Another no rebuttal Voice of America column attacking Netanyahu

BBG Watch Commentary

U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA), overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency in Washington, posted online another opinion piece attacking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without publishing at the same time any rebuttals or presenting in the same space countervailing U.S. opinions in defense of Netanyahu. The author was Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com. Her exact relationship with the Voice of America is not clearly explained for foreign audiences by VOA or BBG.

Such personal columns attacking a foreign leader have not been posted on the Voice of America website until recently. As far as we could determine, Voice of America has not posted a personal column / opinion article criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in a similar manner. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be the only foreign leader who is the target of such exclusive critical columns on the Voice of America websites paid for by U.S. taxpayers. VOA executives apparently have not thought through what allowing unchallenged personal opinion columns on its websites means for what foreign audiences may think about this U.S. publicly funded media organization and what members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers may think about its adherence to the requirements of the VOA Charter for balance and objectivity.

The title of the article, “Bibi Win Promises More Friction With Washington,” may suggest that it is a news analysis, but the Voice of America management has long ago blurred any distinctions between news reports, correspondent reports, wire services reports as from Reuters, news analyses, and what now passes for “columns” or “opinion” articles. “Washington” may mean the White House, the State Department, the U.S. Congress or even Americans in general. Foreign audiences do not know whom the writer of this opinion article represents. Do U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. Government pay for it? If they do, should they also pay for an exclusive personal opinion article by a U.S. defender of Prime Minister Netanyahu? Should they also pay for a hit-piece journalism against President Obama’s foreign policy? Does the VOA Charter still apply to the Voice of America? Is anyone in charge of VOA editorial policies?

In terms of balance, we have not seen any similar VOA opinion article devoted entirely to the defense of Prime Minister Netanyahu or even a full presentation of his views in a single column. There was none posted next to the opinion article attacking him. Ironically, several months ago, there was a VOA correspondent report which included far more extensive presentation of arguments in defense of President Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his military invasion of eastern Ukraine (the justification given in a VOA report was the expansion of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe), compared to any defense we could find on VOA websites for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political decisions.

This week’s VOA opinion article by Barbara Slavin, whose exact relationship to VOA is still not clearly identified, continues her harsh criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu. In it she stated that “Netanyahu’s inability to achieve peace with the Palestinians and his dark vision of an Israel in perpetual peril — belied by the country’s military and economic might — turns off many Americans, including a younger generation of Jews that worries more about Israeli settlement policies than the threat from Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.”

In her most recent article Barbara Slavin also made a claim along racial and ethnic lines: “In a few decades, a plurality, if not a majority, of Americans will be people of color and of Hispanic background with scant historical or emotional ties to the Jewish state.” “To retain long-term American backing, Israel needs leaders who can uphold their country’s security, but also reach out to new constituencies with a vision of a strong and democratic Israel,” she added.

We would like to point out that a vast majority of Americans currently have scant historical or emotional ties to the Jewish state, and yet many Americans strongly identify with the tragic history of the Jewish people and current threats to Israel. Americans also identify with Israel’s democratic system, which she does not dispute.

To her credit, Barbara Slavin also wrote: “Americans have admired Israeli courage in fending off Arab attacks and ingenuity in making the desert bloom. Israel has become a hub for high-tech innovation and has absorbed waves of immigrants from a kaleidoscope of nations.” Barbara Slavin’s opinion articles usually have a few positive sentences about Israel, but they are not neutral. They are pro-Palestinian, pro-U.S. rapprochement with Iran, and strongly anti-Netanyahu. In our view, they paint a misleading picture of the Middle East by implying equivalence between Israel and its neighbors in terms of security threats and human rights abuses where there is no such equivalence.

What matters most in our view is that Americans look at Israel and compare it with appalling human rights conditions among its neighbors. They read and see media reports about terrorists who want to destroy the Jewish state and are murdering not only innocent Jews but also innocent Muslims and Christians in the region. To imply that people of color or Hispanics, who like Jews have also experienced oppression and discrimination, are somehow different and would not share the same view of the Jews and Israel as many Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds do now is, in our view, disturbing when presented by the Voice of America to the entire world without any questions asked.

It is true that racial, ethnic and religious composition of the United States is changing. These changes, however, including changes in views among American Jews may not be as simple as Barbara Slavin implies. There is a problem with how foreign audiences may start to view the United States if VOA keeps posting such personal opinion columns without allowing for opposing opinions to be presented at the same time.

