Broadcasting Board of Governors – Mistaken Identity

a commentary by The Federalist

VOA Director David Ensor
VOA Director David Ensor

People concerned about what the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and what its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) senior executive staff might do if the Smith-Mundt Act gets repealed may have gotten a taste earlier this year.

It’s a quote from David Ensor, the Voice of America (VOA) director, from the PBS “Newshour” program of February 10, 2012. Here it is, in part:

“We are a communications company, multimedia, on many platforms. We’re reaching out to various peoples around the world, and our mission is to report the news, yes, but also to explain America and American values to people around the world. What Jessica (Beinecke) is doing is going to be something that I think you’ll see more people doing here, which is reaching out to the younger generation in different countries and communicating with them.”

“We are a communications company…?”

No, Mr. Ensor, “we” are not. The Voice of America is still an agency of the United States Government funded by American taxpayers for a specific independent journalistic mission of providing uncensored news, explaining U.S. policies, offering diverse points of view on these policies, and being a window on American culture.


We don’t like the message we see conveyed in Mr. Ensor’s misrepresentation of the agency. It implies that the VOA director is unwilling to admit that VOA is a public institution that is part of the United States Government. As much as has been written about the agency he is the head of, this can’t be a mere lapse.

In a public airing (the PBS Newshour), anyone who cannot accurately and properly identify a Federal agency, anyone who would deliberately project a false identity to the agency, what it is and what it does, cannot properly or effectively serve the agency and its mission as codified under law.

Let us remember too that Mr. Ensor took an oath. That oath wasn’t to a “communications company.” It was to the United States of America. In the old days, an oath meant something; but maybe not anymore, at least as far as the officials inside the Cohen Building are concerned.

From one point of view, we do not need someone as VOA director who lacks the necessary commitment to the agency, its mission and its true identity. In that regard, we believe Mr. Ensor should resign and apply to be the BBG’s CEO, a position that the board wants to create to help de-federalize U.S. international broadcasting. We don’t expect that he will. Not yet.

But he should. And the Congress should either insist that the VOA Charter be protected, the CEO — if there should be one — nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, or the Congress should let BBG members and their CEO run the whole enterprise as a private communications company, but on their own dime, not at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

Next, let’s move on to the program material provided by Ms. Beinecke, the person identified in Mr. Ensor’s quote.

Ms. Beinecke does American idioms in Mandarin for a Chinese audience. No one doubts her exceptional talent, her appealing on-air personality or that she is very good at what she does — a real asset that BBG/IBB executives don’t know how to use. Included in the mix of short videos are what seem to be travelogues of Washington, DC monuments and memorials, along with some other sites. But, in general, lightweight stuff that is great to have to complement substantive programs as long as they still exist. With her talent, she could no doubt do much more.

However, what she is most remembered for is a program in which she explained to her audience the meanings of “booger, zits and snot.”

This kind of material is perfectly suited to a juvenile audience and the bodily humor that audience enjoys. It would probably play well on a comedy channel or some other media oriented toward a similar audience.

Is it the best that BBG, IBB and VOA executives can do? Should it be the only thing Voice of America does after news radio and television broadcasts to China are eliminated, as BBG/IBB senior executive staffers want to do.

No. Not by a long shot.

One can – and should – question the value of presenting crude slang to a foreign audience and how it meets the measurement of “to explain America and American values to people around the world,” as Mr. Ensor put it.

One of the favorite rubrics the purveyors of the IBB “flim flam strategic plan” would often pull out to justify its goals was to say that its programs were aimed at “societal elites.”

So, for all you societal elites out there: boogers, zits and snot!

So much for that.

When one considers all the historians, authors, academicians, scientists, teachers – people whose views on the American Experience really matter and are a natural draw for worldwide audiences – instead, the BBG/IBB gives them:

Boogers, zits and snot!


Real “American values,” as Mr. Ensor would put it.

Someone effusively claimed that Ms. Beinecke is an “ambassador of American culture.” One would think that Ms. Beinecke is capable of doing much more than what she’s encouraged to do now and would like to be remembered as someone of more substance than:

Boogers, zits and snot!

Perhaps in the dummied down world of the BBG/IBB this is the “best” of American culture that the senior agency “brain trust” can offer.

These programs may produce a good laugh. However, in a hierarchical society that respects age, wisdom and intellect, they are not likely to have great meaning and ultimately are a dead end. No doubt, the Chinese government can ignore them and not have much to worry about. On the other hand, it’s the substantive programming that the Chinese watch or listen to very closely – anything that presents substantive discussion of American governance, policy, economics, history, science, arts and literature.

And it is the substantive programming and live news that the BBG/IBB has targeted for elimination and the Chinese people are hearing or seeing less and less of it with each passing day.

This agency has fallen off a precipice. It is a deep fall, far from the best days of Willis Conover, readings by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or programs for the Polish shipbuilders in Gdansk during the Cold War.

But there’s even a darker side to all this, the primary issue of this commentary.

Let’s bring into the picture the attempt to repeal the Smith-Mundt Act as considered in some recent legislation still out there to supplement the appropriation/authorization process for the agency FY2013 budget.

Mr. Ensor’s comments are most revealing in this regard as well.

What end is served to identify the agency as a “communications company” on the PBS “Newshour” program, primarily viewed by an American audience?

In its effect, Mr. Ensor’s comment deceives the American people as to the true nature of the agency of which he is its most senior official. The American people are entitled to know exactly who Mr. Ensor works for. He works for us – the American people. His salary is paid for by the American taxpayer who thinks that VOA is helping to overcome news censorship in countries like China. This agency has a charter under which it is supposed to operate. No mention of that either. And nowhere in that charter does it say that the Voice of America is a “communications company.”

IF this is an intentional misrepresentation, it’s pretty bad. Really bad.

This puts the entire issue of repealing the Smith-Mundt Act front and center. It speaks to the kinds of things that people vigorously object to in the repeal legislation. It speaks to an overt attempt by the agency to sell itself in a way that is false and misleading; in effect, a form of domestic propaganda.

Look at it this way –

One of the things certain governments do – Iran being one – is to portray this agency as a front for the Central Intelligence Agency. So here you have it – the head of the agency misrepresenting its identity to the American people! One would imagine that the Iranians – among others – are having a big time with this one. This is the kind of thing that facilitates the agency’s loss of credibility with its global audiences and marginalizes its effectiveness. The purveyors of the agency’s “flim flam strategic plan” are not taking the high road. They are doing that “corporate” thing agency bureaucrats fancy themselves being – sort of like being the Enron corporatists of US international broadcasting. On its face, they’re playing a con game on the American people.

No one on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building seems to think about the consequences of the nonsense they utter. And they probably don’t care because most BBG members are not holding them accountable. They must do it so often among themselves that they forget it comes across as the jabberwocky that “Quo Vadis” wrote about in another BBG Watch commentary.

It seems fairly evident that senior officials of this agency are preparing themselves to be domestic propagandists – shilling a self-serving image of themselves that doesn’t hold up in reality.

Mr. Ensor got off on the right foot when he arrived at the agency.

In this instance, he found a pothole – one of his own making or perhaps made for him by the BBG/IBB.

The Federalist
June 2012

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