International Broadcasting Bureau – Information War: Lost, Dead Hardcore Dysfunctional and Defunct – Moving On

By The Federalist

On Wednesday, February 12, Sonja Pace, head of the Voice of America (VOA) Newsroom, announced her retirement. Ms. Pace retires with 38 years of service.

She is best remembered by some who knew her as an international radio broadcaster for the VOA English to Africa Service. Her radio reports, program hosting and similar assignments were high caliber, along with what clearly came out as an engaging broadcasting personality. This is the best and most memorable part of her legacy and not an uncommon experience in the agency with longtime staff.

Ms. Pace had two tours as head of the VOA Newsroom. In each case, the going was harder. Too often, what one sees in the Cohen Building is employees rising to managerial positions who are then left to sink or swim on top of being sabotaged by senior executives.

Ms. Pace’s second tour was marked by the trajectory intended for the Newsroom by current VOA director David Ensor and current executive editor Steve Redisch. Clearly drawing on their experiences at the Cable News Network (CNN), the two have set about diluting the Central Newsroom with an approach of turning it into “43 newsrooms,” a reference to the number of VOA language services.

Of course, the language services lack the resources to replicate the core functions and abilities represented by the central Newsroom, leaving breaking news with worldwide application to falter and suffer for all language services. Articles on BBG Watch are replete with examples of how the Newsroom, itself under-staffed and under-resourced cannot keep up with updates to breaking and developing news, particularly US news with foreign policy themes.

In her memorandum to the Newsroom staff, Ms. Pace sought to make a case that the Newsroom had moved successfully from radio-only to a multimedia environment. Applying the term “success” is questionable. While the Newsroom (and the agency as a whole) may have the multimedia tools in varying degrees, they often do not work well. New projects are started while the existing digital editing platforms have not functioned properly for years without being fixed or replaced. Digital tools can’t produce high-quality content on their own. The question is: to what impact and effectiveness are multimedia tools used?

What has taken place is not a sensible, logical or incremental approach to expanded media. It has been an onslaught, clearly not well thought out or executed. The lasting impression is one of throwing the floodgates open and letting the whole agency have at it. Senior VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives above Ms. Pace are to blame.

Clearly, television is the bane of the agency’s existence. In reality, the agency doesn’t do television. It does videos. It cannot turn out quality television news product in a timely manner, particularly in English and on the VOA English website which paradoxically is organized under Worldwide English and not the Central Newsroom.

We’ve studied other core radio operations such as radio station WTOP in Washington, DC, National Public Radio (NPR), Public Radio International (PRI) and others. We have examined their web operations and their photo and video content. None of them are attempting to run a television operation on a radio budget. And certainly none of them are attempting to replicate that effort across 43 different languages.

We also remember years ago when the Christian Science Monitor attempted to do TV. It almost killed the newspaper before they wisely abandoned it.

And you may be assured that if it were not for the life support represented by the agency’s annual budget provided for by the US taxpayer, the agency (as a private “news company” as Mr. Ensor likes to erroneously refer to it) would have gone under by now. It is good money after bad: funding wasted on a faulty Ensor/Redisch/IBB model.

Neither journalists nor non-journalists can succeed as managers under these senior executives.

We have often remarked that the agency has many fine employees who do good work. But, if that work is not seen, heard or read in a timely manner by a broad audience, these talents are wasted. And this agency can’t deliver the goods following a model that is inherently under-resourced and understaffed.

Thus we return to Ms. Pace’s retirement. With 38 years of service, Ms. Pace has a substantial amount of institutional knowledge. When she leaves, that knowledge leaves with her. If there is one other thing we have come to learn from the agency it is the contempt its senior officials have for veteran employees, retirees and their cumulative institutional knowledge. Time and again, this Third Floor regime has done a masterful job of alienating and making enemies of not only the current staff but former staff as well.

Some senior officials would be very happy to see all the veteran employees move along and out the C Street entrance to the Cohen Building and not come back. Wipe out the institutional memory of the agency and you remove major obstacles to installing a dysfunctional and defunct model for the present and future with no reference points to things done right.

At the end of the day, we wish Ms. Pace well in retirement. We suspect she will not be idle long. There are likely organizations who would welcome the opportunity to embrace her knowledge and expertise.

The Federalist
February 2014