Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Voice of America Information War Lost December Briefs – Literally

By The Federalist

Not much happens in the Federal bureaucracy during the month of December. Anchored by the Thanksgiving Day holiday in late November and Christmas and New Year’s Day in December/January, Federal agencies indulge in making merry for the holiday season. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA) are no exception. Parties abound in the dysfunctional and defunct culture of this agency.

One of the agency’s holiday traditions is the “VOA Follies,” produced by the VOA newsroom which satires people and events over the year.

It used to be clever and funny.

It isn’t anymore.

In effect, the agency has become a daily dose of lunacy, thanks in large part to nightmare created by David Ensor, the VOA director and Steve Redisch, the VOA executive director. The nightmare is largely the “43 newsrooms” concept that these two concocted for the agency, demolishing the core newsroom and leaving it to the individual language services and other elements to attempt to replicate critical core services once provided by a central news hub. As a result, the operative process is now one of anything goes, demonstrated with horrible effect and result by just about any element producing the noise that attempts to pass for the agency’s news content.

Journalism as such is just about dead inside VOA. Global audiences are becoming non-existent, even as the agency tries to claim huge increases that aren’t there. They belong – questionably at that – to the foreign radio and television stations the agency has placed programming on – which we tend to liken in the vein of a late night infomercial on commercial US media outlets.

The agency has memorialized its descent into the realm of dysfunctional and defunct in myriad ways, not the least of which being through its flagship toxic waste blog,

All About America

The latest offering by this horrid abuse of American taxpayer money is a “feature” on “tighty whities;” namely, male underwear.

Just plain tasteless: the hallmark of this blog.

In the United States, we have become accustomed to having our libidos assaulted and our sensitivities shocked daily, both directly and subliminally. That is bad enough, but it has become so pervasive that we have to tune it out and be numb to it.

It’s a different story for global audiences, particularly in certain cultures where this kind of brazen display is culturally insensitive or publicly taboo. It’s the kind of thing that plays right into the hands of fundamentalists who have their own narrative about the cultural depravity of the United States.

Apparently, finding tasteful ways to deal with certain topics is well beyond the reach of agency staffers loading this kind of stuff onto the agency’s primary English language website.

It’s another sterling example of why this agency should be rendered extinct.

But there’s more. Always more.

VOA: North Korean Public Relations Firm

Recently, a well-orchestrated cyber attack was leveled against Sony Entertainment and others.

The attacks implicated the North Koreans as the perpetrators. Cyber experts pointed to evidence and media widely reported their comments.

Dutifully, someone from the VOA Korean Service contacted North Korean officials at the United Nations in New York City. A North Korean spokesperson denied any connection to the attack, as reported by VOA News.

The VOA Korean Service and VOA English service wrote a report on the North Korean denial seemingly constructed solely on the statement of the spokesperson.

Desperate for any kind of publicity, Voice of America English news service claimed the story as an “exclusive” and highlighted the North Korean denial WITHOUT also mentioning in the VOA report  the long history of false and misleading North Korean government statements. The VOA report with the North Korean denial also did not  mention comments from Western cyber experts  pointing to North Korean involvement.

Would any respectable news organization put out an “exclusive” news report without material facts and balance?

Well, maybe, if you are a public relations firm for the North Koreans in the US.

Other news outlets did a much more thorough job of reporting on this story, including the Public Radio International (PRI) program, “The World,” heard locally in DC on WAMU-FM, the radio station of American University in Washington.

The segment is available via “soundcloud.com” here:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/180164224″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]


In a manner of speaking, we call this the VOA “ricochet effect:” buying into one angle to a news item and then missing “the rest of the story.”

Trouble In Baku

We take note of yet another BBG press release, this one dealing with the arrest and two month pre-trial detention of Khadija Ismayilova of the Azeri Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) over her investigative reporting on government corruption and other issues in Azerbaijan.

It’s fine that the BBG has expressed its condemnation of the action by the Azerbaijan government, but then what?

There used to be a time when statements of moral umbrage by the United States had some effect around the world. Nowadays, not so much. In part, this is fallout from the so-called US policy of “leading from behind.” In other quarters, this policy is known as, “turn and run.” After a fashion, the perception of cowardice or shirking from global responsibility doesn’t earn a whole lot of respect.

In our view, Ms. Ismayilova’s arrest and detention is likely aggravated by a broadcast by the VOA Armenian Service. A few weeks before the arrest of the RFE/RL journalist in Baku, Voice of America in Washington  produced and attempted to promote a TV program  as a “documentary” regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region, with a long and contentious history.

The government in Baku had its own take on this “documentary” because it was full of wrong or fictitious information.

