Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Scorched Earth: Part Four: Taking the OPR Staffers to the Woodshed
by The Federalist
(Note: In November 2012, the Office of Program Review (OPR) presented its assessment of the Voice of America (VOA) Central Newsroom. This is the fourth of a series on this review. The previous commentaries dealt with an overview of the Newsroom, the management culture inside the agency and the views of Newsroom employees.)
The VOA Central Newsroom. The most important, vital operation in the agency. If the Newsroom succeeds in carrying out its mission (codified in the VOA Charter – which is really all about the Newsroom when you read it and think about it), the rest of what the agency does follows. If it doesn’t succeed – and it isn’t doing so now – the rest of the agency’s overall effort fails.
What Is “Program Review?”
The name is something of a misnomer. In reality, this is a “program evaluation:” assessing how an agency department conforms to and/or carries out objectives set by senior officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors/International Broadcasting Bureau (BBG/IBB) and senior VOA management. It could be an opportunity for improving the agency’s overall performance.
It doesn’t work that way.
It is a process that is biased and subjective. The bias is that of the Third Floor agenda. When that bias is in support of a failed strategic plan, the process is compromised from the start.
Consider this comment from an individual familiar with the Newsroom:
“So….they hack the newsroom to bits, do everything they can to suppress filing by the beat correspondents, and THEN they complain that there’s not enough VOA-generated material to fill the (VOA) website.
This reminds me very much of the past scenario when they took away all our good program times and frequencies, and THEN complained that VOA English radio had no audience.”
This is a tactic the Third Floor has practiced for years, with the Newsroom and language services alike.
Thus, the basis of a program review is intended to bolster an intended Third Floor outcome – a familiar Third Floor “SOP” that one sees in trying to spin its “research data,” the hiring of a myriad of consultants and on its goes.
To all appearances, the intent with the Newsroom is to destroy the agency’s primary mission: the VOA Charter. In the face of the criticisms leveled at senior agency officials for a failed “strategic plan,” these officials must generate a paper trail to maintain a fiction: that they are on the right track when the results clearly demonstrate otherwise. Add to the paper trail the OPR “assessment” of the Newsroom.
The November 2012 OPR review supports dismemberment of the Newsroom’s centralized editorial controls and functions, an intended objective of the “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan” advocates on the Third Floor. This is a radical departure from the Newsroom’s organizational structure which has served the agency and its mission well for much of its seventy year history. This assessment has not been embraced by the Newsroom staff. Sonja Pace, the head of the Newsroom, also opposed decentralizing the Newsroom only to have the recommendations of the OPR staff supported by Steve Redisch, the VOA Executive Editor. In essence, this undercut Pace’s judgment, her authority as head of the Newsroom and the professional expertise of her staff. He also undercut Ms. Kelu Chao, the head of Program Review, who publicly made it the Newsroom’s decision to make the call on the “recommendations” of OPR staffers who conducted the “review.”
We have a copy of the review. However, for the purposes of this commentary, we will rely principally on notes from an email written by Ms. Pace and provided to the Newsroom staff summarizing the meeting. Ms. Kelu Chao was also present for the meeting.
The three staffers making the presentation were: John Lippman, Billy Otwell and Chet Rhodes. We know none of the three personally or by professional reputation. Compared to many Newsroom veterans, their time with the agency and familiarity with the Newsroom does not appear to be very long.
Of the three, the most outspoken is John Lippman. He seems to have big opinions and is not shy about making them.
Setting the Tone
Prior to the Newsroom review, we got what might have been a precursor of things to come. Statements attributed to a person or persons in the Office of Program Review include the following:
“…There is no more international broadcasting…It’s all about feeding our surrogates.”
“What are they going to do, come and put handcuffs on you?”
The first statement is most certainly untrue. International broadcasting is alive and well. It is practiced most effectively by the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), among others. Their programs have resonance. As part of their overall international broadcasting effort are programs directed at North and South America. “Russia Today” is one of the most popular news sites on YouTube. The Chinese have news bureaus in Washington, DC and Times Square, New York City.
(Note: The BBC has a “co-production” arrangement with public radio station WGBH in Boston and with “Public Radio International [PRI].” The latter produces a program called “The World,” heard in the Washington, DC area on WAMU-FM, the radio station of American University. A recent program segment included a feature on Leo Sarkisian, longtime host of the VOA English-to-Africa program, “Music Time in Africa.” Mr. Sarkisian recently retired from the agency.)
In one fashion or another, the posture of these international broadcasters is pronounced and robust. They recognize the importance of molding public opinion with global audiences. They have a true strategic focus.
In short, these international broadcasters make the first statement from within OPR both moronic and imbecilic.
The second statement has to do with a reference to the VOA Charter, and by inference in the context in which it was made, ignoring the Charter. In essence, the remark suggests that there is no consequence or penalty for violating the Charter.
