International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunction and Defunct in the US Government – Faulty Risk Calculus and Other Issues
by The Federalist
What do Voice of America (VOA) executives do when their news operation is late hours and sometimes days in reporting on major political developments in Washington and abroad? What do they propose to do when some news stories just don’t get reported because of confusion and mismanagement?
Our sources recounted a recent August 30 email from Steve Redisch, the Voice of America Executive Editor.
The stand-out item that grabbed our attention was a comment by Redisch that one of the VOA correspondents was trying to obtain a visa to get into Syria. Our instantaneous reaction was,
“This is crazy. Are they (senior agency officials) that confused and unimaginative?!?”
An Alhurra correspondent has already been gone missing in Syria for over a year, so let’s deliver another high value target to the Assad regime and any number of extremists running around Syria.
In what appears to be an attempt to score some kind of meaningless public relations splash, senior officials are resorting to seriously flawed risk calculus.
Under the current management leadership, VOA simply can’t compete with Al Jazeera, BBC or Russia Today. While these outlets immediately post breaking news stories, such as the one Saturday on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics decision, the VOA website serves as an embarrassment to journalism by showing to the whole world an outdated news report.
They do just as badly on major political news.
While Russia Today reports on Pope Francis and his opposition to a military strike on Syria, VOA English website has nothing on the story for three days. A Russia Today’s report gets over 13,000 Facebook “Likes,” similar stories from VOA get between 5 (five) and 50 (fifty). VOA English website had no report on President Obama’s meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian human rights activists.
While it is not unusual for major American and international news organizations to obtain access to or a presence in Syria, it’s a different ballgame for the agency and one which is already known to carry a high level of unacceptable risk.
In the meantime, seasoned VOA reporters find themselves increasingly frustrated. As reported by BBG Watch, they often can’t get their stories posted on the VOA website. They have to call and often call repeatedly to determine the status of their material. They have complained. Nothing helps. It is understandable that some want to report from various hot spots around the world in the hope that perhaps something will change.
In our opinion, the attempt to send a correspondent to Syria on the eve of US military action with unknown consequences appears to serve an agenda that is less about newsgathering and more about making some kind of public relations splash.
VOA is not ONLY a “news organization” or a “news company.” These are terms used by David Ensor or International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) surrogates.
Former CNN managers, including Ensor, who now run the VOA seem to be thoroughly set in being dismissive of the agency’s true status: VOA is part of the United States Government. Everyone in the rest of the rational world knows this. Even if you try to remove it form the Federal Government, it will still be seen abroad as being part of it. No one in the former Soviet block had any illusions that Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty was ever a private media enterprise not connected in any way with the U.S. Government.
Trying to put a VOA employee deliberately in harm’s way, even if a correspondent is willing to go, when the agency’s true (or perceived) status is well known far beyond the Cohen Building is the height of being reckless and irresponsible. We are outraged.
What is to be gained by what we see as nothing more than a grandstand stunt?
Grandstanding by agency officials, with a known reputation for running the worst organization in the Federal Government (OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows it) is an invitation to get someone kidnapped, tortured and killed. At best, it is an invitation to put the United States in a difficult position, perhaps open the U.S. Government to a very public display of blackmail – either by the Syrian government or (and maybe even worse) jihadist elements among the rebels.
If VOA executives can’t get the news posted on time while treating their correspondents with contempt and dismissing their concerns and complaints, this is not what they should be thinking about right now. They should instead re-read the memos sent to them by dozens of senior VOA correspondents begging for management reforms. And act on them.
And if the message doesn’t resonate with senior VOA or International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) functionaries, it should land squarely on the plates of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
The VOA news operation is completely unprepared for Syria. This is what Mr. Redisch and Mr. Ensor should be focusing us — not making grandiose and dangerous plans that defy logic and common sense. But they have already shown that they do not understand VOA’s special public role and responsibilities. When former VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, writing an article for Columbia Journalism Review asked for answers to some questions, he was rebuffed and attacked by VOA officials as if the agency was taking on the modality of Pravda, Tass or Izvestia during the heyday of the Soviet Union and seemingly reemerging in the new Russia of Vladimir Putin.
But going back to the idea of sending a VOA correspondent to Syria, we are fully aware that the agency’s correspondents are dedicated and professional. They often find themselves in situations that have a certain element of known risk. They may be upset with us stepping onto their “turf.” That said there are times when some objective, third party observation is warranted.
This is one of them.
Neither journalists nor U.S. Government civilian employees are bulletproof.
There is a big difference between managed risks, where the correspondent has some measure of control over situations, as opposed to pure recklessness, which is how we see setting foot in Syria on the verge of a U.S. military strike. Even assuming the agency or the correspondent makes an effort to hire “security,” the fact of the matter is that every street and alleyway in Syria is a potential deathtrap: sudden, vicious and violent. And if the correspondent happens to be a woman, we shudder to think of other potential scenarios.
These guys – Redisch and David Ensor the VOA Director – need to have a conversation with Lara Logan, a senior CBS correspondent, about the reality of foreign women in the Middle East during the current era of violence in the region.
A VOA correspondent, male or female, is a high value target. This is not Chechnya where at least some Muslim fighters saw the U.S. in sympathetic light.
For those who think we may be overreacting, consider this:
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 31 journalists were killed in Syria in 2012. Add to that 17 more to this point in 2013, including at least one woman.
The other question we have is: what is to be gained by exposing a U.S. Government employee to reckless risk? We already know the answer:
Ensor and Redisch appear to be attempting to create the impression that they are doing something when in fact–as VOA correspondents will attest–they can’t get the news posted on time and have failed to make any progress with social media outreach.
On its face, the well-managed approach to news reporting by the agency’s veteran group of correspondents and reporters appears to be in disarray inside the Cohen Building, as does how to get that news into distribution in a timely manner, as does the VOA website.
Sending any agency to Syria is a bad call. No, it’s worse. It’s a reckless call.
It is not the job of a VOA correspondent to potentially throw his/her life away in an exercise in futility. It would not alter the trajectory of the outcome of the multi-tiered conflict in Syria one iota…an outcome that has no positives for Syria, the Middle East or the United States. The most likely outcome is an expanded scope to the conflict, perhaps into Lebanon where the U.S. State Department has evacuated non-essential personnel and has placed the country on a travel warning list.
Last but not least, the Broadcasting Board of Governors recently issued a press release on the one year “anniversary” of the disappearance of Bashar Fahmi, a correspondent for the agency’s Alhurra television station during fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The agency refers to Mr. Fahmi as “missing.” Regrettably, what may be the more correct is that Mr. Fahmi is “missing and presumed dead.”
Let us also note that in the time between Mr. Fahmi’s disappearance and the present, the Syrian war has gotten progressively worse.
Considering the situation in Syria in its entirety, even the suggestion to insert a U.S. Government employee into Syria, roiling in violence, on the verge of some form of US military action, is preposterous.
For appearing to act as if they are still at CNN and trying to score a seeming public relations splash, Ensor and Redisch should be called on the carpet by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and their “plan” rejected, period.