This is a guest commentary for BBG Watch written by former senior Voice of America White House correspondent Dan Robinson.
At the BBG — A World of Alternate Universes
By Dan Robinson
Two recent events at the Broadcasting Board of Governors — the federal agency known for dysfunction and low morale with a board living on borrowed time under soon-to-be-passed legislation — prompted guffaws from outside observers.
On November 29th, the BBG held what it called a Global Town Hall in its depressing World War Two-era Stalinesque-like headquarters building at 330 Independence Avenue.
It was only in 2015 that the position of CEO was established at BBG, which was created by Congress after the demise of the former U.S. Information Agency (USIA) under President Bill Clinton.
First to hold the job was NBC executive Andy Lack, who quickly decided that a place described in recent reports as “a regular bottom-feeder” wasn’t right for him. He fled in less than two months.
Enter John Lansing, the smooth talking former Scripps exec, recruited in 2015 to replace Lack.
Lansing stood before employees and listed supposedly glorious accomplishments under his watch, focusing mainly on improving relations between and among managers and their staff.
Indeed, in a 2016 memo Lansing said he wanted “a working environment that is free of personal favoritism, coercion, reprisal, and retaliation and other prohibited personnel practices.” Wow — that’s quite a list, and not in a good way.
Meetings were held. Lansing said he plans more in 2017. That’s a lot of confidence for someone whose job is among key positions in the Plum Book, with the incoming Trump administration to determine whom it may appoint to these positions.
ONGOING EMPLOYEE DOUBTS AND SKEPTICISM
So began the descent into alternate universe No. 1. Lansing highlighted what he calls his “management accountability charter” and policy of “zero tolerance” for “an environment with any form of favoritism, retaliation or discrimination.”
He spoke about training courses, mentoring, visits by experts — as the agency responds to the last Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, in which BBG once again ranked near the bottom, prompting this description by The Washington Post:
“The Broadcasting Board of Governors, another regular bottom-feeder that oversees the Voice of America and other government broadcasters, also scored 56. But unlike DHS, BBG is going backward. It scored two points better last year.”
Lansing, who has been embarrassed by the agency’s poor showing in these surveys, didn’t have to wait long before an unidentified participant in the Town Hall said this:
“You may occasionally wonder why so few questions of substance get asked at these Town Halls. It’s not that we don’t know how to do our jobs as journalists, and hold those in authority to account. It’s that most of us, save one or two individuals, face serious retribution for daring to challenge the company line. This happened frequently to many I know, so we learn [to] sit down and shut up.”
Ouch! Oops! So much for the happy talk about ensuring that retaliation would be a thing of the past. You could see the discomfort on the faces of the director of VOA and other BBG media, sitting on the stage as that statement was read.
To his credit, Lansing provided his email address, and surprisingly, his cell phone number. “Nobody will be subject to retaliation in any organization that I lead.”
Easy to say. Much more difficult to enforce, particularly in a well-established hostile work environment.
LANSING SOUNDS DEFIANT TONE
Just before this, Lansing declared: “We stand ready to work with President-elect Trump and his team.” But then he said: “Let me be very clear. . . there will be no change in leadership.”
Wow. Slip-sliding into alternate universe No. 2, as Lansing vowed that “the board will remain in place until replaced. . .” No kidding — boards that are to be replaced . . .usually remain in place — until they are replaced.
But at that very moment Lansing was vowing no leadership changes, wheels were already turning on Capitol Hill on defense policy legislation setting the stage for eventual elimination of the BBG itself.
Lansing and others knew about this legislation, but mentioned nothing about it to the sparse audience in attendance for the Town Hall meeting.
FUNEREAL ATMOSPHERE AT BBG SESSION
Indeed, the next day, November 30th, the legislation was a main focus of a BBG session that had funereal overtones (though one board member said he hoped the meeting didn’t turn into a “post mortem”).
So . . . let’s be clear (to use Lansing’s own words): it’s highly unlikely that the BBG CEO, as well as other “plum” positions such as the directorship of VOA, will not be changing under the Trump transition.
And it’s not a question of whether a transition team lands at the BBG, but when.
Lansing waited until a later question to note that he and others had, as of that date anyway, had no contact with any transition team members.
DUBIOUS AUDIENCE INCREASE FIGURES
Descent into parallel universe No. 3: the CEO then went on to trumpet what the BBG calls “the largest audience increase in the history of the BBG” — an alleged increase from 225 million to 278 million.
