International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunctional and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost: New Year, Same Agency, Same Problems
by The Federalist
Time marches on. The new year of 2014 is upon us.
For US Government international broadcasting this means very little. The year changes, but much remains the same: the same problems with the usual suspects, or most of them, still driving US Government international broadcasting into irrelevance.
Our sources have supplied us with a New Year message from David Ensor the Voice of America (VOA) director dated January 3, 2014. In his message, Mr. Ensor thanks the employees for their hard work and dedication along with stating the importance of the agency’s mission. He then makes claims that the agency’s audience is up, notes the agency got a handful of awards and claims the agency’s programs are having a real impact.
It is well and good that Mr. Ensor acknowledges the hard work and dedication of the agency’s employees and the importance of the agency’s mission.
However, in our view his message has less to do with these two observations and more with the politics of Mr. Ensor’s situation.
People in Mr. Ensor’s position are not about to admit mistakes or failures. Getting tagged with either is a career killer.
Former Secretary of State Clinton relieved Mr. Ensor and all of the senior agency officialdom of this task of admission by labeling the agency “defunct” as she was leaving office in early 2013. And she followed it up afterward in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations.
Has there been a dramatic sea change in the agency’s performance or the performance of its remaining careerists in the upper strata of the VOA or the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) since Secretary Clinton’s remarks?
But this is all Mr. Ensor can do: try to accent positives (the employees and the mission) and overstate successes (audience growth, a handful of awards, impact of VOA programming).
Employees remember Mr. Ensor’s comments when he became VOA director about there being “blood on the floor” and “no turning back,” particularly with regard to the VOA Central Newsroom.
He was right on both counts. And VOA has been steadily paying the price. This is not an organization on an upward trajectory. All indications are that it’s in prolonged, sustained and perhaps irreversible decline.
Mr. Ensor would have been better served to have taken into account remarks made by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chairman Jeffrey Shell when he commented about much work that needs to be or remains to be done in this agency. Mr. Shell was referring directly to the latest results in the annual Federal employee survey. But in truth, he could just as well have been referring to the agency as a whole because the survey is a reflection of a litany of underlying maladies that exist in VOA with the mishandling of the agency’s mission by the IBB.
Mr. Shell and the reconstituted board were not selected to encumber their positions by admitting defeat or failure. But unlike Mr. Ensor’s drift into fantasy, the board members know they must take effective remedial actions quickly before the labels of dysfunctional and defunct are attached to them as well.
They are in position to make the effort and confront the conditions making for the agency’s failure and those responsible for it.
However, this is not and will not be a simple task. Effective response to an agency is such disrepair is very, very slow while the rest of the world is moving further away from the agency exponentially by explosive growth and change in other international media providers, some with robust funding that eclipses that of the agency and its entities.
We have dealt with this issue many times and will continue to do so. In brief, an audience hovering around 200-million (VOA, OCB, and the Grantees) out of a global population of 7-BILLION is a proverbial drop in the bucket — especially since IBB strategic planners made the agency’s goal numbers rather than impact.
There are a host of reasons for this anemic result despite abandoning mission for numbers — also a poor showing for VOA that has been around for about 70 years. Something isn’t working and no one on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building seems prepared to find out why – most likely because it leads back to the issue of failure. In short, the operative IBB philosophy has been it doesn’t matter what’s wrong or who or what is responsible for the problems. Just continue with business as usual — no acknowledgement of problems or course corrections — and make ludicrous claims of success.
The truth is that even with giving up seeking impact, the agency has lost audiences in key strategic regions and countries. It now claims questionable gains in less strategic regions and countries.
The agency has a broadcast staff with a wide range of talent and ability. It does not surprise us that they would garner awards for their work.
That is not an issue.
Of larger concern is this: who beyond a handful of awards panels actually sees, reads or hears the product that these employees create? Some people do. But when you take more than 40 VOA language services disbursed among the claimed audience number, the reach of any award winning program falls off dramatically.
Program sustainability remains the big issue, in the face of the deliberate attempt by the IBB (not so) “strategic plan” to eliminate direct broadcasting, depend upon technologies not always available, reliable, safe to use or affordable by those living under oppressive regime in other parts of the world. The growth of “not free” media environments continues. Technology is not a substitute for appropriate content and impact.
When we think of sustainable programs in VOA’s past, we think of Willis Conover’s “Time for Jazz” and programs like “Agriculture Today” and “New Products USA.”
As a VOA English-to-Africa broadcaster – Ted Roberts – used to tell his audiences: “News that you can use.”
Too much of VOA programming has drifted off to the category of disposable and not really useful. While there are a variety of conditions that cause this, one cannot ignore how the agency’s (not a) “strategic plan” has facilitated the decline.
