BBG Watch Commentary

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).

Voice of America (VOA) Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch had refused to answer questions from a respected former senior VOA correspondent Gary Thomas for an article he was writing for Columbia Journalism Review. But when the article was published, Director Ensor’s spokesperson, Mr. Kyle King, in a comment posted on the CJR website, attacked Mr. Thomas’ professional reputation by accusing him of errors and malice. Earlier, VOA management had also accused Mr. Thomas of bias.

VOA executives still describe Mr. Thomas to outsiders as “a former employee in the VOA newsroom” and someone  with “an obvious bias.” They try to make him look like someone xeroxing news times for reporters. Mr. Thomas was in fact not only a newsroom writer and reporter but also a senior VOA foreign correspondent who risked his life working in hotspots such as Afghanistan. He interviewed top U.S. and foreign officials. He was VOA analyst of national security issues. He spent 27 years reporting for VOA international audiences.

It is VOA and IBB executives who have an “obvious bias” in defending their disastrous management performance.

Attacking professional reputation of their critics, inside and outside of the agency, has been part of the management culture under top managers of Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — the management arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — the federal agency in charge of all U.S. international broadcasting.

BBG Watch has learned that current BBG members — former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan — have had enough of bad management, bad public relations, poor judgment, and hostility toward employees and media on the part of the executives of the agency created to champion freedom of the press. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is an ex officio BBG member. We hear that State Department officials assigned to interact with BBG and IBB are also unhappy by a series of recent public relations and public diplomacy crises created by IBB and VOA executives.

BBG Watch has learned that BBG members are pointing out to VOA and IBB directors that when VOA management refuses to answer questions from journalists it has little basis to complain later and no right to attack their professional reputation. BBG members have also pointed out, according to our sources, that  VOA management should have known that Columbia Journalism Review is a prestigious publication, but also that any professional journalist or media outlet deserves to be treated in a professional manner and have their questions answered.

This is not the first time VOA Public Relations Office has attacked professional reputation of journalists with apparent knowledge and approval of VOA’s top executives.

Sources tell us that BBG members are furious how the Thomas Affair reflects on them since none of them knew about Mr. Thomas’ questions. They were not consulted before VOA management dismissed his questions and later attacked the journalist without a good reason or justification.

Despite their hostile and public relations-incompetent management, Voice of America journalists do in fact produce some outstanding programs for the entire world. Mr. Ensor, Mr. Redisch and Mr. King could have chosen to highlight these achievements in answering Mr. Thomas’ questions. Even in an indefensible situation top executives put VOA in with their bad management practices, this would have been the right thing to do from a public relations standpoint.

But if they were to be honest, they would have had to admit that VOA and IBB had largely destroyed Voice of America’s central  English news gathering and reporting. It now often consists of online posting of short news items from Retuters that get no social media attention while Al Jazeera and Russia Today get of thousands to Facebook “Likes” and Tweets for their original news stories, including news stories generated from the United States.

What BBG Watch is hearing is that BBG members have had enough. They are apparently telling VOA Director David Ensor, who is now on vacation, and his deputy Steve Redisch that if they continue to behave this way and fail to consult the Board, the Board is not going to defend them.

BBG Watch is publishing a serious of articles on how the Thomas Affair developed and its public relations impact. In response to IBB Director Richard Lobo’s claim that audiences overseas are being engaged through social media like never before and Mr. King’s invitation to examine the VOA website for its multimedia outreach we have published earlier statistics showing that Al Jazeera and Russia Today English websites beat VOA English website in social media engagement for hard news multiple times, day after day. The same is true for feature-style reports. Under the current IBB and VOA management, America’s premier international media outlet funded by U.S. taxpayers is now leagues behind the competition.