The agency claims that digital was the main driver in this increase, with VOA accounting for the largest increase, going from 187 million to 226 million.
It bears repeating — if anyone believes that this stumbling agency, with its record of often late and inferior breaking news and social media coverage, content, performance and paltry “views” and “likes” on major social media platforms has managed such a miracle, then Congress and President-elect Trump should line up to buy bridges and used cars at 330 Independence Avenue.
FORMALLY INSTITUTIONALIZING INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING
Other alternate universes emerged when members of the latest in agency acronyms — the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) — made presentations to the sparse audience.
This amounted to a boasting session by the heads of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio and TV Marti), VOA, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa).
VOA director Amanda Bennett described a decision to have VOA begin its first major formal foray into investigative reporting as an opportunity to “continue and improve our accountability reporting here and around the globe.”
The Trump transition, she said, handed us “a terrific once in a lifetime opportunity to be the very best journalists we can possibly be.” She even took a swipe at non-government media who had showed “a lack of ability to see beyond their own frameworks.”
Bennett has chosen to occupy a parallel universe in which she, and others are pushing a notion that a U.S. federal agency can, or should, be operating, and doing so with any degree of seriousness, in the ultra-competitive space of investigative journalism, and under the wary and watchful eyes of the Congress and the State Department.
Let’s get this straight: VOA has neither the staff nor financing nor an established record as an investigative journalistic entity of any major throw weight.
VOA survived (barely) being privatized. So, for the foreseeable future VOA reporters remain civil servants.
It’s highly doubtful that GS-12s will compete with the likes of CNN, MSNBC, NPR and others whose reporters have been on investigative beats for decades.
One comment appearing on the BBG Watch website summed things up nicely:
“Why is VOA getting into investigative reporting?? Who are they going to investigate as federal employees? I don’t see that ending well.”
Will civil servant and other BBG journalists be probing, to cite some examples, alleged corruption in Congress from where funding for their own agency comes? How about defense contracting practices?
Will they have the chutzpah to turn over the stones to root out what many of the agency’s own employees have called corruption within the BBG and other of its entities?
RAGING AGAINST REALITY
VOA’s reporters also choose to exist in another alternate universe, one in which they refuse to accept that they are not now, and never will be, seen in the same light as their colleagues in non-government media organizations.
In the November 29th Town Hall, VOA’s National Correspondent Jim Malone faced off with Lansing about the agency’s path toward becoming a stronger mouthpiece for U.S. national security and foreign policy.
This wasn’t the first time this issue has arisen.
In a tense meeting back in 2015, VOA’s reporting staff and management were plunged into confrontation over a seminar organized by VOA’s Office of Global Strategy and co-sponsored by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank headed by a member of the BBG.
One participant described the mood as “dark”. Reporters took issue with VOA’s participation in the conference, asserting it undermined credibility, and protested a trend toward “agenda-driven journalism”.
THE CVE AGENDA
In the November 29th Town Hall, Malone pointed to “a growing emphasis shifting away from journalism perhaps toward what some of us consider to be counter-propaganda”.
He and others have pointed to a new section given top-of-page prominence on VOA’s global English website, devoted to “Countering Violent Extremism” with reports produced by a special CVE unit in the BBG headquarters.
Lansing (who often calls himself a journalist though that experience is far back in his professional background) essentially blew off Malone’s dissent. Countering disinformation, Lansing said, is “pure and basic journalism”.
Saying VOA was “very, very late to this activity. . .” Bennett equated government funding that helped establish VOA’s extremism unit with financial support that the Wall Street Journal and Knight Ridder received from Wall Street and the auto industry for reporting initiatives, saying she “completely rejects . . . the notion that this is not journalism.”
Lansing asserted that there were “never any strings attached,” and added “never once has anybody from the State Department ever directed our coverage. . .”
So, let’s get this straight. . . .
In a federal agency where only some years ago the president’s deputy national security adviser videoconferenced with board members to lament about how far behind the U.S. was in countering Russian disinformation and propaganda. . .
. . . with members of the board of governors having served as U.S. ambassadors in Iraq and Afghanistan . . .
. . . there are NO STRINGS ATTACHED?
. . . no connections, anywhere, at any time, in writing, by phone, by email? No history of administration (or congressional) influence and impact on programming . . .?
. . . at the FEDERAL AGENCY controlling all U.S.-funded overseas-directed media?
