BBG Watch offers a wide range of commentaries on current issues in U.S. international media outreach, public diplomacy, disinformation, and propaganda. The following commentary is by former VOA White House, Congressional and Foreign Correspondent Dan Robinson, who retired in 2014. Dan examines some recent developments, including remarks by the new BBG CEO, John Lansing.
All views expressed are those of the author.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOG: AN AUTUMN UPDATE
As is always the case when BBG and other officials in government-funding broadcasting are involved, we have again arrived at a point where we need to cut through the fog of their public statements.
First, let’s look at something important, the big headline, from what we have heard so far from BBG CEO John Lansing, and others, such as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel.
For those who may not have noticed, we have some new Washington acronyms. The future of this agency is going to be increasingly focused on and probably shaped by, M&C — Messaging and Countering — and on CVE, for Countering Violent Extremism.
In his job for just over a month, Lansing — a former Scripps Howard and cable TV executive — spoke about his past roles in various newsrooms. But he made a point of talking about “mission”.
In an interesting exchange, Stengel acted as journalist (he was formerly with TIME), asking Lansing how he plans to reconcile policy with journalism.
Journalists, said Lansing, must ensure that policy is “clearly articulated and understood” and emphasized the importance of conveying the “American perspective.”
Lansing and Stengel agreed that people are not “entitled to their own facts”. “There is more to any story than two sides” said Lansing, adding that “amplifying the lie to give it equal weight to the explanation I think is in and of itself a distorted approach to conveying information.”
This would all seem simple. But there is a lot of room for wandering on slippery slopes. For example, at one point during the George W. Bush administration VOA correspondents were directed to include the latest U.S. policy position or guidance in every report that they wrote.
But here is a reality. With threats facing the United States — terrorism, ISIS, challenges from Russia and China — policymakers and funders of BBG repeatedly make clear that “mission” is paramount.
BBG officials, and some at State, may pay lip service to journalism. But everyone knows that to secure ongoing congressional support, budget year after budget year, the agency needs to fall further in line with what are seen as exigent priorities.
AGENDAS . . . AND PROTESTS
At times, it seems that VOA journalists themselves miss the part about the BBG, for which they work, having an agenda. For many in non-government media, working under the BBG disqualifies someone from being recognized as a true journalist.
Yes, this is still the case today. Perhaps sad, but true — despite some respect that private sector journalists gave to VOA reporters, most of those I considered friends held on to a deep-set disdain and suspicion of the BBG. Ultimately, every VOA journalist was tainted.
Created after the former USIA was dissolved in the late 1990’s, BBG always had an agenda, and always will. In addition to news-related functions, it has grown to involve activities, and programming, funded through the State Department or USAID to counter suppression of press and Internet freedom.
Other broadcasters, born under the BBG umbrella, including Radio/TV Marti for Cuba, then Radio Free Asia, and others — all were created with agendas. Some were DESIGNED to weaken undemocratic regimes, through their programming, not just to promote the free flow of information.
Reporters at VOA were displeased that all of these organizations were lumped together under the same umbrella. But the fact is that VOA also had an agenda, from the beginning of its long, complicated history in the 1940’s. Yes, the first broadcast talked about telling the truth, but there was an agenda.
This past summer, in an event that went largely unreported by mainstream media, journalists based in VOA’s central newsroom protested a previously unpublicized panel discussion. It was sponsored by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank (BBG governor Kenneth Weinstein heads it). The subject was how to enhance efforts to counter violent extremism.
Some reporters, primarily those in VOA’s central newsroom, were livid, demanding that agency officials renounce any intention to undertake agenda-driven journalism, which they said would be a violation of VOA’s Charter.
Some VOA reporters have said that movement in this direction might make it impossible for them to remain with VOA.
No one likes to think about losing a comfortable job. Positions under the BBG offer steady, secure income provided you carry out the specifics of your job description.
But now might be the time consider whether they can stay in a place that amid the ongoing and by now quite tiresome debate about firewalls and journalistic credibility, remains a key cog in a government-funded, and therefore policy-linked (and at levels rank and file probably don’t recognize), policy-directed federal agency.
In his remarks to the BBG on October 8th, Lansing stressed that the run-up to his taking the reigns of the agency included extensive talks at the White House, State Department, and Capitol Hill.
