Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Scorched Earth – Part Three
Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Scorched Earth
Part Three: Employee Voices
by The Federalist
(Note: This is the third in a series concerning the Office of Program Review [OPR] assessment of the Voice of America [VOA] Newsroom.)
In late November 2012, the Office of Program Review presented its review of the Voice of America Central Newsroom (aka, the Newsroom) to staff and managers.
In the first part of this series, we focused on an overview of the Newsroom including remarks prior to the meeting by an OPR staffer and closing remarks to the meeting by David Ensor, the VOA director.
In the second part, we considered the management culture inside the agency and how it is reflected in some of the remarks by managers who attended the meeting and intended OPR outcomes.
This third segment turns our attention to the agency’s Newsroom employees.
In this, “the worst organization in the Federal Government,” one should not undervalue nor dismiss the personal courage and professional fortitude individual employees demonstrate in the face of an adversarial Third Floor or a negative group of acolytes for this hostile environment as one would find in the agency’s Office of Program Review.
(Note: Keep in mind that this hostile environment is intentional and is vigorously maintained at the direction of senior agency officials whose actions inhibit and intimidate worker productivity and present serious obstacles to mission effectiveness in support of the national and public interest.)
Some employees have spoken candidly to third parties like BBG Watch offering their observations as to what is being done to US Government international broadcasting generally and the Newsroom specifically.
More have shared emails talking about their Newsroom experiences on the condition of anonymity because of the agency management’s known reputation for being vindictive and retaliatory.
Finally, and by no measure the least, some have stepped up and spoken out directly in the OPR Central Newsroom meeting.
Sonja Pace is in charge of the Newsroom. She distributed an email summary of the OPR meeting (“Central Program Review Hilites,” November 28, 2012). We have examined the email and have pulled statements from it. The statements are in no particular order but are chosen to emphasize a series of points we believe to be important and perhaps even decisive in the fate planned by senior agency officials for the VOA Newsroom. These statements also reflect broad consensus among the Newsroom staff.
Ms. Pace notes the following:
“Supervising Editor Don Benson disputed the notion that language services do not need Central to cover the news, citing the many calls he gets on the evening shift asking for Central News stories. Don also noted his months on a recent detail to the East Asia Division showed that programmers need coverage of breaking news. Michael Collins (who spent 6 months in the Africa Division and is now on detail in the South Asia Division) agreed…”
This is a theme that is often reprised among the Newsroom staff. It is a core issue: the coverage of “breaking news” and the overarching issue spoken to previously, that of providing the language services with top news stories from around the globe. The Newsroom does what it is supposed to do: cover the big picture for a global audience. In turn, the language services are freed up to do more regional and local focus in additional news items or feature segments.
Mr. Benson and others mentioned here are veteran Newsroom professionals. They know what they are talking about. They are known by reputation and by the quality of their work, sometimes at great personal or physical peril. Their observations directly support what we have noted: the language services are under-resourced (understaffed). They need support from the Central Newsroom to lighten the load for them, part of the symbiosis that has existed between the Newsroom and the language services for much of the VOA’s seventy years. The language services know who to go to when they need an assist in their news line-up or news coverage for their broadcasts or the coverage of breaking/developing news.
It is a system that works.
But our gang on the Third Floor and OPR want to break it.
(The answer is simple: they want to take US Government out of the business of international broadcasting, particularly serious and often breaking news. They are committed to dismantling the Newsroom and demolishing not only its effectiveness but that of the agency’s mission. The absence of breaking news and timely analysis of events equates with no audience. They know that accomplishing these goals is crucial to their plans for turning the agency into something not worth the time of day to you, me, the American taxpayer and 7-BILLION other global inhabitants. And keep in mind when something they break ends up not working, these same officials turn around and place blame on the employees.)
Back to the Pace email of November 28:
“Mark Snowiss, a newsroom writer, warned that moving the creative process out of the newsroom could “lobotomize the thinking process.” Andre de Nesnera agreed and said the newsroom would lose its worldview by moving desks out.”
Both Snowiss and de Nesnera hit the nail squarely on the head. Indeed, their phrasing may be an apt description of the agency as whole, not just the Newsroom, thanks to the scheming that goes on among Third Floor managers and finds expression in these OPR reviews or the agency’s notorious “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan.”
That’s the problem – these senior officials aren’t thinking. They aren’t thinking globally. They aren’t thinking strategically. They aren’t thinking about global realities including challenges and countermeasures by adversaries. They most certainly are not thinking about the VOA Charter.
If they are thinking at all, they are pandering to their self-interest (their bonus-mongering), how something benefits them, not the national or public interest.
In addition to employee pushback on the OPR assessment of the Newsroom – and the idea of “cherry-picking” the Newsroom regional desks and packing them off to the language divisions – Ms. Pace herself notes:
“I also spoke out strongly against any such move or any decentralization of the Newsroom.”
