BBG Watch Commentary

“It is my assessment that VOA’s plummeting reputation and ongoing management issues severely impacted our access when it came to news coverage and presidential interviews.” — Voice of America Senior White House Correspondent Dan Robinson

Experienced and highly respected journalists are leaving Voice of America, blaming it on mismanagement and hostile work environment.

Voice of America (VOA) loses its Moscow correspondent, its White House correspondent, and its Central News chief to voluntary departure or retirement simultaneously. Meanwhile, executives hold on to GS-15 or SES level jobs, announcing a three-to-five-year plan to improve employee morale, while the place slides farther and faster into the abyss, a VOA reporter told BBG Watch.

What does that say about the state of affairs at the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), a senior VOA correspondent has asked?

Many experienced VOA reporters who chose to leave or retire in recent years did so because they could not tolerate what they describe as an exceptionally bad and hostile management. They accuse senior IBB/VOA executives of essentially ruining news reporting across all media platforms, including VOA websites and social media.

Dan RobinsonWe received a copy of a letter sent to members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) by Dan Robinson, one of the most highly respected VOA correspondents. He has decided to leave the organization.

In his letter, Robinson told BBG members that his decision was influenced by “being bullied and threatened with removal by one IBB manager.”

VOA employees sometimes refer to senior VOA executives as “IBB” although technically these executives are not part of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which is the management and support element of the federal U.S. international media outreach agency supervised by the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors.

We have also learned that in addition to the already announced departures, yet another VOA correspondent is considering leaving after concluding that the senior management will not listen to suggestions and appears to be beyond any hope of being reformed.

The departure of Mr. Robinson and other VOA correspondents represents a serious loss for the U.S. taxpayer-funded organization charged with providing news to many countries without free media.

This unprecedented management crisis in VOA’s history can only be blamed on a handful of senior VOA and IBB officials. They are, however, part of a constantly growing large VOA/IBB bureaucracy, while the number of working correspondents and other program producers shrinks with each passing day.

VOA reporters also sent to BBG Watch their recommendations for reforms, which so far have been ignored by VOA and IBB management. In those recommendations to the BBG board, VOA reporters also refer to a manager who “has presided over a process in which breaking news coverage has frequently suffered, leaving essential hard news stories uncovered and exposing VOA to ridicule by critics [… as well as] in the Washington governmental and media communities.” They also complain of “unnecessary roughness and abusiveness in dealing with staff.”

To members of the Board,

This past Friday, I submitted my papers to retire from VOA, where I have spent 34 years. I worked under 15 directors, was privileged to serve twice as an overseas correspondent in Asia and Africa, spent 8 years covering Capitol Hill, headed VOA’s Burmese Service, and had the honor of covering President Obama as Chief White House Correspondent.

As one of the last remaining veterans who arrived in the 1970’s, I join others who have departed in recent years to take note of the decades of hard work by colleagues, and the great history of this organization.

However, in the past few years I saw much damage done to the news product, as this organization and dedicated employees were rushed down a path to a “TV” dominated future without the needed foundation of sufficient staff and technical resources.

The result of this clumsy and short-sighted implementation, was that “radio” and “TV” (and often social media) products suffered, resulting in likely thousands of hours of wasted man/woman hours across the Agency.

Particularly regarding VOA’s English website face to the world, our reputation was battered by a failure of IBB managers, from director’s level on down, to heed warnings staff made, including in face-to-face meetings in 2011, about serious problems.

On personnel management, I witnessed tactics, from the highest level of the IBB to Central News, that caused untold amounts of emotional suffering to hard-working employees – those who remained late into the night in small booths on Capitol Hill or at the White House, struggling to ensure that news got out, while many senior managers left their comfortable offices in the Cohen Building for home.

Indeed, my decision to depart at this juncture was informed by my experience being bullied and threatened with removal by one IBB manager, who perhaps is of the mind that such tactics can be applied across-the-board, whether at major networks or in a government agency.

Never easy, the job of White House correspondent was made more difficult by systemic problems and counter-productive management tactics in Central News that battered everyone’s morale. Evidence of this can be seen in statistics ranking the newsroom at the lowest level among all divisions.

Senior IBB and Central News managers made little effort to discuss with appropriate specificity, coverage, support and access issues regarding VOA coverage of the presidency.

At one point, correspondents in Washington bureaus were discouraged from filing on breaking news. In its place, they were often tasked with producing “TV” reports that inevitably consumed numerous additional hours.

Due to staffing and technical problems in Central News, particularly relating to the production process, final “TV” products ended up being completed late, well after other media organizations had put out several layers of reports on a breaking news event.

Reporters too often ended up being mired in hours of email exchanges, phone conversations, and copy and paste exercises to produce scripts that “dumbed down” breaking events. Unfortunately, this often extended to overseas trips that I and other correspondents took accompanying the President or other high officials.

With all of this in mind, at times I was frequently embarrassed to be representing this organization at the White House, on a day-to-day basis. It is my assessment that VOA’s plummeting reputation and ongoing management issues severely impacted our access when it came to news coverage and presidential interviews.

Whether in the private sector or government, one often hears the observation that change is never easy. There is no doubt this has been and will continue to be the case at VOA and in all of U.S. International Broadcasting, whatever its future is at this point in time.

As one who took the initiative to reach out to Board members to convey many of the points herein, I urge you to continue your efforts to repair the damage done in recent years. Specifically, do what at least one member has to establish communication with those in the trenches, particularly veterans who choose to remain.

Those at various levels of management throughout the agency cannot be, as I like to put it, “In Search of Enemies”. Unfortunately, that is the picture many current and former employees have looking back on the time they spent in the Agency.

That this is the case, is a shame given the history of this organization, and the support it has received from the American people and their representatives in Congress.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak about these issues. I remain ready to elaborate on my experiences, with any member of the Board, and will continue to speak about these issues at other times and venues.

Daniel A. Robinson

Chief White House Correspondent February 22, 2014