our “favorite” part of the editorial:
The Post questions reporting requirements to the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. As the Post states,
“The result could be an exodus of the VOA’s best journalists and a steep drop in its credibility with international audiences.”
This is laughable and outrageous. It is just as outrageous when it appeared as a suggested consequence by an anonymous agency employee in the New York Times piece.
So much for originality.
It would be just as ludicrous if someone suggested an ownership change of the Post from one family member to another, but still within the same family, could cause a mass exodus of its best journalists, etc.
Here’s the reality:
On June 3, 2014 David Ensor, VOA director, paid a call on the VOA Newsroom. The intent was to unveil what he calls “digital first,” an attempt to resuscitate the VOA English website. In Ensor’s own words,
“…’Digital first’ is a lot easier to say than it is to clearly define, or execute. We are going to need everyone’s help designing changes in our workflow that will point us in the right direction.”
This is indicative of the management style of the agency: creating a label for something and not being able to clearly define what it means, what it does or know how to execute it.
In the same meeting, Mr. Ensor encountered substantial pushback from some of the VOA staffers present. One staffer was quoted to have remarked,
“You want to know why people have bad morale here? It’s because no one believes what management has to say anymore, because we have gone through five years of constant reorganization and change and we have ended up in this position where we can’t put stuff on the air.”
“We can’t put stuff on the air.”
What this comment does is show the VOA Newsroom dead center in the dysfunction.
To suggest that the Newsroom get an exemption from what needs to be done with this agency is just plainly ridiculous.
Similarly, talking in generalities about “poor organization,” “bad management” and “confused missions” doesn’t get the job done either.
What the situation requires is specificity and that is what H.R. 4490 delivers.
Contrary to what the Washington Post suggests, what threatens the agency most is not the provisions of H.R. 4490. Rather, it is a management culture inside the agency that is inept, incompetent and dysfunctional.
Former secretary Clinton’s label fits – perfectly.
Staffers also reminded Mr. Ensor of his visit to the VOA some years ago when he announced the elimination of 33 Newsroom positions with memorable, lasting descriptive quotes like there being “blood on the floor” and “no turning back” from where the agency is headed.
What exodus there has been from the VOA Newsroom staffers directly attribute to these decisions by Ensor or other senior agency officials – long before H.R. 4490 appeared above the horizon.
As to the agency’s credibility with its audiences, the fact of the matter is that the agency has been losing audience in recent years, particularly in strategic arenas like China, Russia and The Middle East. As the VOA Newsroom staffers attest, they can’t get news and information out of the Cohen Building in a timely manner.
The staffers know it.
We at BBG Watch know it.
Global publics know it.
As a result, global publics have been looking elsewhere for news and information.
We don’t expect the Post or the New York Times to know all the fine points of what has gone badly with this agency. However, we would expect that it would be more circumspect in buying into what is coming most likely from individuals such as senior agency officials who have the most to lose if this legislation is enacted.
From our perspective, it doesn’t surprise us that the Post, like The New York Times got played. They got played with what you would expect from the Third Floor of the Cohen Building:
The kind of spin intended to preserve the status quo and obstruct substantive reclamation of this agency and its mission.
H.R. 4490 is legislation in the national and public interest. It should be passed by the legislative branch, signed into law by the president and its provisions acted on without delay.