Members of Congress, their staff, and officials don’t engage in, or have time for, such discussions without a purpose of communicating objectives, and ensuring that they are achieved. On Capitol
Hill in particular, no patience remains for business as usual.
While the White House didn’t sign on completely with the original bipartisan reform legislation, which opponents attempted to label as partisan, Secretary of State Kerry did publicly align the administration with the need for change.
Officials at the White House and State made clear they too have little patience with a BBG, and VOA specifically, that have lacked impact, and reach.
TOSSING BREAKING NEWS OVERBOARD
During a BBG session on October 8th, Lansing said he believes that VOA should no longer be focusing on trying to be a reliable provider of breaking news (he calls it spot news or spot coverage, or news of the day).
Indeed, VOA has made increasing use of the “wires” — Reuters, AP, and others — and often appears to be little more than a pass through for these commercial organizations.
This echoes a view expressed by a BBG member, Matt Armstrong, in 2014 during remarks in VOA’s newsroom. It also raises serious questions, because a major part of what VOA has done for decades is cover breaking news, though less competently in recent years.
For any reporter, covering the news involves the most basic of instincts. Something happens, someone says something . . . there are obvious repercussions and impacts. A reporter’s responsibility is to get the word out, an automatic reflex for anyone who ever worked in news.
Lansing proposes to have VOA, and possibly other BBG entities, move away from what he called spot coverage. This is a process that gained momentum from 2010 to 2014, under former VOA director David Ensor.
A bit unclear is the extent to which Lansing sees this happening, and what steps he would direct be taken to make it a reality.
VOA still has a newsroom. Millions of dollars are spent each year on incoming news agency and video feeds, and equipment to handle and process news and reports to air and online.
Language services gained direct access to news wires for the first time, courtesy of the strategy that gained momentum under former director David Ensor of creating 43 newsrooms.
That approach, and what VOA managers touted as their “Digital First” strategy, have been shown to be less effective than they claimed they would be, and that’s understating things.
Former and current VOA employees have observed that unless Congress gives the agency a substantial injection of funds — highly unlikely given public attitudes about spending — VOA’s ability to handle breaking news events will continue to deteriorate.
It’s ironic — just a few months ago Armstrong asserted that a rare major U.S. network’s (CBS) use of a VOA correspondent’s coverage (of the terrorist bombing in Bangkok) could lead to commercial networks having more respect for VOA’s news capabilities, implying it could change their perception of VOA as being just a government mouthpiece.
In Washington, VOA has news bureaus with highly-paid reporters, compared to most non-government colleagues, at least those below the network correspondent level. VOA has bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with resources increasingly shared by other BBG broadcasters such as VOA’s PNN for Iran, and others.
What is a correspondent to do? You’re sitting in a briefing at the White House, accompanying the president or Secretary of State on a domestic or overseas trip . . . or at the United Nations…or
Capitol Hill amid breaking news. Is your job reduced to tweeting and filing an Instagram pic?
Does a VOA reporter bother to ask questions about things said, or that happen, and if the response to something you asked produces a news lead — do you file on it? It’s breaking news, of course.
What will VOA’s highly paid foreign correspondents be doing? On assignment, should they focus primarily on producing, as Lansing said, “contextual” reporting, and features?
If you’re in Somalia, and a drone hits a suspected al-Shabab leader nearby, do you just tweet something out, and phone your desk? Or, as has so frequently been the case, does VOA simply post a Reuters or AP report?
A side issue, but no less significant and one I have raised before. If VOA is no longer a breaking news outfit, how will professional media galleries in places like the Capitol Hill and the White House, react?
For example, congressional media association regulations specifically bar anyone who works for “any legislative or executive department or independent agency of the Government.”
Should VOA, or any other BBG entity, stripped by its governing agency of a breaking news focus, be permitted to retain physical filing booths, which would essentially become extra office space of a federal agency to produce not “spot news”, but long form feature-oriented programming?
Amid criticism of numerous breaking news failures, VOA tried to emphasize the virtually non-existent reach of its correspondents via social media channels, placing tweets in a small window on the VOA front page labeled “US News and Opinion”.
Meanwhile, the BBC, for decades VOA’s main competitor, continued to do what it has an established reputation for doing.
