BBG Watch Commentary
Go Ahead: Try To Make Us Accountable – Information War Lost: Face Off
By The Federalist
It takes no small amount of courage and fortitude to face off with the purveyors of the dysfunctional and defunct regime inside the Cohen Building. That’s what it takes to come down hard on issues, as David Ensor, the Voice of America (VOA) director discovered in a recent swing through “the worst of the worst organization in the Federal Government:” the VOA Central Newsroom.
On Tuesday, June 3, Ensor stepped into the Newsroom to talk about what he and VOA executive editor Steve Redisch are labeling “digital first.”
In mid-2014, it appears that Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch believe it is time to move the agency into the 21st century – or at least their vision of the agency in the 21st century. Mr. Redisch has been VOA’s Executive Editor for many years; David Ensor its Director since August 2011, nearly three years. What were they doing until now?
BBG Watch Editor’s Note: We suspect that “digital first” is a clever way of making VOA journalists appear resistant to change, when in fact they know far more about digital media than both Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch. These journalists work in it daily. What they suffer from is not the lack of digital media but disorganization, mismanagement, low employee morale and lack of effective leadership.
We must remember that the former management of RFE/RL had also talked about “digital transition,” accused Radio Liberty journalists in Russia of not knowing digital media and fired dozens who were in fact digital media experts. BBG members intervened, replaced the management, found an outstanding journalist and manager to lead the organization, some of the outstanding Radio Liberty journalists were rehired shortly before Putin annexed Crimea, and Radio Liberty’s web and social media metrics recovered together with RFE/RL’s reputation and effectiveness. The same thing needs to happen at VOA.
With the unanimous passage of the bipartisan reform bill, H.R. 4490, in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, senior agency officials are doing some serious sweating. They are in a panic trying to justify their positions which are clearly in jeopardy if the bill gets signed into law.
Thus belatedly, they are running around trying to come up with something – anything – that might create the appearance – not the fact – of some redeeming value in an agency that is deep in the consequences of being dysfunctional and defunct.
Hence, the “digital first” scheme concocted by Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch. As Mr. Ensor says in his own memo of June 4, 2014,
“…’Digital first’ is a lot easier to say than it is to clearly define, or execute. We are going to need everyone’s help designing changes in our workflow that will point us in the right direction.”
Right from the start, signs of trouble:
- Mr. Ensor can’t define what “digital first” is.
- Mr. Ensor can’t describe how it is to be executed.
- No concrete, clearly articulated plan exists.
- It does not appear to restore the Newsroom’s ability to cover breaking news.
- There has been no assessment of the resources required to execute the plan because Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch do not know what “digital first” is.
After many years on the job, they frankly admitted that they do not know how the VOA Newsroom and the production of programs function. They ordered a study that will take several months. These are not confidence builders, ladies and gentlemen.
Ensor later explains that the intent here to emphasize the Newsroom’s online output as its top priority but without jeopardizing the broadcasting component.
Just some days ago, Steve Redisch noted in an informal backroom meeting of Newsroom employees that traffic on the agency’s English language website is very low. As the world already knows, VOA is getting clocked by the website components of other international broadcasters including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Russia Today (RT) among others. Their social media outreach is many times greater than that of the Voice of America.
Ensor’s memo also says that this exercise is intended to fulfill all three provisions of the VOA Charter.
However, to outward appearances, the Newsroom (at least some of its most senior and most highly paid U.S. federal government employees, especially those with Foreign Service limited appointments as oversees correspondents) has become a hotbed of opposition to reforming the agency. One need only read an op-ed piece by VOA employee Al Pessin in The Los Angeles Times (“Back Off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real,” June 2, 2014) to get the lowdown on the insurgents of the VOA Newsroom. These individuals want nothing to do with, “increased coverage of U.S. and American policy” as Ensor notes in his memo. The Newsroom insurgents would likely view this as conceding to the provisions of H.R. 4490.
Indeed, in a morning editorial meeting following publication of the Pessin op-ed piece, there was an indulgent “praise-a-thon” for Pessin writing the column. It was also noted that Ensor reportedly called Pessin and thanked him for the story. (We could not independently verify it, but that is what was reportedly said during the meeting attended by a number of people. We have no reason to doubt that such a call was made, but will be happy to post a retraction if it did not happen.)
Back to the Implosion
Mr. Ensor also noted the formation of a Central News Advisory Council for “input,” whatever that means.
Keep in mind that this is not a thought out, articulated initiative. It is a work-in-progress – or as is more likely the case, an accident-in-progress. As Mr. Ensor noted, “this is a complex reform.”
Folks: this agency doesn’t handle its existing day-to-day well. Throw anything at it with the words “complex,” “digital first” and “reform” juxtaposed to each other in the same sentence and you can visualize the train wreck that’s coming. Indeed, it’s already underway with the Newsroom the equivalent of mangled, twisted wreckage lying alongside the roadbed.