In one of her previous columns “Some Exploiting France’s Tragedy,” also posted on the VOA website, Barbara Slavin wrote “While Israelis have certainly suffered grievously from terrorist attacks, there was something unseemly about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to milk the Paris tragedy to try to boost European support for Israel and encourage European emigration to the Jewish state.”

We noted that Barbara Slavin did not use “unseemly” or any similar term when she wrote about “young Muslims and converts to Islam” who were “radicalized by personal disappointments and association with radical imams” finding “pretexts” in U.S. actions and policies “to embrace jihadist ideology.” She used the word “pretexts,” but she did not describe them as “unseemly.” She blamed their behavior on “nihilism,” avoiding the “terrorist” label. At least to us, there appears to be a double standard in how Netanyahu and terrorists are described and judged in her articles.

However, Barbara Slavin is entitled to her opinions. The key issue is how she is identified and how her views are presented on Voice of America websites.
 

VOA Website Visitor Comments

 
A visitor to the VOA website who identified himself as “John from Georgia,” posted this comment under Barbara Slavin’s column on January 12, 2015, 8:57 PM.

“Excuse me for asking this, but when something appears as a ‘column’ on VOA, does it mean the reader should assume this is in whole or in part the opinion of the United States government, which my taxes go to support? I don’t see any sort of disclaimer noting that this is the opinion of this writer. Pretty shoddy of VOA to put stuff like this up on its site. VOA has some really questionable practices these days.”

 

A Column? An Opinion? On Whose Behalf?

 
After BBG Watch had pointed out that under the VOA Charter and the VOA Journalistic Code, controversial opinions must be both balanced and clearly attributed, Voice of America management changed the intro to the title of some of Barabara Slavin’s commentaries from “Column” to “Opinion” and added to some of them a disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Voice of America.”

A disclaimer, which did not originally appear under Barbara Slavin’s “Some Exploiting France’s Tragedy” column, was added later and the word “Column” was later changed to “Opinion.” These issues of murky identification of her role at the Voice of America is not a problem of her doing, but it is a problem for which the senior management at VOA is responsible.

To our knowledge, VOA management has not made arrangements for posting exclusive columns or opinion articles by any outside experts who would defend Prime Minister Netanyahu or strongly criticize the Obama Administration’s positions on nuclear negotiations with Iran.
 

Monopoly for Personal Commentary on Iran

 
While VOA reports on Republican congressional criticism of the Obama Administration policies in the Middle East, Barbara Slavin appears to have a near monopoly on having her controversial views in support of the White House and highly critical views of Israel presented in exclusive columns on the Voice of America websites.

For reasons not explained to anyone, she also seems to have a near monopoly on VOA columns or opinion articles about Iran as if there were no other American experts on Iran with different views.

In other words, U.S. taxpayers are paying for posting her opinions in support of President Obama’s policies and her criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu, but the Voice of America management does not consider it important to reflect in a similar manner (exclusive columns) the views of many Americans who strongly support the Israeli leader and view the Iranian regime with great suspicion.
 

VOA Charter and Journalistic Code

 
We are strong supporters of journalism that seeks to find and to reflect controversy without taking sides, but always exposing any inaccuracies and dishonesty. We want to make it clear that we are not at all opposed to Barbara Slavin expressing her own views in VOA programs, as long as any of her controversial positions on Middle East and U.S. politics can be easily challenged and balanced in the same program or on the same web page. If it were up to us, we would have controversial views such as hers presented in a different program format, one in which they could be challenged if necessary, and we would definitely also include better known U.S. experts expressing a variety of opinions.

The VOA Charter clearly states what the Voice of America’s role should be in exchange for being funded by U.S. taxpayers. It requires and encourages objective and comprehensive news reporting and analysis while making sure that U.S. policies are clearly presented, but also criticized when such criticism exists.

“VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”
 
“VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
 
“VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” (VOA Charter – Public Law 94-350)

In addition, the VOA Journalistic Code states:

“VOA is alert to, and rejects, efforts by special interest groups, foreign or domestic, to use its broadcasts as a platform for their own views. This applies to all programs and program segments, including opinion or press roundups, programs discussing letters, listener comments, or call-in shows. In the case of call-ins, views of a single party must be challenged by the interviewer if alternative opinions are unrepresented.”
 