The BBC supplied global audiences — regardless of geographic region — with superior blanket coverage of U.S. and global news, including presidential and foreign policy issues, underscoring how slowly the VOICE OF AMERICA was reacting.
The latest reminder of this occurred on the day of a mass shooting in Oregon. Minute-by-minute accounts and an entire page devoted to the event were seen on the BBC website. VOA was, yet again, slow and late in reflecting developments.
Reaction so far to Lansing’s endorsement of stepping back from breaking news has been, for the most part, a resounding thud, as these excerpts from Facebook comments by former VOA employees reflect:
“VOA might as well shut down it’s newsroom, if not shut down entirely. . . Mr. Lansing makes it clear that it will no longer be a timely source of major breaking news, not even. . .right in VOA’s back yard. Why does anyone need VOA, with so many other sources of timely news and information readily available? The VOA Charter clearly states that VOA will consistently serve as a reliable and authoritative source of news. Mr. Lansing does not have the authority to modify the VOA Charter.”
“As a news entity, VOA’s job includes covering and broadcasting breaking news. I don’t know what I was doing on Oct. 31, 1984 if it wasn’t covering and broadcasting about the assassination of Indira Gandhi”
DO IT RIGHT, DO IT IN DETAIL
If Mr. Lansing and BBG members supporting him, are truly serious about turning VOA and other BBG entities away from breaking news, what should be done?
First, everyone needs to be on the same page. It’s a bit of a contradiction for a CEO to talk about eliminating “spot news” coverage, if a BBG governor (Armstrong) is busy touting VOA’s ability (as what he calls a “free resource”) to provide commercial networks with breaking news from overseas.
Similarly contradictory are Armstrong’s remarks that seem to imply there will be some reversal of the destruction that was done to VOA worldwide English broadcasting in the first part of this century. The trend has been pretty much in one direction for many years.
If Lansing agrees on the need for a revival of BBG capabilities in English, he should make sure people know this, and pledge to heavy up, as he puts it, this aspect of operations and repairing the damage done to VOA’s news division in recent years under the last director.
However, recognizing current reality, namely seriously weakened capabilities, if VOA’s strength now is primarily to produce video that BBG and VOA officials contend can’t be found anywhere else, then by all means, do that.
One question that remains, however, is where are the resources to do so with 43 language demanding equal shares of those resources?
At minimum, if Lansing and others are serious, there should be a thorough review of job descriptions, just as there would be in any other government agency or private company, at a time of major change.
That means every area where human and technical resources are expended — newsroom, overseas staff, language services, technical — in often ham-fisted attempts to provide coverage of breaking news in a timely fashion.
Veterans and newcomers alike should know that VOA is no longer a breaking news organization. Bright-eyed, ambitious young journalism or international affairs graduates straight of college, refugees from private sector layoffs — all should be crystal clear about the new VOA they have landed at.
Similarly, in a straightforward and honest way whatever global audiences that are thought to remain, in what Lansing called the information “spheres of influence”, should be told not expect competent breaking news coverage from VOA — unless, that is, they are looking for Reuters and AP stories.
They should be told that VOA is transforming essentially into a video feature service, using its foreign and domestic bureaus and paid freelancers. It will be a clearinghouse (a former VOA director used this description) . . . a government-funded ATM for Internet and mobile-delivered video and social media, supplemented by pick ups of live presidential and policy-related statements.
This will be more complex than people think, and should include another deep dive, as the BBG is fond of doing, to examine VOA’s English and language websites, all of which currently have a major focus on BREAKING NEWS.
Unless Lansing can generate sufficient funding support on Capitol Hill, shrinkage would, and should, be inevitable. The still-bloated VOA of today, in the crumbling edifice at 330 Independence Avenue, should be downsized.
As was once rumored might happen, a slimmed down VOA could be placed somewhere in Virginia or Maryland. It could look like those FBI operations centers in TV shows like ’24’ or ‘The Blacklist’.
This may be all for the better, based on what we have seen in recent years in which VOA attempted to play in the major leagues with heavy-hitting news organizations, but frequently failed in spectacular and embarrassing fashion.
Better for the country, and for those who once worked in the place and remember that it once could, and did, do a much better job. At least things would be clear.
Lansing knows he faces tough decisions about where to spend existing funds. At one point, he said he would consider trying to “heavy up” in targeting areas where BBG efforts appear to matter anymore.