End result (part one): David Ensor, the hapless VOA director, had to publicly apologize for the program to the government of Azerbaijan, which was then able to claim that anything Broadcasting Board of Governors entities produce should be viewed with suspicion.  Remember what we said about the Ensor/Redisch news model: anything goes.

And went, in this case.

Ensor is also alleged to have commented that these kinds of things are “the price of doing business.” As it is, it has now become VOA’s going rate of exchange.

End result (part two): this presented an opportunity for the Azeri government to “level the playing field” by arresting and detaining Ms. Ismayilova — an award-winning RFE/RL reporter — who now finds herself in lockup in Baku, not what you would call a “Club Med” experience.

The BBG is now in a bit of a bind: one bad piece of VOA “journalism” (this is just one of many recent examples) followed by the arrest of a respected RFE/RL reporter. The trap for Jeffrey Shell and the BBG is: now that it has staked out a position on the arrest of Ms. Ismayilova, what comes next? Words alone are not likely to be powerful enough to compel the authorities in Azerbaijan to reconsider their actions. Something or someone other than the amateurs inside the Cohen Building will be needed to step up and resolve the situation.

And the longer it takes, the more impotent the agency appears, sending a clear message that the agency which allegedly supports freedom and democracy can’t take care of one of its own.

Not good.

Best piece of advice: keep the BBG, Ensor and the rest of that dysfunctional crew light years away from the situation. Send in professionals.

And when this is all over, hopefully with Ms. Ismayilova’s release (and likely exit from the country), the next thing to do is:

Remove Ensor and Redisch. Immediately.

Putting agency employees in jeopardy by being precipitously careless, uninvolved and ineffective as executives and managers is unacceptable, along with the anything goes approach these individuals have made the agency standard for “journalism.”

Andrew, Andrew, Wherefore Art Thou, Andrew? (Continued)

In the meantime, Mr. Lack’s assumption of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) duties for the BBG appears to be on a slow track to becoming a reality (“reality” perhaps being a poor choice of words when referring to anything relating to the BBG and the Cohen Building). Even if he shows up in the agency tomorrow, it’s too late.

And Just In Time – Help! I’ve Fallen And I Can’t Get Up!

And while Mr. Lack is in a holding pattern, the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) has just released the results of its 2014 survey of Federal workplace satisfaction. Just in time for the holidays!

Cemented at #24 out of 25 mid-size Federal agencies rests the BBG: another testament to the incompetence of the agency’s senior officials in managing this agency. Not only that, the agency is absolutely the runaway leader among all mid-size federal government agencies in a result that is 5.30 percent lower than 2013. So, who among Voice of America and the BBG’s International broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives on the Third Floor gets an award for this?

Here is something for Mr. Lack to do except of listening to VOA and IBB managers’ usual explanations that these poor ratings year after year are nothing unusual and should not be paid attention to: from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) or the Partnership for Public Service, get the record of all the annual findings of this survey since it began years ago. See where the agency sits. Mr. Lack should arrive at the conclusion that this is an institutionalized employee-hostile environment. The dismal quality of Voice of America news content is the first and the most telling example of managerial meltdown.

Think about it: the agency brings in the Partnership for Public Service to improve the agency’s work environment and the place tanks 5 percentage points lower than the last survey. Keep in mind that the agency spent taxpayer money to contract with PPS.

In our view what this represents is a diversionary tactic: agency officials have zero commitment to improving the workplace. The survey results show it. Remember what a senior Voice of America executive who now works under David Ensor is reported to have once remarked,

“Employees are responsible for their own morale.”

That is as good an expression of the agency’s lack of commitment to its employee’s as you will find.

Apparently, those narcissistic ice cream socials aren’t working either.

Here is something for Andrew Lack to do when he comes on board:

Identify the employees that are behind this worthless display of self-indulgence. See what they are paid. Then find meaningful work for them to do. And if they can’t perform, rate them accordingly. If performance improvement isn’t incentive enough, send them packing.

As these events demonstrate, the agency is spiraling out of control with each new fiasco having consequences leading to more repercussions.

As someone remarked, the best place to start may be at the beginning. But at this juncture, there is no beginning. There is no end. Instead, you have a revolving, never-ending, perpetually revolving conundrum of one disaster rolling into another.

As we remarked in a previous piece, there isn’t a person living or dead who can turn this agency around.

Perhaps Mr. Lack should thank the BBG for the offer and stay up in New York/Connecticut among people with a deeper respect for his knowledge and expertise. Here, the Cohen Building is loony tunes.

As 2014 heads to a close, the agency is like a refrain in a Talking Heads song, “Once In A Lifetime.”

“Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was…”

Perhaps the cast of the “VOA Follies” can play the tune while parading around the newsroom in “tighty whities” as part of their 2014 performance.

The Federalist
December 2014

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