“We’ve got a serious problem,” journalist, broadcaster and former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Blanquita Cullum said Friday about Voice of America (VOA) which produces news and information broadcasts and other media programs for overseas audiences on behalf of American taxpayers.
“There are a lot of things that are not working well, I think, for the Voice of America at a critical juncture, at a critical time,” Blanquita Cullum said. She added that members of Congress are also concerned.
She was being interviewed by Jim Bohannon, a veteran broadcaster voted one of “The 100 Most Important Radio Talk Show Hosts in America” by Talkers” magazine. Distributed by WestwoodOne company, “The Jim Bohannon Show” is heard on over 300 radio stations in the United States, on the Internet and satellite radio.
Journalist Blanquita Cullum is familiar with Voice of America and other U.S. international media outreach entities, such as Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. As a former member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, she had a role in overseeing VOA and other U.S. taxpayer-funded international media outlets.
She had left the BBG board a few years ago but keeps in touch with many of the journalists working for U.S. international broadcasting. She is now the host of the talk program “The Hard Question.” “The Hard Question” is described as an unbiased, interview-based television program aired in Houston, TX. The show focuses on balanced journalism rather than editorializing. Each episode explores a different energy issue and features two guests representing different positions. Blanquita Cullum previously served as the president of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts, and founded the Young American Broadcasters.
What emerged from the interview on “The Jim Bohannon Show” is Cullum’s deep worry about budget cuts for U.S. news programs overseas. She appeared even more concerned, however, how U.S. international media outreach is now managed by officials and executives, particularly at Voice of America, at the time of geopolitical crisis caused by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Listen to a segment from Jim Bohannon’s interview with Blanquita Cullum:
“There is the issue of the budgets being cut back, but there is a lot of personnel there that perhaps is not using the best insight on how to manage the funds in a way that would still protect a lot of the language services that need to be protected; some of the reporters and journalists that need to be protected,” Blanquita Cullum said.
Ms. Cullum highly praised investigative reporting by our website, BBG Watch, in exposing problems with the management of U.S, international media outreach against the increasing and effective competition from countries like Russia, China, and Iran. BBG Watch investigative reports outlining these problems with senior management were quoted recently at length in The Congressional Record. BBG Watch reporting has also been noted by Fox News, NPR, Washington Times, New York Daily News, National Review, and other U.S. and international media.
In her appearance on “The Jim Bohannon Show,” Blanquita Cullum expressed her sadness over the retirement of one VOA’s best journalists, former White House correspondent Dan Robinson, as an example of what appears to be wrong with how current VOA management treats its most valued employees.
BBG Watch had published a letter from Robinson to the BBG board in which he described serious management problems, including intimidation of journalists by a senior executive.
Cullum wrote earlier on her Facebook page that Robinson is a brilliant journalist who was among many working “in fear of retaliation that threatens their careers and future opportunities at the Agency.”
Another former BBG member, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, said that “clearly working conditions at VOA have deteriorated to the point that a true professional like Dan Robinson is departing.” “Why is VOA leader David Ensor silent? The BBG board should conduct an inquiry and share the results with the public. [BBG Chairman] Jeff Shell should insist on a full accounting as chair. This is another step in the decline of VOA,” Victor Ashe said.
Especially one manager is believed to be responsible for recent departures of some of the most experienced and talented VOA correspondents who have expressed frustration and unhappiness with management of news reporting and treatment of employees.
In the radio interview with Jim Bohannon, Blanquita Cullum showed her deep concern about the future U.S. international media outreach not only to Ukraine and Russia, but also to countries like Tibet and North Korea, as well as Latin America, where she believes the United States should pay more attention to severe food shortages in Venezuela and the propping up of the regime by Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba for their geopolitical gains.
On Ukraine, Blanquita Cullum said referring to the Voice of America that “we’ve missed the boat.”
While VOA still has the Ukrainian Service, which produces an excellent and popular television program hosted among others by Myroslava Gongadze, whose husband, Georgiy Gongadze, also a journalist, was assassinated in Ukraine in 2000, BBG Watch reported that VOA management has not provided the service with sufficient resources to update its Facebook and Twitter pages, sometimes for more than 24 hours. The Ukrainian Service has also lacked resources to quickly update its news website on a regular basis. The Russian Service and the VOA English Newsroom face the same problem. The VOA Newsroom and its website team also suffer because of executives who do not understand breaking news coverage and multimedia presentation of news.
BBG Watch reported about numerous problems with updating VOA Russian Service website and serious management and resources issues with VOA news reporting in general, widely blamed on VOA’s top leadership’s poor management and misguided programming priorities, which favor posting feature stories on the British royal family, Justin Bieber, and a New York dog show over reporting on Ukraine and Russia, at least until very recently.
“I’m concerned about some of the leadership in areas like the [VOA] Newsroom. I’m hoping that the new board of the Broadcasting Board of Governors will try to get to the root of this before it becomes more compromised,” Blanquita Cullum said.
We provide a partial transcript of the Blanquita Cullum interview, which can be heard online in full here.