And it doesn’t help when people involved in managing the “digital first” project didn’t even know that the agency still produces radio newscasts 24/7! They admitted it with disarming frankness.
Mr. Ensor also notes that he wants to see changes implemented by mid-September.
That’s a dead giveaway: an attempt to time an implementation to coincide with the end of the fiscal year on September 30 and perhaps also a possible enactment of the H.R. 4490 legislation.
It is also a bald-faced attempt to create the appearance, not the substance, of formative corrective action, no doubt hoping to impress or mollify the Congress.
Members of Congress and their staffs should not be impressed or mollified.
One should see clearly what the tactic that is being employed here.
Instead of receiving a reciprocal “praise-a-thon” for this latest exercise to repair the broken VOA Central Newsroom, Mr. Ensor found himself facing off with skepticism on the part of some staffers.
The assembled group included VOA Newsroom editors – who reminded Ensor of the historical record that he and Mr. Redisch have constructed over the past five years or so:
One staffer noted “a lot of platitudes, the same stuff like I said, that we have heard for the last five years” about Newsroom reorganization and the like. And now, in 2014, the editor noted that Ensor and Redisch are now saying the agency has to do things “the 21st century way” but have difficulty in articulating what that means.
Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century. For Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch, it must be like the adage, “Better late than never.” But in the realm of 21st century globalized media it may be too late and the agency may well have passed the point of no return in terms of being an effective international broadcaster and multimedia outlet. Globalized media in other quarters have moved far ahead of where the agency stands today. “Digital first” sounds like just another version of the agency’s horrid “strategic plan.”
In response to the staffer’s comments, Mr. Ensor delivered a rambling discourse which demonstrated to his audience that there is no clearly articulated plan for his version of a “Great Leap Forward!” for the VOA Newsroom.
And things just kept getting worse:
A second staffer noted how, about three years ago, Mr. Ensor came down from his Third Floor office to the Newsroom and said the agency was going to eliminate 33 positions in the Newsroom. This was the same session with the infamous quotes about “blood on the floor” and “no turning back.”
The staffer also noted how the Office of Program Review, bowing and scraping to the Ensor/Redisch model, followed up with recommendations to limit the Newsroom’s output (in what are referred to as “CNs:” reports from the Central Newsroom.
This was all part of the Ensor/Redisch “43 newsrooms” debacle intending to decimate centrally-sourced news output from the VOA Newsroom and leave it to the individual VOA language services to generate their own news.
In reality, the language services are and remain just as proportionately under-staffed and under-resourced as the Central Newsroom. The result: a perfect storm of diminished original news content from VOA sources and increased reliance upon third-parties (wire services like Reuters) for news stories. VOA News did not produce its own post-inauguration news analysis on Ukraine’s President Poroshenko Sunday and instead posted a commentary from UK-based Reuters that had only one sentence reference to U.S. policies and no mention of Biden’s visit. In the language services, this amounts to VOA language services doing “rip and read” of wire service copy (of course translated by the services into their respective vernacular languages).
The staffer went on to note that this drumbeat from the Third Floor (from VOA and IBB executives) was heard loud and clear and some staffers have left the agency: through various forms of Federal retirement plans for the older staff and younger staff leaving for better prospects elsewhere. Under-trained, poorly paid and poorly supervised contractors now post maps showing Crimea to be part of Russia and produce zombie videos for Pakistan. This is what the Ensor/Redisch leadership has achieved.
The departures of experienced journalists had absolutely nothing to do with the provisions of H.R. 4490. They had everything to do with the internal chaos, low employee morale and mismanagement of the VOA Newsroom under Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch.
Most telling is this staffer remark:
“You want to know why people have bad morale here? It’s because no one believes what management has to say anymore, because we have gone through five years of constant reorganization and change and we have ended up in this position where we can’t put stuff on the air.”
“We can’t put stuff on the air.”
That really puts a twist on things.
It makes for an apt description of a failed mission and a failed agency.
This reading of our description of the meeting probably doesn’t do justice to the tension in the room. But this much is clear:
After five years of being banged over the head with catastrophic decisions by Ensor, Redisch and other senior officials, the employees have had enough.
As well they should.
As well as the Congress and the American taxpayers should.
A Culture of Defiance
We noted earlier that Mr. Ensor reportedly called Al Pessin to thank him for the op-ed piece he had published in The Los Angeles Times. BBG Watch sources among U.S. officials in Poland reported that Mr. Ensor was telling his contacts that he is adamantly opposed to the bipartisan Royce – Engel reform bill.
You may be wondering what Mr. Ensor was doing in Poland. He was attending an international gathering of European and American leaders, including U.S. Senators, which by the way VOA failed to cover.
So while the Voice of America through U.S. taxpayers paid for Mr. Ensor’s European trip (He reportedly then traveled to Kyiv.), VOA could not send an experienced reporter with Vice President Biden and members of Congress going to the inauguration of Ukraine’s President Poroshenko.
