BBG Watch Commentary

David Ensor at Wroclaw Global ForumEven though the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) failed to cover a gathering of international leaders in Poland at which VOA Director David Ensor spoke and did not report his comments and later posted a video report from the presidential inauguration in Kyiv which failed to note the presence of Vice President Biden and the bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation, David Ensor says in this Atlantic Council video from the Wroclaw Global Forum 2014 that the Voice of America is effective in combatting the Kremlin’s propaganda in Ukraine. He added that VOA could use more funding from the U.S. Congress to do an even better job.

We believe that what the Voice of America really needs is better management and observance of its Charter. Once reformed, VOA could use more funding.

But reforming VOA will not be easy. Sources told BBG Watch that during his European trip, Director Ensor adamantly argued with his contacts against the passage of the bipartisan Royce-Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Bill, H.R. 4490. In addition to management reforms, the bill also has controversial wording about links between VOA and U.S. foreign policy. Some are worried while others point out that the bill merely reinforces observance of the VOA Charter, which already calls for VOA news to be objective while also requiring VOA to report on U.S. policies and institutions and to present different points of view.

In this video, Director Ensor talks about VOA combatting propaganda and accepting money directly from the State Department. He could have chosen his words more carefully, but no matter what he says, it does not change the fact that VOA is poorly managed and can’t even post his comments on social media, not to mention reporting adequately on such U.S. news as the visit of Vice President Biden and members of Congress to Ukraine.

David Ensor on Combating Propaganda in Ukraine

Atlantic Council Video

Link to Video on YouTube.

We agree with Mr. Ensor that individual VOA journalists are capable of doing outstanding reporting, but while Mr. Ensor travels abroad, he and other VOA executives were unwilling or unable to send a correspondent with Vice President Biden to Ukraine. Mr. Ensor and his top deputies made no arrangements to cover adequately by the Voice of America the vice-presidential and congressional visit to Kyiv during President Poroshenko’s inauguration.

Voice of America managers also did not arrange for coverage of the Wroclaw Global Forum 2014, which was attended by many prominent American and European leaders and at which Mr. Ensor himself spoke. VOA did not post on its public relations page Mr. Ensor’s video. VOA also did not report Mr. Ensor’s comments on combatting the Kremlin’s propaganda and other comments about U.S. international broadcasting from such figures as historian and writer Anne Applebaum, who is married to Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, and Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council.

It was up to others, not VOA executives and not VOA news websites and VOA social media pages, to do VOA’s mission and promote its message.

It’s interesting to note that while Senator McCain tweeted about the gathering of international leaders in Poland and his visit with Vice President Biden to Ukraine, Voice of America English News did not.

Senator McCain has 1.89 million Twitter followers; VOA English News under Director Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch has 105 thousand Twitter followers.

The U.S. State Department has 934 thousand Twitter followers. Russia’s RT has 668 thousand Twitter followers. The Voice of America doe not even come close.

While some VOA programs indeed help to counter disinformation from the Kremlin with objective news, they are far less effective as they could be because of mismanagement at the senior levels of the Voice of America and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Some material on VOA websites has been outright harmful and assisted the Kremlin’s propaganda, such as posting of a fake interview with a Russian opposition figure and mistranslating comments by a former U.S. secretary of defense.

VOA and other agency executives have plenty of money for their travels and for their enormous bureaucracy. But they have hardly given enough resources to VOA’s Ukrainian and Russian services to update their news websites and social media pages promptly 24/7. They allowed the VOA Newsroom to be decimated and hired hundreds of poorly-trained contractors. Mismanagment led to the retweeting on the VOA website of propaganda tweets from Russia’s RT and posting of a map showing Crimea to be part of Russia. Because of mismanagement, VOA English News did not report on the Lech Walesa Solidarity Prize for Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev and his meeting with President Obama and Secretary Kerry in Warsaw. Examples of such missed news stories are numerous.

VOA Charter requires the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” but a VOA video report from the inauguration Saturday of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko failed to mention that the event was attended by Vice President Joe Biden and a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation, which included Sens. John McCain, Chris Murphy and Ron Johnson and Rep. Marcy Kaptur.

In recent years and months, the Voice of America has often failed to report on key U.S. news, was late in reporting them or offered only superficial coverage. Critics blame it not on individual journalists but on mismanagement by senior VOA officials.

In a staff meeting last Tuesday that became “a vote of no confidence” in Voice of America Director David Ensor and his senior deputies, some VOA journalists challenged Ensor on his knowledge of how the organization works. One VOA journalist accused Ensor of not listening to what another VOA staffer said about their inability to produce news programs. No former VOA director has ever been addressed in such a sharp and challenging way about their leadership.

VOA English News reporting from Ukraine on Saturday showed that the senior staff is still unable to coordinate news coverage.

Link to Video on YouTube.

VOA English News later added a brief note about Biden and members of Congress in Kyiv as a text add-on on its website, but except for its Russian and Ukrainian services, VOA did not offer a separate news report on Biden’s and congressional visit to Kyiv and did not post on its English news website and the vast majority of its more than 40 language service websites any multimedia content about the official U.S. participation in the inauguration ceremony.

VOA English News also never reported on the details of various meetings Biden had in Kyiv and on details of additional U.S. assistance to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova which were announced during his visit.

Video and audio reports from a VOA English News correspondent in Kyiv, who appears not to be a Eurasia expert and was apparently sent to Ukraine from Africa, did not mention Biden or the congressional delegation at all. VOA apparently did not have a staff reporter traveling on the Vice President’s plane and following closely his visit to Kyiv.

Critics blame these news reporting failures on Director Ensor and other senior VOA executives. They say that senior VOA managers spent money on the bureaucracy and their international travels rather than on VOA correspondents and focusing on managing the organization and its news coverage.

Voice of America Director Director David Ensor said in a recent interview  that VOA is not be a mouthpiece of the White House or anybody else.

“Voice of America is not a propaganda organization and it is not a mouthpiece of the White House or of anybody else. It is a proud journalistic organization more than seventy years old.” — VOA Director David Ensor

But the Voice of America faces strong bipartisan criticism in the U.S. Congress.

In response to a multitude of news omissions, violations of the VOA Charter, and news reporting mistakes in recent years and months, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has announced his intention to introduce a bill that would eliminate federal funding for the Voice of America, which was established by the U.S. government in 1942.

It is believed to be the first such defunding proposal advanced in Congress in VOA’s history under its many directors.

Rep. Salmon described his initiative to defund VOA as the fifth “Shrink Our Spending” (SOS) bill in a series of bills to be introduced over the next few months to cut wasteful and duplicative spending. He charges that the VOA management is ignoring the VOA Charter.

Another bill dealing with the Voice of America, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), has already been unanimously approved in a fully bipartisan action by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Rep. Salmon is a member, and sent to the whole House for consideration.

H.R. 4490 introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, with Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel and seven other co-sponsors, would not abolish the Voice of America but would subject it to much stricter management controls. Some fear that some of these controls may also limit VOA’s journalistic independence, although elements of the VOA Charter, which calls for accurate and objective news, have been incorporated into H.R. 4490.

Supporters of the bill, including the the Executive Board of AFGE Local 1812, a union representing Voice of America journalists and other employees, does share some concerns but believes that the bill, with a few changes, should be enacted.

An editorial in Saturday’s Washington Post calls for the Voice of America to maintain its journalistic independence, but at the same time supports management reforms proposed in the Royce-Engel bill. Some of these reforms are also sought by most members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its new chairman Jeff Shell who, according to well placed BBG Watch sources, are particularly displeased with the management of the Voice of America.