At today’s Town Hall meeting at the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington, DC, Director David Ensor announced that he has submitted his resignation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) yesterday and wants to leave by end of May. Well-informed sources told BBG Watch that a permanent replacement for David Ensor is not likely to be named until the federal agency in charge of VOA and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media organizations serving audiences abroad also has a new permanent CEO. First BBG CEO Andy Lack had left earlier this year after only a few weeks on the job.
Interim CEO André Mendes said at the All-Hands meeting today that “David has taken his lumps here at VOA.”
Among many news and management failures at the Voice of America, President Obama’s recent video statement on the Iran nuclear deal framework announcement was not posted on Facebook and YouTube for hours by VOA English and VOA Persian services.
On Obama’s Iran nuclear deal video statement, Al Jazeera, BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), Russia’s RT news websites and even U.S. State Department public diplomacy websites in English and Persian were getting better audience engagement stats through social media than VOA by a factor of more than 10 to 1, and 20 to 1 in some cases.
Prior to the announcement of David Ensor’s resignation, a new study, “Reassessing U.S. International Broadcasting,” written by a former Broadcasting Board of Governors member S. Enders Wimbush and a former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executive Elizabeth M. Portale, offered a sometimes blistering critique of the current setup and management of U.S. international broadcasting and called for a comprehensive reform.
The study recommended that “Broadcast strategy should be replaced by media strategy.” The “Digital First” strategy announced only recently by David Ensor and his deputy, VOA’s Executive Editor Steve Redisch, a 20-year CNN veteran before joining VOA, has been mired in confusion, according to VOA journalists who spoke with BBG Watch on condition of anonymity.
Those interviewed for the study critical of the BBG and VOA included former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former chairmen of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Marc Nathanson and Amb. James Glassman, former Voice of America directors Geoffrey Cowan and Robert Reilly, former RFE/RL President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, former Freedom House President David Kramer, Dr. Francis Fukuyama, and several other prominent American scholars, diplomats, journalists and media experts.
The full text of the study has not yet been published online.
David Ensor said that his decision to step down later this year was made some time ago, presumably before the study was made.
The study says that “U.S. international broadcasting should use good journalism as its platform.” But it also states that “Its networks are not independent news agencies, as if they were CNNs that happen to receive their funding from the U.S. government,” and concludes that “The journalism ‘firewall’ that has come to characterize the relationship between U.S. international broadcasting and other parts of the government is overblown and frequently counterproductive.”
“Thank god we have a strong firewall. … I believe in it (the VOA Charter),” David Ensor said at today’s meeting. “It’s important that we distinguish between journalism and propaganda going forward…,” Ensor added. Ensor served as CNN’s National Security Correspondent from 1998 to 2006. Shortly before announcing his resignation, David Ensor started referring publicly to the Voice of America as “America’s international state broadcaster.”
But Ensor was quoted as saying at today’s meeting with employees that the VOA Charter must be retained in whatever “son of 4490” bill emerges this session of the U.S. Congress. He was referring to the somewhat controversial bipartisan legislation, H.R. 4490, introduced last year to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The U.S. Senate did not vote on the bill which Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) and other lawmakers want to reintroduce this year with the support of the State Department and the White House.
During testimony on January 23, 2013 before the House Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stated that the “Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and we need to get back into it.”
A Voice of America press release on David Ensor’s resignation refers to VOA as “the nation’s international state broadcaster.”
In a Facebook post, former VOA White House, congressional and foreign correspondent Dan Robinson listed other problems at the Voice of America.
FORMER VOA SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON: “During his tenure VOA lost a number of veteran news correspondents who resigned or retired in frustration (including myself), and VOA’s central news operation was devastated by staffing cuts and mismanagement.
VOA, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which oversees all U.S. international broadcasters, have been at the bottom of federal employee satisfaction ratings for years.”
In a controversial and unprecedented performance by a VOA director, at the December 2014 VOA employee holiday party satire skit David Ensor himself lampooned former VOA reporters, former BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe and the BBG Watch. Documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed that David Ensor used government email system to plan with his subordinates a satire skit against what is a private U.S. media watch dog website which has published reports and commentaries critical of the VOA management.
VOA and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, state that their mission, which is 100% funded by U.S. tax dollars appropriated by the U.S Congress, is “to broadcast accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news and information to an international audience” and “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
“As of now I intend to leave in late May or early June. I’m considering a number of interesting options for the future,” David Ensor said at today’s meeting with Voice of America employees. He also said he and his wife agreed some time ago he would not stay at VOA go beyond this year. He engaged in some self-praise for all he has accomplished in his nearly four years here, mentioning new programs, new managers, new work by many branches.