A VOA English News video report from the inauguration failed to show Biden or even to mention his presence and the presence of a bipartisan congressional delegation. With some delay, VOA English website inserted a brief text with very little information; VOA Ukrainian and Russia services had a little more on the visit, but not much. A VOA English News correspondent on the scene did not cover Biden’s visit at all.
This has nothing to do with “digital first.” Producing a video report that failed to mention Vice President Biden and posting it on the VOA news website is a digital related task. VOA’s failures are not “digital.” This is all about senior VOA executives not providing leadership, not leading by example, not being capable of managing news production, and not making adequate arrangements for covering news.
Mr. Ensor was apparently too busy on his trip abroad lobbying against the Royce – Engel reform bill to make sure that important U.S. news were being covered according to the requirements of the VOA Charter. He may have even been in Kyiv at that time. We do not know where Mr. Redisch was and what he was doing.
As you might recall from other postings on BBG Watch, Jeffrey Shell, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, had advised members of the board and heads of BBG media entities not to speak publicly about the provisions of H.R. 4490.
He could only advise BBG members who are presidential appointees. But BBG entity heads are not presidential appointees. Right from the start, VOA officials have chosen to ignore Chairman Shell’s reported advice.
Among BBG members, only Matt Armstrong made his own injudicious characterizations of the legislation as “dated,” “overly harsh” in criticism of the agency, and “less than inarticulate” (sic). We put Mr. Ensor next in line by reportedly calling Mr. Pessin to thank him for writing his op-ed piece, in effect putting an official stamp of approval of the content of the Pessin column. Later, Mr. Ensor reportedly strongly criticized the bipartisan Royce – Engel bill in private conversations with U.S. dignitaries in Poland, according to our sources who travelled with U.S. officials.
This kind of behavior enables and facilitates an atmosphere and culture of arrogant defiance. The tone of this culture isn’t any clearer than the title of the Pessin column: “Back Off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real.” Even if the headline was written by Los Angeles Times editors and not by Mr. Pessin himself (we do not know), it reflects the tone and content of his article.
This isn’t the kind of headline that speaks to a reasoned discussion of the issues. If anything, it is contemptuous of the Congress and its attempt to repair an agency that has clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that it is incapable of and unwilling to repair itself.
The “real” Voice of America these days is not a pretty picture.
And it also seems apparent that Mr. Pessin, Voice of America correspondent based in London, is disconnected from the day-to-day realities experienced in the VOA Newsroom and in VOA language services. To what end does the Pessin column serve to address the problems his colleagues have spoken to in the meeting?
Indeed, much of what has been written in opposition to the legislation has been very, very selective: presenting it as a partisan bill — “the Royce bill” — when in fact the bill is fully bipartisan — “the Royce-Engel bill” — and voted for unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Such a misinterpretation would violate the VOA Charter if it were part of a VOA news report.); misquoting its key provision (Another violation of the VOA Charter it this was a VOA news report.); choosing to wholly ignore the Findings and Declarations in H.R. 4490 describing the extent to which this agency is not doing its job and has made itself into a model for a dysfunctional and defunct Federal agency (Another possible violation of the VOA Charter if this piece were written for VOA); and not quoting Ranking Democratic Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) who denied that the bill is designed in any way to limit VOA’s journalistic independence.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): “Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.”
If a key material statement by a senior Democrat in the House of Representatives on any other controversial issue was omitted in a VOA news report, a VOA director would not have been thanking a VOA correspondent but inviting him to re-read the VOA Charter. It seems, however, that VOA executives have decided to ignore the Charter and forgot what it says — not just about “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” news, but also about “present[ing] the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.”
Some of those employees speaking out against the provisions of the pending legislation have similarly developed a selective amnesia about the third provision of the VOA Charter, but also ignoring the Findings and Declarations contained in the new bipartisan reform bill – a point-by-point indictment of an agency that – as far as VOA is concerned – is on the brink of being eliminated.
Malevolence toward accountability: it starts at the top of the organization and has clearly made its way to infect the management of the organization as a whole and a few senior VOA correspondents who themselves have gladly accepted limited Foreign Service appointments, while rank and file employees represented by AFGE Local 1812 have expressed their approval for the management reforms proposed in the bipartisan Royce – Engel legislation as the only way of saving VOA and its federal status and only suggested some minor edits in the bill’s wording to further protect VOA’s journalistic independence.
The “digital first” project is nothing more than yet another attempt by senior agency officials in diversionary tactics, refusing to acknowledge the extent to which the agency is broken and – as Newsroom employees can attest – cannot carry out its mission.
There is no way to spare the Newsroom for what must be a top-to- bottom overhaul of this agency.
Indeed, as employees themselves have correctly pointed out, it’s at the heart of the problem.
Our national lawmakers should not be dissuaded by the doom-and-gloom scenarios being promoted by certain agency employees with some encouragement by senior officials.
It is in the national and public interest that H.R. 4490 be signed into law and its provisions enacted without delay.