MAXIMUS HUBRIS / REASONABLE DOUBT, PART IV by AFGE Local 1812
The employee union at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812, continues a series of articles dealing with the senior executive staff’s plan to gut the Voice of America (VOA). In the newest article on its website, AFGE Local 1812 writes that “the plan involves cutting the heart out of the organization which would allow for the possibility of either splitting off or eliminating its multiple services. If this plan is implemented it will be a disaster for the VOA.”
by American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812
THE BATTLE TO JUST COVER THE NEWS
Employees report that VOA Director Ensor often spoke of a “smaller, leaner, more impactful” VOA. That is still the objective, but demoralized staff reported one elephant in the room.
Since 2010, actually even before Ensor came on board, journalists reported what they called an effort by senior managers to de-prioritize breaking news, which was increasingly labeled as “unoriginal” and of little use to language departments who supposedly could now handle their own breaking news coverage.
As detailed in a previous installment of this series, language units were less than fully prepared to handle additional burdens due to their own staffing, training and efficiency issues. As senior managers pressed for sharp reductions in breaking news coverage by Central News, including its traditional news writing functions, no system was developed to accurately track what news was falling through the cracks.
Playing out in VOA’s Central News Division, correspondents recalled receiving orders to supply stripped down material in which their own sense of breaking news events was no longer as important as video file footage or talking heads from Washington think tanks.
Journalists were directed to merely “monitor” significant news, not actually report on it under their own bylines and datelines, and pressured to provide what managers called more “contextual” elements in reports, including those on fast-breaking events.
Increasing pressure to feed what managers called growing demands from language offices for packaged TV reports, rather than breaking news, some of VOA’s best reporters spent hundreds of hours on assignments to produce so-called “video elements” to be fed into the system. At major television networks, this is still the job of producers, camera staff, or those working in Internet production departments.
“We would see colleagues from major news organizations, a few feet away, filing quickly on breaking stories,” said one journalist. “At the end of the day, our own managers prevented us from doing this.” Another recalled being told repeatedly by one newsroom manager to “just skip” breaking news reports.
Journalists reported that extra steps injected into the breaking news coverage process had the additional effect of preventing such reports from appearing anywhere on VOA’s main English language web site, and thus also on subsidiary sites of language offices.
The first seeds of this new approach, current and former journalists say, appear to have been planted several years before, when in the early stages of a reorganization of the news operation, managers signaled that breaking news would no longer be a priority.
When they responded at all to protests against this trend, managers claimed that VOA needed to “differentiate” itself from other media organizations. Debate was not welcomed. There was no discussion of how diluted content in video reports often amounted to, in the words of one former correspondent, “a journalistic embarrassment.”
In one email reviewed for this report, a correspondent complained that coverage of an important issue was “blocked at every turn” because of a series of questionable decisions by Central News managers who threw up roadblocks that prevented either a quick radio report or eventual final TV product.
“As we adjust to new mandates and demands and try to comply with them,” the reporter wrote, “we must not lose sight of our primary responsibility to report the news.”
“There is something wrong with the picture when basic reportorial instincts are muzzled,” another VOA journalist wrote at one point. “Consumers of VOA’s news products, on the air and on the Internet, are deprived of timely accounts by a still excellent civil service journalist corps reporting from locations where they are still doing what they can do best — quickly and accurately tell a story as or just after it occurs.”
A former VOA correspondent with knowledge of the developments, put it this way:
“That [timely, rapid correspondent reporting of breaking news] is what they want to kill off completely. VOA is pulling back from, or softening, its historical role as a deliverer of hard news on international affairs and US policy. The role of on-the scene VOA international correspondents and Washington “beat reporters” is also being reduced and their reporting replaced by less pointed news features.”
A postscript to this part of the larger story. In late 2012, a “program review” of VOA’s Central News Division (such annual reviews are done by a special office at VOA) identified a decrease in the number of stories produced.
The irony, say current and former journalists interviewed for this report, was that this was unmistakably a direct result of the very pressure managers exerted on reporters to reduce hard news filing in favor of more labor and time-intensive video products.
