BBG Watch Commentary
A new commentary from our regular contributor The Federalist deals with the Voice of America (VOA), a U.S. taxpayer-funded international media outlet within the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency overseen by presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed bipartisan board.
Voice of America – Information War Lost: Beyond Dysfunctional and Defunct
By The Federalist
David Ensor, the Voice of America (VOA) director, has a mantra. He repeats this mantra wherever he goes. The mantra is, “We (VOA) are a news company.”
This mantra has been, is now and forever will remain a misrepresentation of the agency and its mission.
This is an agency of the United States Government. Its business used to be news and information, as codified in the VOA Charter. Senior agency officials – and we include the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in this – appear to believe that the Charter no longer exists and is not important.
As the agency’s coverage (and that is being far too charitable) of the US mid-term elections clearly demonstrated, it is no longer functional as a credible or reliable source for the news and information it is expected and required to provide.
BBG Watch commentaries have covered this debacle extensively as to the pertinent details.
What we offer here is an overview of broader implications.
You can label the agency absent in this major electoral event which has reshaped the US political landscape with as yet to be determined consequences. These consequences will reverberate over the next two years in the lead up to the US general election in 2016 which will include determining who will be the next President of the United States and from which political party.
Apparently, Mr. Ensor and VOA executive editor Steve Redisch deemed an event of this magnitude not worthy of foreign audiences.
This reinforces our view that VOA is no longer an international broadcaster. It is a relic. An also-ran. Something left over from another era. A place where a circus-like atmosphere prevails. A place where ice cream socials and other forms of narcissistic behavior seem to have top priority.
In contrast, real international broadcasters covered this event extensively, particularly the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), along with Russia’s RT and others. This event was big news around the globe. In the realm of international broadcasting, there was a narrative to be had and these other broadcasters took command of it.
But in the deep psychosis of the Voice of America, the agency has taken ownership of a deep denial of the American Experience and projects that denial into its performance. Along with the anemic coverage of important national and international news, we would include the horrid agency blog “All About (Hating) America,” something we find contemptible for some of its outrageous, factually and historically unbalanced content.
We should also be mindful that Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch rolled out what they have called a “digital first” strategy, which appears to have been intended to highlight the agency’s Internet platform as a go-to news source.
It is a bust.
As was demonstrated in the mid-term election, you can call VOA digital first: “go to last.”
Globally, in places where Internet access is unfettered, audiences quickly learned that other sources were much more reliable for up-to-date news and analysis on the election. This would have included not only other international broadcasters, but also live streaming by US domestic broadcasters, like National Public Radio (NPR), with live streaming or other penetrative analysis.
And elsewhere in the world – where agency broadcasts and Internet websites are blocked, audiences got nothing from VOA – not only because of effective countermeasures but just as importantly because VOA had nothing timely to offer.
The net result:
Voice of America: Big Time Loser
For this agency and its officials to unilaterally abandon the mission of this agency is absolutely atrocious, unconscionable. This is the ultimate expression that it is no longer useful. It is misspent US taxpayer dollars. It speaks to an agency intending to be defiantly useless, wallowing in ineptitude if not outright incompetence.
This kind of wholesale failure goes a long way toward understanding why the Congress would spend a significant amount of time crafting legislation (H.R. 4490) to reform US Government international broadcasting.
There are those who believe that this legislation is going nowhere.
One shouldn’t be so eager to reach that conclusion.
The issue of the failure of this agency is way above the radar. It is not likely to go away. With forthcoming changes to the political landscape, this legislation may reappear – and its reappearance may be in a revised form with perhaps even more repercussions and consequences for those who willingly and eagerly embrace the agency’s dysfunctional and defunct status quo.
Speaking of the political landscape:
In some countries abroad, the Obama administration is perceived favorably, perhaps not always for the right reasons, and not in most nations of East and Central Europe which feel threatened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in Ukraine. But some global publics do think the administration’s “leading from behind” policies are a good thing. Some also see it as an opportunity to take advantage of an apparent weakening of US resolve.
That makes the results of this election a shock.
Part of the shock comes from a lack of explanation that the Obama presidency has become increasingly viewed in the negative here in the United States. In the big picture, this election repudiates the broad direction of administration policies and ideology.