This is also untrue. It puts the agency in the position of being in contempt of Congress, since the VOA Charter is a public law. We know the agency’s senior officials very, very well. They are an arrogant and contemptible lot, to be sure. As this statement suggests, contempt for the rule of law has become an integral part of the IBB philosophy. No one inside the Cohen Building would be so bold as to make this kind of statement, with the intent to coerce and intimidate employees, if this were not the case, aided and abetted by Third Floor behavior.
(Note: Recent decisions by the Federal Labor Relations Authority [FLRA] finding for the AFGE Local 1812 union shed light on how far off the rails the agency has gone when it comes to law, rule and regulation. While dealing only with personnel issues, these decisions provide insight into how senior agency officials demonstrate their contempt for legal frameworks that can be applied to other situations.)
There are Members of Congress who are not oblivious to the rogue behavior on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building. Marshalling congressional action to deal with the problems inside the agency will always be a work in progress, a tug of war between the executive and legislative branches of government. These Members are very cognizant that the Third Floor has an agenda – an agenda that it isn’t good for US national or strategic interests.
Missing in Action: An Important “X” Factor
You have to know the Third Floor culture of cultivating “the worst organization in the Federal Government.” In this environment, the OPR staffers are not about to conduct an unbiased, neutral or objective “program review.” They are not going to go to the Third Floor and tell the “brain trust,” that their grand scheme for the Newsroom is “FUBAR” [fouled up beyond all recognition]. That would really be the kiss of death for their careers.
In reading the review and Ms. Pace’s notes, one is struck by a significant disconnect: the newsgathering process and factors which inhibit the newsgathering process juxtaposed with the Third Floor agenda.
The most salient factor absent in the review: the Newsroom is under-resourced. It doesn’t have the staff necessary to carry out the grand design concocted by senior agency officials.
(Consider this: individuals whose primary functions are to be producers are also detailed to act as timekeepers and video librarians.)
Here’s another thing: the OPR review fails to note that the Third Floor’s “grand design” includes reducing the Newsroom staff. In its FY2013 proposal, the reduction was upwards of 40 Newsroom positions. One suspects those cuts to be included in the FY2014 budget proposal – and maybe more.
If the newsgathering process is under-resourced now…
You get the picture.
As a practical matter, being silent on this overarching issue impacting negatively on the Newsroom renders the OPR review worthless, nonsensical. Unless we missed something, this issue doesn’t show up in the review, doesn’t show up in Pace’s notes. And no one seems to raise it in the meeting. Ignoring this pertinent issue doesn’t make it go away nor does it diminish its negative impact on present operations.
The effect is almost comical when one considers the topics that come up in the review:
** The Coverage Desk needs to achieve more centralized tracking of stories to ensure that deadlines are met.
** The Coverage Desk should be populated more with “worker bees” to pull in content from services and elsewhere, rather than being filled with senior people.
** The Central Newsroom needs to know language service deadlines and meet them. “Most” TV reports are released at 5 p.m., long after the daily shows are over for the day.
** The reporter beats should be more formalized in order for there to be more productivity.
** Spoke of “two classes of reporters” at VOA: English reporters and language service reporters, saying the latter are quite able and some of them “better” than the English language reporters. And so he said the newsroom regional desks should be placed in the divisions to take advantage of that reporting. He said the concept for Central News should be that the “major client is not the world but the regions.” He said once the regional desks are integrated with the divisions, there will be a greater number of reports produced. His concept is that what would remain in the newsroom is a core group that handles the top headlines, domestic coverage including Americana and presumably logistics. (This suggestion was definitely the most contentious item in the entire review and we took great issue, as did some division and service chiefs).
Once again, everything has to be seen in the context of a core agency function that is under-resourced now and faces the prospect of being even more under-resourced in the near future.
Most assuredly the Newsroom staff is well acquainted with language service airshows and deadlines related to these broadcasts. But once again, where is the discussion of resources, the allocation of resources and bottlenecks to carrying out production functions? Without the resources (personnel), things are not going to get done in a timely manner, particularly in those areas that are personnel intensive (television production). In reading email traffic among Newsroom staff, this is a large problem that appears to be increasing daily.
The comment about reporter beats being “more formalized” is way out in the “Twilight Zone.” News reporting, by its nature, requires the ability to be flexible and responsive as news breaks and stories develop. It is not clear what “formalization” this process needs. However, on its face, trying to put beat reporting into a box is asking for trouble.
For example, if “more formalized” means trying to put the beat reporters into a box that is something like 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, is casting a blind eye toward the 24/7 nature of a globalized world – the kiss of death for a legitimate newsgathering operation.
In our reading of the situation, more formalization means less ability to meet deadlines, something that slows the entire process down to a crawl. On its face, this recommendation is self-defeating.
