BBG Watch Commentary

Employees of the Voice of America (VOA) and other federal units of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) offered some good lessons in leadership, journalism and VOA Charter to VOA’s embattled director David Ensor.

In a commentary, “The Voice Is Breaking,” posted on their union’s website, American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, employees wrote: “if the Voice of America is to continue offering, as Mr. Ensor mentions, ‘the service of a professional journalistic organization,’ changes in upper management are imperative.”

Sources point out that Mr. Ensor has retained and promoted some of the worst managers in the federal government, as rated by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys, and has shown no desire to change his management style. It remains to be seen what the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) intends to do to reform Voice of America. Hopes are high among employees that BBG members will soon initiate major personnel and management reforms at VOA.


AFGE Local 1812

The Voice Is Breaking

By American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812

In a media interview, posted on the Voice of America (VOA) web site, VOA director David Ensor refers to a number of important issues. First, he acknowledges that he is “an appointee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.”

We are heartened to hear an Agency official acknowledge that he answers to the BBG, but we wonder why so few of them cooperated with such reform-minded governors as former Ambassador Victor Ashe in the past. Instead, many suspect that the Agency officials made sure an OIG investigation and report focused on the Honorable Mr. Ashe, unfairly tarnishing his reputation.

Second, Mr. Ensor mentions that it is “so important to make sure that there is a firewall between the journalists who cover the news at Voice of America and whoever is president at the time. 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.”

Our AFGE Local 1812 members are well aware of their journalistic mission, but we have to wonder why, in the name of maintaining a firewall, the Agency has ignored its mission these several past years. Some Agency managers have openly voiced their contempt for that mission, telling employees they could safely ignore it because of the firewall.

We disagree. The VOA mission mattered when it was enacted by the Congress of the United States of America in 1976, and it still stands:

1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)

Third, if the VOA is to abandon its mission, as delineated by the U.S. Congress, there is little reason for U.S. taxpayers to finance its operations. Mr. Ensor has stated that he wants VOA to become the CNN of the world. Well, CNN is already aired pretty much all over the world. To become the CNN of the world is not fulfilling the VOA Charter. Without the Charter, VOA will only be a very weak imitation of CNN and will sink even further into oblivion.

We congratulate Mr. Ensor for remembering that the VOA should tell the truth. “The news may be good, the news may be bad, we shall tell you the truth”. We only wish our AFGE Local 1812 members were given the means to continue telling the truth. Today, they are tasked with so many duties: radio, TV, Internet, and social media, and everyone is well aware that the overall output suffers.

Mr. Ensor notes that “We export the concept of balanced and objective journalism as a goal to countries, even those where the government doesn’t want that to be there. Because we, as a matter of foreign policy, believe it should be. People should have information. There should be freedom of speech. And we’ll give the world a bit of that because it’s something we have to offer.”

The words sound good, indeed, but do we really do that? The English language Newsroom has been eviscerated. Language services can’t keep up with all the tasks thrown at them. Hence the substantial padding by the VOA English Internet site with Reuters stories. Language services members tell us of websites not updated, or barely updated. They tell us of stories being aired without any editing or with “pretend” editing, of interviews being used without counterpoints. All because they are expected to do radio/TV/Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc., on a radio budget, while the IBB pads its ranks with “special assistants” and “retired consultants” whose fat salaries have to be paid whether they do any good or not. Language service employees are still hired on staff at the GS-9 level even when they have many more skills than the protected fat cats in the bureaucracy, even as they have been ordered to write their own news and write articles for the Newsroom.

Speaking of which, there is no reason why English language Newsroom journalists should earn higher salaries than multi-skilled broadcasters in the language services who languish at lower salaries. That’s patronizing and an insult to their intelligence. Many Agencies, including AID, reward employees with a higher grade level if they are bi-lingual or tri-lingual professionals, including grade enhancement for original programming.

We appreciate, as Mr. Ensor mentions, that “there are 800,000 people in the state of California alone who speak Farsi and not a small number of them go on our website and download programming and then send it to their friends in Iran.” But we would welcome concrete evidence of that. It seems to us that rather than rely on the California Iranian community to transmit stale programs to Iran, the Agency would be better served by investigating ways of transmitting such programming directly in a timely fashion.

We applaud Mr. Ensor’s statement that the VOA is “not supposed to spend any taxpayer money reaching out to the American public. It’s not what we’re here for. Our mandate is to provide information and balanced news to the rest of the world.” Yes, Congress has allowed the VOA to supply its programming to broadcasters in the U.S. even though the primary mission of the VOA is to present the essence of America to foreign, not U.S., audiences. Thus we don’t see why the Agency should waste any of its precious few resources trying to investigate markets in the U.S.

We could go on but we will conclude by saying that, if the Voice of America is to continue offering, as Mr. Ensor mentions, “the service of a professional journalistic organization,” changes in upper management are imperative. Mr. Ensor’s interview shows us that Agency managers still do not perceive the critical issues faced today by the VOA. All is still rosy in their mind, even as the English Newsroom fails, which dooms the VOA mission as well.

As we begin a New Year, we can honestly say — in the opinion of AFGE Local 1812 – that 2014 will be a make or break year for the Voice of America.

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