Whether one agrees with this view or not, the important issue here is that global publics got next to nothing from the VOA in explanation and discussion of the election results that can only come from dramatic live, in-the-moment narrative and broadcast coverage that used to be a hallmark of the agency’s worldwide English service and newsroom.
Producing what are called “backgrounders,” or reports well in advance of the elections, without follow-up on the day of the elections, doesn’t cut it. The moment the polls close and the results start to come in, those backgrounders are yesterday’s news. Doing a special report with considerable delay for several affiliates, which can only be found in countries that already have free or at least semi-free media, also does not cut it.
And for global audiences, there is the matter of the US electoral process itself.
In many part of the world, this process is a marvel. In recent memory, it contrasts sharply with the ridiculously glorified “Arab Spring” replete with examples of violence, elected officials overthrown by the military and arrested, and in other places, fleeing for their lives.
Thus, the once venerable but now defunct Voice of America takes a pass on what makes the American electoral process exceptional, particularly for people whose experiences are otherwise – if they even have the right to vote at all.
Some would refer to the election as a teaching opportunity compliant with part 2 of the VOA Charter. If so, senior officials appear to have decided to call recess. Maybe there was another ice cream social to plan for.
Andrew, Andrew, Wherefore Art Thou, Andrew?
There are some people inside the VOA headquarters building who subscribe to the hope that Andrew Lack will save all, as the BBG’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
We would label this an unrealistic expectation.
Mr. Lack’s mission, if you wish to call it such, is likely dead-on-arrival.
This is not a reflection on Mr. Lack and his impressive credentials.
It’s all about the place.
This agency is unlike the private sector where Mr. Lack has much experience with different value structures, performance standards and measurements of success or failure.
And the ability to make substantive personnel changes, as should be the order of the day for Ensor and Redisch in the debacle of the magnitude represented by the collapse of news coverage of the US mid-term elections.
Instead, this agency revels in dysfunction, glorifies it and defies anyone to fix it (as seen in a “Back Off Congress” op-ed piece to The Los Angeles Times).
In the private sector, a person of Mr. Lack’s stature might be called upon to rescue a venture that is trying to do the right thing but falls short in execution.
Here, the agency in its entirety has abandoned its mission; and at this juncture, doesn’t appear to know what its mission is.
Mr. Ensor’s repeated mischaracterization of the agency and its mission is a clear indication that the necessary and correct focus has disappeared.
Perhaps even worse, is another possible scenario:
We recall not long ago, statements made by Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser in the Obama administration, at a BBG meeting.
In short, Mr. Rhodes heaped praise upon the BBG and the job it is doing.
To some observers this was publicly putting a good face on a bad situation.
But to others, one interpretation of Mr. Rhodes’ statements might suggest that the agency is in the posture the administration wants for it: to be dysfunctional and defunct.
Some might view that to be a shocking conclusion; that is, until you observe the agency’s overall performance not only before but since Mr. Rhodes’ remarks. This agency is marching in lock step to its dysfunctional and defunct status quo.
Corrective action of any kind appears non-existent, ineffective and untimely.
In turn, this lends credence to the view that the most likely outcome of Mr. Lack’s appointment is an exercise in futility, particularly if you know the agency’s dysfunctional and defunct record and a building full of bureaucrats and sycophants committed to preserving it at all costs without regard to Mr. Lack or anyone else who would intend necessary rehabilitation.
Not a pretty or hopeful picture any way you look at it.
If anything, it gives more impetus to the conclusion that the only sensible action is to close the agency and reconstruct US Government international broadcasting molded to a different model.
Voice of America midnight (12:00AM ET 11-5-2014) radio newscast – not a word about U.S. elections
Voice of America Radio On Demand-Online World News 12 Midnight 11-5-14 Downloaded 12:40 AM
11:00PM ET – U.S. election night – hardly any Tweets from Voice of America English News
The last three VOA English News Tweets at 11:07 PM ET are four hours, two hours, and 40 minutes old.
In addition to slow updating of Voice of America English news website, VOA English news Twitter, and absolutely no U.S. election coverage on VOA radio during the evening, VOA English Facebook page was also not being updated with U.S. election results most of the evening and during the night after the voting in the U.S.
While VOA eventually posted some U.S. election photos on VOA English Facebook page late in the evening, but the last substantive VOA English Facebook U.S. election night related posts were from six to ten hours old.