Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Dysfunctional, Defunct and Ungovernable -The FY2014 Budget – Part Three: David Ensor Does Q and A With The VOA Newsroom Staff

Broadcasting Board of Governors - Information War Lost - Dysfunctional, Defunct and Ungovernable -The FY2014 Budget

Part Three: David Ensor Does Q and A With The VOA Newsroom Staff

by The Federalist

 

Bureaucracy Warning Sign(From Part One of this series)

On Wednesday, April 10, 2013 the White House released its FY2014 budget request.

For US Government international broadcasting and the employees who engage in the effort, it is more bad news.  It is yet another sterling example that the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is taking the US Government out of the business of international broadcasting to global publics.

The agency’s FY2014 budget request is for $731-million dollars.  By comparison, the agency’s enacted FY2013 budget was for $756-million dollars.  Comparing the two, the FY2014 budget is for $25-million dollars less than its FY2013 budget.

 

Blood On The Floor – By The Numbers:

 

Greek Service: eliminated (4 positions)

Georgian Service: 4 positions cut (including 1 unfilled vacancy)

Cuts to broadcasts to Afghanistan (10 positions cut, 5 are vacant)

Albanian Service (3 positions cut, 1 is vacant) [Note: The Albanian Service just marked its 70th anniversary – perhaps one step closer  joining other services that have been cut.]

Eliminate front office personnel for Near East and Central Asia divisions (6 positions)

Cuts to Spanish to Latin America and Creole to Haiti (8 positions cut, between 6 and 9 vacancies

Urdu radio broadcasts: eliminated (4 positions)

Persian News Network (PNN): radio eliminated (4 positions)

 

And the main targets:

 

Worldwide English: 11 positions cut including 7 vacancies

VOA Central Newsroom: 24 positions cut, 20 which are vacant

 

We note a portion of comments made by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Michael Meehan as quoted in a press release dated April 10, 2013 regarding the FY2014 budget proposal:

 

“Some of these changes, if enacted, will be very difficult on the men and women involved…”

 

Part Three

 

We now come to the point where David Ensor, the Voice of America (VOA) director had a question-and-answer session with VOA Newsroom staff on regarding the impact of the FY2014 budget

.It doesn’t take a PhD to reach the conclusion that the proposed FY2014 budget is bad for the agency and particularly bad for the VOA Newsroom.  The promoters of the agency’s “flim flam, Soviet-style, dysfunctional and defunct strategic plan” – the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) senior staff – want the Newsroom to go away.  In the broader context, they want to undermine the VOA Charter and destroy the agency’s mission, plain and simple.  The talk of a “global news network” is pure fantasy.

No VOA Newsroom equates with no news.  No news equates with no reason to have this agency on the planet because it does not serve the mission which it is intended to purpose.

Thus, on April 10, 2013 came David Ensor to speak with the VOA Newsroom staff.

We’ve already detailed his presentation to the staff in Part Two.  Here we deal with portions of the Q and A session that followed.

Here is a representative sampling:

Question: Who weighed in on the decision-making process to make cuts to the Newsroom staff?

While offering the view that the cuts didn’t make sense, Mr. Ensor declined to discuss the deliberations that went into the Obama administration’s budget and would not parse it out for the staff.

Question: Was this from the White House or was it a VOA decision? 

Ensor again declined to answer the specific question saying that he wasn’t supposed to.  He did allow that there were “three players” involved (most likely agency representatives, and those of other Executive Branch entities) and all had influence in the budget decision process.

Question: Why are you saying that VOA has a bright future?

Here, Mr. Ensor goes into what we have described elsewhere as the agency’s numbers game: how they reshape audience research data and put a twist on that data to portray the agency making improvements in its audience.

For example, while staying with a figure of a total VOA audience of 135 million, he cites improved audience numbers in Latin America which he believed boost the weekly total to 150-million.

As we have said before, this is likely a mirage.  Based on sources and previous experiences with the agency in its numbers game, what the agency appears to be doing is using station audience projections where it has placed programs in Latin America and elsewhere and using these projections as its own.  For example, a station may claim an audience of 200-thousand but the audience’s recall for the specific VOA program may be little or none at all. The program may not even be identified as VOA’s. It may have to be non-political to be placed and must meet other conditions from an affiliate as to its content. It may not be a program at all but a one of two minute feature report.  In order to create the appearance that the IBB placement gambit is a full success, the IBB will claim the station’s audience number – a tactic which comes as no surprise. IBB is not measuring the impact of the placed report, nor does it want to.

[If this is the scenario that is playing out, one likely outcome is the actual audience for agency programs may be well below the 135-million figure used by Ensor.]

Mr. Ensor also makes note of the expansion by the Chinese broadcasting operation CCTV and the enormous fiscal commitment behind it, to the tune of $8-BILLION dollars.  Mr. Ensor opines that the Chinese are wasting their money because they don’t have an “attractive message.”  Here, Mr. Ensor may be indulging in some cultural or ideological snobbery.  The impressions he may have of CCTV may not be how others around the world see the CCTV programs.  It is in the mind of the beholder.  If nothing else, curiosity and an interest in getting some insight into the Chinese perspective may drive individuals to view CCTV content.

Similarly, Ensor believes, “We are the best bang for the buck.”  Again, the numbers don’t prove that out.  A message that is becoming more constricted by the day doesn’t bear this out.

The Tortoise or the Hare?

Ensor also claims, “We are not slow.  We have been nimble.”  Again, the reality doesn’t support what Mr. Ensor believes.  Regularly, we have been provided with agency emails showing that the Dalet production system repeatedly breaks down (perhaps in part because it is overtaxed).  Other emails show that hours can elapse before news items appear on agency websites.

