BBG Watch Commentary
An erotica Twitter feed linked to a Voice of America (VOA) broadcaster had VOA director and her deputy as followers. According to a VOA spokesperson, they deny ever seeing any offensive tweets from this account which has now been deleted.
Twitter account with multiple erotica tweets and retweets apparently belonging to a longtime Voice of America broadcaster was showing as followers VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara before it was deleted several days ago. The account disappeared shortly after complaints from VOA women journalists shared among themselves and with a few people outside the agency that many tweets in the employee’s Twitter feed were degrading toward women. An outside journalist sent an inquiry to board members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency in charge of VOA. Complaints were also shared with BBG CEO John Lansing and with Amanda Bennett, but again not by VOA women broadcasters but by an outside reporter who was informed about their complaints and made an inquiry.
The latest complaint from VOA women was apparently triggered by a recent tweet with a photo of a popular Hollywood actress. The tweet had a commentary: “Happy birthday to my favorite juicy little MILF.” MILF is an acronym referring to sex and a genre of pornography.
The account had multiple other tweets and retweets of similar nature, including photos of semi-naked women in erotic poses, one showing a woman’s underwear being removed.
In a response to an inquiry by an outside journalist, Voice of America’s Public Relations Office emailed a short statement asserting that VOA and BBG executives and managers who were listed as followers of the employee erotica Twitter account never saw any of the offensive tweets.
“Thank you for bringing the tweet to our attention. We have reviewed the matter and it has been dealt with according to our guidelines. Although VOA members appear on his account as followers, there is no guarantee – as with any Twitter account – that they would have seen this particular account’s tweets. No one that you mentioned in your email with whom I’ve spoken was aware of the tweet.
If you hear from other employees with complaints, please encourage them to bring issues directly to the attention of their manager, or another VOA manager, so issues can be dealt with directly and more quickly. And if you are aware of questionable social media content, please bring it to VOA’s attention so those cases can be dealt with as well.
Michelle D. Harris
Public Relations Officer
Voice of America”
Screenshots made before the account disappeared showed that it was established in May 2012 and had not just one but numerous erotica tweets and retweets. In addition to VOA Director and her deputy, it had VOA’s official Twitter account listed among its followers. Among the erotica Twitter feed listed followers were also accounts of at least two other senior BBG agency managers, one of them responsible for VOA’s digital outreach and another manager involved with the production of VOA television program with Greta Van Susteren, an unpaid volunteer who– as it should be noted–has absolutely nothing to do with managing VOA or any VOA management scandals, including the latest one. One of the more notable among over 3,000 non-agency followers of the VOA broadcaster’s now deleted Twitter account was “Jane Emery / Erotica.”
In the past, several VOA and BBG managers and management units followed for several years a Twitter account with questionable pro-Iran regime and anti-Trump content. That account was later declared to be fake, but having VOA and BBG follow it gave it legitimacy. VOA does not say that the erotica Twitter account was fake. It is therefore even more incredible that in light of the previous incident not even a manager responsible for VOA digital outreach would not check on Twitter alerts which may have highlighted questionable erotica content, but nothing in the agency which then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and herself BBG board member described in 2013 as “practically defunct” would surprise us in 2018.
The erotica Twitter account prominently showed the employee’s Voice of America program and had a link to VOA at the top of the page.
We were told that when asked by a friend why she was reluctant to complain directly to the BBG or VOA management, one of the VOA women journalists who found the Twitter account of a fellow employee highly offensive said that “some of us worry about reprisals.” She did not elaborate, but did not exclude the possibility that most BBG managers, even if they have Twitter accounts, don’t know how to use them and don’t even look at tweets. There’s a lot of ignorance within the organization, she told her colleagues.
We have to wonder, however, whether seeing the VOA Director and her deputy as followers of the erotica Twitter account or knowing of the Director’s public praise of at least one male manager who had been previously accused by women of abusive behavior contributed to the reluctance of VOA women to come forward with complaints addressed directly to the management. We were told that one woman employee seemed afraid to discuss the matter in more detail with her friends outside of the agency.
A comment from who appeared to be a now former employee alluding to being ostracized after making a complaint to a senior manager said: “If the big bosses stand up and applaud, you had better, too. If you report an abuse, an act of discrimination or any wrong-doing, you will be ostracized and viewed as a non-Team Player. As one going against the flow.”
Both BBG CEO John Lansing and VOA Director Amanda Bennett were warned by outside observers already in 2016 that some VOA reporters were posting highly partisan, biased, abusive and even obscene content, especially about Donald Trump, although they also included a one-sided commentary against Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ supporters accused VOA of “state media bias” against their favorite candidate for U.S. presidency. These other social media posts and VOA reports were not related to the broadcaster linked with the latest erotica Twitter incident.