Ensor also remarked today: “I’m not going to become another Alan Heil,” although he added he is a member of the Alan Heil fan club. Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former Voice of America deputy director and program director known for long tenure at VOA and his book “Voice of America – A History.”
One former VOA correspondent who wants to remain anonymous had this reaction to the Voice of America press release on David Ensor’s resignation:
ANNONYMOUS FORMER VOA ENGLISH CORRESPONDENT: “The press release on this has a few gems, describing VOA as a state broadcaster and quoting Ensor as saying VOA responded to Putin’s lies under aegis. Also bogus audience numbers.”
A comment left on the closed Voice of America Alumni Facebook page noted that the VOA press release on David Ensor’s resignation had very little to say about building up a following in closed societies and put emphasis instead on expanding audience numbers and TV programs. The person commenting described the the current model of “expansion” as being at the root of the mismanagement problem at VOA.
Former VOA senior national security correspondent Gary Thomas, who in the past had voiced strong opposition to the wording of H.R. 4490, posted this comment on Facebook:
FORMER VOA SENIOR CORRESPONDENT GARY THOMAS: “A move long overdue, IMHO. VOA’s first animatronic leader just kept leading the organization deeper into the weeds until it no longer knew the way out.”
“When policymakers try to expropriate journalism for a policy purposes, it de facto ceases being journalism and becomes something else: PR, public diplomacy, outreach, advocacy, whatever. That is why so many of us opposed the language in HR 4490. The constant tension between journalists and policy mavens creates institutional schizophrenia, which leads to a nervous breakdown – which is exactly what has happened at VOA, thus escalating the calls for reform. But Ensor and Redisch – especially Ensor – cannot be absolved. They must shoulder much of the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs for their slavish pandering to policy demands over journalistic imperatives, as Ensor’s pathetic performance at the most recent Board meeting demonstrated.”
More information and reactions can be found in a Facebook post by former VOA senior White House correspondent Dan Robinson.
BBG Watch also received this David Ensor announcement which was emailed to VOA employees:
DAVID ENSOR: As I announced at this morning’s All-Hands meeting, I have submitted my resignation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, to take effect at the end of May.
That will give the Board time to search for the 29th director of this wonderful organization.
Some time ago, my wife and I planned for me to step down later this year. I had assumed that once Andy Lack learned the ropes he would be ready to choose a new director.
André Mendes does not need as long as Andy. He knows this organization and I am confident will do everything he can to keep VOA strong and effective.
I am honored to have worked alongside so many fine journalists here who have been building bigger audiences and dynamic new programming despite smaller budgets over the last four years in a row.
I want to thank the Broadcasting Board of Governors for their trust. It has been an honor serving our country this way, and I look forward to doing so with energy until my last day in office.
I will have more to say near the end of that time. But I promise you this: I will remain a champion of VOA for the rest of my life.
VOA PRESS RELEASE
April 07, 2015
WASHINGTON — Voice of America Director David Ensor today announced his resignation after nearly four years leading the nation’s international state broadcaster.
During Ensor’s tenure, VOA’s radio, television, and online audience grew by 49 million people to 172 million a week, according to survey data prepared for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and four other media organizations funded by the U.S. government.
“I am honored to have had the opportunity to work alongside so many fine journalists,” Ensor said during a meeting with VOA staff. “You have made VOA a social-media leader in South East Asia and an affiliate-model innovator in Latin America.”
Under his leadership, VOA has launched new television programs in Russian, Ukrainian, Persian, Mandarin, Burmese, Urdu, Kurdish, Pashto, Somali, Dari, Creole, English and many more. Ensor initiated a “digital first” reorganization of VOA’s central newsroom and a boost in programming to Africa.
“We are grateful for the leadership David Ensor brought to VOA,” said BBG Chair Jeff Shell. “His deep journalistic roots and rich knowledge of world events were tremendous assets he enthusiastically invested in this venerable organization.”
Prior to joining VOA in June 2011, Ensor was Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He came to VOA as an award-winning journalist in his own right. During his 30 years as a radio and television correspondent, he reported for NPR, ABC News, and CNN and covered such major stories as the fall of Communism in Poland and the Soviet Union, the travels of Pope John Paul II, and U.S. national security issues in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Despite the constraints of diminishing budgets in each of his years as director, Ensor said “VOA has found creative ways to respond to the lies of Vladimir Putin and to the threats of ISIS. And it will be ready to do much more under its next director, if resources can be identified.”
At the meeting with VOA staff, Ensor said, “So long as the VOA Charter of 1976 is never weakened, I know VOA’s professionals will be able continue to serve our country by providing accurate journalism that is honest and independent and thus earns the trust of millions around the world.”
Ensor also thanked the Broadcasting Board of Governors for their trust and said he will stay on the job until the end of May to allow the Board time to search for VOA’s 29th director.