The “worker bees” comment we see as a pejorative – demeaning the importance of having veteran Newsroom staff manage the newsgathering and reporting process. “Worker bees” without direction and guidance equals chaos. Indeed, some Newsroom staffer emails describe the current Newsroom process as “schizophrenic.”
”Two Classes of Reporters”
This was described in Ms. Pace’s email notes as being a “contentious issue.” And well it should because it is nothing more than the mouthing of Third Floor-like canards.
As “the worst agency in the Federal government,” this is giving voice to an operational philosophy that is intended to be divisive, demeaning and exploitative, in addition to being generally unworkable.
We need to know what precisely incorporates the concept of “better,” beyond utterance of a generality.
Every agency employee in the building involved in newsgathering understands a language service broadcaster brings specific knowledge and expertise to the table as does his/her counterpart in the Newsroom. This is the system that works: a symbiotic relationship that draws upon the respective strengths of each. To say that one group is “better than” another, aside from the negatives mentioned above, is one of those obtuse agency “apples versus oranges” comparisons that is totally absurd.
Last but not least:
**The concept for Central News should be that the “major client” is not the world but the regions.
Once again, ladies and gentlemen, this is:
Among many other shortcomings, this is the decisive flaw of the Newsroom review.
The Voice of America Newsroom is an international newsroom. The agency’s “major client” IS the world.
The world is the stage the agency performs on, not a room of empty chairs in a Bruce Sherman “PowerPoint” presentation on mobile phones in Nigeria, the kind of diminished regional focus typified in this remark. Diminished focus, diminished expectations equate with diminished performance: “information war lost.” These guys don’t aim high. They aim low. They are looking for empty space to plough, well off the target line: the agency’s mission.
The senior officials concocting this focus have no focus. They avoid the obvious: in a globalized world, events reverberate globally and are not self-absorbed regional occurrences.
Like the purveyors of the agency’s “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan,” this remark is getting the agency’s mission “backwards.” Following this absurd twist of rationale does one thing and one thing only:
It facilitates the end of the VOA Newsroom – if not the agency itself – as a major source of relevant news and information for global publics. And it most certainly will accelerate the loss of the agency’s global audience, already occurring at a rapid pace through 2012. That loss of audience should make the twisted logic of the Third Floor readily apparent.
Nonetheless, this is the Third Floor agenda. It is an agenda that is incompatible with the VOA Charter. It is an agenda that obstructs the VOA Newsroom from doing its job properly and thoroughly. It is an agenda that puts it on the backs of VOA language services to replicate what the VOA Newsroom is able to do for the entire VOA – keeping in mind that the VOA language services have only a fraction of the staff found in the Newsroom (once again, the “under-resourced” issue).
It is most certainly not what the American taxpayers pay for this agency to do.
David Ensor’s contention that the demolition of the VOA Central Newsroom will result in 43 newsrooms (the current number of VOA language services) is laughable: 43 language services each scrambling to cover the news instead of using a reliable core source for agency-wide news distribution.
In short, this is Mr. Ensor’s prescription for setting up the agency to fail.
(Here’s a “scenario” for you: Christmas. New Year’s. Making the rounds of holiday parties. We run into one of our acquaintances with experience up on Capitol Hill. Naturally, the conversation turns to, “So how is ‘the worst organization in the Federal Government?’” We bring him up to date: the 2012 employee survey and this latest OPR review of the Newsroom. We go into the “43 phone calls to your office” example we’ve mentioned in a previous commentary – the one in which David Ensor’s “43 newsrooms” are tying up the office phone lines for a reaction from our friend’s boss [a congressman or senator – we won’t say who] to a story. I reach into a coat pocket and say, “Here, you’re going to need this.” It’s a bottle of aspirin. “After about the 15th phone call, you’re going to have a headache as big as all outdoors – because the receptionist can’t get any work done – and she’s giving you that, ‘This is your fault’ look. And you were so looking forward to taking her to lunch. Now, that look she’s giving you says the lunch date is not going to happen until you fix this. But before you take the aspirin, make a phone call to David Ensor and read him the proverbial riot act. Make him feel your pain. They will hear you all over the office. The rest of the staff will be impressed. Then take the aspirin and make a note to your boss about cutting the agency’s funding. They’re wasting a whole lot of taxpayer money promoting inefficiency. And by the way, don’t forget to ask Ensor, ‘Who is this guy in your Program Review Office, talking trash that sounds remarkably like contempt of Congress?!?’”)
(Editorial Note: This story doesn’t end here. The VOA Newsroom is important and is way up there on our radar. It will continue to occupy a prominent place in the topics The Federalist covers. In the meantime, there are other important stories about our failed US Government international broadcasting agency that we need to get to. We will be switching gears to get to these other topics as time permits. “Happy” New Year.)