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.

We came across this report from the American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812 union representing Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employees, pointing out that Voice of America Director David Ensor and other top VOA managers have not responded to concerns expressed by employees about the VOA English news website.

The problem was also ignored by the State Department Office of the Inspector General (OIG) which dismissed complaints from employees and chose to listen instead to top VOA executives and officials from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

Incredibly, the OIG found nothing wrong with VOA news, VOA website and uncovered no waste, fraud, mismanagement or abuse in an agency with an over $700 million budget. Earlier, the OIG also had failed to find any significant waste, fraud, mismanagement or any other problems at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty as that organization was already imploding.

The OIG accepted the word of IBB, VOA and RFE/RL executives that the problem are not top executives but employees and BBG members who do not believe in the strategic plan and call attention to non-existent problems. The IBB and VOA management came up with this story, which the OIG bought hook, line, and sinker. After such a success with OIG inspectors, IBB and VOA officials felt no need to respond to employee concerns.

MORE on the Thomas Affair HERE.

Employees who provided information for this story connected mounting frustration with mismanagement and other dysfunctions in the newsroom with the loss of some of the best talent in the organization.

In a note to staff, one veteran decried “forces of trivialization and pandering that have, sadly, become fixtures here” and wrote more bluntly in a separate communication:

“Many of the changes wrought here at VOA have, frankly, been not for the best, to put it kindly, and disastrous, to be more blunt. “Platforms” and performance have taken precedence over context and content of news stories. Marshall McLuhan was absolutely right: the medium has become the message. How a story is presented here is more important to management here than the content of the stories. That is not the kind of journalistic world in which I want to live and work. So, as I have the years in to do so, I am walking away.”

Employee emails from VOA’s Central News Division dating back to 2009, and conversations with current and former journalists, reveal common themes: a pattern of micromanagement, refusal by managers to listen to input from domestic and foreign bureaus, and complaints about a bloated management structure.

Frustrations were so intense, current and former employees report, that journalists in the Washington newsroom and domestic bureaus forced management to hold a meeting to discuss micromanagement, and what one called “a pattern of overbearing and insensitive tactics” by managers overseeing the TV assignment process. Some reported positive progress in one such meeting, which conferenced in VOA’s U.S. bureaus. Others said many of the same problems continued, with the current head of the newsroom oblivious to or encouraging questionable and counterproductive tactics by subordinates.

Employee input examined for this report also shows that over a period of years, there was intense frustration with the management and performance of VOA’s English language web site.
Emails document repeated efforts by journalists in VOA Washington and domestic and foreign bureaus to point out often egregious errors, including embarrassing and potentially damaging mistakes from a U.S. foreign policy perspective.

According to a U.S. government source, the issues were brought to the attention of the State Department Inspector General during an inspection of one of VOA’s news bureaus. A group of veteran journalists prepared an extensive report and presented details to top officials.

As far as we know, no higher management official ever responded formally to the concerns. A review of internal communications shows ongoing performance issues and complaints by journalists with VOA’s English web site continuing as of late 2012. VOA director Ensor has said nothing publicly about these issues.