AFGE Local 1812The employee union at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, has published another commentary on the International Broadcasting Bureau senior staff.
The commentary analyzes the most recent GAO report on duplication of language services between the Voice of America (VOA) and surrogate broadcasters, all of them reporting to the BBG. AFGE Local 1812 points out that missions of VOA and surrogate broadcasters are quite different and therefore cannot be described as duplicative. There is, however, waste and duplication caused by the senior IBB staff, the union commentary points out.

Not Seeing The Forest For The Trees

by American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812

Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan Agency that works for Congress, issued a report in which they remind the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that a number of language services seem to overlap and recommends further measures that might avoid duplication and waste.

In his answer to the report, IBB Director, Richard Lobo, proudly points to the BBG’s Strategic Plan for 2012-2016 which, he states: “addresses these issues in depth, and offers a multi-year plan for reducing duplication and leveraging the strengths of its stove-piped broadcast entities, in order to bolster news production and reduce duplicative administrative structures, by tapping funding trapped in overlapping functions”.

Cutting through the verbiage, we interpret this as Mr. Lobo touting the number of language services shut down by the IBB management over the past years, its attempts to close even more services, and the need for a CEO to be put in charge of further cuts.

It seems to us, at AFGE Local 1812, that both the GAO and Mr. Lobo are missing the forest for the trees.

Let’s look at realities on the ground, as reported by employees. First, as Mr. Lobo himself acknowledges, along with the GAO for that matter, the missions of the various BBG broadcasting entities are different. VOA is not supposed to cover the same news in the same way as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL as well as RFA and Radio/TV Marti are surrogate stations, or they are supposed to be, broadcasting news which the target audience does not receive from its own domestic media. VOA’s mission is quite different. First and foremost, for almost 70 years, in addition to providing international news, it has told the story of America, very successfully, we might add.

This mission was mandated by Congress in the VOA Charter, co-sponsored by Senator Charles Percy and Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976. For those who may not know or may have forgotten, this is the VOA Charter.

1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)

Unfortunately, because the IBB has been disregarding this mandate for the past several years, some VOA services are indeed sounding very much like surrogate radios, instead of staying on course, which is to present the United States, its ideas and its ideals to the world in addition to providing reliable news, that is, as the Charter stresses, accurate, objective and comprehensive. That is one of the reasons why AFGE Local 1812 has called for Congress to investigate the IBB.

VOA staffers warn us of another overlap that is internal to VOA. That is the overlap in news writing. Because the IBB has eviscerated the VOA Central newsroom, overworked and under-staffed language services have had to write even more news themselves with the potential of forty-three different versions of the same news, all presented with different angles, depending on the biases, educational and cultural backgrounds of the news writers. Now, that’s a major overlap, created by the IBB in the past years, in spite of many warnings that it would create an undue burden on language services and far from reducing overlapping, would multiply it many times over. A number of VOA language services find themselves so burdened by their new responsibilities to write news, feed information to the newsrooms, maintain web sites and develop TV, while carrying on their usual programs and duties, that we have consistent reports of sloppy news writing, non-existent editing, “pretend” balancing of stories and web sites full of spelling or factual mistakes that may or may not be corrected.

Another overlap is the Middle East Broacasting Network. It’s time to tell Congress that it’s a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. VOA used to have a prestigious, respected Arabic Service. It was known throughout the Middle East and prized by listeners. It was replaced by surrogates that in the past 10 years have yet to forge as good a reputation as VOA Arabic, and are totally over-shadowed by Al-Jazeera. Who said that Al-Jazeera is now dominant? Former ex-officio member of the BBG, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2010.

A great pretend game has been underway at the IBB for awhile. The IBB pretends its strategic plan is working just fine, and that any issue that arises is due to pesky, disgruntled employees, the unionized members and outside bloggers. The staff knows better. Some employees even remind their immediate supervisors on a regular basis. The immediate supervisors explain they are powerless to change the decisions emanating from the executives on the Third Floor.

The whole Potemkin village came down recently at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Not that the IBB noticed. It pretended all was fine until outsiders forced the issue and an emergency new Director was named to try to salvage the place.

The rest of the Potemkin village here at headquarters stands on increasingly shifting sands. The issue is not money. It’s not closing down more services. It’s restructuring the place so that it makes sense, under the leadership not of a CEO answerable strictly to IBB management, so that it can continue on its destructive path, but under the leadership of a Director who will be accountable to Congress and the U.S. taxpayers. If only so that IBB leaders stop going around telling everyone they can “forget the mission”, that surrogates and non-surrogates are all the same and that there is no more international broadcasting.