Employees report that the 2012 review was undertaken without consulting with any of VOA’s Washington-based bureaus, or reporting staff in VOA bureaus across the country. As one employee put it: “We’re forced to cut down on breaking news coverage, in the service of this grand new vision, and then strung up because of of the very reduction they ordered.”
A former senior correspondent described it this way: “They hack the newsroom to bits, do everything they can to suppress filing by the beat correspondents, and then complain that there’s not enough VOA-generated material to fill the website. This reminds me very much of the past scenario when they took away all our good program times and frequencies, and then complained that VOA English radio had no audience.”
Reasonable doubt is a legal concept in criminal trials. Accounts from current and former journalists make clear their concern about actions by the BBG and below it, by managers of the International Broadcasting Bureau.
As one put it: “This has been an effort under cover of unfortunate budget conditions to tear the spine out of VOA’s newsroom, and at worst make it indistinguishable from government propaganda.”
BBG and IBB actions raised concerns in Congress. The board ran into a buzz saw after intense pressure from activist employees. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) chastised the BBG for attempting to silence dissenting views of its own members with an internal resolution preventing anyone from speaking to Congress, or the media.
Lawmakers reacted sharply and put a temporary hold on BBG plans that included an effort to roll back the Smith-Mundt Act. A separate story, this is connected to the objective of creating the new “soft power” Global News Network (GNN).
Sharp responses from Capitol Hill showed there was little patience for rubber stamping decisions by one of the most opaque bodies in the federal government, accepting BBG arguments without sufficient examination, even in the busy 2012 election year with attention focused on political campaigns and the presidential election.
As journalists at Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau did in response to their being fired by a BBG appointee, employees throughout the agency who still face potential job loss are determined to raise legitimate questions and not be mute and motionless in the face of what they consider an onslaught by their own managers.
Writing about the Radio Liberty controversy in 2012, a former member of the BBG, Blanquita Cullum, spoke in The Washington Times of “a culture of arrogance, defiance and insubordination” at the International Broadcasting Bureau involving “threats, coercion and intimidation [used] against employees who dare to challenge its actions and conduct.”
Not surprisingly, she said, “this agency is ranked as the worst-run in the federal government, according to the annual Human Capital survey,” adding her voice to calls heard in recent years for congressional hearings into the BBG.
Another postscript demonstrates the degree of hubris of the BBG, and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials who serve under it. In January 2013, a report by the State Department Office of Inspector General described the BBG as “dysfunctional.” It singled out one member of the BBG — Victor Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland under George W. Bush and a former mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee — for having a disruptive influence in board proceedings.
But as many employees noted, it was Ashe more than any other board member who went out of his way to bring to light the serious morale and other problems in the agency. Staff in the BBG/VOA headquarters building interviewed on the matter, say it was a clear case of the State Department Inspector General being manipulated by the staff of the BBG, and by the staff of the IBB.
In a statement Ashe said: “It is most disappointing that the OIG report failed to identify a single area of waste at BBG/IBB with a $730 million a year budget. A budget that large has waste. The report failed to discuss the low morale situation at the Voice of America (VOA) and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) verified annually by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey, the plight of contract employees who are almost one third of VOA, the endless labor talks at IBB/VOA which have now endured for three years with no conclusion in sight.”
The American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812 at BBG, called the OIG report a clear “hatchet job” “We have never seen an OIG report that was so brazen in its attempt to besmirch a person’s character . . .” the AFGE commentary said, calling the report “a blatant attempt to shift responsibility from those within the bureaucracy who want, above all, to preserve their status and in our opinion to continue wreaking havoc on a once-great federal agency.”
Whether any congressional committee takes up the challenge of addressing both the dysfunction in the BBG, and the toxic situation generally in this most troubled of government agencies, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, employees at VOA and other BBG broadcast entities have been writing to their representatives, speaking out more loudly to demand that BBG/IBB actions are held up to an appropriate level of public scrutiny.