Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Dysfunctional, Defunct and Beyond Rehabilitation – Embracing The Totalitarian Model

by The Federalist


Mao Zedong portrait attributed to Zhang Zhenshi and a committee of artists. This version hung at Tiananmen Gate prior to about 1967.
Mao Zedong portrait attributed to Zhang Zhenshi and a committee of artists. This version hung at Tiananmen Gate prior to about 1967.

Question: What kind of response do Voice of America reporters get to questions they submit to officials of communist and other authoritarian and totalitarian governments?

Answer: The same one they get from Voice of America management officials.

Gary Thomas, a former Voice of America (VOA) senior correspondent and news analyst with 27 years of service in the agency upon retirement, has presented a insightful view of the current state of affairs involving US Government international broadcasting at the hands of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) in his recent Columbia Journalism Review article (“Mission Impossible – Is government broadcasting irrelevant,” July 1, 2013).  At VOA, Thomas specialized in covering national security and intelligence issues. He covered stories in Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout South and Southeast Asia. On many occasions he risked his life to bring news to Voice of America audiences worldwide.

Mr. Thomas is an experienced journalist who has had an outstanding career. For his service of bringing balanced news to many corners of the world without free media, he deserves respect of  all Americans.

He has written a highly informative and thought-provoking article, for which he should be applauded. We may not agree with every point raised by Mr. Thomas.

But we agree with the majority of them.

In presenting his views, Mr. Thomas offered the agency an opportunity to respond to questions he submitted in advance of the publication of his article.

The VOA’s Public Affairs Office responded with the following to questions submitted by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review, a highly respected publication in the United States and abroad among journalists, other media professionals and general reading public. This was not an inquiry from a blog or a relatively little known magazine.


“Frankly speaking, the questions submitted by Mr. Thomas, a former VOA employee, contain multiple errors and suggest a bias that concerns us greatly.  We invite those who want to evaluate the quality of VOA journalism to look at our websites or our programs that reach over 135 million people each week in 45 separate languages.”


The first thing one notes is that VOA officials never addresses specifics.  Instead, they make general unsubstantiated allegations of “multiple errors” that “suggest a bias.” As a repressive government would in response to questions about human rights, they attack a reporter. They do not answer any questions. The difference is that Voice of America is supposed to be a champion of press freedom. It is funded 100% by American taxpayers who believe in press freedom, want to help other nations to achieve it and show them how it works.

The next line about inviting individuals to view agency websites is funny.  Maybe it was an attempt to boost hits to its Internet operations, since Russia Today and Al Jazeera English news reports get thousands of views, Facebook “Likes” and readers comments compared to barely a few for VOA English sites.

Who knows?

The next thing we note  are audience numbers – 135 million cited in the agency’s response to Thomas’ questions.

Face it:

These guys have no idea what their audience numbers are, especially if they are “gaming the system” in how they conduct their audience surveys. They get many times fewer views on YouTube than Russia Today. That’s a statistic that cannot be managed by IBB. It is what it is.

Remember, for the agency the “elephant in the room” is a global population of 7-BILLION.  Take that 135-million  –whatever the numbers – and divide them up among 45 languages.  When spread out over those 45 languages, effectiveness gets watered down very, very quickly.


Let’s move to the question asked by our BBG Watch editors in a commentary:


Who approved the response to Mr. Thomas’ questions?


The answer is relatively easy:


“Everybody within the agency’s top leadership” in a manner of speaking. VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau  executives have set the tone of how their superiors (Broadcasting Board of Governors members), their employees, former employees, and American taxpayers who pay their salaries are treated. They have imposed a culture of contempt for employees, the American public and public opinion at home and abroad on the entire agency.


Let’s explain:


In typical Soviet-style, Politburo-like fashion, agency decisions are made by committee which reflects IBB’s corporate culture.  It is virtually a given that you won’t hear a statement from anyone in the VOA Public Affairs office saying, “Oh, yes.  We cranked out the response without clearing it with senior VOA and perhaps also senior agency management on the Third Floor.”

“Decisions made by committee” have a long history in the agency.  One contemporary example is the manner in which the agency negotiates with the AFGE Local 1812 union.  Negotiations are dragged out tediously.  The agency sends in a negotiating team that lays out the agency contract proposals.  Generally, it is not empowered to deviate from those proposals.  It is however authorized to exact concessions from the union.  Any deviation from the agency’s stated proposals means marching up to the Third Floor for approvals.

Depending on the issue, the approvals may involve varying numbers of people.  But they will still be discussed and signed off.

Thus, in the case of the agency’s response to the questions proffered by Gary Thomas, the response was likely molded by a number of hands and signed off by just as many.

It should also come as no surprise to BBG members that this was never run by them, even as a courtesy or formality.  The IBB has made it clear that it has zero tolerance for BBG member involvement in IBB actions or performance.  There is a long history here as well, when BBG members have made requests for information pertaining to some event in the agency’s operations and IBB officials have refused to supply the information requested.

Normally, this is referred to as gross insubordination.  Under circumstances played out by members of the IBB, it is the kind of gross insubordination that should invite a proposal for removal from the Federal Service for cause.


For BBG members, they should make a formal request for the approvals made by agency officials in the response to the questions submitted by Gary Thomas in advance of his article in the Columbia Journalism Review.  That puts the BBG members on record.  Also put on record is the IBB response – or no response.


[Interesting – on the one hand you have the BBG which is charged with oversight and accountability functions and on the other hand you have the IBB which seems to believe that it is wholly unaccountable.]


Now – if you think all of this is a bit outrageous, please consider this:

This is by far the worst agency in the Federal Government as the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys have shown over many recent years.

The stakes are high.  The IBB has made them so by doggedly holding to a failed strategic plan and viciously attacking anyone critical of IBB decisions, motives and judgment.  The IBB Politburo knows that it has a lot to lose when they and their “flim flam, Soviet-style, dysfunctional and defunct strategic plan” get officially and publicly repudiated.

And, it would not surprise us at all if the public statement made by the IBB in response to Mr. Thomas’ questions, while bad enough, likely pales in comparison to whatever these executives might have said privately among themselves and to third parties off the record.  This is also a known tactic that the IBB has used in other instances.  They love to portray individual employees and individual former employees as “disgruntled” or “problem employees,” even when the employment record clearly shows otherwise. They used the same tactic on a former VOA executive who dared to criticize them in a newspaper op-ed, also accusing him  in a vicious manner of inaccuracies and bias without providing any proof. The idea is to destroy their critics, whether they are current or former employees.

They are not shy about attacking people outside the agency.

Welcome to the totalitarian world of the IBB.

These are really bad executives and officials.  They are purveyors of corruption and mismanagement.  In other agencies with a higher public profile, they would likely have been cashiered in one fashion or another long ago.  But the agencies with the higher profile get most of the attention, allowing the rot inside the Cohen Building to become systemic and all-encompassing.

That is where things are at.

We’ve gotten to the point where the most workable solution in dealing with this wholesale environment of mismanagement is to close the agency, transfer its functions and employees to where they can still be of great, valuable service to the country and leave the IBB with no power, nothing to do.


The Federalist

July 2013