Let’s take another look at the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, which contains the Global Engagement Center initiative of Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT).
For any reporters within the BBG (to become the International Broadcasting Advisory Board) structure who may need a memory jog, here’s the role of the new Center:
“. . . .developing a whole-of-government strategy for countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. The bill would increase the authority, resources, and mandate of the Global Engagement Center to include state actors like Russia and China in addition to violent extremists. The Center will be led by the State Department, but with the active senior level participation of the Department of Defense, USAID, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Intelligence Community, and other relevant agencies. The Center will develop, integrate, and synchronize whole-of-government initiatives to expose and counter foreign disinformation operations and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support U.S. allies and interests.
The rest of the November 29th Global Town Hall provided a few more examples of alternate universes, as managers avoided addressing elephants in the room — that everyone in the audience knew were there.
Andre Mendes, BBG CIO and CTO, said nothing about the series of technical breakdowns in recent years that plunged news operations into chaos, and for which he was forced to apologize in memos to agency staff.
For his part, Lansing blew off concerns expressed in another question about why so many high salary GS-15 positions were being created ahead of the Trump transition, describing the concerns as “false equivalency.”
Bennett attributed “initial” high-level hiring as needed to “drive pretty dramatic change” saying skill sets needed to drive this change were not present.
One audience member asked what the BBG had been doing to improve its public image “outside the beltway to attract domestic support”.
Lansing — who with members of the BBG board personally lobbied to block passage of broader legislation aimed at restructuring the agency — deftly danced around this one.
A “study” had been undertaken, said Lansing, so the board could better understand its reputation. Communications strategies were being strengthened. Think tank presentations will be held. Outreach will occur with other agencies — including (now hear this VOA journalists): State Department and the NSC.
Lansing cited a meeting he had with an unidentified former U.S. senator, and critic of the agency, saying there was “a clear understanding that the BBG is moving in the right direction.”
And you can take that to the bank.
This reminded me of an encounter related to me some years ago by a fellow VOA correspondent, who quoted a senior Department of Defense official as saying about VOA: “You have no [expletive] reach.”
ASPIRATIONS FOR GLOBAL DIGITAL LEADERSHIP?
A couple of other alternate universes were obvious in the final moments of November 29th Town Hall, and it was Lansing who again served up a couple of whoppers.
Asked where he sees the BBG in five years, he said he wants it to “be in a position of leadership globally in digital and media. . .” Are there plans to put Voice of America on television 24/7? Lansing was evasive on this one.
Let’s take these one by one. BBG is most certainly NOT on a path toward global leadership, “in digital and media” as Lansing put it. For that kind of leadership, look to the BBC which recently announced a major expansion worth more than $300 million.
As for hope of VOA becoming a 24/7 global television force — that train left the station long ago — in fact far longer than the point at which VOA failed to seize an opportunity to establish itself as a destination of choice for global audiences using the Internet and social media.
No doubt these and other interesting alternate universes will continue to exist at 330 Independence Avenue: cumulatively, harbingers of the agency’s demise when found to be wishful and unsustainable.
Reporters will pretend that they somehow work for media organizations that are primarily there to undertake journalism, without being “driven” by U.S. security and foreign policy considerations.
Agency officials will pay lip service to this, while simultaneously noting that members of Congress who approve funding are primarily focused on countering such things as Russian disinformation.
Officials will talk endlessly about their commitment to journalism, but stare back and say that the CVE agenda is here to stay. . . indeed that it is part of “[having] our priorities straight” [Lansing’s words] and demonstrating impact to those holding the purse strings on Capitol Hill.
Those in the agency at the highest end of the federal pay structure will continue to make excuses for infrastructure and system breakdowns, but never be seen to have faced real consequences for those failures.
Officials will continue to dismiss observations and criticisms leveled from the outside of shortcomings in news coverage, quality and content, while failing to put in place systems and structures that would prevent such failures from recurring.
But there is good news for those SESers (members of the Federal Government Senior Executive Service pulling down six figure salaries starting at $160,000) at the BBG: in 2017, the cap for senior level bonuses is going up!
For those in the lower GS ranks not inclined to believe all of the happy talk emanating from those who put on that show during the Global Town Hall, and others on the third floor of the BBG, or VOA, or other government-funded media. . .
It’s time to start asking who got the bonuses, and what they did to deserve them.
(To Be Continued)
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. Views expressed here are his own.