BBG Watch Commentary

Jonathan Henick
Jonathan Henick

Jonathan Henick, a career diplomat with over 20 years of experience in the U.S. Foreign Service, currently working as the Public Diplomacy Fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University, described Voice of America Director David Ensor as “inspirational” in Mr. Ensor’s recent presentation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) on VOA’s mission, goals, and accomplishments. Mr. Henick was also highly impressed with a panel at the same open BBG meeting panel that featured Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

We certainly share Mr. Henick’s high praise for Reed Hastings and the panel in which he participated.

See: Mission and Innovation — Netflix CEO at Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG Watch, December 21, 2013.

We were somewhat perplexed, however, by Mr. Henick’s reference to Director Ensor’s presentation as “inspirational.”

It did inspire sadness and concern among all of our volunteers and contributions who watched and commented on it, as it failed to address any of the crippling management and news reporting problems at VOA, of which Mr. Henick may not have been aware when he wrote his post. While Mr. Ensor was already in charge of VOA, Mr. Heninck’s former boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, described U.S. international media outreach as “defunct” in its ability to tell America’s story abroad and win the war of ideas. She was referring to the entire agency, but telling America’s story is largely the job of the Voice of America.

While we do not deny that Mr. Ensor can be a good speaker in front of a TV camera, his remarks were “defensive and plaintive,” as another observer noted. In our view, Director Ensor was not persuasive at all. We think that he showed poor understanding of VOA’s mission and poor grasp of VOA’s managerial problems under his watch.

Columnist James Warren was the one who noted in an op-ed for New York Daily News, “The uncertain Voice of America,”New York Daily News December 22, 2013 that “The earnest and capable Ensor justified the VOA’s existence in a scripted 45-minute presentation with video — and then was left a bit defensive and plaintive amid fair and predictable questions.”

James Warren also wrote in New York Daily News that “instant disclosure of screw-ups” is provided “via an influential independent website (BBG Watch).”  

One of the questions posed to David Ensor came from BBG member Matt Armstrong:

“Every time there is a breaking news event — I’m not talking about a car chase or a white Bronco on a freeway — I go to VOA websites, not just English, but the other websites, those that I can sort of ascertain, realize … I’ve actually studied three other languages … not that I can speak any of them, and I also use Google translate to try to help me, and then I get the pictures and look at the general layout, and what I find surprising is what appears to be the lack on the website of any event and that we lag significantly behind other media outlets whether they would be our direct tier-one competitors, whether it it is CCTV, Russia Today, CNNI, BBC, whatever it’s going to be. And then when we do file a story, it seems it’s thin at the least, especially when I compare it to these other offerings.” — BBG Governor Matt Armstrong

Since he is a professional diplomat, perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Henick does not comment on this part of Governor Armstrong’s observations nor on the comments to the Board by Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB –, an NGO supporting U.S. media outreach abroad.

Ms. Noonan noted many of the same problems observed by Governor Armstrong, especially as they are reflected in the recent failures of the Voice of America to adequately cover major U.S. policy statements and other remarks, comments, and actions by Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, Senator John McCain, and even President Obama when he met with Pakistani girls rights activist Malala Yousafzai.

The ultimate irony was that RT (Russia Today), the Voice of Russia (VOR) and China’s CCTV have been often reporting faster and in far greater detail about official U.S. foreign policy statements than the Voice of America, which is based in Washington, DC. These media outlets are also showing strong anti-American bias when it appears to serve their governments’ interests, but some of their news reporting is fast, accurate, objective and far more comprehensive than what the VOA English website can offer.

Ms. Noonan praised the BBG Board for initiating management reforms at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), but she noted that such reforms are still badly needed at VOA.

See: CUSIB welcomes management reforms by Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG Watch, December 20, 2013.

Mr. Henick noted Director Ensor’s excuse to Governor Armstrong in his complaint about insufficient resources to be able to provide the same level of adequate news coverage as BBC or CNN. Mr. Henick may not have been aware of longstanding warnings by VOA correspondents and many outside experts who point out that the news reporting system at VOA has collapsed under mismanagement by Mr. Ensor’s deputies, and during the last two years under Mr. Ensor himself and the same executives that were there before he came on board.

Mr. Henick may not have known that while VOA fails to provide its own original reporting on important State Department statements on news events in Ukraine and Russia, it had posted on its English website under Mr. Ensor’s deputies 27 separate news reports on the British royal wedding in 2011, and already on Mr. Ensor’s watch, it posted five separate reports in just two days on the British royal christening in October 2013.

Many of these VOA reports show 0 (zero) or very few Facebook “Likes.” Other reports on the VOA English website are not doing much better in terms of audience engagement through social media — a few dozen Facebook likes at best, compared to thousands for news reports on Al Jazeera, BBC, and RT (Russia Today) websites. VOA is also using more and more reports from Reuters, a UK-based agency that does not specialize in offering U.S. perspectives on news developments rather than originating its own news reports from the State Department, the U.S. Congress, the White House, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or even from Washington, DC. It is an absolute disaster and a major violation of the VOA Charter.

See: Voice of America reports – 1/2 on State Department Russia Terror – 27 on British Royal Wedding, BBG Watch, December 30, 2013.

There are serious questions how Mr. Ensor and his deputies are managing VOA and using U.S. tax resources, not to mention the dismal employee morale that was noted during the meeting by BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and referred to by BBG Governor Susan McCue and BBG Governor Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

See: IBB Acting Director Jeff Trimble to Move to Journalistic Role Amid Management Shakeup – VIDEO, BBG Watch, December 19, 2013.

Still Mr. Henick’s post offered also other observations which may be useful for U.S. international media and U.S. public diplomacy observers. Mr. Henick had served with the State Department in Turkey, Portugal, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Timor-Leste.

READ MORE of Jonathan Henick’s post:

What Can Public Diplomacy Learn from Netflix?