Contrary to Mr. Ensor’s claim, VOA programs are not having a huge impact. Independent analysis by Pew Research shows two things: growing anti-American sentiment around the world and the increasing disdain by Americans for the rest of the world. Americans have seen enough blood and treasure wasted around the world. Daily, Americans are reminded of the cost, with the visible presence of wounded and disabled American veterans from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question we ask – of all senior government – to what purpose and what end?
It Gets Worse
And now we come to find that research done by WIN/Gallup International, in collaboration with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) shows that the United States is viewed as a threat to peace.
“WIN” stands for Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research.
24 percent of respondents laid the threat to peace on the US doorstep, three times greater than the nearest ranking at 8 percent for Pakistan. 24 percent is a global average. In some strategic countries, this negative perception is extremely high. In Russia, 54% think that the US is the greatest threat to peace in the world today. (63% among men; 43% among women; 54% among students; between 53 and 65% among those with higher education; 81% among unemployed; 50% in age group 18-24; 53% in age group 25-34; 59% in age group 35-44. The next country the Russians listed is China with only 6%. — Gallup International)
We are always skeptical of polling data. It comes down to the questions, how they are answered who are the respondents, where are the respondents, etc. But it is worth taking note of, particularly in view of Mr. Ensor’s overreaching claims regarding audience and impact.
Our BBG Watch editors wondered why this development hasn’t shown up in VOA news reports. As pedestrian and happenstance as VOA’s English website is, nothing would surprise us.
But what is of greater interest is that the IBB already has a relationship with the Gallup organization, to the tune of a five-year, $50-MILLION contract for polling research. We should point out that Gallup International Association or its members are not related to Gallup Inc., headquartered in Washington D.C, which is no longer a member of Gallup International Association. But are we to believe that no one at Gallup alerted the IBB to these findings and no one among VOA executives took notice of them? Not likely, in our view. What may be a more likely scenario in our not-so-transparent IBB posture is perhaps suppressing this development to a wider audience, because it is yet another dagger jammed into the (not a) “strategic plan.”
One would hope the BBG members are aware of this research and can analyze for themselves minus the filter of IBB’s old top executives and veteran strategic planner.
Aside from the VOA, a good deal of attention should also be on the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) which is responsible for Radio Sawa and Alhurra television broadcasting in Arabic to the Middle East.
Some years ago, “60 Minutes” and the Washington Post did reports on both. If effectiveness was being questioned then, think about now. US Government international broadcasting has no effective impact in the Middle East that is positive for the United States, its people and interests.
Senior agency careerists seem to be oblivious of repeating cycles of Middle East history and politics where the haves and have-not exchange places. It would appear that theses careerists have embraced the intoxication of the so-called “Arab Spring,” which in reality is nothing but a fantasy concocted by Western media.
The United States is in a bad way in the Middle East. Contributing to it are two conflicting messages: “leading from behind” and “supporting freedom and democracy.”
“Leading from behind” is declaring “open season” in the Middle East. It is often interpreted to mean US disengagement. As a result, we have it all: the rise of pan-Islamic fundamentalism, sectarian violence, multi-national fundamentalist militias, civil war and international terrorism. Even now, al-Qaeda is resurgent in Iraq, recently overrunning parts of Iraq’s western Anbar Province and the city of Fallujah.
And then there is the mantra of “supporting freedom and democracy” without thinking what is the best way to achieve it in various cultural and political settings. Independent analysts have offered data that less-than-free media is on the rise globally. That’s not encouraging news and makes the agency appear to be run by a confederacy of fools who don’t know what they are doing. Safe and cozy on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building the careerists appear far removed from reality, playing a game with vital, strategic US national interests.
As we have said before, after the dust settles from a drone strike or other application of force, the insurgents move in – more than likely carrying the late Mikhail Kalashnikov’s invention, the AK-47, saying, “See, America brings you freedom and democracy,” and no doubt spitting on the ground as they march past to demonstrate their contempt for the concepts.
We are reminded of the words of Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who was recently quoted in an op-ed piece by R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr. in The Washington Times,
“…there’s this illusion that people are basically nice, people are basically kind, if we’re just nice and benevolent to everyone, they’ll be nice, too. They (our elite class) don’t have any sense of evil or criminality.”
And therein is the great trap of “supporting freedom and democracy.” Not everyone wants it the way it is being presented — the US interpretation of it — and they are prepared to resist it.
We believe as Mr. Shell does that there is a lot of work to be done with this agency. We dismiss the fanciful vision presented by Mr. Ensor.
There are many aspects of the work that needs to be done. But one sure self-correcting measure is getting back in step with the VOA Charter.
Until then, dysfunction and defunct reign supreme.