BBG Watch Commentary

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Voice of America Information War Lost: Andrew Lack And Mission Impossible?

By The Federalist

On Tuesday, January 20, 2015 Andrew Lack was sworn in as the Director, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). He will be most commonly referred to as the agency’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

In announcing Lack’s official assumption of duties, Jeffrey Shell, the BBG chairman, issued a formal statement. This statement already appears on BBG Watch.

What caught our attention immediately was the following:

“As you all know well, the challenges we face are immense. I am confident Andy is the best person for this challenge and I am incredibly excited about the future.”

Immense, indeed.

Some would suggest a better word would be overwhelming.

We are perhaps eternally skeptical that the situation can be remedied. We know the cast of characters inside the Cohen Building very well. Shortly, Mr. Lack may start to develop his own appreciation for what he will be dealing with. For now, we lay out our position, based on Mr. Shell’s remarks.

The most important thing to note is that these “challenges” and their immensity are largely self-created by senior officials within the agency. That is inescapable – as is the fact that these same individuals are still encumbering senior positions within the agency and have never taken ownership of or responsibility for the problems they have created.

Along with these same officials comes the management culture they have created. It has established the agency as one of if not the worst agency in the Federal government, by way of longevity in holding bottom positions in the Federal workplace satisfaction survey.

As bad as this is, the other machinations of this group of senior officials of both the Voice of America (VOA) and the administrative International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) are worse.

The agency has been relegated to the position of an also-ran among international broadcasters. Indeed, in impact and effect, the agency is hardly deserving of consideration as an international broadcaster, particularly with regards to VOA, which has been deliberately hammered by the IBB’s relentless obsession with a severely flawed “strategic plan” which even some BBG members have declared publicly is neither “strategic” nor a “plan.”

But the promoters of this oxymoron are still in place. They continue to promote their agenda often through a series of media “briefings” of their latest surveys which promote placement of fluff journalism non-news programs, certain media platforms and demographics but do not reflect whether or not any global publics recognize VOA news program content or if it registers as existing at all. With a global population in excess of 7 BILLION, the result is that agency news audiences have been effectively obliterated.

Rather than be an international broadcaster and multimedia provider of uncensored news and opinions, the agency has become a surrogate of others, including Reuters and the Associated Press. This is not a negative reflection on these organizations but rather an acknowledgement that the agency is becoming increasingly devoid of original content on its websites which it considers integral to its audience outreach.

In other instances, the agency has abdicated its role as an international broadcasting by relying on local “placement” of its radio/television program material, much of it apparently containing soft programming as opposed to hard news. Worse, the American taxpayer is being fleeced by the agency which has to buy the placement on foreign stations. In addition, these stations often have the right to exercise editorial control over VOA content they may find objectionable.

The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Congress has crafted legislation intended to reform the agency. The House version of the legislation is known as HR 4490. It is worth a read-through on the part of Mr. Lack to see what Members of Congress have identified as the agency’s failings.

The legislation has yet to be enacted into law. How the Congress intends to proceed with the legislation is yet to be known. However, there is no question that the failings of this agency are deep and substantial. A legislative mandate to correct these problems is an absolute necessity.

And it is so because of the culture inside the agency, VOA in particular. Senior agency officials and a coterie of allies have openly and defiantly opposed the legislation. We call it the “Back Off Congress” insurgency.

These individuals offer no substantive plan for rehabilitating the agency. They expect – and demand – that the status quo prevail. We lay a substantial amount of responsibility for this aspect of internal VOA culture at the doorstep of David Ensor, the VOA director, who insists on labeling the agency as a “news company.”

This characterization is patently untrue. As we have remarked previously, the agency has never been, is not now and never will be a “news company.” It is an information agency of the United States Government and the American public. It has a charter describing in detail how it is expected to perform.

Ignoring key provisions of the Charter has largely put the agency in the predicament that it is in today: one in which the agency is largely seen as substantially unreliable in representing the United States to global publics.

In addition, the prevailing sentiment in the Congress is that it will not fund such an enterprise as described by Mr. Ensor. Insisting that the agency be so puts it in Congress on the fast track for extinction.

Mr. Lack also needs to pay very close attention to editorial content in VOA broadcasts and on its websites. We believe – as does the Wall Street Journal – that the Voice of America has become in many parts a “Voice of Anti-Americanism.”

➢ Close scrutiny should be paid to commentaries and blogs posted on the websites of this US Government agency.

➢ Are these commentaries appropriately labeled?

➢ Is there counterpoint offered to these commentaries by so-called VOA “columnists?”

➢ Are VOA news items rewritten to change the tone of a piece?

➢ How are incidents and participants described?

➢ How has the agency gone about abandoning core principles of the VOA Charter?


Mr. Lack should drain the emotional content from the task at hand and determine what – if anything – can be salvaged from the instruments of the agency’s self-destruction: its senior managers.

In order to succeed, Mr. Lack needs to be assisted by a trusted, professional and reliable staff.

That staff does not currently exist in the Cohen Building.

Senior officials are compromised and react viciously toward anyone who breaks ranks.

Employees have been conditioned to fear retaliation for speaking out.

Instead, Mr. Lack would be well served to welcome an invitation to meet with employee representatives such as AFGE Local 1812 which has a wealth of experience in dealing with agency officials and its “strategic plan.”

At the end of the day, the question that will be answered by Mr. Lack’s appointment is whether or not the agency has already gone well past the threshold known as “the point of no return.”

In our view, it has.

It is up to Mr. Lack to prove to us, the Congress and other interested stakeholders to the contrary.

The Federalist
January 2015