BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Director David Ensor moderating panel discussion on social media at RIAS event in Washington, Oct. 2013.
VOA Director David Ensor moderating panel discussion on social media at RIAS event in Washington, Oct. 2013.

Sources told BBG Watch that the failure of the Central English Newsroom at the Voice of America (VOA) to quickly post a comment from a White House official on the release Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which the VOA Russian Service obtained and posted online in Russian only as its exclusive news story, is yet another example of the failure of the so-called “45 Newsrooms” approach to news-gathering promoted by VOA Director David Ensor and his deputy, VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch. “45 Newsrooms” refers to the number of VOA’s language services, including English-language programs. .

The VOA English Service and 43 foreign language services other than the Russian Service did not have the White House comment Friday on Khodorkovsky for many hours, while the White House comment was being reported by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti and the state-run international news channel RT (Russia Today).

This news story gave VOA a unique advantage to quickly offer U.S. reactions for audiences worldwide to Khodorkovsky’s release from prison. Once again, the Voice of America has failed, while RT (Russia Today) moved quickly to do VOA’s job.

The only VOA service that had and posted the White House comment on Khodorkovsky’s release was the Russian Service. One of its staffers apparently called the National Security Council (NSC) directly and got the quote from NSC spokeswoman at the White House Caitlin Hayden. It was not a formal White House statement, but it was an important comment by a NSC/White House official.

Whether the Russian Service passed along the quote to the VOA Central Newsroom or the VOA English web desk is not known at this time. We could not get any confirmation.

It may appear that no one outside of the VOA Russian Service knew that a call to the White House had been made by a VOA Russian staffer or that the Russian Service got a quote from the NSC and posted something on its website.

But it may also be true that the VOA Central Newsroom and the VOA English web desk were told about the White House comment and did nothing. Many times in the past, VOA English correspondents and language services have alerted the Newsroom about breaking news developments and official statements and still could not get the information posted online, or had to wait many hours for it to be posted.

Before anyone tries to blame the Russian Service, it should be pointed out also that absolutely nothing prevented VOA Director David Ensor, VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch, the head of the VOA Central English Newsroom, the editor in charge, the head of the VOA English web desk and the English web editor in charge from asking themselves the following question:

Are there any U.S. reactions to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s release — a very significant breaking news story — and how should VOA English News and the VOA English website cover any such reactions?

Somebody at RIA Novosti asked that question, because the Russian news agency called the White House right away. Somebody at RT (Russia Today) also asked that question, because the news of the White House comment appeared quickly on the RT website.

But VOA executives and managers apparently were not curious enough what kind of reaction to Khodorkovsky’s release could come from the White House, from the State Department, from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (Ambassador McFaul issued a statement) or from the U.S. Congress — a remarkable lack of curiosity.

These executives and managers should have also asked themselves how to provide news of any U.S. reactions to Khodorkovsky’s release for the VOA English website and for VOA’s 44 other language services?

It appears that no one within the top management at the Voice of America was thinking and planning how to cover this news story — just as no one had arranged earlier for proper coverage of U.S. reactions to the protests in Ukraine and many other breaking news developments.

The VOA English website was late in reporting on Vice President Biden’s phone call to Ukraine’s President Yanukovych. A day later, it had only one sentence on the phone call. It was also late in reporting on Senator McCain’s trip to Ukraine, got the date of his arrival wrong, was late in reporting on what he and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy were doing when they got there. VOA English News never reported on their meeting with President Yanukovych.

Going back to the VOA Russian Service scoop, it would be easy to blame the Russian Service for not alerting the Central Newsroom, if that indeed was the case. But the Russian Service, like all other VOA language services, is operating with very limited resources in a very employee and journalist unfriendly atmosphere created by senior executives.

The Russian Service should be applauded for its initiative. All other VOA language services are victims of bad central management.

VOA Russian Service reporters and poorly-paid contractors simply can’t think of everything and still do a good job quickly. For the same reason, the VOA Ukrainian Service can hardly be blamed for providing outstanding coverage of anti-government protests in Ukraine but not having sufficient time, energy, and resources left to keep the Central Newsroom constantly informed about what it is doing.

VOA language services, reporters and correspondents cannot be blamed for the dysfunction that senior VOA executives have allowed to take hold at the Voice of America, where highly talented and dedicated people are out of sync and not working together — not because they don’t want to — but because they are poorly managed and operate under an unworkable system put in place by the senior management.

In essence, what VOA Director Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Redisch have created is a situation in which the language services are left on their own without functional support from the Central Newsroom, which has in fact became defunct under the arrangement they have developed. While one or two VOA services can cover one or two news developments of special interest to them on their own, they have to rely on the Central Newsroom for covering most other news stories. Also, the VOA English website cannot be competitive to any degree without robust news-reporting system that generates timely, comprehensive and balanced news.

These problems are multiplied throughout VOA’s 45 languages. When the Central Newsroom and the VOA English website failed to properly cover Ukrainian protests, none of VOA language services, with the exception of the Ukrainian Service, was able to provide timely and adequate coverage for their audience.

The same was true for the Khodorkovsky story Friday.

The idea that VOA language services can act as independent news services, ignoring the Central Newsroom rather than working with it, is so misguided that VOA correspondents repeatedly warned Ensor and Redisch that it cannot work. Their warnings have been ignored. Former senior VOA executives and managers said the same thing. Their warnings were also dismissed.

Some VOA employees have told BBG Watch that they have received not so veiled threats of retaliation from senior managers if they don’t stop their complaints. Extremely poor employee morale caused largely by a small group of top executives is a large part of the problem, inside sources told BBG Watch.

But VOA Director David Ensor told BBG members this week that any problems with VOA English News and the VOA English website are related to insufficient resources. He also suggested that poor employee morale is caused mainly by threats of job losses due to budget cuts rather than bad leaders and bad senior managers.

Ensor announced that six new people will be hired for VOA Central News operations. But critics keep countering that the problem with VOA news reporting and the entire organization is primarily related to bad management. VOA, like all other BBG media entities, does not have enough resources, but it lacks good leadership even more.