With Andy Lack leaving BBG for NBC, Voice of America continues to hobble

BBG Watch Commentary

As news of the Andy Lack negotiations with NBC and his imminent departure as director and CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was breaking, taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) was delivering another example of the kind of mediocre coverage of a major event that has landed it in so much trouble and that Andy Lack was supposed to fix.

FOR LATEST DETAILS ABOUT ANDY LACK SEE: BBG Watch confirms Andy Lack leaving Broadcasting Board of Governors – EXCLUSIVE, BBG Watch, March 3, 2015

 
On Tuesday, VOA English News did not carry live, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress, providing only Twitter items (in a barely visible window on VOA’s English news front page) by its correspondents during the address in the House of Representatives chamber. Out of VOA’s 45 language services, only the VOA Persian Service may have carried the speech live.

In contrast, the BBC in London carried Netanyahu’s address from well before it began, including scenes of the Israeli leader shaking hands with lawmakers in advance of the controversial speech. BBC also prominently featured on its English language news website live text updates during the speech.

VOA and Kremlin’s Disinformation on Boris Nemtsov’s Murder Investigation

 
Some former and current VOA correspondents and managers, as well as academic experts, criticized Voice of America reporting over the weekend on the investigation into the murder last Friday of Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

Some Voice of America news reports devoted more attention and space to statements from Vladimir Markin of the Russian Investigative Committee charged by President Putin with solving Boris Nemtsov’s murder than even Russia’s RT media outlet controlled by the Kremlin did in some of its reporting and its pro-Putin commentary.

Many U.S. and European experts and some journalists saw Markin’s comments as propaganda and disinformation designed to divert attention from President Putin by spreading other theories about the murder. The Voice of America mentioned them twice in a VOA news report on Sunday and ended its report with extensive quotes from Markin, without directly challenging them, although the VOA report did include some general statements from Russian opposition activists.

In fact, VOA gave extensive play to Markin’s comments in at least two reports, more than even RT did. Those who commented on VOA’s coverage could not agree whether VOA sufficiently balanced these comments. Most said that VOA did not and helped to spread the Kremlin’s disinformation themes with its sloppy reporting. One former VOA English News correspondent and one current employee defended the report to some degree, saying there was sufficient balance provided by comments from the Russian opposition.

Other former and current VOA reporters and managers, especially those who are fluent in Russian, strongly criticized the report. They did not want to be identified by name.

Academic and other outside experts were the most critical as were some other former VOA English News and VOA Russian Service correspondents and managers.

“The Voice of America report on Sunday looks to me like an attempt of extreme over-compensation to be ‘objective,’ to the point of being a worthless narrative that provides neither context nor serves as a ‘Voice’ of America,” said J. Michael Waller, former Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.

J. MICHAEL WALLER: “The Voice of America report presents certain Russian government statements as indisputable facts, when those statements cannot be verified and are highly suspect. For example, the report states as fact, ‘police are hunting for those responsible for shooting Nemtsov.’ Do we really know that this is true? Here’s another: ‘Putin to oversee investigation.’ Is this really a fact, and if so, what is the context? Putin personally oversaw the investigations of the murders of several of his opponents, starting with Galina Starovoitova in 2003. What became of any of those investigations of the assassinations of his critics?
 
Putin calls the murder of Nemtsov a ‘provocation.’ Such a word is Sovietspeak to dismiss atrocities and deflect blame; it goes back decades.
 
VOA seems to accept Putin’s line that the assassination was intended to ‘provoke’ the situation in Russia, by offering a forum for Kremlin apologists to deflect blame to Ukraine or to Islamists.
 
VOA then quotes a Russian Investigative Committee chief to reinforce the line that Nemtsov was a ‘sacrificial victim,’ implying that he was either murdered by Islamists or by his friends in Ukraine, and apparently dismissing the idea that Putin or Putin allies were responsible.
 
This is classical deflection, typical of old Soviet propaganda, and certainly nothing that VOA should be covering without seriously questioning the sources and the motivations.
 
