International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunction and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost: Dense Fog
by The Federalist
On Tuesday, August 06, 2013 David Ensor, director of the Voice of America (VOA) conducted an “all hands” staff meeting for agency employees – complete with a hard stock billboard on the front of the podium from which he addressed the audience.
We won’t cover all the subject matter of this hour-long activity. However, we will touch upon those that elevated our attention.
If Mr. Ensor has a mantra it would be captured in his overview of the agency; namely that, “the state of VOA is strong.”
It’s a nice thing to say to bolster the workforce, but there are two things wrong with it: (a) it isn’t true and (b) the operative description of the agency is stronger: dysfunctional and defunct.
The agency is reeling from a series of missteps, most of them self-inflicted. To counter Mr. Ensor’s pie-in-the-sky assessment of the agency’s state of being, we offer the following, based on his own comments in the meeting:
Mr. Ensor brought up a figure of a global audience of 150-million helped by “a surge” in Latin America. Anything that is described as a “surge” looks highly suspicious knowing that the $50 million contract with embattled Gallup is being questioned by critics. Why a “surge” in Latin America where news has been quitet lately, and not in Iran, the rest of the Middle East, China or Russia? Will the next “surge” be in Peoria? Once again, the agency’s audience numbers are all over the place. Apparently, Mr. Ensor chooses to ignore the “elephant in the room:” a global population of 7-BILLION. The agency’s performance and message have gone flat in too many places.
He should have left the audience issue out of his remarks. The reality isn’t a positive. It is a major negative. Tens of thousands of Facebook “Likes” for BBC, Russia Today and Al Jazeera stories — 6 to 25 for most VOA stories.
And we should add that some programming cuts the agency intends to make in FY 2014 are in – Latin America! Good-bye alleged audience surge.
Mr. Ensor also talked about the agency’s post-Boston Marathon bombing coverage. He characterized it as US media being “obliged” to quote VOA.
If Mr. Ensor means in the context of properly quoting the source of a news item, that’s standard operating procedure. But Mr. Ensor’s statement makes it sound like US media paying fealty to VOA which is kind of ridiculous.
To tell the truth, there really is no lasting memory of what the report was and if it added any meaningful impact to the main story. Outwardly, it seems to have been a small piece to the larger whole with which the news media already had plenty to work with. In short, Mr. Ensor casts the story in a light out of proportion to its overall impact.
Employee Survey Participation
Mr. Ensor also commented on the latest employee survey and that participation was around 70% – higher than a more commonplace effort of 40%. Mr. Ensor failed to mention that the agency enticed a higher response rate by offering a couple hours of time off for employees who participated. As short-staffed as the agency is as a whole, it may be problematic to follow through on the offer. Most importantly, the real deal in all this is the results yet to be known of this latest survey. In previous years, he and his deputies have been rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM) as being some of the worst in the federal government in terms of leadership/management skills. They were also rated as being responsible for the record low employee morale.
Mr. Ensor did note that the issues that came up most in survey responses were: fairness, accountability, transparency and communications – what you would expect from an agency in the throes of dysfunction and being defunct. You might also want to include leadership which we know is not a part of the IBB mode of operation.
Mr. Ensor also touched upon the subject of de-Federalizing the VOA workforce.
Mr. Ensor said that he knew of no plan to do this.
This was not one of Mr. Ensor’s finer moments. What happened to journalistic honesty at VOA?
To say that he knows of no plan is disingenuous. This is one of those semantic word games the Third Floor likes to play.
Here’s the reality:
De-Federalization has been discussed in detail. It has shown up in IBB reports, PowerPoint presentations, you name it. It also showed up in the Deloitte consultant report hired and paid for by the agency. The report was everything the IBB henchmen wanted: its recommendations gave a green light to move forward on any adverse action against agency employees without regard to staff discontent, disruptions, American public opinion. This was all the encouragement the IBB needed and is consistent with the IBB bureaucratic culture: an anti-employee work environment and being dismissive of consequences associated with a serious issue.
We also know that the subject has been on the radar among staff persons on Capitol Hill. Most certainly, they would be interested to know that Mr. Ensor thinks there is no plan for de-Federalizing the agency’s workforce. Undoubtedly, the agency has discussed it with Capitol Hill staffers.
Without question, de-Federalization is a priority goal and objective of the IBB.
Our view is that de-Federalization would be one of the final acts in the denouement of the agency. We have said it before and we will repeat it: the Federal workforce is the last line of defense. Without it, it is an invitation to more IBB excesses as demonstrated by the most recent crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Moscow and in Prague, more IBB failures, more waste of taxpayer funds. And last but not least, the permanent failure of the agency and its mission.
If you think there would be more transparency and accountability in this agency without its Federal workforce, you are dreaming. There is nothing in the IBB record of mismanagement to suggest that would be an intended outcome.
In short, de-Federalization is IBB home grown, enabled and facilitated by conclusions reached in the Deloitte report. Mr. Ensor’s remarks represent a serious misrepresentation of the extent this issue has been discussed and debated.
If it was Mr. Ensor’s intention to disarm the agency employees and their wariness on this subject, it speaks poorly of him.
Mr. Ensor gambled with his credibility – and lost. Big time.
The VOA Central Newsroom
About mid-point in Ensor’s presentation came a lengthy discussion of the VOA Central Newsroom.
