Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Dysfunctional, Defunct and Ungovernable
David Ensor Speaks – The Newsroom and the FY2014 Budget
by The Federalist
On Wednesday, April 10, 2013 the White House released its FY2014 budget request.
For US Government international broadcasting and the employees who engage in the effort, it is more bad news. It is yet another sterling example that the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is taking the US Government out of the business of international broadcasting to global publics.
The agency’s FY2014 budget request is for $731-million dollars. By comparison, the agency’s enacted FY2013 budget was for $756-million dollars. Comparing the two, the FY2014 budget is for $25-million dollars less than its FY2013 budget.
Blood On The Floor – By The Numbers:
Greek Service: eliminated (4 positions)
Georgian Service: 4 positions cut (including 1 unfilled vacancy)
Cuts to broadcasts to Afghanistan (10 positions cut, 5 are vacant)
Albanian Service (3 positions cut, 1 is vacant)
Eliminate front office personnel for Near East and Central Asia divisions (6 positions)
Cuts to Spanish to Latin America and Creole to Haiti (8 positions cut, between 6 and 9 vacancies)
Urdu radio broadcasts: eliminated (4 positions)
Persian News Network (PNN): radio eliminated (4 positions)
And the main targets:
Worldwide English: 11 positions cut including 7 vacancies
VOA Central Newsroom: 24 positions cut, 20 which are vacant
We note a portion of comments made by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Michael Meehan as quoted in a press release dated April 10, 2013 regarding the FY2014 budget proposal:
“Some of these changes, if enacted, will be very difficult on the men and women involved…”
Here, we put the focus on the main targets: the VOA Central Newsroom and Worldwide English broadcasts.
Senior International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) staff has made it clear that they intend to take the agency out of the business of US Government international broadcasting in significant way. They have put their agenda ahead of the national and public interest. Decimating the VOA Central Newsroom and making additional cuts to Worldwide English programs means that the agency is well on the way to no longer being a reliable source of news and information for global publics.
All the IBB talk about creating a “global news network” is a diversion – intended to distract Congress and the American taxpayers from what we see as an entirely different outcome.
US Government international broadcasts in English are being drowned out by English language programming from other international broadcasters including the Russians (“Russia Today”), the Chinese CCTV and Al-Jazeera English – all of whom have made it clear that English language broadcast programs to North America are a top priority as well as to other global regions.
The IBB cabal has decided not to see the world as others do. They most certainly do not recognize English language broadcasts by the United States Government as a top priority. Coupled with what appears to be a visceral dislike for radio, and to a large extent also television broadcasts, they are more than willing to silence what has proven to be the most potent and effective media resource (broadcasting) in reaching global publics who speak English or are engaged in developing English as a second language.
With intentions and decisions like these, it comes as no surprise that audiences for agency programs have not grown since 2008 (if one ignores the latest BBG gimmick press release announcing the sudden discovery of an audience in Latin America that was already there for some time – to the point where continued funding of the agency is now becoming an exercise in futility if the current International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) management is not replaced.
A budget proposal for FY2014 that represents $25-million dollars less than its actual FY2013 budget facilitates the silencing of the agency’s core operations.
[As anyone in official Washington knows, you never make it your official position to ask for less money for your agency even in difficult fiscal times. You let someone else make the decision to give your agency less money.]
Senior agency officials putting their stamp of approval on a reduced budget connotes a whole lot of negativity. It demonstrates to the Congress that you don’t believe in your core mission, especially when you know large segments of world publics rely upon – or used to rely upon – the agency for credible news and information. If you know that large segments of global publics lack access to unfettered accurate news and information and that press freedom is a limited commodity, this move is beyond nonsensical and goes into the realm of unconscionable to US national interests.
Within the Cohen Building, it is a clear signal that the fat cats on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building are tossing the agency’s mission overboard – along with the employees who support that mission.
For global publics, it is a clear sign that you are being abandoned by the United States Government, opening up a variety of very unpleasant scenarios.
Thus, we come to Mr. Ensor’s meeting with VOA Newsroom staff following announcement of the agency’s budget proposal. Relying upon individuals who were present, here are some things which caught our attention:
Mr. Ensor acknowledged that 20 positions were vacant in the Newsroom and that represented a pretty serious problem for Newsroom work flow. He said the agency would use these vacancies (which represent a dollar amount because, even though vacant, the positions are funded) to offset or minimize the adverse impact of the FY2014 budget proposal on the staff. He also stated that he was grateful that the FY2014 is not as bad as FY2013.
These statements leave us a bit perplexed.
The FY2014 budget proposal represents a request for $25-million dollars less than the budget enacted for 2013. How can this be a good thing?