Ms. Pace’s statement speaks to the consequences of dismembering the Newsroom operation. Decentralization of the Newsroom operation is detrimental to the effectiveness of the agency’s mission. Even with her brittle relationship with her staff, she does not shy away from the obvious.
Another key official in this OPR meeting is Kelu Chao. Ms. Chao is the head of the Office of Program Review. Like Ms. Pace, she is a longtime agency employee, spending many years of service in the agency’s Mandarin (Chinese) Service along with other postings. Clearly, Ms. Chao was aware of and sensitive to the contentiousness of this issue for the Newsroom staff. As Ms. Pace notes in her email:
“Kelu Chao summarized by praising the discussion but noted that what needs to be done will be directed by Central News.”
In essence, Ms. Chao is making it the Central Newsroom’s (Ms. Pace’s) call as to how this issue was to be handled.
In effect, this puts two management officials with key roles in the discussion on the opposite side of the OPR staffers and their “review.”
In the week following the OPR review, Ms. Pace met with the same OPR staffers in what appears to be a follow-up discussion of the proposed dismembering of the Newsroom’s regional desks.
Not long afterward, Newsroom employees report that Ms. Pace showed up one morning with boxes of cupcakes. She is reported to have stated that, “We have dodged a bullet,” apparently a reference to the meeting with the OPR staffers. Seemingly, the attempt at Newsroom dismemberment had been beaten back – a good thing for the Newsroom and the agency’s mission.
However, the celebration appears to have been premature.
In the scheming fashion of people who don’t get their way (and put their way ahead of the best interests of the agency’s mission), the OPR acolytes did an end-around both Pace and Chao, appealing directly to Steve Redisch, the VOA Executive Editor. Instead of supporting Chao and Pace and respecting their professional judgment, institutional memory and expertise, Redisch (one of the outsiders from CNN) backed the OPR staffers.
That supposed “dodged bullet” ricocheted off the desk of Redisch and hit Pace squarely between the eyes.
This left her with the dubious task of telling Newsroom staff that the agency would do a “test” of the regional desk dismemberment by packing off the Africa Desk in the Newsroom to the Africa Division.
As veteran hands of the agency know, these “tests” end up becoming permanent.
Those cupcakes must have appeared mighty stale and symbolic of the loss of power and authority of the Newsroom to maintain best journalistic practices in pursuit of the principles of the VOA Charter.
Worse than that, Redisch and his acolytes have discredited Chao and humiliated Pace, demonstrating that the hostile work environment created by the IBB includes managers as well as employees.
In the hostile and sometimes misogynistic environment reveled in by the Third Floor of the Cohen Building, it is business as usual.
Remember those quotable quotes from David Ensor, the VOA director, in one of his first meetings with the Newsroom staff:
“Blood on the floor.”
“No turning back.”
There is no missing the meaning of what is taking place. Redisch and others clearly intend to put the Newsroom in a no-win situation, as much for Ms. Pace as for the rest of the staff.
It is unfortunate that Ms. Pace is not in a position to advocate effectively for her group of agency employees – perhaps in part the price one pays for disaffecting the staff with a “sharp elbows” approach in dealing with her staff (and also practiced by some of her subordinates).
As is clear in this matter, trying to carry out the agency’s mission buys you nothing. Not your years of service. Not your expertise and knowledge of the organization. Whether Ms. Pace, Ms. Chao or Newsroom staff, as far as the Third Floor is concerned, your commitment to using your skill sets for the betterment of the agency’s mission represents –
It’s your “blood on the floor” and if Redisch and others have their way, there will be more.
(You are dealing with “demolitions experts,” kind of like the Taliban blowing up ancient artifacts in Afghanistan. It’s the same mindset.)
Redisch and others seem to believe that by destroying the Newsroom you destroy its legacy. Not so. It makes the legacy even more potent because what replaces it has not nearly the same worth, value or potency. Look at the precipitous decline in audience numbers for the agency as a whole. The decline in the agency’s audiences speaks volumes to the effect of what Redisch and other Third Floor “demolitions experts” are doing.
There is no silver lining in Redisch siding with some minor OPR functionaries over the head of the Newsroom and a staff of veteran broadcasters and correspondents who have some heavy duty throw weight in personal and professional credibility. It’s an insult, plain and simple. But then again, we consider where it’s coming from.
(The senior analyst for a not-too-friendly government would see this as the process of implosion well underway inside the Cohen Building: senior officials intentionally undermining mission effectiveness and bullying a core agency constituency.)
Next: Taking the Office of Program Review staffers to the woodshed.
(Note: Breaking News – The results of the 2012 Federal employee survey are in and once again the BBG/IBB is at rock bottom maintaining its position as “the worst organization in the Federal Government.” No one should be surprised by this. The Third Floor is doing what you would expect from any rogue regime: fighting to the bitter end. So be it. You can be assured that the survey results are on The Federalist’s radar and will be the subject of future commentaries, following the series on the VOA Newsroom.)