“Whenever VOA reports a charge or accusation made by an individual or a group against another, or presents one side of a controversial issue, a response and/or balancing information will be included in the first use of a news item or feature containing that material.” (VOA Journalistic Code)

 

A Need for A Rebuttal or Discussion

 
We believe that at the very least some of Barbara Slavin’s views expressed in VOA “columns” call for a rebuttal or at least a discussion on the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America website.

“…there was something unseemly about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to milk the Paris tragedy to try to boost European support for Israel and encourage European emigration to the Jewish state.”

“Netanyahu’s inability to achieve peace with the Palestinians and his dark vision of an Israel in perpetual peril — belied by the country’s military and economic might — turns off many Americans, including a younger generation of Jews that worries more about Israeli settlement policies than the threat from Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.”

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, the egregious behavior of some Americans at the Abu Ghraib prison, the war in Syria and the public diplomacy debacle of detentions at Guantanamo Bay will continue to provide pretexts for other young Muslims and converts to Islam to embrace jihadist ideology.

Netanyahu suggested an equivalence between France and Israel that does not exist, given Israel’s nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and continued control over Gaza, where a war last summer killed a disproportionately large number of Palestinian civilians.

We are not saying that there is absolutely no merit or some truth to some of Barbara Slavin’s views. But many of them are controversial and require more probing, more context, and an explanation as to how reflective they are of what most Americans stand for and where exactly they can be placed in the entire spectrum of American opinions.
 

VOA Contributes to Confusion Abroad

 
There is another issue with posting such opinions without a proper explanation, balance and/or rebuttal. Foreign audiences, and especially leaders in countries like Iran, can get an entirely wrong impression of how the American political system works, what most Americans stand for, and what most Americans really think about Israel and Iran.

In the past, one of the most important goals of the Voice of America was to dispel any confusion abroad, especially among nuclear states and America’s adversaries, about the United States as a democratic nation, while at the same time making sure that U.S. policies and U.S. intentions are clearly reported on, explained and any debate about them accurately presented.

Our concerns have nothing to do with Barbara Slavin or her views. She should be able to express them, also in VOA programs if VOA editors consider them significant or representative of a larger trend of opinions, as long as her relationship to VOA is properly identified and her views are properly balanced. Views such as the ones Barbara Slavin holds should not be ignored if they are indeed an important part of the American political discourse. They should be presented to foreign audiences for what they are.

But it seems to us that the senior management of the Voice of America has failed to uphold the VOA Charter and the VOA Journalistic Code by not clearly explaining her role within the organization, and not arranging for balance and rebuttals to some of her most controversial views and accusations. This editorial deficiency is not her fault; this is the fault of those who are in charge of the Voice of America.

Barbara Slavin should be identified as either a Voice of America staff or contract reporter (her photo on the VOA website is misleadingly captioned “Barbara Slavin Reports), a Voice of America staff or contract commentator, an independent paid outside commentator, or an independent unpaid outside commentator, or by whatever title or role she has within the organization. In our view, one should also question the advisability of Voice of America posting exclusive personal columns on its website rather than reporting on such views or conducting interviews with prominent independent experts and government officials whose controversial statements and accusations could be immediately challenged by VOA reporters or outside experts.

If Barbara Slavin’s “Columns,” “Opinions” and other articles are not presented in the proper historical and political context, lack sufficient balance, do not include rebuttals to accusations and are not otherwise challenged when they ought to be, foreign audiences, including leaders in such countries as Iran — a potential nuclear power — may be getting a misleading view of America, which could be very dangerous, both in the short run and in the long run. This could also be bad for any negotiations the United States may be conducting with hostile and dangerous regimes. The Broadcasting Board of Governors should step in and demand immediate management and editorial reforms at the Voice of America.

 
 
 

Voice of America

 
VOA Logo 300
 

OPINION: Bibi Win Promises More Friction With Washington – EXCERPTS

 

Barbara Slavin

March 19, 2015 12:37 PM

SEE FULL TEXT HERE.

 

Barbara Slavin
 
Barbara Slavin Reports on VOABarbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America. 

 
 

Voice of America

 
VOA Logo 300
 

Opinion: Some Exploiting France’s Tragedy

 

Barbara Slavin

 

January 12, 2015 11:23 AM

SEE FULL TEXT HERE.

 
Barbara Slavin
 
Barbara Slavin Reports on VOABarbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America. 

 
 

VOA CHARTER

 

 
 

VOA JOURNALISTIC CODE

 
 

 
 

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