In this sense, VOA is serving as a purveyor of Kremlin propaganda, which is contrary to its mission. Congress and independent analysts should study all VOA reporting on Russia to determine any patterns that might indicate consistencies that the VOA is being used to legitimize Kremlin propaganda themes.”

Paul Goble, one of the most knowledgeable U.S. experts on the Kremlin propaganda, had this observation:

PAUL GOBLE: “It is a bad piece. It isn’t even accurate: Moscow officials initially refused to allow the march and then backed down. 
 
This is what happens when balance is assumed to be the same thing as objectivity, an assumption that governs those who don’t want to be wrong rather than those who seek to be right.
 
I think it is more sloppy than pro-Russian but I would never have passed it.”

Robert Bidinotto, a journalist, former staff writer for Reader’s Digest and author of 2011 bestselling novel “Hunter,” had this observation about the Voice of America news report:

“The thing that bothers me about the [Voice of America report] is that in bending over to sound ‘neutral,’ it sounds like it accepts at face value the Putin Regime’s claims that they are leading an investigation.
 
They write, ‘Police are hunting for those responsible for shooting Nemtsov’ instead of:  Police say that they ‘are hunting for those responsible for shooting Nemtsov.’
 
And … ending with a statement from an apparatchik of the Regime makes the article seem to be leaning toward Moscow’s line.
 
However, in this case, they quote enough anti-Putin sources that I think the article wasn’t deliberately being pro-Kremlin, but merely trying so hard to sound ‘neutral’ that it seemed to swallow the Kremlin comments uncritically.”

Experts on disinformation describe such reporting as “political equidistance,” an attempt to appear “neutral.” The point of the entire Voice of America report is to appear “balanced.” But in this case VOA tries to appear balanced by actually practicing political equidistance, which may be perceived as a form of bias, especially if one side is engaged in disinformation and propaganda.

The most striking are sub-headlines actually inserted by VOA into the news report, such as:

“Putin to oversee investigation”

and

“Attempt at destabilization.”

The latter is definitely a major current theme of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign. Even more striking was ending the Voice of America report with long quotes from the Russian government’s apparatchik.

More on VOA and Netanyahu

 

Given the global attention to the event and its ramifications, it’s hard to identify a reason why VOA would not have wanted to carry it live, or produce original studio-based television programming for global simulcast.

Were the The White House or State Department involved in any way in pressuring VOA not to carry Netanyahu’s speech? It’s a perfectly valid question to ask.

But even without such pressure, this was yet another major Washington-based story on which users of VOA’s global websites made due with a single static story, while the BBC and other outlets carrying Netanyahu live, were seen to dominate.

And such news coverage failures were part of the background to efforts to bring Lack in to attempt to salvage the agency, which was described as “practically defunct” by former Secretary of State and likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

During a recent hearing, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) declared his intention to re-introduce legislation aimed at reforming the BBG. A House-passed bill failed to make it to a vote in the Senate.

###

Bold sub-headlines, “Putin to oversee investigation” “Attempt at destabilization and “Investigative committee” appeared in this form in the original VOA report.

Only photos, which appeared in the original VOA report, are not reproduced here.

VOA could have been more critical toward the figure of the march participants (16,000) given by the police by just analyzing the picture or videos of the demonstration which show that the participation was by far more numerous.

VOA also failed to put Nemtsov’s assassination in the context of other unexplained political murders in Putin’s Russia, such as those of Politkovskaya, Litvinenko and others.

Voice of America News Report

Russians Rally for Slain Opposition Leader

VOA News

Last updated on: March 01, 2015 10:40 AM [ET]

 
Thousands of people marched in central Moscow Sunday to mourn murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Many of the marchers carried placards saying, “I am not afraid,” in memory of the veteran liberal politician and vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin. 

Organizers said 70,000 people joined the tribute to Nemtsov, but Moscow police described the crowd as much smaller, about 16,000.

Some of the marchers, young and old, carried pictures of the 55-year-old Nemtsov, who was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin while he was walking home from a restaurant Friday night.

The crowd was largely somber, but they did chant slogans, including “never forget, never forgive,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Sunday.

