The Voice of America (VOA) failed to report yesterday on a phone call between U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine President Victor Yanukovych which came only hours before government and opposition negotiators reached a compromise deal in Kyiv. BBC, Deutsche Welle, and RFE/RL reported on this phone call, with DW highlighting it in a headline.
One of our contributors comments on these repeated news reporting failures at the Voice of America and managerial crisis brought about by senior VOA executives.
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE VOICE OF AMERICA
By Quo Vadis
Remember Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s opus, The Scarlet Letter, who was made to wear the infamous scarlet-hued A on her clothing as a sign of shame? Well, the employees at the Voice of America know how Hester must have felt since they have been forced – because of one of the most inefficient managements in the federal government – to wear a mantle emblazoned with the dual D of the words: Defunct and Dysfunctional. The dismal “D” words were used in the title for a hearing on U.S. international broadcasting last year before the congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs. Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, used the word “defunct” in congressional hearings and subsequently, in a speech before the Foreign Policy Council.
VOA employees do not wear the Dysfunctional and Defunct labels willingly or easily or with any pride. While exposed to public humiliation in the halls of Congress, the press, academia and the Office of Personnel Management which has named their place of employment as “the worst agency in the federal government,” employees are forced, because of a hostile workplace, to suffer in silence even while knowing that it is upper management that is almost solely responsible for the precipitous decline of U.S. international broadcasting and its mission.
Pretending that the twin dragon “D” description doesn’t exist means that those at the top could be in a state of denial, a denial bordering on delusion. It’s impossible to sugarcoat the specter of dysfunction or deny its existence. Top management must finally confront the glaring problems which brought U.S. international broadcasting to this point. That includes the core issue: the destruction of the Agency’s mission contained in the VOA Charter, sponsored by a bipartisan coalition and signed into law in July, 1976.
IBB bureaucrats of dubious distinction unilaterally substituted the VOA Charter’s explicit mission statement with a gauzy, fuzzy one: “to inform…. engage…. connect …. in support of freedom and democracy.” The grim fact of the matter is that we no longer inform our audiences. Look at the glaring gaps in news gathering and reporting on the amateurish VOA News website, the omissions of relevant statements by the President, Vice-President, the Secretary of State, the U.S. ambassador in the beleaguered Ukraine, the lack of updates on visiting heads of state, the list is so long that it would be impossible to list all the blunders.
Do we engage the audiences? Unfortunately not if you take into account the paltry number of social media “likes” and comments received on the websites and the fact that VOA stopped corresponding with its audience years ago when its higher management dissolved the function of responding to mail and electronic messages. By repeating the mantra of informing and connecting and engaging a worldwide audience in a mysterious communications quadrille, we are led to believe, in the revised mission statement, that suddenly all this would engender support of masses of people in other countries for freedom and democracy? Those who foisted this folderol on the BBG and the Congress with no intention or ability to follow up with solid news reporting are guilty of dereliction of duty. And, if indeed, that was the new mission of the VOA – the support of freedom and democracy – then why has the VOA website conspicuously failed to report on many White House, State Department, and Congressional reactions to world-shaking events such as the demonstrations and conflicts in Ukraine?
What does higher management do about it? To date, very little, other than concocting excuses, or pretending that the problems symbolized by the “D” words don’t even exist. Management has no alternative but to face the core problem: to undo the alleged dysfunction, the Agency must be made to function once again as it did in the past. In addition, the Agency must immediately stop trying to resolve the problems by creating new bureaucratic divisions with even more managers who organize pretend fun fests, artsy-craftsy crayon parties, wine tastings, or skating excursions for employees during off-hours.
The starting point in trying to erase the dysfunction would be to restore the original VOA mission as it was written. Employees did not come here to work to inform the world about Justin Beiber’s latest drunken escapade, or the depraved contortions of an out-of-control Miley Cyrus, which seem to be highlights of the VOA web page and the fluff journalism approach of a discredited upper management. As their predecessors in the Voice of America did over the past 70 years, especially during the golden years of the 1980’s, VOA employees chose to work here to tell America’s story to the world (Article 2 of the VOA Charter) as well as broadcasting accurate, objective and comprehensive news. However, VOA language services are no longer able to fulfill this mission because a dysfunctional higher and middle management no longer provides the resources to do that. Moreover, by engineering the collapse of the VOA Central News Division and Worldwide English, higher management has turned the Voice of America into a veritable Tower of Babel, resulting in the loss of a coherent message and also its audience.
In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the tormented Reverend Dimmesdale changed his ways only after seeing a meteor forming a gigantic A in the sky. Hopefully, the BBG and those on the transitional management team aren’t looking to the skies for a sign to change the existing dysfunctional situation of U.S. international broadcasting. These changes can’t be done over a 3 to 5-year timeframe as one management official declared. Either top management stops the dumbing down and decline of the Voice of America or this venerable broadcasting institution, which has had such a tremendous impact throughout the world for the last 70 years, will add another few “D” words to its repertoire: Demise. Deceased. Destroyed.
And there will be no doubt as to who did it.