WASHINGTON >> When David Ensor announced last week that he was stepping down as the director of the Voice of America, critics saw the move as the latest sign of turmoil at the government agency that is charged with presenting America’s viewpoint to the world.
The resignation came just weeks after Andrew Lack, the first chief executive of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the VOA, left just 42 days into the job to take a post at NBCUniversal.
Lawmakers, foreign policy experts and former staff members say the Voice of America is floundering at the very moment when America needs to counter sophisticated propaganda machines that have expanded the influence of countries like China and Russia and terrorist groups like the Islamic State.
“We are getting our butts kicked,” said Glen Howard, the president of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Countries like Russia are running circles around us, and our international broadcasting is in disarray.”
Ensor, a former reporter for NPR, ABC News and CNN, was recruited in 2011 to transform the Voice of America’s Cold War-era operation into a state-of-the-art newsroom that some envisioned as a government-backed version of CNN.
But shrinking budgets, questions about the agency’s mission and a lack of oversight by the part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors limited Ensor’s ability to overhaul the agency, according to interviews with current and former officials and to numerous government audits. In addition, much of the agency’s programming is duplicated by other government broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, wasting money that Voice of America could use.
As a result, critics say, the agency has been slow to cover major breaking news and even slower to respond to the propaganda from other countries, particularly Russia. On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Russian propaganda and the U.S. government’s difficulty in responding effectively.
Some public policy experts and Voice of America officials say that the overarching problem is that Congress and the White House have not clearly defined the role of the agency in America’s public diplomacy.
“U.S. international broadcasting is not taken into account at any level of the government when strategy dealing with the national interest and foreign policy is being put together,” said S. Enders Wimbush, a former member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. “They give lip service to international broadcasting, but it’s an afterthought.”
A report Wimbush helped write, based on interviews with more than 30 public diplomacy experts, said government international broadcasting should be “rebuilt from the ground up,” so that it would be fully aligned with foreign policy objectives. The report was financed by the Smith Richardson Foundation, a Connecticut-based group that provides grants to conservative causes but also to centrist and liberal organizations like the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.
Founded in 1942 as a part of the Office of War Information, the Voice of America started with a goal of countering Nazi and Japanese propaganda. It was widely credited with helping to end the Cold War by providing unfiltered news to dissidents and countering communist propaganda in the Soviet Union and Soviet-backed countries.
But the agency has been in decline since that time, pulled between providing credible news and supporting U.S. policy. In 2013, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors was “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”
And in the Facebook and Twitter era, some have even asked if the Voice of America, whose budget is about $200 million a year, is still relevant.
Ensor pointed to a string of successes during his time at the agency. It has expanded its reach through social media and mobile and has created new television programming in Russian, Ukrainian, Persian, Mandarin, Burmese and Creole, among other languages.
According to survey data prepared for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America’s international radio, television and online audience has reached 172 million people a week, an increase of 49 million during his tenure.
“The VOA is keeping itself renewed and refreshed to face the challenges of today’s fast-changing media environment,” said Ensor, who also said that his resignation was not related to uncertainties at the board.
Obama administration officials said the Voice of America and its sister agencies were vital to the nation’s diplomatic efforts.
“Given the challenges we have on a number of different fronts from ISIS to Boko Haram, broadcasters like the VOA are an important piece of what we are trying to do across the government,” said Richard A. Stengel, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, who represents Secretary of State John Kerry on the board of governors. “We need to have as much as we can out there trying to blunt the messages of these groups.”
Despite the criticism and resignations, board officials said they were forging ahead with plans to move the Voice of America more aggressively into digital media and to step up its efforts to counter propaganda.
“There is a narrative out there that this agency is broken,” said Robert Bole, the director of global strategy for the board of governors. “I can assure you that it is not.”
Still, many lawmakers remain unconvinced. The House Budget Committee recommended reducing funding to the board and its networks until “significant reforms” were made.
And House lawmakers plan to reintroduce legislation that would revise the Voice of America’s charter to state explicitly that the agency has a role in supporting American “public diplomacy” and countering propaganda from other countries. The bill, which is opposed by journalists within the agency, passed the House last year, but the Senate did not take up the measure.
“Let’s fix the agency and create opportunities with the existing budget to get more resources to the field,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has legislative oversight of the Voice of America. “We don’t need to keep throwing more money at a bloated, ineffective bureaucracy.”