New VOA director threatened to resign in an apparent dispute with the BBG
In a meeting with staff of Voice of America’s Central News Division, new director David Ensor told VOA employees that within the first five weeks on the job he had already threatened to quit once.
“I really am going to try and consolidate us with the others in every way we can, end “duplication” and go forward and leave it in a better shape than it is today. But I have to be able to quit in anger.”
Ensor told the Central News Division employees that there will be painful cuts, including layoffs under a restructuring plan that the Broadcasting Board of Governors wants to implement. Ensor did not go into details about a proposed RIF (Reduction in Force)but said “I’m going to fight like hell” to minimize cuts, adding that “in national security we’re [VOA] a cheap date”.
He also pledged to defend VOA specifically against cuts he said would weaken the organization, which he and other officials say will retain its “brand” and be the core of a radical restructuring that will focus news gathering coordination in a new VOA-led coverage operation in Washington.
BBG chairman Walter Isaacson is directing an effort to create a new Global News Network. The plan calls for combining radio, television and Internet news gathering and targeting key audiences around the world, particularly in areas of the most urgent national security interests.
We doubt that this effort will actually eliminate waste or reduce duplication, especially on the executive and administrative side, which is what the BBG executive staff cares most about.
Keep in mind that some of the BBG executives and many of their friends and associates have close connections to the surrogate broadcasters. Some of them move back and forth between federal BBG jobs and highly-paid executive positions at the surrogate broadcasters, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries, retirement benefits and other perks. The idea of eliminating these jobs at the semi-private BBG entities is a non-starter. We can safely say that their future is secure.
David Ensor and VOA employees, on the other, have good reasons to fear about the future health of their organization. They have no allies on the Board or among the BBG executive staff. Journalists, especially those specializing in human rights-oriented reporting to countries like China, will be the first to lose their jobs if the BBG executives have their way.
We don’t know why David Ensor threatened to resign within the first five weeks of being VOA director. He did say that he had asked VOA’s China Branch staff to come up with a plan for expanded satellite television programming. He also said that he will try to sell this plan to Congress.
But the BBG had proposed that all VOA Mandarin and Cantonese radio and TV broadcasts should end on October 1, which happens to be the anniversary of the founding of communist China — a little fact we like to stress to point out the incompetence of BBG executives. (They also picked Valentine’s Day to tell VOA Chinese Branch employees that 45 of them will be soon laid off.) Ensor’s announcement about expanding VOA television programming to China contradicts the current BBG proposal to end all VOA Chinese TV broadcasts.
Responding to one employee who asked why the BBG was “wedded” to Alhurra television which “had little credibility in the Middle East”, Ensor said “there is obviously a problem, you’re right it is not very effective.”
He said that additional language services at VOA, as well as Radio Free Asia will be eliminated or severely cut back. “Believe me, there is blood on the floor after this discussion of the last few weeks, and it’s not only ours.”
At the same time, Ensor told employees he would personally fight to keep VOA strong and will oppose steps “asking us to do something that would be really bad for VOA. . .”
Why do we think Ensor is likely to lose in any confrontation with the BBG?
Here is our take on the situation:
Ensor was hired by the BBG, which manages all U.S. civilian international broadcasters, including the Voice of America, a government entity, and a number of semi-private entities such as Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa for the Middle East, Radio and Television Marti for Cuba, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
We mention the so-called surrogate entities because Ensor has an impossible task of defending VOA against cuts that are supported by individual BBG members, their executive director and his staff.
The majority of BBG members sit on the board of directors of one of the semi-private entities. When it comes to cuts, there is no way the majority will favor VOA over the surrogate broadcasters. In the past, they have done everything to strip VOA of broadcasting capabilities while building up and preserving those of the semi-private entities.
One very effective strategy designed by previous BBG members with the help of the executive staff is to take broadcasting capabilities away from VOA under the pretext of expanding Internet outreach, while the surrogate entities keep their broadcasting capabilities and expand their Internet and social media outreach at the same time. Their future is therefore secure because they are the only ones left with radio and TV broadcasts.
This is how VOA Arabic Service was completely eliminated and VOA Russian Service lost its radio and television programs.
There is no way Ensor can win. The best he can do is to limit the damage.
There is also no way the BBG will consolidate and reform itself.
The BBG and the executive staff never talk of duplication in terms of multiple brand names, multiple executive positions, multiple administrative staffs or multiple buildings, including expensive overseas locations in Prague and Dubai. The talk of consolidation has always come down to removing one or several programming capabilities from VOA. TV and radio broadcasts are always at the top of the list.
Because anybody can have a website for very little money, but a surrogate entity with the only broadcasting capabilities to a given high-priority country is not likely to be eliminated.
Why do you think Jeff Trimble and his staff came up with the idea of silencing VOA in China prior to the consolidation plan being unveiled by the BBG?
The BBG executive director Jeff Trimble comes from RFE/RL as does BBG member S. Enders Wimbush, who also as Chair of the Board of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. (Alhurra and Radio Sawa).
Trimble and several of the previous BBG members engineered the shut down of VOA Russian broadcasts. Trimble and Wimbush were, according to our sources, most directly involved in coming up with the plan to take Chinese radio and TV broadcasting away from VOA.
If VOA programs are cut to help one surrogate broadcaster survive — RFA — other surrogate broadcasters benefit as well. There will always be a majority of board members wanting to save their entities at the expense of VOA.
Here is a list of other members and their positions with the surrogate broadcasters.
Dennis Mulhaupt is the Chair of the Board of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Michael P. Meehan serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Radio Free Asia.
Walter Isaacson, BBG Chairman, serves as an ex-officio member of all Board committees.
Victor H. Ashe is Chair of the Board of Radio Free Asia.
Don’t forget that Michael Meehan, possibly other BBG members, and BBG executives were behind the effort to censor the VOA Horn of Africa Service news and to transfer the service chief because the staff refused to accept the BBG plan to make their broadcasts more acceptable to the Ethiopian regime so that it would allow local placement of VOA health programs pushed by several BBG members. They backed off a little after the largest anti-censorship demonstration in VOA’s history (photo).
As we said before, each BBG member can do what he or she wants — there is no transparency or accountability, as Senator Coburn pointed out. There are eight separate CEOs running the show.
We really wish you luck David. But as we see it, only Congress can save VOA broadcasts to China and force the BBG to reform. You should work closely with members of Congress who are now trying to save VOA broadcasting to China.
But be careful. You may threaten to resign but you can also be fired by the BBG like other former VOA directors. One of them was forced to resign for opposing the Board’s plans in his meetings with congressional staffers. You can also try making your case directly to the media. You’re always welcome to blog with us (you don’t have to use your real name). Again, good luck!