BBG Watch Commentary

Dan Robinson PhotoDan Robinson’s retirement from Voice of America (VOA) is as regrettable as it was avoidable. Two former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members who knew him have said that his retirement is a great loss for the news organization and American taxpayers who support its media outreach mission abroad.

This talented reporter could have stayed with VOA for many more years. He, as other VOA reporters before him, apparently decided they could no longer tolerate mismanagement and poor work environment.

BBG Watch has learned that as Robinson was retiring, yet another highly respected VOA reporter was reportedly threatened by a senior executive believed to be responsible for many excellent employees leaving VOA.

The Federalist has asked us to post this commentary about Dan Robinson. We join The Federalist in wishing Dan well in his future years.


VOA Correspondent Dan Robinson with Aung San Suu Kyi
VOA Correspondent Dan Robinson with Aung San Suu Kyi

International Broadcasting Bureau – If It’s Dysfunctional and Defunct, It’s Us! – Information War Lost: Dan Robinson’s Retirement

By The Federalist

On Friday, February 28, 2014, senior Voice of America (VOA) White House correspondent Dan Robinson retired.

Mr. Robinson retired after 34 years of distinguished service on behalf of the agency, the VOA Charter and the American People. In addition to his White House posting, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the agency’s Capitol Hill correspondent.

Mr. Robinson was one among a handful of remaining veteran correspondents and employees who are sterling representatives of the best Voice of America and the agency has to offer.

We have no doubt that Mr. Robinson agonized over the decision to take retirement over more valued service for the American taxpayers who support U.S. media outreach to nations without free media and those which for various reasons cannot get objective news about America and the world.

Dan Robinson filing from Phnom Penh in 1992
Dan Robinson filing from Phnom Penh in 1992

But the agency is clearly not what it once was. Its senior officials do not respect the kind of dedicated service offered by Mr. Robinson and others of similar character and abilities, their institutional knowledge or their professional standards.

In the Politburo-styled Third Floor International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Voice of America top management philosophy, these same officials see the veteran agency employees as expendable, disposable and better off gone – all of which would facilitate the new order for the agency which we all know by now is nothing other than dysfunctional and defunct.

These same officials run around the building blathering about “metrics” when the only metric that counts is that implosion has become the new “normal” for US Government international broadcasting.

Dan Robinson Covering UN Peace Process Phnom Penh
Dan Robinson Covering UN Peace Process Phnom Penh


On The Other Hand


Two individuals who do respect Mr. Robinson’s contributions to the agency are former members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Ambassador Victor Ashe and Ms. Blanquita Cullum. They have weighed in publicly about what the retirement of Mr. Robinson represents as a loss to the agency. They speak to their grave concerns regarding the future of the agency and the troubling internal working environment created by senior VOA officials and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

The views of Ambassador Ashe and Governor Cullum should not be taken lightly. Their views carry weight. When these former BBG members have something to say, it is a very bad day indeed for those on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building who have put the agency in its present circumstances. Both Ambassador Ashe and Governor Cullum have great familiarity with IBB hostility toward the staff and even the BBG itself. They have both been honored by members of Congress in The Congressional Record.

The standards of Mr. Robinson’s professionalism come through in his personal message concerning his retirement on his Facebook page. He speaks less of himself and more to the people he worked with and supported him during his career. It is not unlike what we saw with Jay Leno when he closed his tenure as host of NBC’s “Tonight Show:” you remember those who, often sight unseen, made for your success before considering your own triumphs.


Difficult and Discouraging


Mr. Robinson’s comments made note of “the extremely difficult and so often discouraging atmosphere that now exists at VOA…”

We couldn’t agree more, particularly his reference to standing up for “colleagues targeted by unfairness.”


And equally important, Mr. Robinson notes,


“Bullies should not be tolerated in any organization, in the private sector or in a government agency.”


In our view:


  • It is these same bullies who take smug satisfaction in eliminating the professional staff seen as obstacles to their fear-infused order.


  • It is these same bullies who sit smug at home while the agency falls flat on its face in the midst of a major crisis in Ukraine, uncaring that the depleted and under-resourced agency fails in its mission as defined by the VOA Charter.


  • It is these same bullies who claim that workforce morale is solely the responsibility of employees, not the responsibility of agency officials.


Dan Robinson at the White House
Dan Robinson at the White House

Sources report that Mr. Robinson was very much a “one man band” in the White House assignment. If this is correct, that likely meant that he put himself at the disposal of breaking events at least 18 hours a day. By comparison, other elements of the White House press corps operate with much more on-site support as well as on-site coverage of the White House when regular reporters and correspondents may be off duty.


This is one of the “hallmarks” of the “new VOA:” no support, no back-up, no nothing.


In short, VOA correspondents are now responsible for at least basic content for radio (what remains of it), video (it really isn’t television) and the Internet (slow and regularly overtaken by events through no fault of the correspondents).

Also, in the “new VOA” created by VOA director David Ensor and VOA executive editor Steve Redisch, the agency’s language services have no choice but to go to the correspondents (in the Ensor/Redisch “43 newsrooms” concept) with competing demands that often prevents coverage of other breaking news from the White House, Capitol Hill, the State Department or the Pentagon.

At this juncture, it should come as no surprise that the “new VOA” is incapable of responding to crises:


  • With an adept sense of timing, the Russian incursion into the Crimea took place beginning with the onset of a weekend, when official Washington seems to close up shop. Mr. Putin and his military commanders and intelligence officers most certainly knew that officials in Washington would be less likely to respond quickly. As a result, official Washington was left scrambling when the Russians deployed to the Crimea in force. But even the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and members of Congress had shown eventually far more activity last weekend than VOA executives sitting at home.


  • Senior VOA/IBB officials went home, literally and mentally. White House coverage was left hanging – and most likely not by accident or oversight.


  • The under-resourced and under-staffed VOA Central Newsroom was quickly outpaced by other international broadcasters.


We really feel sorry for whoever among the VOA correspondents gets detailed to the White House following Mr. Robinson’s departure. That person should acquaint him/herself with Robinson’s observation of poorly managed news coverage.

But, at the same time, if senior officials don’t care about breaking news, it doesn’t matter. If these same officials have to be ordered into action by members of the BBG, as happened in the current events unfolding in the Crimea, you know that the agency is toast as a serious international broadcaster.

Those of us who adhere to the same kind of professional standards as Mr. Robinson know that it takes good men and good women to run a successful organization. We also know that in the “new VOA,” there are not enough good men and good women when it comes to leadership.

In the present atmosphere created in the executive offices of the agency’s Third Floor, professional standards are absent.

Veteran employees among the working staff are hunkered down hoping to weather the down cycle created by these senior executives. It is probably a vain hope. Any rational study of the situation points to the agency having crossed a threshold where the damage done is irreparable and is limping along, trying to get by with empty braggadocio of “43 newsrooms” and a “global news network.”

It is all nonsense, plain and simple, as recent events have demonstrated and continue to be demonstrated on a daily basis.

The true nature of the agency is as labeled: dysfunctional and defunct.

If bullies rule the day and are allowed to get away with it – as they appear to be – there is no reasonable expectation that the agency can be anything else than what it is: a drain on the fiscal resources of the United States Government, life support over mission effectiveness.


Dan Robinson Recent Photo

We wish Dan Robinson well as his life moves forward. We know he remains concerned for his colleagues, the VOA Charter and the agency’s mission. He has many friends in the building, in Washington, throughout the United States, and abroad.

We suspect his will not be an idle retirement, that his talents and expertise will be embraced elsewhere, and rightly so.


The Federalist

March 2014