Russian authorities, usually slow to give permission for large opposition rallies, gave quick approval for Sunday’s memorial march.  

Nemtsov was to have led an anti-war and anti-Putin rally in Moscow Sunday. Instead, the memorial was planned for the man whom U.S. President Barack Obama called a “tireless advocate” for the rights of the Russian people.
Police are hunting for those responsible for shooting Nemtsov four times from a car while he and a female companion crossed a bridge over the Moscow River Friday night, just steps from the Kremlin. The woman was not hurt.

Mourners have continued to leave hundreds of flowers at the site where Nemtsov was killed.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Deputy Oleksiy Goncharenko was detained at the demonstration and may be charged in connection with a fire last May at the Odessa trade union building that killed over 40, according to Interfax.

Putin to oversee investigation

 
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the shooting looks like a contract killing, and he called it a “provocation.” The Kremlin said he will personally oversee the investigation.

Authorities announced Sunday a reward of 3 million rubles for information about Nemtsov’s murder, according to Russian news agencies as reported by RFE/RL. 

Putin sent a condolence letter to Nemtsov’s mother, Dina Eidman, saying he sincerely shares her sorrow, and calling Nemtsov’s death an irreparable loss.

But just a few weeks ago, Nemtsov told the Russian news website Sobesednik he thought Putin wanted him dead, and he did not hold back his contempt for the Russian leader.

“I’m afraid Putin will kill me. I believe that he was the one who unleashed the war in Ukraine. I couldn’t dislike him more,” Nemtsov said.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko condemned Nemtsov’s murder, calling him a “bridge” between Ukraine and Russia.

Obama called the killing “brutal” murder, and said Russia must carry out a prompt and impartial investigation.
France’s President Francois Hollande expressed anger at Nemtsov’s death. He called the shooting a “hateful murder,” and described Nemtsov as a “defender of democracy.”

Attempt at destabilization

 
Russia’s Investigative Committee commented that it is possible the crime could be an attempt to destabilize the political situation. Spokesman Vladimir Markin said Saturday it also could be linked to Islamic extremism or the situation in Ukraine.

Putin’s opponents said such suggestions show the cynicism of Russia’s leaders as they whip up nationalism, hatred and anti-Western hysteria to rally support for his policies on Ukraine and deflect blame for an economic crisis.

“It is a blow to Russia. If political views are punished this way, then this country simply has no future,” Sergei Mitrokhin, an opposition leader, told Reuters of Nemtsov’s murder.

Some media outlets blamed the murder on nationalists, who have been accused of several assassinations, including that of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in 2009.

“I flatly deny any involvement of nationalists in these events,” Dmitry Dyomushkin, a leader of “The Russians” nationalist organization, told Reuters.

Nemtsov was a deputy prime minister in the 1990s, and many Russian observers predicted he would succeed then-President Boris Yeltsin.

After Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor, and Putin’s subsequent election in 2000, Nemtsov became one of Russia’s sharpest and most outspoken Putin critics, especially since last year’s uprising in Ukraine.
In September, Nemtsov told VOA that Putin wants revenge for Ukraine’s overthrow of its pro-Russian president.

He said Putin fears that what happened in Ukraine could happen in Russia, and sees a pro-European Ukraine as a threat to his own power.
Nemtsov’s funeral is likely to be held at Moscow’s Troyekurovsk Cemetery on Tuesday, RFE/RL reported.

Investigative committee

 
Vladimir Markin of the Russian Investigative Committee said, “Currently the investigation is looking into several lines of inquiry. First of all of course, it is the possibility that the murder could be a provocation to destabilize the political situation in Russia. And Nemtsov could become a sacrificial victim for those who would not stop before using any means to reach their political goals.”

“Also we are closely looking into a possibility that the murder could have links with Islamist extremism. The investigation has information that Nemtsov received threats linked to his position about the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris,” Markin added.

“Besides, we are already checking a line of inquiry linked to the events inside Ukraine. It is no secret that on both conflicting sides there are very radical individuals not controlled by any authorities,” he said.

Some material for this report came from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Reuters.

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