BBG Watch Commentary

Titanic boat sinking

International Broadcasting Bureau – Proudly Dysfunctional and Defunct – Information War Lost: March Madness, Kind Of

By The Federalist



On March 21, 2014 agency employees were treated to an email.


The subject of the memo was what is commonly referred to as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic:” moving various senior managers around in the shell game of making changes. The analogy is well suited to the agency because: after years of playing this game, it doesn’t change the catastrophic outcome.

We also like to use the term, “motion without movement.”

“Deck chairs on the Titanic” is probably better suited now because there is no doubt that this is a failed agency: completely and irrevocably:


  • It is no longer a consequential international radio and/or television broadcaster and/or multimedia outlet like Al Jazeera, Russia’s RT and Voice of Russia, China’s CCTV, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, not to even mention BBC. (Some are better funded, but others do much better with much less.)


  • It is moving forward as quickly as possible to destroy its serious news reporting and news analysis along with substantive radio and television news broadcasts and to abandon that entire audience.


  • The abandoned audience is not substantially migrating to the agency’s replacement content of British royal family updates, Justin Bieber updates, videos of blood-thirsty zombies dressed like Uncle Sam attacking Pakistanis, videos of well-fed children in starving North Korea, dog show reports, and the like.


  • Key strategic audiences in Russia, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, the Arab world and the rest of the Muslim world have turned away from this new Voice of America content.


  • VOA has little impactful resonance with global publics.


It’s all part of being dysfunctional and defunct.

And most important, it is intentional and deliberate.

We have seen countless examples on BBG Watch of how the agency has reached this state of affairs inside the Cohen Building. The question is how much of the situation is supported elsewhere in the Executive Branch, as part of a foreign policy of “leading from behind.”

In real terms, “leading from behind” is simply another way of saying, “Turn, and run!” In our view, it’s a form of relinquishing US global responsibilities.

If all of the agency was effective in what it was doing, it might be worth saving. But at this juncture, if it had more visibility with the American public in its deliberately set upon state of mission and impact ineffectiveness, the call would be to lock the doors and close it and keep only those program entities that are still focused on the mission.

And by the way: who do you think is stepping in to fill the void created by this “Turn, and run!” policy?


The Russians, along with the Chinese, Iranians and others.


And The Changes at IBB – VOA Are:


One senior staffer will be purportedly moved as one of “Associate Directors” to be now be a “Senior Advisor on Strategy to the Director;” namely VOA Director David Ensor.

According to the announcement and information on the VOA website, VOA Director Ensor now has:

1. An Executive Editor;

2. A Chief of Staff;

3. A Senior Advisor;

4. An Associate Director for Operations;

5. An Associate Director for Language Programming.

6. And now also a new Senior Advisor on Strategy to the Director.

This in addition to countless other senior managers, executive managers, executive producers, program coordinators, advisors, and consultants.

Their numbers keep growing while after numerous cuts in previous years, the language services are being further steadily reduced in FY2014 and most likely again in FY2015.

We also wonder if Director Ensor and his senior executives approved or had direct knowledge of that horrid video promotion for the agency’s Urdu television program to Pakistan, “Zindagi 360,” the one featuring the character of “Uncle Sam” (the United States) as a bloodthirsty zombie: ironically in its effect, arguably an effective terrorism recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.






Why not create two or three more “Senior Advisor” positions to help produce and distribute more of such videos in the Muslim world as substantive news programs and program-producing positions will be cut?

The agency has no strategy and no plan other than protecting executive jobs and creating new ones at the expense of programs that could counter terrorism and the Kremlin’s propaganda but won’t so that more “Senior Advisor” positions can be created.

We know the Third Floor of the Cohen Building very, very well. In our view, there is indeed no strategy and no plan other the than the three-to-five year plan to improve employee morale by RIFing or forcing to retire all experienced pesky journalists who complain about the White House and the State Department not being covered, presidential statements on Ukraine not streamed live online, and VOA websites and social pages not being updated with fresh news. Once they are gone, there will be no one to complain to Directors, Executive Editors and Senior Advisors.

The International Broadcasting Bureau – Voice of America part of the agency has passed the point of no return.

That anti-American Urdu TV promo speaks volumes about IBB and VOA executives, their lack of vision, leadership, and oversight. Moving them from one “Senior Advisor” position to another is the agency’s way of avoiding responsibility for one fiasco after another.

One senior staffer, described as the “new” associate director in this post, replaces another senior staffer as Associate Director for Language Programming. It appears, however, that the same person held the position before.

We are not saying that none of these managers could be capable in a well-run institution. The problem is the agency’s top executives and the management culture they have firmly established — the culture that encourages hiring their friends and cronies, some to work at remote locations because they did not want to move to Washington, and allows them to verbally assault employees who dare to voice criticism.

Not everyone engages in this kind of behavior. One manager mentioned in the announcement has supporters both inside and outside the Cohen Building and is deserving of that support. However, that does not trump the tyranny further up the staffing pattern. This particular manager is a veteran of over 20 years service in the agency. She certainly knows what is right and what is wrong inside the Cohen Building.

