BBG – USAGM Commentary
Various niche media outlets were reporting last week on new serious allegations against the leadership and some of the journalistic staff at the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s (USAGM) Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). It was reported previously that in some cases these two U.S. taxpayer-funded information outreach entities for foreign audiences have also propagandized to Americans and illegally targeted American citizens with Facebook ads. New allegations describe highly questionable pre-VOA employment work by a current VOA Russian Service and Current Time TV broadcaster, biased and unprofessional behavior, and charges that USAGM management has used dishonest audience research methods to greatly inflate the agency’s audience reach in order to mislead the Congress and U.S. taxpayers who fund USAGM’s $685.2 million budget (FY2018 request).
One allegation, which describes past pre-employement professional activities of a VOA journalist but could conceivably have impact on current VOA and RFE/RL programming in Russian, was reported by Belsat TV, a dissident satellite television channel and news website run by Belorussian expatriates and independent journalists in Belarus to counter propaganda of authoritarian regimes and promote democracy. Belsat TV, currently the only Belarusian language independent television channel, was formed in 2007 by a group of Belarusian and Polish journalists as part of Telewizja Polska S.A. in partnership with Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and several European governments and foundations. The channel was launched in cooperation with members of the Association of Belarusian Journalists – recipient of the prestigious Andrei Sakharov Human Rights Award of the European Parliament.
An article titled “Changing colour? Russian critic of US gets hired at Voice of America,” which appeared in Belorussian, Russian, Polish and English last week on the Belsat TV website disclosed that one of the current Voice of America Russian Service TV reporters/anchors “had a hand” in producing several years ago two Russian-language television programs which the article described as Russian “propaganda films about the United States.”
American journalists who have seen one the programs after the Belsat TV report appeared described it further to BBG – USAGM Watch as filled with anti-American propaganda, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theories. The Russian-language films were produced several years before the television journalist was hired recently by VOA. He had worked before for a pro-government television channel in Belarus and for Russia’s RTVI, Belsat TV reported. Belsat TV article said that “the former employee of pro-Lukashenka TV was also spotted in praising the then Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez,” as well as Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian President of Belarus since 1994.
The VOA Russian Service TV producer, reporter and anchor linked to the old Russian propaganda films critical of the United States now also appears in USAGM’s joint RFE/RL-VOA Current Time Russian-language television program. Current Time targets Russian speakers in post-Soviet states such as Belarus, which argues for the selection of journalistic talent not identified by the audience with authoritarian regimes or pro-regime and anti-Western propaganda.
Several Russian-speaking journalists and Russia experts who have seen the old program, which was reportedly produced in 2008, said that it presents strong anti-Semitic messages, including an insulting reference in Russian by one of the guest interviewees to an “old [offensive word] Jew” banker. The old Russian propaganda program can still be viewed in full on YouTube.
The Russian propaganda TV program attempted to show how the United States allegedly has tricked the rest of the world to accept the dollar as the primary international currency to make America rich at the expense of other nations. There are repeated allusions in the video of anti-Semitic nature, including a caricature of a Jewish man. BBG – USAGM Watch is not including a link to the film due to the offensive anti-Semitic content. It features, among other things, an anti-Semitic cartoon, which, in our view, should not be promoted in any fashion.
President Lincoln and other U.S. presidents are said in the propaganda film to have been assassinated because they had come in conflict with American bankers, one expert who viewed the video online told BBG – USAGM Watch. The old Russian TV propaganda video ends with a message that America has created a casino, in which no matter who goes there to play by using U.S dollars, the “house” always wins and the world has become the slave of the U.S. dollar.
Attempts to get a confirmation or a reaction from the USAGM and VOA leadership over the weekend to the Belsat TV report have produced no immediate responses.
Belsat TV reported that there were two propaganda films about “the American currency, which unfairly enslaved the world.” Belsat TV had no further comment on the content of the films. Current VOA Russian programs created by the reporter were not analyzed in the Belsat TV report. Belsat TV makes it clear that its article refers to past pre-VOA employment work by one of the new VOA Russian Service television reporters and anchors.
Current Scandals at USAGM
Actual anti-Semitic program content was discovered several months ago in one of USAGM’s other media outlets. Critics have accused USAGM CEO John F. Lansing and other agency executives of failing to prevent an anti-Semitic attack on American billionaire George Soros in a program by USAGM-managed Radio and TV Marti in the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB).
