Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Scorched Earth
Part Two: The Managers Speak, Sort Of
by The Federalist
(Note: This is the second in a series concerning the Office of Program Review [OPR] assessment of the Voice of America [VOA] Newsroom)
In late November 2012, the Office of Program Review presented its review of the Voice of America Central Newsroom (aka, the Newsroom) to staff and managers.
In the first part of this series, we focused on an overview of the Newsroom, remarks prior to the meeting by an OPR staffer and closing remarks to the meeting by David Ensor, the VOA director.
In this second part, we consider the management culture inside the agency and how it is reflected in some of the remarks by managers who attended the meeting and intended OPR outcomes.
We note that this agency is “the worst organization in the Federal Government.” It has earned that title and its senior officials work assiduously to maintain that reputation. Broadcasting Board of Governors/International Broadcasting Bureau (BBG/IBB) rankings in the annual Federal employee workplace survey are consistently at/or near the bottom among all Federal agencies.
The atmosphere inside the Cohen Building is toxic. The prevailing BBG/IBB management “toolbox” makes use of fear, intimidation and retaliation. There is no effective mechanism for open and critical review of management directives without fear of reprisal. The relationship between agency officials and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1812, the largest of the unions at the agency, is estranged.
This is the BBG/IBB landscape which we refer to as “scorched earth.”
With this in mind:
If you are a manager in the agency, you are expected to tow the line as dictated by the Third Floor of the Cohen Building. Being critical of the “brain trust” on the Third Floor is suicidal for one’s career. Few are able to pull it off and often at great professional cost. The ones who cannot are punished in a variety of ways including being made a “senior adviser,” usually a meaningless position with no power or authority. You may find yourself with a windowless office in the basement of the Cohen Building.
What senior officials expect from its various managers is complete fealty and obsequious obedience to their grand, self-serving (some would say addled) designs.
No questions asked.
Even before the late-November meeting, a Newsroom manager had been counseling staffers not to raise objections to the grand designs on the Newsroom because they could lose their jobs by voicing opposition.
As to be expected, the managers attending the meeting fell in line with supporting the plan. But being the way they are, they immediately started to hedge the plan to protect their interests and/or to protect themselves from inherent shortcomings of the so-called “conclusions” reached by the OPR staff.
The agency is under-resourced for its mission – by design. The agency’s budget proposal for FY2013 (as part of the White House budget submission to Congress) called for a reduction or elimination of 14 of 43 VOA language services. It also called for the reduction in staff of 200 positions agency-wide with 43 of those positions coming out of the Newsroom. Divided over three, eight-hour shifts, that comes to 14 positions each shift, plus one. These cuts never were acted upon because of congressional budget gridlock on Capitol Hill. However, the intentions of the Third Floor are clear. And, even though not acted upon, the likely expectation is that the Third Floor will ask for these cuts again, if not more, in FY 2014.
All that BBG/IBB talk about creating a “global news network” was, is and always will be: B-A-L-O-N-E-Y, to put it mildly.
As a result, agency managers are confronted with impossible expectations. Rather than oppose Third Floor plans outright, they sometimes come up with their own revisioning of the plan, in order to protect themselves from its negative consequences (i.e., “hedging the plan”).
This tactic manifested itself in the November 2012 Newsroom meeting.
One division manager suggested that regional Newsroom operations be physically relocated to the various language service divisions spaced out over three city-block floors of the Cohen Building.
On its face, this is a very bad idea.
There is a reason why certain functions are centrally located. As we see it, the principal resources of the agency’s news-gathering operations are together in one space where information and additional resources can be shared and drawn upon for news coverage.
During the course of any 24-hour period, the Newsroom is responsible for generating a line-up of top global news stories which the language services would normally use to lead the news portion of their broadcasts. The language services are expected to use good judgment as to how much of this line-up to include in their top news stories before going over to other news germane to their target area and intended audience and then onto what is called “back half” programming, made up of a variety of feature material.
This mirrors a common news practice heard every day across the United States. For example, all-news radio stations such as WTOP in Washington, DC and local television news stations use the resources of national news networks (WTOP is a CBS affiliate) to provide over-arching news coverage of top news stories before going over to their own news programming and features (“traffic and weather together on the 8s,” “sports every 15 minutes,” etc.).
In the case of VOA, following this practice frees up the individual language services to concentrate on regional news stories as noted above.
This is a tried and tested system and it works.
What doesn’t work is the nature of resource management inside the Cohen Building, making demands on an under-resourced staff to generate large amounts of cross-platform content.
It isn’t rocket science to see the train wreck coming.
For the agency’s newsgathering ability, decentralization equates with dispersing resource utilization effectiveness, increasing a disparity in the quality of the news reporting and running the risk of diminished editorial consistency.
In short, it sets up the agency’s overall news operation to fail.
Whether they speak to it or not, agency division managers should know this. But in the current environment, this is not the top priority. For them, that top priority is “CYA,” to make sure that one isn’t snake bit by the built-in deficiencies that come with being under-resourced. If the latest wild-blue idea from the Third Floor/OPR doesn’t work, you best make sure it isn’t seen as your fault.
(Meanwhile, on the strategic front, our analysts in the not-too-friendly countries that have invested heavily in their international broadcasting operations have to be feeling very, very good. They know that this is a period of fiscal austerity for the United States Government, one that is going to last for a while. Examining a range of actions that the BBG/IBB will do/won’t do, should do/shouldn’t do, the agency comes through almost always with the negatives! Instead of maintaining consolidated resources for more effectiveness and efficiency, the agency decides to disperse its resources! Can the BBG/IBB be this stupid? You’ve studied their actions and know the answer. Yes, they can! You know that all your government has to do is keep up the pressure and watch the BBG/IBB stagger from one stupid decision after another, surrendering the initiative to your government and others to communicate directly and effectively with global publics You listened carefully to Secretary Clinton when she said, “We are losing the information war.” You know that you are on the verge of a great and perhaps decisive victory. You have waited seventy years for this moment and are about to be rewarded for patience, discipline and perseverance. America is withdrawing unto itself. If deftly managed by your counterparts in the political, military and intelligence departments, this could last for fifty perhaps one hundred years. The wind has changed.)
The VOA Newsroom is headed by Sonja Pace. Ms. Pace is a longtime agency employee. This is Ms. Pace’s second tour as the lead Newsroom manager, an example of the agency’s practice of recycling a small group of managers over and over throughout the building.
Ms. Pace has a number of subordinate managers including Jim Fry (one of four assistant managing editors), Kate Dawson (a daytime “coverage” editor) and Amy Katz (a senior executive producer for Central News), people whose names pop up regularly in employee emails.
All have varying degrees of a brittle relationship with the Newsroom staff (what we call the “sharp elbow syndrome”). In reading voluminous material from our sources, what drives this estranged relationship is an unrealized expectation on the part of the staff that the Newsroom management act as a firewall between the newsgathering staff and intrusions from the Third Floor or non-news agency elements, like the Office of Program Review (which we know from staffer statements is a repository for some negative predispositions toward the VOA Charter and the agency’s international broadcasting mission).
The Third Floor management philosophy is “our way or the highway.” Every subordinate manager in the building knows this and knows the penalty for resistance – you can be bounced out of your position, reassigned to some innocuous function, humiliated and discredited in the Third Floor’s institutional memory archive.
If Ms. Pace were of the mind to champion the cause of the Newsroom staff in a meaningful way, she would most likely be replaced, perhaps with someone of a mindset similar to that of the OPR staffer who proclaimed, “There is no more international broadcasting,” and who would likely welcome the opportunity to demonstrate fealty to the Third Floor by kicking the obliteration of the Newsroom into overdrive and turning it into nothing more than a pandering propaganda mouthpiece for the IBB.
In turn, the Newsroom staff is a group under duress – unsupported by its management and made to attempt to meet the conflicting demands to service the cross-media platforms that the Third Floor expects, but without the resources or the skill sets in key production control points to pull it off.
Not surprisingly, the Newsroom isn’t the happiest of places inside the Cohen Building. It is a no-win environment, undermined at every turn.
Cohesiveness, a cornerstone in successful news operations, is yet another scorched earth casualty. We recall yet another comment by David Ensor, the VOA director, in which he proclaimed that every language service would be its own newsroom!
We have a term for this:
Here’s another one:
Want a third?
It is a complete fantasy to believe that the agency’s individual language services can function with the same efficiency as the Newsroom staff and its corps of veteran, experienced correspondents.
What Ensor and the OPR crowd are trying to disrupt is the symbiotic relationship between the Newsroom and the language services. To disrupt is to destroy. To have 43 language services each assume the Newsroom function is absurd.
In short, we don’t need VOA language services to be practitioners of “a jack of all trades, masters of none.”
(Let’s look at it this way – If you are working as a staff person for a US Senator or Congressman, you don’t need 43 calls from VOA language services asking for reaction from your boss on some issue that has your boss in the news. You can be guaranteed three things: (a) the staffer is placing a call to David Ensor and asking him why your receptionist is taking all these calls, (b) you are asking him what happened to the one person you normally talked to from the VOA Newsroom and (c) while you’re listening to Mr. Ensor explain the latest BBG/IBB attempt to “reinvent the wheel,” you are preparing a list of pointed questions for your boss to ask the next time Mr. Ensor, the IBB or the BBG appear before his sub-committee wondering why the American taxpayer should continue to fund “the worst organization in the Federal Government.”)
Let’s return to that first sub-set of the VOA Charter:
“(1) VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.”
(“CRA:” kind of the exact opposite of “CYA.”)
This covers it and the VOA Newsroom staff, when properly led and resourced, delivers the goods.
To expect the same high level of performance from VOA’s under-resourced language services is wholly unrealistic.
In typical fashion, the Third Floor, via its OPR sycophants, is blissfully going about its scorched earth agenda.
Next: Newsroom voices.