If the Newsroom work flow is already compromised by not filling 20 vacancies how is the situation supposed to improve under the FY2014 proposal which will likely mean that the 20 positions will not only go unfilled, but will be eliminated outright? Some staffers have already described the Newsroom as “schizophrenic.” On its face, we can’t see the situation improving – at all. More than likely, it will get worse.
In essence, this puts Mr. Ensor’s presentation off the rails right from the start. From here, the presentation continues to build on a skewed vision of reality.
Ensor stated that VOA is making a huge difference for the US.
He’s right. VOA is well on its way to becoming invisible, unreachable, un-hearable in many parts of the world. The IBB clearly intends for it to be so and is determined to make it so. Thus, the “huge difference” that Ensor referenced is, in reality, the opposite of what he meant: the increased absence of a US Government presence in the arena of international broadcasting.
Ensor continues the drift into “The Twilight Zone” by repeating his mantra that he sees a good future for VOA.
The reality is quite different:
This is not a healthy organization. Its strategic vision is unhealthy. Its management philosophy toward its workforce is unhealthy (the lowest employee morale in the entire federal government). Its operational execution is unhealthy. That’s three strikes against the agency, folks. All the good reasons for having this agency have been compromised by IBB top executives. That means the only reason why the agency exists at all is because it is on artificial life support in the form of nicking the American taxpayer for just over $700-million dollars annually. With an overall BBG audience hovering in the neighborhood of 175-million across all media platforms, the agency costs more money than it has in audience by a wide margin. That puts the agency in the position of not being cost effective in US dollars. Just as bad, it is not cost effective in terms of global impact and effectiveness.
[Note: The agency issued one of its press releases dated May 2013 alleging a 12 percent increase in weekly audience to 200 million. A new audience was suddenly found in Latin America. More likely, the audience was there before, but it was not counted because people cannot remember listening to short VOA reports on other stations that may not even be in some cases identified as coming from VOA (definitely the case in China and some other countries when it comes to the so called “placement” on “affiliate” stations that are not really affiliates of VOA. To make themselves look good without making any real effort, IBB executives decided to count this audience in Latin America with the help of the $50 million contract with Gallup, a company under investigation by the Department of Justice for alleged overcharging of government agencies. What about expanding audiences and more targeted news programming to Russia, China, Iran and the Middle East? This will be the subject of a forthcoming commentary.]
Mr. Ensor then goes on to make the pitch for the impact of changes reflected in the Smith Mundt Modernization Act. We have dealt with this subject many times in detail. This is an agency canard. To reiterate our view:
Agency vernacular language broadcasts have been heard in the United States even under the old Smith Mundt Act. It was not illegal for U.S. radio and television broadcasters to rebroadcast VOA programs in the United States if they could find them on the Internet or downlink from satellite transmissions. The “diaspora communities” (Ensor uses an example of what he refers to as “Somali Minnesota”) have also been able to access agency websites on the Internet for audio, video and text for years, all of it perfectly legally. What the modification of the Smith-Mundt Act did was to give agency bureaucrats the power to actively market programs to Americans and to do this at taxpayers’ expense.
In truth, there is nothing new here, except exposure of agency programs to the mainstream American public. For us at BBG Watch that is a good thing: it increases scrutiny of agency programs which can lead to more accountability – something the IBB apparatchiks really do not want and do not like. Perhaps Korean Americans will be impressed with this Voice of America video repeating North Korean propaganda. One VOA executive was so proud of this video that he had a press release about it posted on VOA and BBG websites.
Direct LINK TO VOA VIDEO.
Since IBB executives claim that they can merge, produce and manage globally under their central control all of U.S. international media programming, we invite you to compare the VOA North Korean video with is video shot in Afghanistan by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. We don’t see RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia or Alhurra using the North Korean video from VOA and for a good reason. We do not think that Radio Free Asia or Radio Liberty now that it is under Kevin Klose would produce such a video. They know better, but their independence and specialization are being constantly undermined by power-hungry (“Soviet”) central planners at IBB.
Direct LINK TO RFE/RL VIDEO.
Voice of America broadcasters produce many outstanding radio programs and videos, but many services are under extreme pressure from IBB strategic planners and marketing executives to produce videos like the North Korean one. Anything fluff is easier to place. Remove politics and human rights, repeat propaganda from repressive regimes, and suddenly VOA can have a large audience for placed programs even in countries like China and Russia, perhaps even North Korea if they try just a little bit harder.