Public ridiculing of the U.S. President and his family by some employees, unprecedented in VOA’s history, continued into 2018 among a few VOA reporters despite a guidance issued by Bennett on unacceptable social media postings. Bennett told the staff on November 14, 2017: “Voice of America has zero tolerance for public or personal racist, sexist, or politically biased social media communications. Our policies make it very clear that such behavior is prohibited. We are investigating these reports as quickly as possible and will respond accordingly.” On November 22, 2017, a share on a VOA reporter’s personal but public Facebook account still showed a video posted earlier with highly demeaning and partially obscene content about President Trump.
Ironically, while VOA employees seemed reluctant or afraid to complain about Left-wing bias and abusive social media posts by fellow employees, a group of anonymous BBG officials who described themselves as “whistleblowers” had no such fears and managed to convince some liberal media outlets and one Democratic congressman that the Trump administration was trying to politicize VOA and stage a Right-wing “coup.” In reality, the opposite is true. The agency has been allowed to become politicized and made partisan to an unprecedented degree under the current watch of Obama era holdover officials. The Trump White House has shown remarkably little interest in VOA or BBG and, to our knowledge, has not interfered at all with program content. So far, President Trump has not submitted for Senate confirmation his candidate to replace John Lansing as BBG CEO.
John Lansing said a February 2017 interview with NPR that “we have the greatest respect for whoever is president,” despite numerous instances of insulting program content including one VOA video versioned into a foreign language in which Donald Trump was called by a Hollywood actor “dog,” “pig” and similar abusive names without any balance or counter. After outside criticism, the video was eventually deleted, but one-sided attacks and unprofessional behavior continued. One prominent outside commentator on Iran who has been a longtime strong advocate for President Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran was allowed by VOA management to moderate a VOA program on Iran after being seen making what appeared an obscene gesture to anti-Iranian regime protesters in New York.
As a U.S. taxpayer-funded, U.S. government-run institution (annual budget: $234.7 million), the Voice of America must by law be non-partisan and follow strictly the requirements of the VOA Charter that all content be accurate, balanced, comprehensive and reflecting multiple American views as well as official policies clearly and effectively. The latest incident with the erotica Twitter account is only a confirmation of a much broader collapse of leadership and standards. The Broadcasting Board of Governors still has the lowest employee morale among federal agencies of similar size as measured by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS).
Assuming that the assertion of the VOA Public Affairs Office about VOA executives who were followers of the erotica Twitter account that they had not seen any of its multiple erotica tweets is true, what the latest incident shows is not any less alarming. It shows an agency whose leaders do not regularly check on the program output or fully understand what is in it. They appear not to know how to use and monitor Twitter and other social media, did not do due diligence in following social media accounts, fail to provide leadership, allow partisanship to dominate VOA reporting, and make employees afraid to complain about unacceptable behavior on the part of managers or other employees.
On April 2, the Broadcasting Board of Governors posted on its website and emailed to employees the following Board Statement on the Prohibition of Harassment, but what the agency urgently needs are new leaders and a new institutional culture in which partisanship would not play any role and employees would feel safe to both disagree with the management and to make their complaints without any fear of reprisals.
In December 2017, the Board issued an agency-wide policy statement on the prohibition of harassment that reaffirmed its commitment to provide a work environment free from harassment or intimidation. It states that “there will be no retaliation or reprisal for reporting unwelcomed sexual advances, verbal innuendos and any behavior by colleagues that makes BBG employees uncomfortable, including being bullied or intimidated by a supervisor or peer.”
At its last meeting on March 14, 2018, the Board asked CEO & Director John F. Lansing for a progress report to ensure a civil and safe workplace free of any kind of harassment. The Board was impressed with CEO Lansing’s report and wishes to relay the proactive steps that the BBG has taken to clearly communicate and appropriately address harassment issues.
The BBG is in the process of scheduling 28 formal training sessions this spring on the prevention of sexual harassment. These sessions will use lectures, case studies, engaging learning activities, videos, and class discussion to focus on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) definition of sexual harassment, concepts, perceptions, third-party claims, behaviors, responsibilities, and responses to sexual harassment. The in-person training is mandatory for all BBG Federal employees and contractors.
Gender-specific small group sessions are also planned to allow a safe space to discuss acceptable and non-acceptable behavior in the BBG’s multi-cultural, multi-generational workplace. These sessions will be voluntary and facilitated as needed after the mandatory, all-staff training concludes.
The BBG’s grantee networks—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)—take all reported harassment claims very seriously and have developed robust, comprehensive policies to address alleged harassment in all forms. Employees and contractors have numerous options for reporting, including by means of anonymous channels. Each network delivers mandatory harassment prevention training to all staff and makes clear that retaliation against complainants will not be tolerated.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors remains committed to fostering a work environment that is civil, safe, and harassment free. Harassment is an unlawful, unwanted form of employment discrimination and the BBG has zero tolerance for it.
The Board encourages all employees to report any and all incidents, and that all reports of harassment will be handled expeditiously and with sensitivity. It is the responsibility of BBG management to protect employees and take corrective action as early as possible. BBG employees should be treated with respect by all colleagues, every single day.
BBG’s work is vital to our international audiences—and a safe, inclusive work environment is vital to our work.
U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors
[END OF BBG Board Statement on the Prohibition of Harassment]