BBG Watch Commentary

Agency sources have shared with us summaries of some of the comments Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members Susan McCue and Victor Ashe reportedly made to top Voice of America (VOA) and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) managers on the handling by VOA management and its Public Relations Office of questions submitted to VOA by its former senior foreign correspondent Gary Thomas and the VOA management’s response to Mr. Thomas’ article in Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).

This is one of many such highly embarrassing public relations crises caused by high-level VOA, IBB and other agency executives. BBG members are becoming increasingly frustrated by their inability under the current legislative and administrative structure to get managers to improve their performance or to replace them. They are being thwarted in their efforts at  personnel and administrative reform by IBB’s leadership, sources told BBG Watch.

According to agency sources, BBG Governor Susan McCue reportedly told VOA Director David Ensor, Executive Editor Steve Redisch, IBB Director Richard Lobo and Deputy Director Jeff Trimble that Columbia Journalism Review, being a highly respected publication that covers important journalism issues, deserved a high level of engagement from the agency’s management.

McCue reportedly told agency managers that Voice of America has many positive stories to tell about innovation, courage and critical reporting by its journalists. She reportedly said that the management should have taken this opportunity to showcase the great work of VOA reporters while setting the record straight and pressing for fair treatment.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and former mayor of Knoxville Victor Ashe reportedly told VOA Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch that it is not their choice whom prestigious publications such as CJR ask to write articles about U.S. international broadcasting. Ashe reportedly also informed Ensor, Redisch, IBB Director Richard Lobo, IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble and several other executives that when Voice of America declines to answer questions from journalists then it puts itself in a poor position to complain after an article is published. Ashe pointed out that this is what VOA management did with a comment posted on the CJR website by Voice of America Public Relations Director Kyle King.

Our sources told us that Ashe was upset by VOA’s refusal to answer Mr. Thomas’ questions and by what he reportedly called a VOA management response that looks like personal spite or anger as opposed to a valid issue with the article. Ashe reportedly told Ensor and Redisch that the refusal to answer questions from a journalist reflects poorly on a journalistic organization charged by American taxpayers with a mission of defending freedom of the press through accurate, balanced and comprehensive news reporting.

Governor Ashe reportedly pointed out repeatedly to both VOA and IBB executives that BBG members had not been informed about Mr. Thomas’ questions or consulted on the response to the CJR article. He was quoted as saying that the refusal to answer questions and the subsequent response from VOA management reflects poorly on the Board that knew nothing about it. This makes everybody look bad, a source quoted Governor Ashe.

Victor Ashe reportedly urged Ensor and Redisch to make sure that nothing like this happens again. He also reportedly said that the Voice of America management should not expect the BBG Board to defend them when they do not consult Board members or tell them about issues that reflect on the Board and the entire U.S. international broadcasting community.

Article by former Voice of America (VOA) journalist Gary Thomas in Columbia Journalism Review on journalistic practices at VOA and management of U.S. international broadcasting within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

A spokesperson for the Board, Ms. Lynne Weil, apparently was also not informed about questions from Mr. Thomas and VOA management’s response to Columbia Journalism Review. She is known to engage in a dialogue with journalists who may be writing articles critical of the agency’s management and contact her for answers to their questions.

Of course, Voice of America management could have dealt with the issue on their own if they knew how. None of this would have become a crisis if Mr. Ensor, Mr. Redisch and Mr. King handled the situation properly from the very beginning.

But since the visceral angry attack in 2012 by the VOA Public Relations Office in The Washington Times on professional reputation of another former VOA journalist and executive and an attempt, also last year, to ban an independent American reporter Matthew Russell Lee from covering the UN, everybody should know by now that those in charge of Voice of America cannot be trusted with even simple media inquiries and public relations tasks.

Nor are IBB executives off the hook in this case. Ms. Weil may not have known about the whole Thomas Affair when it happened. We are wondering who among IBB executives might have known about it? But even if they did not in this case, top IBB leaders have created a management culture of hostility toward employees and critics within the agency and outside of it. The website of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, offers many examples of how IBB management deals with employees, former employees and any critics of its failures.