If Korean Americans see the Voice of America North Korean video posted above, perhaps they will write to their members of Congress. Something tells us, however, that IBB executives will not be thrilled by what U.S. taxpayers may say in their emails, phone calls and letters to their elected representatives.
A number of videos and VOA television programs is being produced under the leadership of IBB strategic planners and executives hired from the commercial media industry without any prior international broadcasting experience. They are the ones trying to decimate VOA Central Newsroom and language services that resist their Politburo directives.
We can only hope that wider exposure in the United States will affect careers of managers who approve such programs. We wish it would, but we’re not holding our breath.
[Message to the IBB: be careful what you wished for, you got it.]
BBG members should really start worrying about domestic distribution of VOA programs. We recommend a wholesale review of top program managers before any VOA programs are released to the American public. Americans may be shocked by what they see, hear or read, and this may not be good news for BBG members or for BBG and VOA budgets. Again, be careful what you wished for.[aside]
The country’s capital city Pyongyang is “vibrant and busy with activity,” Voice of America announced.
Relative to what? — BBG Watch wonders — the Gulag? What are they smoking, or have we missed the opening of a new shopping mall with chic boutiques in downtown Pyongyang? Apparently, we did. The VOA press release, issued earlier, even has a photo of a well-stocked store. Keep in mind that North Korea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, but you wouldn’t know it reading the press release on the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ website. At the BBG they have not yet heard of a Potyomkin village.[/aside]
Somehow, the IBB cabal seems to think these expatriate communities are going to save the agency from going under totally. It’s not going to happen. These communities have other priorities, the primary ones being to sustain themselves in the United States and provide greater opportunities for their children. To be sure, there are individuals and organizations within these communities who carry the torch concerning issues back in their respective homelands. However, in the age of the Internet, they have means other than reliance upon VOA broadcasts to get that work done. They have been able to access VOA news for years without any problems and without the modification of the Smith-Mundt Act. The talk of a domestic audience for an international broadcaster like Voice of America is a mystification designed to buy time for managers who can’t produce programs that matter for audiences abroad.
[In fact, what the agency may be doing is having the opposite effect: reinforcing the decision by people in these communities that getting out of harm’s way in the old country and coming to the United States was a very wise move. When that realization strikes home, it’s time to turn off VOA and watch your favorite American local news station or improve one’s command of colloquial English to expand one’s education and other opportunities, or both!]
A Russian scholar was hired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in 2011 to evaluate the VOA Russian website. In a report, which was not shared with BBG members, the scholar concluded that the Russian Service had a “pro-Putin bias” and downplayed human rights reporting.
Perhaps Mr. Ensor should make sure that the “pro-Putin bias” no longer exists before he markets VOA Russian programs to Russian radio stations in California and meets with Russian Americans.
At least Kevin Klose, the newly-appointed president of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty is doing something about management problems at his organizations. A number of discredited managers have departed. What is Mr. Ensor doing about similar problems at VOA? So far, his only proposals are to eliminate broadcast services and broadcasting and journalistic positions, while bureaucrats and managers responsible for programs such as the North Korean video keep theirs.
While we hear that the Voice of America Russian Service has improved its coverage after BBG Watch had published this study, IBB executives dismissed its findings, ridiculed outside criticism, and tried to keep the study hidden from BBG members. [/aside]
After this, Mr. Ensor waxes on about doing what we would describe as “The David Ensor Road Show,” in which he talks about doing more speaking engagements, including a West Coast swing in May 2013.
Frankly, the only “road show” that counts is walking the three blocks up Independence Avenue to the Congress to make the case for the agency hanging on – and that walk – literally and figuratively uphill – gets a whole lot tougher when you have already proposed a budget that is $25-million dollars less than the year before. This isn’t an agency doing more with less. It is doing less with less and doing it badly.
Before turning things over to questions, Ensor closed his presentation by saying he wants to help VOA and for the Central Newsroom “to be all it can be.”
The agency’s budget proposal and the operational intent of IBB planning is the direct antithesis of the Central Newsroom “being all it can be.” The disciples of this plan, the Office of Program Review, have already advocated picking off the regional Newsroom “desks” and handing them over to the individual agency language divisions. The intent is to make the Central Newsroom go away, disappear, become non-existent. The Newsroom is already under-resourced and operationally disjunctive with predictable results.
The only “to be all it can be” in the VOA Newsroom’s future is not to be:
To render the Newsroom as a memory.
A memory to be forgotten as soon as possible.
The IBB has intentionally dispensed with the values, principles and standards defined in the VOA Charter. As a result much good work by VOA broadcasters, including those of the VOA Central Newsroom, has been squandered.
(Next: Ensor Does Q and A with the Newsroom staff)