When a “Private Blogger” Isn’t – International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard For Dysfunctional and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost

by The Federalist

Editor’s Note: We apologize to The Federalist for delaying posting this commentary due to avalanche of new reporting on the Thomas Affair. This post also refers to it.

Recently, our editors posted a commentary regarding the blog of Kim Andrew Elliott, an employee of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

Our editors describe Mr. Elliott’s blog as “private,” pointing out that he puts a pro forma disclaimer at the end of whatever he writes attempting to distance himself and his writing from the agency.

Mr. Elliott is entitled to his opinions.  No problem with that.  From our perspective, it seems that Mr. Elliott is a bit disingenuous in trying to put in place an artificial disassociation with the IBB. We also note that except for Mr. Elliott, no agency employee seems to enjoy the same amount of freedom to express his or her “private” views on agency matters without fear of retaliation by the management.

We sincerely hope that Mr. Elliott will continue blogging and continue to express his private views or IBB views or a mix of both, but we would also like to see the same right extended to all agency employees and to see former employees and other experts being able to criticize IBB and VOA without their professional reputation being smeared by U.S. government officials.

Our sources have supplied Mr. Elliott’s writings to us.  We have read what he has written.  It doesn’t take too many readings to come away with the view that Mr. Elliott’s comments often mirror the official actions or positions of the IBB. No problem with that either. But,  after a fashion, that leaves us to dismiss the writings as an often acerbic, sarcastic and pedantic (think of an “asp”) shill for the IBB. Mr. Elliott has the right to do what he does and, unlike current VOA and IBB employees — who can’t do this without fear — we can freely disagree with and criticize his writings. His colleagues at IBB and VOA don’t have that privilege.

The IBB is a discredited bureaucracy.  Writing about and seemingly in support of this discredited bureaucracy raises issues of objectivity, credibility and balance for someone employed there in a higher level position no matter what kind of disclaimer that person uses when we know that others in the agency can’t do the same and express views critical of the management. When you see what a number VOA executives did on a former employee, Mr. Thomas, you could imagine what they could do to someone who is currently employed by the agency.

In terms of writing style, Mr. Elliott also appears to like playing the role of semanticist.

A perfect example of this is in his latest piece where he reacts to a statement by Ed Royce (R-CA) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Chairman Royce states:

“While the Voice of America aims to provide listeners with objective news and information about United States foreign policy, the so-called “surrogate” broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty beams news into closed societies offering information those citizens are otherwise denied.”  

Elliott launches on Chairman Royce with the following:

“…anyone who has listened to VOA knows that its content is not limited to US foreign policy…Such misinformation about VOA is persistent…It was on such faulty premises about VOA that Radio Free Asia was created in 1996.”

Mr. Elliott is not on the right side of this issue.

What comes through in his reactive statement is the same kind of arrogance that we have come to expect from spokespersons for the IBB.  It’s a mirror image.

[There’s that “ASP” thing again.]

Chairman Royce makes a general statement, attempting to distinguish aspects of the VOA mission, codified in the VOA Charter and that of the surrogate broadcasters, which do indeed have mission parameters that differentiate them from the VOA.  As we have said many times, VOA provides the global perspective.  The surrogate broadcasters have a tighter focus.  The Royce statement would have benefited from some fine tuning but is understandable in the context of trying to separate out the different roles of these entities.

As noted above, Elliott, as semanticist, tries to parse the Royce statement with an arrogant and effete “I know better than you” tone to the writing.  We’ve seen it before in other offerings by Mr. Elliott.

[Perhaps one of Mr. Elliott’s IBB superiors should apprise him of the dangers of “biting one of the hands that feeds the agency.”]

It is also interesting that Mr. Elliott speaks to Radio Free Asia (RFA) rather than Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) which Chairman Royce refers to in his statement.

[Our sources indicate that there is a sentiment among some individuals outside the agency that the way for VOA to survive is to undermine the surrogates, particularly RFA.  This is clearly an IBB play: going down and dirty in the effort to preserve their agenda; in short: to promote internal discord and animosity among the IBB entities, taking the focus off the odious policies and behavior of the IBB thugocracy.  We’ve seen it before, in that recent State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) report and in public statements by the IBB or its anonymous surrogates.]

Another thing that comes out in Mr. Elliott’s writings:

Mr. Elliott often refers to the agency as a “news organization.”

It is not only a news organization.  And it never was intended to be only a news organization in Mr. Elliott’s context. Referring to the agency as such is IBB disinformation at work.  AP and Reuters are mostly news organizations.

What we are talking about is an agency of the United States Government.  Voice of America’s mission is codified in the VOA Charter as being “a reliable and authoritative source of news,” etc.  The Charter also says that the VOA will “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively…”

The VOA Charter establishes that it is in the US national and public interest to supply global publics with news and information and also to articulate the policies of the United States Government.  It is a bifurcated mission.  Each part should not be seen as incompatible with the other IF one understands the need to do both with global publics in less than free media environments.  This is not difficult to understand – unless made intentionally so.

At present, the agency is doing neither very well.  In fact, the IBB is doing such a bad job that the agency is being crushed by other international broadcasters on reporting news and information, including domestic US news items, across all media platforms.  The federal part of the agency is way off the parameters of the VOA Charter, way off the road map that the Charter provides and has served the agency well in the past.  The results are predictable.

With its many failings, it is important to see the agency essentially on artificial life support in the form of about $800-million dollars annually in American taxpayer funds.

Without this artificial life support the agency would die a quick death – perhaps more preferable than the slow death it is going through now (though somewhat picking up speed of late with less original reporting and increasing third-party-reliant coverage of major news events; even coverage of White House press conferences is done with short Reuters news items on the VOA English news website).

In the operational model embraced by the IBB, the American taxpayer would be far better off to jettison this drain on public funds.  The agency is not accomplishing what it is supposed to do and the IBB clearly intends not to do.

A few other observations about Mr. Elliott’s blogging:

Just like those IBB officials who decide what goes into their “Media Highlights,” Mr. Elliott picks and chooses what published items he wishes to post on his blog.  That lends itself to a certain subjective coloration to the treatment of the subject of US international broadcasting.

For example, many would find it odd that Mr. Elliott has not posted the Columbia Journalism Review article by retired VOA senior foreign correspondent and news analyst Gary Thomas, particularly since it produced an angry response from senior agency officials through the VOA Public Relations Office, hence the Thomas Affair.  After a fashion, omissions like this appear less a pedestrian lapse and more like intentionally ignoring impactful commentary on the agency’s malaise – particularly in the agency’s core news operation, the VOA Central Newsroom.

Mr. Elliott also does not allow for comments to what he posts or reactions to his comments.  Some would suggest that this may be indicative of some brittleness in having his posts or comments challenged.

That narrows the blog’s viewpoint to those of the pontificator.

If anything, a narrow view – one that may be indicative of that of the IBB – doesn’t get to the substance of the myriad problems created for US Government international broadcasting by the IBB.

The Federalist

July 2013