BBG Watch Commentary

Jonathan Marks
Jonathan Marks

We strongly disagree with international media expert Jonathan Marks’s conclusion in his latest blog article that the world no longer needs the Voice of America (VOA), but we completely agree with his findings that executives in charge of Voice of America, as well as the overall Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) management centered within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), have:

1. No concept of what VOA should offer the world and;

2. What they offer is of such bad quality that VOA has become an international embarrassment.

Jonathan Marks, CEO of media consulting group Critical Distance, does not analyze VOA as a media organization, its management or why things went wrong, but he provides one example of how VOA can’t even present its own impressive history without appearing like a 1970’s TV relic.

We’ve decided to offers our own analysis building upon Mr. Marks’s article. In support of his argument about VOA’s decline, BBG Watch can provide an even more embarrassing example (second video) of how VOA has descended into the absurd with its high-school video-journalism class production values.

But first, this is what Mr. Marks writes:

JONATHAN MARKS: “Sadly, VOA is living in a time-warp. It’s TV efforts look very much like radio with pictures. Look at this clip, broadcast on July 4th 2014. It looks like a local TV newscast from the 1970’s, both in style and camera work. No-one it scored only a couple of hundred views – No-one knows it is there!”

The second video is also a VOA production. It was not included in Jonathan Marks’s article, but we wanted to show it because it illustrates even better his point about VOA being destroyed by high-quality competition from Russia’s RT. (You may see a brief non-VOA advertising commercial from the outside host of this VOA video clip. The commercial was not produced by VOA.)

BBG WATCH:” Executives running the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America (VOA) federal agency are a threat to U.S. national security by promoting imbecile video productions that are likely to enrage fundamentalists in the Muslim world, a BBG Watch commentator has concluded after watching a promotional video released by VOA.”

VOA’s top executives are former CNN TV staffers. They have indeed sacrificed news reporting and radio broadcasting for TV/video productions with disastrous results. VOA English News Twitter page has fewer Followers than the UN Peacekeeping and nearly ten times fewer Followers than the U.S. State Department Twitter page.

In his article, Jonathan Marks offers this conclusion:

JONATHAN MARKS: “USIB is far too lethargic to survive on its own. It needs to answer the question: If USIB did not exist today, why on earth would it be created? How is it part of an integrated effort to share America’s values and influence others? If it doesn’t have a powerful set of answers, then it’s time to celebrate a job well done and cue the Yankee Doodle signature tune.”

We disagree with Mr. Marks on this point only and would like to provide a few preliminary answers.

First of all, Voice of America is not the entire USIB or as the BBG calls it, United States Information Media (USIM). USIM includes surrogate media outlets providing uncensored news in foreign languages to societies without free press. Among BBG’s multiple media outlets, only VOA offers substantial albeit now very low quality English-language news content.

The following analysis is our own, not Mr. Marks’s who focuses more on the symptoms rather than root causes of VOA’s problems.

Mismanagement, news reporting problems, a fake interview, a map showing Crimea to be part of Russia, “pro-Putin bias,” and embarrassing videos are largely limited to VOA (and, of course, to the International Broadcasting Bureau, which does not produce any programs but has enormous negative management impact on VOA; IBB is damaging the surrogates as well, but still not as much as this central Washington bureaucracy affects VOA).

But not everything is as bad as parts of Mr. Marks’s article might lead readers to believe, although he is mostly right about VOA.

Unlike VOA, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and even Alhurra TV (Middle East Broadcasting Networks) offer specialized news and videos in multiple languages with very high news reporting and video production values. Such specialized reporting in foreign languages is not duplicated by commercial media. RFE/RL and RFA also provide a limited number of English translations of their reports which also have no equivalent in commercial international media.

Watch this award-winning RFE/RL video report “At Afghan Brickworks, Family Trapped In Cycle Of Debt.”

As seen from this video, BBG’s surrogate broadcasters are doing outstanding multimedia journalism. While not immune to mismanagement from being pushed around by IBB, surrogate media outlets have been able so far to maintain high journalistic standards. RFA won the top prize from the London-based Association for International Broadcasting (AIB) in the Innovation Production Technology category for its e-book “Remembering Tiananmen,” and RFE/RL was highly commended for its investigative radio documentary “Victims of 88 (AKA 2009)” and its short feature “At Afghan Brickworks, Family Trapped in Cycle of Debt.”

Even some VOA services and many individual VOA broadcasters — notably the Ukrainian Service, but not only — are capable of excellent TV and other multimedia work despite operating under exceptionally bad senior management at both VOA and IBB. They sometimes fail, however, to report on significant news stories due to insufficient resources and neglect from senior management. Despite all this, VOA is still making a difference in many countries. It could do much better.

But Mr. Marks is right on most other points. However, the solution to these problems, in our view, is not consolidation of all USIM as proposed by Gene Parta and Ross Johnson, whose analysis Mr. Marks notes in his article.

This proposal would put the failing VOA together with the well-managed surrogate media outlets like RFE/RL and RFA and leave all the control in the hands of the most discredited managers in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) who, according to Office of Inspector General OIG audits, can’t even manage themselves. Along with the VOA management, IBB executives have been rated in Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys as being some of the worst managers in the entire U.S. federal government, being responsible for record low employee morale. Even if all of USIM were consolidated under a private entity, such a central bureaucracy:

1. Would include many discredited IBB managers;

2. Would be too big and too Washington-centered to operate effectively abroad;

3. Would undermine independence and specialization of surrogate media outlets;

4. Could no longer present non-federal Voice of America as speaking on behalf of the United States.

5. Would do exactly what people behind founding of Radio Free Europe, among them George Kennan and General Eisenhower, wanted to avoid at all cost: making Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty part of the Washington bureaucracy.

The best solution in our view is proposed in the bipartisan bill, H.R. 4490, approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which would make the surrogate media outlets independent of the IBB bureaucracy and would reform VOA to refocus it on presenting U.S. Washington news beat and America’s story to the world in ways that commercial U.S. media do not, especially in foreign languages.

Mr. Marks focuses perhaps too much on VOA’s English language news content, almost all of which is indeed duplicated by public and commercial media (CNN, NYT, BBC, even Deutsche Welle) with much better speed and quality, but even there many U.S. news stories go unreported by others or distorted by others (RT, Al Jazeera, Iran’s Press TV) and could be reported by VOA if it were properly managed.

In our view, where the Voice of America could shine is in specialized foreign language reporting from Washington and the rest of America. But management reforms must come first to save VOA from becoming irrelevant.

We do not want Mr. Marks’s conclusion to become reality. A demise of VOA would be a great loss for America and for the world, which remains in some regions as dangerous as it was during the Cold War, and perhaps even more dangerous for the lives of American soldiers and civilians. We don’t think it’s time to celebrate a job well done and say goo bye to VOA. Voice of America has an important role to play if it can be reformed.

READ JONATHAN MARKS’s ARTICLE: Does America need the Voice of America?, Jonathan Marks, Critical Distance Insights & Opinions, July 6, 2014.