BBG Watch Commentary
Observers of U.S. international broadcasting see the latest personnel change at PNN (Persian News Network), the Voice of America (VOA) Persian Service, as yet another sign that VOA Director David Ensor and his deputy, Executive Editor Steve Redisch, have failed to provide leadership, solve problems and win respect of VOA journalists. Ensor denies these charges and says that “real progress was made.”
But critics say that continuing problems at the Persian Service are typical of the entire organization. They extend from the Central VOA Newsroom, which fails to post timely news updates on the VOA English website and engage audiences through social media, to numerous VOA language services. Critics call it crisis of leadership and blame it on Ensor and Redisch.
VOA journalists are struggling due to insufficient resources and lack of leadership — the situation made worse by the unpopular and ineffective management that is at war with employees, sources told BBG Watch.
Reached in London by a reporter, former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Ambassador Victor Ashe confirmed what BBG Watch has heard from other sources: “Once again there has been a top management change at PNN under VOA. Bill Otwell has been replaced after less than one year on the job and replaced by Setareh Derakhshesh, in an acting capacity, according to an email sent by David Ensor to selected recipients.”
Last Friday Sept 13 was Otwell’s last day.
Voice of America Director David Ensor issued this statement which was forwarded to us by our sources:
“Billy Otwell has decided to step aside and return to his previous work in the Office of Performance Review, after a period helping VOA out running PNN.
Effective Monday, September 16th, Setareh Derakhshesh will be acting Division director.
I want to personally thank Billy for his service in one of the most challenging jobs in the building. Real progress was made under his leadership. We look forward to working closely with him going forward.”
Ambassador Ashe, who had left his BBG post last month and has been consistently critical of the top leadership at VOA, and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — the BBG’s management arm — had a much different take on the situation:
“David Ensor has been at VOA for a long time now and, regrettably, has not gotten PPN headed in the right direction despite it consuming a major portion of tax dollars,” former BBG Governor Ashe said. “Ensor along with Steve Redish have had several personnel changes which do not seem to last. The new BBG Board must look into this carefully and take ownership of solutions or Congress will ultimately step in through hearings.”
“This is sad and troubling given the serious issues in Iran and its neighbor Syria,” Ashe added. “Ensor has had three years to reshape the Persian news network and it clear that many problems remain. It falls short of its potential and its mission.”
The BBG Board still only has five voting members with the State Dept Representative not yet given a vote. A nomination still pending in Congress. Two additional vacancies still remain as the President has not nominated anyone to two positions where the term has expired.
VOA Director Ensor said on August 6, 2013 during an all-staff meeting that “the state of VOA is strong and is getting stronger all the time.”
But at the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Reforming the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), held on June 26, 2013, members of Congress from both parties voiced serious concerns about VOA programming and management. Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (D-FL) was especially critical of VOA programs to Iran. One witness, former Broadcasting Board of Governors member S. Enders Wimbush proposed removing PNN from the Voice of America and placing U.S. government-funded news programs to Iran within Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) which is also overseen by the BBG.
“REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R-FL) Mr. Deutch, my Florida colleague, is recognized.
REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL) Thank you Madam Chair and the Ranking Member. Thanks for holding today’s hearing. And I understand that you touched on this issue briefly, but I’d like to pursue just a little further the role that we play in Iran. While I believe that public international broadcasting is vital around the world, it is especially true there.
We’ve got few opportunities to speak directly to the people, present accurate information about their government’s choices, about American values. And our primary tool for reaching out to the Iranian people is the Voice of America Persian News Network.
PNN has long been considered an ineffective diplomatic tool, however, plagued by poor programming. low-quality production, and mismanagement.
It is tremendously unfortunate in a country where an estimated 90 percent of the populace gets their news from TV.
The U.S. via the Persian News Network is missing an opportunity to have an influential role in Iran too often by presenting unprofessional, low-quality newscasts, often with an incoherent message.
Less than two weeks ago, as the Iranian people went to the polls in historic numbers, BBC Persian provided 24/7 coverage of the elections, yet PNN ( Voice of America Persian TV ) instead chose to broadcast a music program and a show about historical maps instead of continuous election news.
Unfortunately, none of these criticism is new. As Iran remains a top foreign policy concern, I’m seriously concerned that we’re missing a vital opportunity to reach an estimated 25 to 30 million people in Iran.
So, my question is this. Why is the production quality and editorial content of PNN so lacking? What barriers are there that are preventing the hiring and training of top journalists?”
REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL) “Why? If I can just ask, is the mission so unclear? Is it so muddled that it would be impossible for the editors, for the people who run the station to know, that on the election day, when the entire world is focusing on your country, that the news network might actually cover the news taking place in that country? And if so, how do we fix that? How do we clarify the mission? Who needs to do it? Who needs to be told? What has to happen so that they actually behave like a news networks so that the Iranian people can get good, can get clear, real news from this outlet?”
Prior to Bill Otwell, VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch was for many months in charge of PNN.
Last year, in August 2012, BBG Watch, an independent website run by former and current Broadcasting Board of Governors employees and their supporters — had an exclusive report that Broadcasting Board of Governors members were appalled to learn for the first time that the highly popular VOA satirical television program Parazit, which was broadcast to Iran, had been off the air for nine months. That story later hit the mainstream media.
Writing in the “Washington Whispers” column in U.S.News & World Report, Elizabeth Flock reported that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the umbrella organization over VOA, told Whispers “they were not notified of the show going off-air.”
Her article, “Staffers: Voice Of America Left Lawmakers in The Dark About Loss Of Prominent Show ‘Parazit’,” focuses on Congressional staffers also being kept in the dark about the program. BBG Watch reported that Voice of America and BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives also failed to inform members of Congress and congressional staffers about the program being off the air for nine months. During that time the BBG kept issuing press releases suggesting that Parazit was still being broadcast.
VOA spokesman Kyle King said the show is only “on hiatus,” not canceled, due to “difficult talent and staffing issues.” King would not give further details about those issues, citing privacy concerns.
King also insisted that “interested people on the Hill and in the administration knew” the show was taking a break.
But the senate committee staffers insist that’s not true, and a press release sent out by VOA in July 2012 boasted of a new live streaming platform in Iran included Parazit in its list of programs, as if the show was still on-air.
READ MORE in U.S. News & World Report, August 23, 2012.
BBG members along with members of Congress, congressional staffers and American public may have been mislead by several press releases and announcements put out this year by the BBG executive staff which suggested that the VOA satirical TV show to Iran is still on the air. A press release issued last month (July 2012) referred to Parazit as still being broadcast. The BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812, has accused BBG, IBB and VOA executives of providing BBG members and members of Congress with misleading information about many other broadcasts.
VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch was put in charge of reforming the Persian Service, but an independent blog “VOA PNN Watchdog” blames him and other executives for contributing to continuing mismanagement of VOA programs to Iran.
“In spite of the fact that Parazit has been off-air for more than six months (June 2012) VOA management continues to flaunt the show and speak about it as if it still exists. There is no mention that the program is indefinitely off the air and [it] is only mentioned in passing that [it] is currently on ‘season break.’ This is clearly a lie.” — VOA PNN Watchdog
BBG Watch sources describe Steve Redisch as a controversial figure at the Voice of America who has alienated many rank-and-file journalists, but the top management at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) defends him as being an outstanding executive who has improved employee morale.
Redisch is involved in a controversy over his request to the United Nations to revoke UN press accreditation of independent American journalist Matthew Russell Lee because of a dispute with a VOA correspondent.
An op-ed by an American columnist Felice Friedson in The Jerusalem Post suggested that Iranians are profoundly disappointed with Voice of America programs. Four political dissidents living in Iran who spoke by phone with American journalists in New York all said that “VOA might as well be staffed by agents of the Iranian government,” Felice Friedson reported.
As far as we know, no one has been fired or disciplined for misleading members of Congress, BBG Governors, and American taxpayers about Parazit‘s fate. After Steve Redisch had relinquished his duties at the VOA Persian Service, he was replaced by Bill Otwell who has now been replaced by Setareh Derakhshesh.
In our view, the problem is not the VOA Persian Service and its journalists. In fact, the problem is not limited to the PNN. The entire organization, all of the Voice of America, is rapidly declining under Ensor and Redisch. The decline is especially visible on the poorly-designed, poorly-managed and often un-updated VOA English website, where top news stories get barely a few Facebook “Likes” and Tweets, while similar stories on Al Jazeera, BBC, and Russia Today get hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of “Likes” and other social media engagement scores.
The revolving door at the Voice of America Persian Service is just one of many signs of an important American institution in decline — an institution that needs to be saved and protected because it plays a critical national security role abroad by helping to overcome censorship and to strengthen freedom with its broadcasts and other media programs. This role has become even more important with the threat of escalating war in Syria.
Ambassador Ashe is absolutely right. The Broadcasting Board of Governors needs to step in and “take ownership of solutions.”