But like many among the career staff, that expertise seemingly is not respected and hasn’t stopped the agency from descending to the depths it finds itself. And the kiss of death would be to stand up and confront the people responsible for the agency’s destruction. For her and others who were marginalized, the best thing to do might be to keep the head down and try to survive against the rogue bureaucracy.

Another senior staffer becomes the acting director of the IBB Office of Performance Review. During a previous tour through the Office of Performance Review, VOA correspondents remember this manager as one of a group who produced a review of the VOA Central Newsroom.

You know the VOA Newsroom: the most decimated and demoralized unit in the agency. One view is that these OPR senior staffers were torchbearers for the Third Floor decimation of the Newsroom. Conditions inside the Newsroom speak for themselves as to the consequences of the Third Floor effort that has essentially made the Newsroom:


Un-newsworthy before and during the Ukraine crisis.


The ranks of VOA Newsroom veterans are thinning out and the quality of its news reporting substantially diminished and becoming increasingly reliant upon third party providers.


The management’s email makes a couple of highly questionable statements:


“This is a busy and exciting time for the agency and for VOA as we reach new and greater audiences on a variety of platforms, and demonstrate impact in key target markets.”


Some of it is demonstrably untrue. VOA has essentially the same reach it had thirty years ago but with far less impact, at a much larger cost to American taxpayers despite the arrival of the Internet and new cheep digital and mobile technologies with many free program delivery platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube .

An agency that is deliberately rolling back on its serious news reporting and its radio and TV broadcasts, with no known substantial migration of those audiences to other media platforms now filled with British royal family chronicles, dog show reports and sick high school humor for Muslim audiences in Pakistan is losing impact in a big way.

How can anyone take seriously VOA’s Urdu video? We recently analyzed the latest IBB media circus involving its “briefing” on Egypt, in which the agency left out – most likely intentionally – any statement of its audience or impact among Egyptian television viewers.

As we noted, in FY2014 and FY2015 the agency is giving up radio audiences as quickly as it can. In a February 20, 2014 staff meeting, a member of the agency’s “interim management team,” made clear statements of intent: that the agency needed to “operate differently” and that it had to be “as lean as possible.”

In the world of the IBB, that means eliminating as much of the broadcast component as possible because that is not where bureaucratic IBB jobs are. IBB bureaucrats are within IBB. Those jobs will be protected and will grow as new “Senior Advisor” positions are created.

These are, as we tried to show, not good signs for the agency’s present or future prospects: even as new bureaucratic positions are created or moved around, the agency is contracting in its programs and budgets. It is not expanding.


The other statement:


“This is a clear ‘win-win’ for both VOA and IBB as we closely join our efforts to support the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ mission and global strategy. “


The BBG has already declared the IBB “strategic plan” that it is saddled with as “neither strategic nor a plan.” It has not successfully found a candidate to be the agency’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the supposed solution to the agency’s ills. Any successful CEO would think long and hard about inheriting the IBB responsible for making the agency dysfunctional and defunct.

Worse, the CEO couldn’t remove “the likely suspects.” Last but not least, this same cabal would arrogantly and defiantly work to undermine any changes the CEO would attempt to make to get the agency back on track. If necessary, the IBB rogue bureaucracy would do to the CEO what they did to former BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe and engage in public character assassination. Remember, some of these IBB people are predictable in their behavior and tactics. Neither will change. There may be a new interim management team, but everybody who was there before is still there, while some of the best VOA journalists have departed frustrated by the hostile work environment and lack of any reforms.

In other words: for the CEO, it’s mission impossible. Or, she or he might conclude that since the money and the power firmly rest with the IBB, she or he will make it an even bigger and more powerful bureaucracy, especially if a new CEO has no idea what international broadcasting and media outreach run by area specialists are all about. Centralization of control within IBB would complete the destruction of not only VOA, but also complete the destruction of surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), their independence and effectiveness. It can go either way with a new CEO.

This agency is broken. Completely broken. An exercise in recycling individuals in the existing management paradigm does not fix broken. It only further calcifies the problem.

In short, the agency is in a no-win situation.

The latest announcement should be seen for what it is:


Bogus and pompous bureaucratic nonsense.


With the FY2015 budget up for discussion and debate in the Congress, this would be an opportune time to revisit a couple of scenarios we have suggested previously:


If the agency’s mission has merit – and it does –


Transfer the employees and their functions (international broadcasting) to another agency.


With that done, the next thing to do is zero out the budget for the IBB. No budget, no IBB. In short, the underlying problem removed.


We do not suggest that these actions are simple. And no doubt they would be resisted by the IBB who would troop up to the Congress and present all kinds of dire consequences for action along these lines.

But the question is: what is more dire than being dysfunctional and defunct?

Not much, in our view.

If either of these two scenarios isn’t chosen, the Congress is left to do what it is doing now: continuing to downsize the agency’s budget. That’s a no-win situation: the agency will continue to operate in its dysfunctional and defunct mode with the same dysfunctional and defunct IBB in charge and $720-750-million dollars in taxpayer funds – money that would be better spent on the American people elsewhere – is being wasted.


The Federalist

March 2014