The Schizophrenia By-Product: Gridlock – International Broadcasting Bureau – Can It Get Any Worse? Yes It Can! – Information War Lost
by The Federalist
Our editor has given substantial attention to the Columbia Journalism Review article written by retired Voice of America (VOA) reporter Gary Thomas (“Mission impossible: Is government broadcasting irrelevant?” July 1, 2013). The attention is worthy as it gives an insider’s view to the current state of operations inside the US Government’s flagship international broadcasting entity.
It isn’t a pretty picture.
We have some observations of our own to add to those of Mr. Thomas.
What’s It Going To Be – Either, Both or Neither?
Staffers inside the VOA Central Newsroom have used the term “schizophrenia” to describe the manner in which the business of processing news and information for broadcast or digital dissemination via agency websites is handled.
Daily, staffers are whipsawed by managers who want reports churned out for immediate use and then sent scurrying all over Washington to add “analysis” to the events behind the stories. As a result, the time between when a story is originally filed and when it shows up on the agency’s main English website could be hours. In some instances, it may be a day. And in other instances, the story may never show up at all.
Where does the fault lay?
Not with the correspondents and reporters.
The agency still has veteran correspondents and reporters. They know their beats. As such, they are able to turn around reports in a timely manner, particularly when something of note comes out of daily briefings at the White House, the Pentagon or the State Department.
[Note: Although the terminology is sometimes used interchangeably, there is a distinction between a daily “briefing” as compared to a full-blown “news conference,” which in the entities above would involve the president or the secretaries of Defense or State.]
The veteran correspondents and reporters can make quick work of what comes out of the daily briefings, both in terms of text and audio reports.
But then the trouble starts.
David Ensor (the VOA director) and Steve Redisch (the VOA executive editor) have previous experience with the Cable News Network (CNN). The focus of CNN is on TV, not radio.
[Note: CNN closed its radio operations on June 25, 2013.]
Not surprisingly, Ensor and Redisch push heavily for TV content and have directed this to be the order of the day in the Newsroom. In turn, to curry favor with the Third Floor, the agency language services have picked up on that message and follow the herd mentality to produce video reports or ask for Newsroom content on demand.
Everyone in the Cohen Building knows this is the operational paradigm. And this is part of the reason why things unravel.
Veteran staffers report that if a Newsroom editor wants a TV version of a story, this can require additional hours of time to obtain “analysis” from experts either inside or outside the government and then put that analysis into the editing process for a finished report.
While the reporter is doing a series of cold calls to get someone lined up for comment and production staff are hunting around for video file footage to insert into the TV piece, the original piece languishes. As one source remarked, “…the English web desk will often either fail to notice it is available, or it may get lost (emphasis added) somewhere in the system.”
The net effect is that the story is running away from the agency’s reporting on the story.
Perhaps in the attempt to try to maintain some semblance of timeliness and relevance, the English website will run an already packaged piece from the Associated Press (AP) or Reuters.
In the meantime, the correspondent who originally filed the piece is on the phone trying to line up that interview for the add-on “analysis” and/or TV versioning of the original radio or text report.
And there is another way the agency loses timeliness in the swing between polar opposites:
As was noted in the Thomas article,
“…Hard news, the meat and potatoes of VOA since its inception, has been greatly de-emphasized. Pressure has increased for softer stories, usually of two minutes or less, which are then translated for use by the language services…”
As a general Newsroom practice, this seems to be the general direction, but then the schizophrenia whipsaw effect sets in and the rush to send reporters scurrying to do analysis pieces.
But in the meantime, the original reporting languishes in the Ensor/Redisch “Bermuda Triangle,” lost, forgotten or disappearing somewhere in the cyber mélange that seems to be the agency’s digital environment.
It is no mystery to see the agency then relying upon third party news content because the Ensor/Redisch model can’t keep up with breaking or developing news.
The news policy schizophrenia is bad enough. It may be the Number One Bad of Bad. But compounding the timeliness failure is the deliberate attempt to under-resource the Newsroom. Remember, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) FY2014 budget proposal calls for further staff reductions, including those to the Newsroom. As it is now, the staff is doing a juggling act trying to cover the Newsroom on a 24/7 basis.
Does this sound like an organization that is intent upon creating a “global news network?”
It’s not going to happen.
Whatever is coming from the mess created by the IBB, one thing is for certain: the US Government will be OUT of the business of international broadcasting.
The effect of what senior officials are doing is already manifest:
To put it simply, the Newsroom staff is trying to make the best of a bad situation. The onus of failure does not rest with them. It rests with senior agency officials who have rendered the agency’s ability to engage in timely news reporting and to carry out the agency’s mission dysfunctional and defunct.