Here’s what I expect will happen.
Some VOA reporters, those who opposed congressional legislation, out to protect civil service and some foreign service job slots that place them in a high earning percentile compared to most working commercial journalists, will try to ignore the big headline.
Remember the highlights from the last BBG session, and which have actually been signaled for the past few years: Messaging and Countering, and Countering Violent Extremism.
Lansing also mentioned what he sees as a need for “curation and acquisition”, seemingly a reference to VOA becoming even more of a conduit for externally-produced material that would have the desired impact.
And make no mistake — BBG will probably not spend taxpayer money to curate and acquire material that isn’t seen as helping to further a policy mission, rather than just serve a journalistic intent.
Without strong steps by Lansing, some reporters in VOA will simply attempt to continue business as usual, stretch things out as long as possible to preserve the status quo.
They will also likely ignore an uncomfortable fact, which is that some of their own colleagues, in the VOA news division and language services, long ago started to use their journalistic roles to promote certain causes. They became (and some were to start), journalists-cum-activists.
They are also likely to continue to underplay the significance of VOA being hours or a day late in mentioning major global or domestic developments on which any other news organization worth its weight would not be caught flat-footed.
If history can be a guide, these reporters will also ignore another fact — which is that any battle for VOA’s journalistic independence (such that existed in the 1970’s) ended a long time ago and in today’s world has little if any support from policymakers and funders.
They are also likely to ignore that over the years some of VOA’s managing officials — including those shaping and directing VOA’s news coverage — often violated firewall provisions, and pandered to the very policy circles that, some VOA reporters now warn, threaten their credibility.
As if to illustrate the degrees of naivete that exists on this subject, in the meeting last July where reporters challenged managers over the CVE agenda, one participant asked if the State Department was ever involved in discussions about VOA programming.
If anyone believes that no one in VOA, over the decades, has ever engaged in discussions with people at the State Department, or the White House, well I have a Volkswagen diesel to sell them.
These are things that many in VOA claim ignorance about, or if they are aware of the truth, rarely leap to discuss. But they go directly to the discussion about policy promotion and “countering” versus journalism that is now in the forefront.
END THE DEBATE
Since leaving VOA in 2014, fed up with the mind boggling inefficiencies, mismanagement and bungled news coverage, I argued that journalists were not necessarily wrong in trying to protect their work from being influenced or manipulated by policy goals.
But I also continue to assert, after witnessing VOA’s decline in recent years, that the debate itself that raged for decades is simply no longer constructive.
It’s not worth taxpayers footing the bill just so various sides can continue to argue, so more executive jobs can be created within a bloated bureaucracy, and an agency that perhaps should have been shuttered sooner after the Cold War ended, can just live on, and on, and on.
Of course, Congress has obviously chosen to continue funding the BBG, in my view mostly because it doesn’t have the courage to just shut the agency down. Lansing’s appointment, helped likely by entreaties to lawmakers by BBG officials, may have stopped legislative reform efforts for the time being, especially in this election year.
Interestingly, only one 2016 presidential candidate from either major party — Ben Carson — has found the time to even mention BBG (writing in The Hill, Carson urged “a new Voice of America that pounds creative messaging, hitting sensitive issues head-on, while pushing relevant messaging into the cyberspace discussion.” )
From Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State lit the fire by calling BBG practically defunct, we have yet to hear anything on the campaign trail. If she wins the White House next year, BBG she will no doubt seek answers as to what has been done to clean up the BBG mess.
Now embedded atop a notorious entrenched bureaucracy, heading an agency with one of the worst reputations in government, stuck at the bottom of employee satisfaction ratings year after year, John Lansing needs to make sure that actions follow talk.
If that includes removing VOA and other BBG entities from the breaking news business, than this and other steps should be executed correctly and comprehensively.
Lansing didn’t have to campaign for his position. He was sought out by BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and encouraged by others, such as Stengel.
Policy pronouncements he has made are certainly likely to be adjusted in coming months — one could speculate that the one about spot news may be substantially walked back.
I would encourage him to seek the advice of former news professionals, veterans and younger, who left in recent years voicing the same type of frustrations I did in 2014.
What this agency can’t afford anymore, and what taxpayers and their elected representatives should not tolerate, are half measures that will allow a continuation of business as usual.
Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent.