BBG Watch Commentary

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Voice of America Information War Lost: Old Year, New Year, What’s the Difference?

By The Federalist

Probably not much for US Government international broadcasting except for one thing: the capacity for going from bad to worse.

While Andrew Lack still remains the Chief Executive Office (CEO) in waiting, in absentia or on hold,[The commentary was submitted before BBG Watch reported that the OPM had approved his appointment and he will be soon sworn in.] the one thing to keep in mind is that the systemic failures, particularly the Voice of America (VOA) will not fix themselves. If anything, they compound upon themselves.

They Keep Hanging On

This is an important consideration for Mr. Lack as he sits, waits and watches and maybe wonders if taking this post was a good idea in the first place. And for that matter, what may be his only alternative is to try to salvage what remains of US Government international broadcasting by way of the grantee/surrogate civilian broadcasting entities under the direction of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). If he does that, it might be argued that he accomplished something. But it doesn’t say much for the wasteland of leadership and good governance at what used to be the vibrant Voice of America.

We have long held the opinion that VOA life expectancy in the 21st century is being substantially reduced through bungling and willful intent. We continue to have no reason to believe otherwise.

We already know that internal reform of the agency structure is not going to happen. Andy Lack has no legislative authority behind him for major structural reforms. Instead, the attempt to rehabilitate the agency must come first from elsewhere; namely, the Congress. The effort has been made, and a substantial one at that, in large part due through bipartisan legislation offered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Unfortunately, the parallel legislation in the Senate stalled. The effort is likely to be remounted again in the new Congress. Whether the bill remains in its present construction remains to be seen. And it should also be noted that separate legislation was also introduced to close the Voice of America in its entirety. With one significant debacle after another inside the Cohen Building, one has to wonder if that alternative may gain momentum.

And in the meantime, the folks most responsible for the mess keep hanging on. No rocket science here: stay where they are until forced to the exit on C Street, not to come back. Every day/week that goes by they add a little more toward their retirement annuities. At this juncture, that’s all they likely care about. There is really nothing left of substance to the VOA’s mission. That has been effectively destroyed. This does not mean that the VOA’s mission is no longer relevant. In many ways, it is perhaps more relevant than ever. However, the career bureaucrats have rendered that mission irrelevant. Forget all the grandiose pronouncements that you hear in the opening meetings of the BBG:

The agency, especially VOA, is toast.

And it cannot be otherwise because it is institutionally dysfunctional and defunct.

Send In The Professionals

Blunders abound inside the Cohen Building where simple-minded goofing off, like ice cream socials, seems to take precedence over the substance of the agency’s mission.

Perhaps the most egregious in the Third Floor Blunder Department in 2014 was one that is still ongoing: fallout from an alleged VOA Armenian Service “documentary” that caused an international incident that is still reverberating.

Let’s review:

It starts with the so-called “documentary” produced by the VOA Armenian Service regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The “documentary” was a one-sided view of the history of the region, lacking balanced perspective. It got a rise out of the government of Azerbaijan. Let’s put it this way, it got more than a rise. The mistakes had to be so bad and the the pushback from Baku was strong enough to require David Ensor, the VOA director, to issue an apology.

In our opinion, this is a direct consequence of the “anything goes” mentality that grips this agency.

One has to ask questions:

Why was there an absence of editorial review on this “documentary” before it was posted for viewing?

What was the role or lack thereof of supervisory review within the Armenian Service?

What was the division chief doing? What was his level of involvement?

The agency has produced other so-called “documentaries” that were unremarkable. This one broke new ground for the uproar it created.

And it didn’t stop with the Ensor apology.

The next order of business was a kind of “measured response” from the Azeri government, not against VOA, but against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Perhaps in order to make a point, the authorities in Baku arrested RFE/RL Azeri Service reporter Khadija Ismayilova. Two months of pre-trial detention.

This was followed by the BBG press release expressing outrage over the reporter’s arrest.

In turn, the Baku government decided to up the ante: they busted up the RFE/RL Azeri Service office and hauled the staff in for questioning.

Once again, another grinding and gnashing BBG press release followed.

In its entirety (to this point), this is an almost textbook example of what not to do before and during a crisis.

It is obvious that their big impression of themselves inside the Cohen Building doesn’t hold up in the real world. They can’t see a crisis coming.

Right away, it isn’t surprising that the people on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building have zero requisite skills in avoiding crises in the first place and being prepared for them and knowing what to do when they happen. They should have thought much earlier about how to protect RFE/RL journalists in Baku. Remember, this is the same cast of characters that have created a hostile work environment toward its own employees – not only created it, but have assiduously institutionalized it over years. You know what we call it: the vindictive bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy that constantly expands, protects itself, and mistreats its own journalists does not have time to think about reporters in the field in Russia or Azerbaijan. It unceremoniously fired dozens of human rights reporters in Putin’s Russia in 2012. Some have been reinstated after the firings produced a public relations disaster and outrage, but we hear from many sources that arrogant managers still in charge continue to depress employee morale and creativity and are busy creating new human relations crises.

Now we find the vindictive bureaucracy squared off with a sovereign government which doesn’t have the same world view as the people taking up space on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.

Not only that: the Azeri authorities have the advantage. They have one reporter in custody and hauled in the rest of the RFE/RL Azeri staff for a “get acquainted” interrogation and some on the spot “remodeling” of the service’s offices and equipment.

What To Do?

The first order of business is to hit the “OFF!” switch on the BBG press office and officials who tell them what to do. These people need to be given a simple instruction: “Enough.” Have a plan of action before you issue yet another press release that has no bite and no effect. Don’t make yourself look weak with your writing.

The next order of business is to send in professionals. We do not extend that label to anyone on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.

Apparently, this has taken place with the State Department now engaged in an end game resolution to the situation.

We don’t know how the Azeri government is going to play this, but they have the upper hand, at least in the short run.

If you are the Azeri government, you have to be feeling pretty good right now. You really put a twist on the BBG and the Voice of America. The government’s long-run prospects, however, are something else, especially if it continues to stifle dissent and free press.

And here is another item of note:

This also makes for a perfect example of not knowing your potential adversaries (government elites), which is also your audience so to speak. Not listening. Not being prepared for what could have been easily predicted. Not redeploying journalistic resources to protect them and be ready for a confrontation. As it is, BBG and/or VOA officials have developed a very bad habit of talking down to people, as if their brainpower was somehow so much more superior to others.

Azerbaijan, Russia, North Korea

We look at this as another manifestation of the agency’s “maximum hubris.” Doing the same thing, business as usual, despite of what Putin is up to in Russia, or in the case of VOA, what the North Korean government is doing. VOA repeats Pyongyang’s claim of innocence in the Sony hack without any questions asked. May be VOA will be rewarded with a visa for a VOA journalist to report from North Korea. We don’t see why not.

At the same time, with RFE/RL truly asking hard questions and exposing corruption, BBG should have thought much harder and much earlier about the safety of RFE/RL reporters in Azerbaijan.

If you are the Azeri government, you have to be wondering how stupid the BBG can be by still having a large RFE/RL bureau in-country. If Ms. Ismayilova was in Prague (RFE/RL headquarters) and not in Baku, there wouldn’t be much they could do about it (other than block the service’s website, which would be pretty effective on that level).

But this one was a “gimme.” Voice of America issues a journalistically questionable report about Azerbaijan for which VOA director has to apologize. How can you possibly pass up on an opportunity to make RFE/RL, the BBG, the VOA and the US Government look pretty darn dumb?

So now the professionals have to step in.

Ticket To Ride

As this scenario goes, the best thing for the BBG would be to get Ms. Ismayilova released from custody as soon as possible and make sure that she is safe. The Azeri authorities may decide to give her a one-way ticket out of Baku to Prague by the next available flight. As for the RFE/RL bureau, it would seem that it has been effectively closed. The rest of the staff will have to be redeployed in some fashion as well. As it is, it is not likely that they will be able to find gainful employment in Azerbaijan.

Do not adopt the belief that we are not taking the situation seriously. We most certainly are, both in this specific instance and in the larger picture of a failed agency with a failed mission.

And if you are Andrew Lack, your hope should be that this crisis gets resolved before you assume the position of CEO. If the realization hasn’t struck Mr. Lack yet, he will soon understand that he is in a hurricane – not the eye of the hurricane – being pummeled by forces beyond his control.

We are aware of several crises being created for Andy Lack as we speak by unpopular, disengaged, non-communicative, vindictive and angry managers and officials. At least one of them has the potential of becoming a PR disaster matching or surpassing the 2012 RFE/RL crisis in Russia. And we’re not even talking about what Putin and his repressive secret services and propaganda machine might do to take advantage of the situation or what other anti-democratic regimes might do. These crises are being manufactured for the new BBG CEO right now in-house by the agency’s incompetent bureaucrats and arrogant managers.

And at some point, he may start hearing this refrain repeating itself inside his head:


I need somebody.


Not just anybody.


You know I need someone.


The Federalist
January 2015