BBG Watch Commentary
Voice of America – Information War Lost: Lost in a Dream
By The Federalist
One of our sources forwarded to us an article by David Ensor, the Voice of America (VOA) director appearing on an agency website:
“VOA in 2020.”
You can view it here in its entirety:
After reading the piece, some comments:
We believe that Mr. Ensor would very much like to be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of VOA if not all of US Government international broadcasting. In part, it might be said that Mr. Ensor appears to operate from the view of if you expect more, you get more.
Before going any further we should remark that we harbor no personal animus toward Mr. Ensor. We find him to be approachable, engaging and likable.
It is unfortunate that he encumbers the position of VOA director at this time in the agency’s history. These are not good times for the agency and in his position Mr. Ensor has to contend with the agency’s record during this time.
This article appears to lay out Mr. Ensor’s vision for the agency’s future and by extension lays out the case for his being the right person for a CEO position.
We regret that we cannot support Mr. Ensor in this regard.
Can Mr. Ensor deliver the goods on the vision he presents? We don’t think so.
Respectfully, Mr. Ensor’s view is pure fantasy. The agency is not positioned and global conditions are not favorable to the vision of the agency’s future that Mr. Ensor projects.
From the outset, Mr. Ensor states,
“Imagine the VOA newsroom of the year 2020: a multi-ethnic, multi-skilled global hub connected with hundreds of reporters and stringers worldwide. By then, the VOA News Center will gather and distribute trustworthy information to perhaps 250 million people a week in many languages. Most of it will be video news and analysis, much of it watched on phones and tablets.”
Mr. Ensor starts by renaming the VOA Central Newsroom. He speaks of hundreds of reporters and stringers (contractors) worldwide with a global audience of 250 million relying on video news via cell phones and other wireless connectivity including tablet media.
This is not the direction the agency is headed. The VOA newsroom has been decimated in staffing and resources, much of it at the direction of senior agency officials including Mr. Ensor, members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the notorious International Broadcasting Bureau (the IBB) the great incubator for the agency’s failed mission.
To accomplish this vision would require a substantial amount of funding – an estimation of which Ensor does not provide. To expect more from an already dysfunctional and defunct agency will cost more – and usually much more than estimates provided by the agency. By one comparison alone, the People’s Republic of China currently outspends US Government international broadcasting by a sum of roughly $8-BILLION dollars to the agency’s $800-million dollars annually.
The audience target is also unrealistic. The agency is heading precipitously in the opposite direction, particularly as it abandons (and that is the right term) its core radio audiences. When you get right down to it, Mr. Ensor is talking about building an audience almost from scratch, something perhaps below 100-million weekly audiences.
In addition, Mr. Ensor’s current estimate of the agency’s audience of 164-million a week likely does not include analysis following the June 30, 2014 decision to eliminate a number of agency radio broadcasts including those in English, but it does include audiences to a large number of “safe” placement programs without hard-hitting VOA news. It may be music, English lessons, or innocuous cultural features that do not offend foreign governments and do not get local foreign affiliates in trouble. Some of this affiliate placement may not even be attributed directly to VOA.
And then there are the technology issues. Mr. Ensor completely ignores the substantive matters relating to interdiction of agency programs across all media platforms, but especially the Internet. The Chinese, Russians and Iranians have demonstrated the capability to successfully block agency programs. It is reasonable to expect these nations to expand and improve upon their capabilities.
In addition, as we already pointed out, other nations place restrictions on the agency in terms of permissible broadcast content to their populations when the agency attempts to place its programs on foreign radio and television stations.
Mr. Ensor correctly observes that “credibility is the key” and that the VOA Charter is the foundation for its credibility.
Unfortunately, as the agency abandons its audiences the equation is now, “no audience equals no credibility.” The agency’s news content can be peerless and above question. But if no one can see it, hear it or read it, there is no audience for the credibility to rest upon. If VOA places on affiliate stations English lessons, music, cultural features and even economic news, but not political news, its journalistic credibility becomes suspect.
Mr. Ensor is not supportive of necessary reform to US Government international broadcasting codified in legislation making its way through Congress. On the House of Representatives side, it is bill HR 4490 of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr. Ensor is clearly attempting to garner support from the IBB/BBG. It is the IBB/BBG vision of the agency that Mr. Ensor addresses, not the one laid out in the congressional legislation. Under that legislation, there would be two CEOs, one for VOA and another to manage a created “Freedom News Network” (FNN). In effect, Mr. Ensor is playing his cards so that in either scenario, he has a shot at a CEO position.
Mr. Ensor lays out a case for why VOA is necessary in a world with a multitude of commercial networks.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ensor has repeatedly referred to the agency as a “news company.” It is not. It is an agency of the United States Federal government. In his piece, Mr. Ensor makes many of the right arguments for the existence of the agency. Unfortunately, some of this reasoning has been undermined by some of his own statements portraying the agency as something other than what it is. Mr. Ensor appears to be changing his tune to suit his audience – which in this case would be the IBB/BBG or anyone else with influence over the selection of a CEO.
Mr. Ensor claims that VOA audiences want to know what Washington is saying. This is interesting given opposition to HR 4490 by the IBB, senior VOA officials and some employees in the VOA newsroom.
Various editorials and comments to BBG Watch make it clear that they want the agency to be a news outlet more – not less – like CNN and other commercial news outlets. These opponents object to the already established principles of the VOA Charter requiring it to do two other things in addition to being “a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news” that will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.
The rest of the Charter requires the agency to do the following:
- Present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
- Present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
These two requirements are viewed by opponents to the House legislation as propaganda. Clearly, they are not. Mr. Ensor may be attempting to distance himself from this position. However, people are very aware of his public support of op-ed opinion against the legislation. For Mr. Ensor, he can’t have his cake and eat it too.
This is commonly referred to as hedging.
This agency is appropriately labeled dysfunctional and defunct. Mr. Ensor would have to be seriously questioned if decision-making on his part contributed to the agency’s current state or not at all. We are talking about some serious probative questions – no creampuffs. Given the agency’s dire circumstances, it would be very difficult for even the most well-intentioned individual to escape being tainted by the mismanagement that is pervasive in this agency.
If it is the congressional vision of the agency’s future that prevails – and we support that vision – Mr. Ensor would be tasked with eliminating a bureaucracy (the IBB) and dealing with a diminished BBG which would be transformed to an advisory capacity. Having been surrounded by individuals who have made up these entities for Mr. Ensor’s tenure, it is doubtful at best that Mr. Ensor can manage these critical tasks – and to be responsive to the Congress in how he is progressing in these tasks.
In our view, the best course of action is choosing someone from outside the agency who is untainted by the agency’s record and/or the agency’s current management.
And by no means is the task a piece of cake for some outsider. We already know that persons in the VOA newsroom believe that if you are not a journalist, you are not capable of making judgments in how they are carrying out their responsibilities. We also know that the IBB is opposed to the requirements of the congressional legislation. It would be unrealistic to expect them not to challenge the execution of the legislation and make the process drawn out, tedious and obstructive.
If the agency were in a better place, it might lend some impetus to Mr. Ensor’s vision of the agency’s future. Unfortunately, that is not the reality.
If the agency does not respond well to the efforts to rehabilitate it – as does not look likely – it may have a hard time reaching the year 2020 still in existence, particularly in its current dysfunctional and defunct state.
As we have remarked in other quarters, you have to want to get fixed. This agency doesn’t. Under those circumstances, the agency’s future may be more abbreviated than what is appreciated inside the Cohen Building.