Lansing announced after the scandal was exposed that some of the TV Marti journalists responsible for the anti-Semitic attack were fired. He said that OCB “aired a blatantly anti-Semitic video segment about George Soros that was deeply offensive and wholly inconsistent with our professional standards and ethics.” “OCB should have never aired it,” Lansing added. Several former VOA and agency journalists and managers observed that under any other agency head or VOA director, a federal entity such as the Voice of America or Radio and TV Marti, which had a different director in charge, has never before experienced or been accused of similarly outrageous journalistic misconduct.
Lansing is ultimately responsible for OCB, VOA, RFE/RL and two other USAGM media entities. VOA director Amanda Bennett is only responsible for VOA programming and had no role in the OCB scandal, but she and Lansing, both of them Obama-era appointees, have come under severe criticism for failing to prevent journalistic misconduct for several years. Some VOA reporters continued posting on social media highly offensive anti-Trump memes despite Bennett’s order to conduct “anti-bias training” and Lansing’s assertion to NPR in February 2017 that the agency’s staff has “the greatest respect for the president.”
Both before and after the anti-bias training at the Voice of America and John Lansing’s statement to NPR, some VOA reporters continued to post offensive and in some cases obscene memes, including ones showing Donald Trump with a Nazi swastika and as a male sex organ.
Trump was also called a “pig” and other insulting names by a Hollywood actor in a one-sided political campaign video translated from English by a VOA foreign language service and posted by VOA on social media. The video was removed after it was exposed by outside critics. Some VOA reporters also recorded at work and streamed online a sex joke about First Lady Melania Trump. Some of the reporters, as well as their managers who should have prevented such conduct, are listed the Voice of America website as “VOA Experts” who are available to be consulted by outside media about American and world events.
While most of the obscene anti-Trump memes posted by VOA reporters in 2016-2017 have been removed by them after many months of remaining online, Helle C. Dale, the Heritage Foundation’s senior fellow in public diplomacy, reported last week in The Daily Signal Heritage Foundation blog that Voice of America’s Spanish-language website El Mundo al Dia, which on its March 5, 2019 edition promoted a story about Trump’s policy on Venezuela, played the sound of a snorting pig in the background to accompany a photo of the president.
The agency’s Public Relations Office provided an explanation, blaming it on a technical error, but a VOA Spanish Service staffer who complained was convinced it was allowed to happen.
USAGM PUBLIC RELATIONS OFFICE: “When USAGM and VOA leadership were notified of this incident, an investigation was conducted and found that it was a technical error resulting from a hot mic from a live shot in Venezuela in which a motorcycle drove by.”
BBG – USAGM Watch readers can judge for themselves by viewing the video and listening to the soundtrack whether the explanation is plausible.
— Ray Cruz (@RayCruzSantiago) March 6, 2019
“Regrettably, it was in no way an isolated incident at the Voice of America, where the president and first lady have been lampooned by staff before, both publicly and on the Facebook pages of employees,” Helle Dale wrote.
READ MORE: Helle C. Dale, “Swipe at Trump Shows Need to Clean House at VOA’s Parent Agency,” The Daily Signal, March 15, 2019.
Several former Voice of America journalists and broadcasters commented on the allegations in Helle Dale’s article which one of them had posted on the closed Voice of America Alumni page.
“Unbelievably appalling, outrageous, and unprofessional!!!,” a former VOA Russian Service Radio and television producer, host and manager wrote.
“It’s sad the way VOA has sunk, since Amanda came on board. Many changes,none positive!,” wrote another former VOA broadcaster.
“Close VOA down. It’s a disgrace and doesn’t reflect, American values,” wrote another former VOA Russian Service broadcaster who after he retired from the United States Information Agency (USIA) wrote a book about his radio and public diplomacy career.
Another former broadcaster identified the lack of effective leadership as the cause of the scandals:
What has happened to non-partisanship, one of the fundamental tenets of true journalism? I can’t believe how some posing as journalists have tarnished our legacy. Truly disgusting. Strong, no-nonsense, leadership would preclude this sort of travesty from occurring. That sort of thing would never have happened in our day. And I can say that without fear of contradiction.[We have made minor punctuation corrections in some of the quotes.]