America’s Voice in the Digital Age

Voice of America Director David Ensor discusses broadcast institution’s efforts with SMPA’s Frank Sesno.

David Ensor
Voice of America Director David Ensor talks with SMPA's Frank Sesno at GW.
January 28, 2015
When Voice of America Director David Ensor introduces himself to people in the United States, the response he gets is often one of bewilderment: “Voice of America? Never heard of it.”
That’s not surprising, Mr. Ensor said at the George Washington University on Tuesday, because VOA doesn’t broadcast within the United States. The government-funded institution does, however, provide programming in nearly 50 languages to more than 45 countries. It reaches more than 172 million people a week, Mr. Ensor said, calling it “what is probably one of the most influential news organizations in the world.”
Mr. Ensor oversees VOA’s efforts, armed with a career steeped in three decades of journalism. He’s worked at NPR and ABC. As a national security correspondent at CNN, he was a colleague of School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno, who invited him to campus to discuss how the VOA is operating in an increasingly globalized digital era and to answer questions from students interested in his career trajectory.
“What he is running is an incredibly complex organization that is part journalism, part media, part technology, part diplomacy and part United Nations because of all the nationalities and interests that he must deal with,” Mr. Sesno said.
The goal of VOA has been to create programs that transmit U.S. cultural values, news and policy objectives to other nations. Although the organization's content was originally sent through shortwave radio frequencies, its distribution now also occurs through television, Internet and social media.
It’s a large undertaking, and Mr. Ensor explained the organization runs on a budget “lower than the cost of two war planes.” VOA always reported American news fairly, he said, showing audiences the true face of issues from Watergate to Abu Ghraib.
“It is honest reporting because it is the law of the land,” Mr. Ensor said. “The VOA charter from President Ford tells us to provide consistently reliable and authoritative news that explains American cultures and values.”
He often balks at suggestions that VOA be used as the mouthpiece for political administrations. 
“There’s a word for that: propaganda,” he said. 
Mr. Ensor frequently quips that he has 45 different strategies for each of the places where VOA offers programming, and they come with their own slew of challenges. In China, it means circumventing “the great firewall” and broadcasting content online. On Iranian channels, a comic tells jokes in Farsi to communicate American humor and openness and to pull in younger demographics.
Getting the U.S. side of the news has become increasingly hard in Russia, Mr. Ensor continued, where VOA is working on digital strategies such as streaming video and interacting with audiences online. The organization also works around the clock to fact-check and provide clear evidence that counters inaccurate information disseminated by Vladimir Putin.
“The Kremlin is entitled to its own opinion, but not to its own facts,” Mr. Ensor said. 
Mr. Sesno asked what Mr. Ensor would focus on if VOA were given a larger budget. Mr. Ensor replied he would ramp up Russian-language programming, increase Turkish and Kurdish efforts to combat the threat of ISIS and add additional resources in Mandarin. He also shared that his hopes for VOA include explaining policy robustly and more thoroughly while also upholding its tradition of solid journalism.
“I want our journalism to be journalism…as balanced as possible and as objective as possible,” he said.