[Note: See another sterling example of agency technical problems at the end of this piece.]

Later in his responses to questions, Mr. Ensor makes the assertion,

“…you guys are still the heart of the VOA and so you will remain.”

Unfortunately, this is not at all true.  Mr. Ensor may wish that it be so, but the IBB has other ideas.  IBB actions have made it clear that it has targeted the agency’s core broadcasts and audiences for elimination along with the VOA Newsroom.  They will be replaced by something else (the Internet being one example and one where the agency fares poorly) – or nothing at all.

For example, the agency is now recycling news wire service stories onto its websites.  The more it does this (with Reuters, Associated Press and others) the less need there will be for a VOA Newsroom and original content generated by VOA Newsroom staff.

Tastes Great! – Less Filling!  Newsroom Schizophrenia

Some Newsroom managers have opined that the Newsroom must do more “breaking news.”    Others want more in-depth stories.  This reflects the “schizophrenia” of an agency at cross purposes with itself: not finding its equilibrium and being whipsawed between two aspects of providing news and information.

In truth, the breaking news aspect is a lot of seemingly wasted effort.  The problem is, without Worldwide English being 24/7 on radio and the Newsroom being under-resourced for the conflicting demands placed upon it, this kind of coverage is dangling out of the agency’s reach and drifting ever further from it.

In addition, language services have staggered radio and/or TV broadcast times, as little as perhaps 30 minutes a day or twice a day – and for Mandarin Chinese, live radio news only comes once a day.  With these considerations in mind, it would serve the agency’s interests better to get stories right and not try to jump into the deep end of the “breaking news” pool without a broadcast schedule or the fiscal resources to support this kind of news coverage.

For now, the well-served “steady as we go” approach to providing news and information has been replaced by what we call “The Mad Hatter” approach – what Newsroom staff refer to as schizophrenia – no matter what they do, they’re almost always late (for that very important date, so to speak).

Another thing which Ensor doesn’t acknowledge – but the Newsroom staff is very familiar with – is the Office of Program Review (with its IBB acolytes) assessment of the Newsroom.  It wasn’t Newsroom-friendly, coming down squarely on breaking up the Newsroom regional “desks” and parsing them out to the agency’s language divisions.  It’s all part of the same IBB agenda – no more Newsroom.

More Bad News

Questions also arose as to the agency’s budget and the effect of sequestration.  As noted by Steve Redisch, the VOA executive editor, the overall agency FY2014 budget request is for $731-million dollars.  However, with sequestration, the agency budget drops to a projected $713-million.  As Redisch noted, “We don’t know where it is going to end up.”

Ensor then makes note that the budget proposal contains a provision for the creation of a “Chief Executive Officer,” another favorite of the IBB.  Ensor gives us some insight of the thinking on the Third Floor when he stated,

“…one full-time professional boss, not 9 part-timers, who hopefully will be hired on the basis of a resume that shows experience in journalism and media management…”

What we are really talking about here is this: the IBB wants that Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to be their CEO – a proverbial IBB puppet on a string – or maybe a Houdini: an illusionist.

From what we see and know of the IBB, this would be a very bad idea – putting someone in a position to be the “chief executioner” of US Government international broadcasting.

We know these IBB types very, very well.

We know how vicious they can be toward anyone who questions their agenda.

We know the consequences of their decisions and the negative impact on US Government international broadcasting:

Soft on Putin’s Russia and on Iran.

Soft on the international jihadist/terrorist movement.

Soft on delivering hard news to war-torn Afghanistan.

Cutting its primary broadcast medium (radio).

Creating a schizophrenic VOA Newsroom, setting it up to fail.

Targeting BBG members it doesn’t like.

Refusing to follow directives of the BBG.

Champions of “the worst organization in the Federal Government” and one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government.

And recently, a free promotional medium for the Vietnamese Communist Party!

Quite a list, generated by a group of individuals with apparent nefarious tendencies.

Before We Go:

We try to keep these commentaries and analyses short.  Honest!  But the problem is there are so many things just not working in the Cohen Building.  As promised earlier, here’s a technical one, as explained in a recent agency email

Agency Streaming Issues

IBB Notices Admin

Sent: Thursday, May 09, 2013 4:43 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
 

 

The Network Control Center (NCC) completed the transition to a new web streaming control and encoding system earlier this week.  The purpose of this transition is two-fold.  First, the new system utilizes a more advanced encoding platform which results in a higher-quality stream.  Second, the cutover to this new system will ultimately improve communication and provide a smoother hand-off to the Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI) system for publishing web-based audio and video content.

 

The initial expectation was for this process to be transparent to the end-user.  However, this effort resulted in some service interruptions on Wednesday evening and this morning due to some notification errors.  ODDI, in concert with the NCC Streaming Staff, has worked to restore proper notification between our systems and has manually published the missing program content.  At the same time, the NCC is experiencing a high failure rate for live shows.  Approximately one-third of the live shows have failed to process properly today.  We are working with the system vendor to get this repaired as quickly as possible.

 

We apologize for the inconvenience caused by this transition and appreciate your continued support in our efforts to improve the Agency’s web streaming distribution.

(Emphasis added)

Oooops!

As agency employees know, technical problems – including widespread ones – are an all-too-often occurrence.

It’s hard to be a “global news network” with a 30 percent failure rate on any given system, at any given, unpredictable and always inconvenient time.

(Coming Soon: Chess Moves)

 

The Federalist

May 2013

 

 

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