NEWS DIVISION MANAGEMENT TACTICS SPEED LOSS OF TALENT
There is now truly blood on the floor, as Ensor warned VOA journalists in a meeting upon his arrival at VOA in 2011, after serving as head of public diplomacy at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
BBG and IBB management had long made clear that they would prefer older employees to simply leave, to clear the deck for younger hires, and make it easier to accomplish objectives of thoroughly transforming the government-funded broadcasting structure.
Veteran journalists, including those most familiar with the important journalistic principles and history of VOA's Central News operation, faced increasing pressure. In the past two years, among those departing were experienced journalists in key Washington and foreign bureaus, including some who warned against farming out news writing to those 43 separate newsrooms.
Employees who provided information for this story connected mounting frustration with mismanagement and other dysfunctions in the newsroom with the loss of some of the best talent in the organization.
In a note to staff, one veteran decried “forces of trivialization and pandering that have, sadly, become fixtures here” and wrote more bluntly in a separate communication:
“Many of the changes wrought here at VOA have, frankly, been not for the best, to put it kindly, and disastrous, to be more blunt. "Platforms" and performance have taken precedence over context and content of news stories. Marshall McLuhan was absolutely right: the medium has become the message. How a story is presented here is more important to management here than the content of the stories. That is not the kind of journalistic world in which I want to live and work. So, as I have the years in to do so, I am walking away.”
Employee emails from VOA’s Central News Division dating back to 2009, and conversations with current and former journalists, reveal common themes: a pattern of micromanagement, refusal by managers to listen to input from domestic and foreign bureaus, and complaints about a bloated management structure.
Frustrations were so intense, current and former employees report, that journalists in the Washington newsroom and domestic bureaus forced management to hold a meeting to discuss micromanagement, and what one called “a pattern of overbearing and insensitive tactics” by managers overseeing the TV assignment process. Some reported positive progress in one such meeting, which conferenced in VOA’s U.S. bureaus. Others said many of the same problems continued, with the current head of the newsroom oblivious to or encouraging questionable and counterproductive tactics by subordinates.
Employee input examined for this report also shows that over a period of years, there was intense frustration with the management and performance of VOA’s English language web site.
Emails document repeated efforts by journalists in VOA Washington and domestic and foreign bureaus to point out often egregious errors, including embarrassing and potentially damaging mistakes from a U.S. foreign policy perspective.
According to a U.S. government source, the issues were brought to the attention of the State Department Inspector General during an inspection of one of VOA’s news bureaus. A group of veteran journalists prepared an extensive report and presented details to top officials.
As far as we know, no higher management official ever responded formally to the concerns. A review of internal communications shows ongoing performance issues and complaints by journalists with VOA’s English web site continuing as of late 2012. VOA director Ensor has said nothing publicly about these issues.
LASTING EFFECTS OF A CONTROVERSIAL PERSONNEL DECISION
Employees report that poor morale was made markedly worse by a decision in 2010 to re-appoint the present newsroom director. A correspondent since the 1980’s, she had been reassigned from the position of news chief more than a decade earlier.
At that time, there was such a hostile environment in the workplace that dozens of employees in the unit signed a petition. According to the allegations in the petition, there was a pattern of mean-spirited acts” and “arbitrary and retaliatory actions that “undermined morale.” The petition also referred to a policy of “management by discouragement” that led to the departure of some of VOA's “most valuable and experienced employees.”
A copy of the petition and related documents reviewed for this report show a strong defense against the allegations and a vigorous debate, but in the end, the VOA director at that time (1999 to 2001) made a decision after a heated meeting with staff. The news director was reassigned a short time later.
Fast forward to 2010: An audio recording of a 2010 open meeting in VOA’s newsroom, and accounts by employees who were present, show that strong protests against the reappointment of the former news director were dismissed by VOA's Executive Editor a former CNN employee. In the recording of the session reviewed for this report, the Executive Editor rejected staff concerns, saying “you’re responsible for your own morale.”
Though he has known of the morale crisis in VOA’s Central News Division created by the 2010 decision, current VOA director Ensor has allowed this situation to continue.
A footnote: among emails reviewed for this report is an exchange between a management official and a former, now retired, VOA correspondent in which there was an acknowledgment that the decision to reappoint the current news director might turn out to be “boneheaded”.
Employees say the record in VOA’s newsroom since that management decision in 2010 speaks for itself. They say staff have been subjected to emotional distress and a hostile working environment, including “exiling” out of the news division individuals who expressed concerns, as well as favoritism and cronyism.