For this part of the presentation, Mr. Ensor turned to Steve Redisch, the VOA executive editor.
As a broad observation, one should count the number of times Mr. Redisch used the word “try” or “trying” to characterize what to do with an imploded VOA Central Newsroom. By our count, he did so about five times. In addition, he used the word “experimenting” to describe approaches to workflow.
“Trying” and “experimenting” are poor substitutes for solid planning.
These agency town hall meetings or high school-like assemblies are notorious for the absence of substance. They have limited value save perhaps as a case study in how senior agency officials engage in semantics, doubletalk, misinformation and disinformation. That is the purpose of these meetings: to demean the employees through a tactic of passing off an opaque, dense fog to cover up a disaster.
The big reality that Ensor and Redisch will not – if ever – acknowledge is this:
The Newsroom Is Broken
These guys can talk in circles as much as they want, but the obvious is there every day. And everyone knows that it has been an intended outcome of the Third Floor to break the Newsroom – up to and including the Ensor/Redisch scheme to create “43 newsrooms.” There’s another word to be used here. It is:
That is the state of where the Newsroom is right now: understaffed and under-resourced, intentionally so, with predictable results.
Under the circumstances, the ability of the Newsroom to serve the agency, its language services and most importantly its core mission as codified in the VOA Charter are seriously – very seriously – undermined.
Add to this the strain placed on the Newsroom’s program support technologies like “Pangea” and Dalet which are breaking down with regularity.
If Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch are not prepared to acknowledge these realities, anything they are talking about in the way of new approaches to workflow is dead on arrival.
Here is another consequence of the Ensor/Redisch demolitions project:
The agency does not have a workable or sustainable television or video news model.
Any thought that the Newsroom is capable of delivering news content in a timely manner under the most strained of circumstances in the current state of affairs is a magic carpet ride of complete fantasy.
Let’s put it this way: the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is the mother of all nightmares for the agency – obsessed over, coveted and embraced by senior IBB officials in a fruitless exercise to (a) propagandize the American people and (b) divert attention away from the failure of the agency’s primary mission with overseas audiences.
These IBB people decided to open Pandora’s Box, thinking they had a gift waiting inside for them. Now, they find themselves bogged down in rules, regulations, contract considerations with third party news providers and production processes that are going to make it a nightmare to process a handful of content requests effectively and in a timely manner – and in turn taking reporters away from their primary duties and responsibilities.
VOA Going To The State Department
Mr. Ensor is a former journalist. He is also a former State Department official. This is commonly called being between a rock and a hard place. Anything Mr. Ensor opines on the subject of VOA being migrated to State is going to be the wrong answer for someone.
And Mr. Ensor jumped right into the deep end of the pool.
Mr. Ensor believes that VOA and the State Department are not a good fit for each other.
Extemporaneously, he remarked that VOA is in the credibility business.
Does that mean that the State Department is not?
Mr. Ensor then goes on to reference testimony by former Broadcasting Board of Governor member S. Enders Wimbush who also opposes such a move saying that it could be likened to the Radio Moscow model.
Are we now comparing the US State Department to the Soviet/Russian Foreign Ministry?
Ensor then goes on to remark that VOA is a journalistic organization.
It is not.
It is an agency of the United States Government, part of the government’s Executive Branch.
The VOA Charter – which the IBB has largely rendered defunct – states that the agency is supposed to be a reliable and authoritative source of news. That is deemed to be in the US national interest.
However, that does not make the agency a journalistic organization or a news company.
All of this is a canard hawked by the IBB and its sycophants. It totally ignores the agency’s stated purpose, function and mission.
So now what to do?
From our point of view, with the IBB responsible for the agency’s being dysfunctional and defunct, it will be left to others to decide the agency’s fate.
For a moment, let’s presume Mr. Ensor’s conclusion that State and VOA are not a good fit. That may be true – if – and it is a big IF the agency was functional and effective.
It is neither.
Thus, the time has come to consider a different model. The “new” model has a word – actually two:
And what that means is that the agency’s mission is on the verge of being rewritten and reconsidered to reflect new realities – one of which is the masterful job the IBB has done in destroying the agency’s formative mission (the VOA Charter) and its effectiveness. If you want to talk about new realities, this is one of them – and the IBB played a large role in this development – center stage in destroying the agency’s mission and being a model for gross insubordination and character assassination of people it doesn’t like and doing it in an all-so-public manner.
Having spent a lot of time studying and commenting on the agency’s core operation, the VOA Newsroom, we have arrived at the conclusion that the agency is not recoverable. It would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer funds to even remotely attempt a rehabilitation of the agency at this point. It would take years, decades, millions and billions of dollars.
Global publics are running away from, not toward, agency programming.
Present circumstances limit choices and alternatives in keeping the agency. Preserving IBB “business as usual” should be automatically taken off the table. At this juncture, being subsumed into the State Department is probably the only realistic option.
And while we’re at it, what should also be considered is putting the grantee entities within the National Endowment for Democracy where “supporting freedom and democracy” would be a natural fit.
In wrapping up this tin-plated disaster, Mr. Ensor said he sees some light out there – whatever that means.
In our view, that light needs to be moving away from Mr. Ensor’s direction and that of the IBB.
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