A segment dealing with Voice of America and U.S. international broadcasting starts at 1:39. An earlier segment of the interview with Blanquita Cullum deals with political developments in Venezuela, a country experiencing censorship and severe food shortages.
The program starts with an interview about Russia’s military incursion into Crimea with Lawrence J. Korb, a Senior Fellow at the for Center American Progress and a Senior Adviser to the Center for Defense Information and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Korb was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. Jim Bohannon also interviews writer and editor E. Michael Helms, a U.S. Marine veteran whose earlier book “The Proud Bastards” is a memoir of boot camp and his tour in Vietnam.
Toward the end of her interview, Blanquita Cullum said that she feels “a great deal of love and affection for many of those journalists and people on the ground all over the world serving on behalf of our U.S. international broadcasting, and I miss them.”
In his question opening the discussion of U.S. international media outreach issues, Jim Bohannon noted that the United States “seem to be cutting back rather seriously on the voices that we put out” — Voice of America, Radio Marti and others.
BLANQUITA CULLUM: “Let me tell you Jim, I’m so glad that you’re talking about this because I am very worried about the future of our Voice of America and other aspects of our international broadcasting.
I encourage your listening audience to go to a spectacular website called BBGWatch.com. It will give your American listening audience a much better perspective of what is not happening with the Voice of America right now and the other entities that are involved with U.S. international broadcasting.
Right now I’m very unhappy because one of the fine journalists that covered the White House for the Voice of America, Dan Robinson, recently retired. He did it on his own, I mean he made his own decision to leave, but there are a lot of things that are not working well, I think, for the Voice of America at a critical juncture, at a critical time.
We’ve missed the boat on what’s going on with Ukraine. We’ve had very limited broadcasting into areas and countries like Tibet, North Korea, and areas of the world like Latin America and in the Middle East, for example, where we should be doing a better job.
And I’m very worried about it because this time, when we’ve had this heritage capability of broadcasting — especially the jewel in the crown of the Voice of America — we’ve got a serious problem.
And I know members on the Hill are concerned about it, former journalists are concerned about it that worked with the Voice of America. There are other people that have served on the broadcasting Board of Governors, some colleagues of mine, who have been very concerned about it and its future.
So, if those of you out there who have ever listened to Voice of America when you were overseas and what to try to help — go to BBGWatch.com to see if you can get a little bit more background.
I’m very, very worried about the future of Voice of America.
JIM BOHANNON: It would seem that what you’ve just said should be self-evident. What are the arguments being offered against maintaining this capability?
BLANQUITA CULLUM: Of course, they’re going to say budget constraints, but I would suggest to you the problems are deeper than that.
There is the issue of the budgets being cut back, but there is a lot of personnel there that perhaps is not using the best insight on how to manage the funds in a way that would still protect a lot of the language services that need to be protected; some of the reporters and journalists that need to be protected.
I’m concerned about some of the leadership in areas like the [VOA] Newsroom. I’m hoping that the new board of the Broadcasting Board of Governors will try to get to the root of this before it becomes more compromised.
JIM BOHANNON: You say that you can only hope. Is that a divided group? In other words, are there factions?
BLANQUITA CULLUM: Well, it’s divided in a good way. I will say that because no matter which administration is in office, whether Republican or Democrat, this is a board that’s bipartisan. And in the majority of cases, regardless of our political persuasions, we’ve seemed to have worked together quite well because it’s all about the mission, which is the freedom of speech, 1st Amendment issues, trying to make some of the areas of the world that are not able to have a capability of having a good, strong press have the benefit of getting good, strong views from us.
We’re trying to maintain the firewall there, serve as the firewall to make sure that we protect the journalists and their ability to broadcast and do an effective job, but right now they are being limited.
And again, encourage your audience to go to BBGWatch.com to get a much more deep and full understanding of all the problems that exist.
JIM BOHANNON: I’m sorry you’re no longer on that board, in many regards. I know you’ve got many other fish to fry, but I wish you were back.
BLANQUITA CULLUM: Well, you go into these jobs, I have to say, when you are a political appointee, in some ways you feel great about having an opportunity to serve the president and the American people, but in a way it’s good that you’re not there forever. We’re not like we are on the Supreme Court. Other people have to come in and serve.
But to your point, I feel a great deal of love and affection for many of those journalists and people on the ground all over the world serving on behalf of our U.S. international broadcasting, and I miss them.
But I feel that I can do a better job for them on the outside than on the inside.
I’m very grateful for the time I had with them. I honestly feel that it changed my life.
Jim Bohannon also asked Blanquita Cullum about her work with the Young American Broadcasters, an organization she founded.
BLANQUITA CULLUM: Well, we like to train students. And we like to take students and have them have an opportunity to meet guys like you and other journalists and broadcasters who have been seasoned veterans to really get the kind of experience they can’t just get in the classroom.
What we try to do is to help them understand the ethics and responsibilities that they have, not only as entertainers, but as journalists.
Blanquita Cullum also described during the interview her meeting in Cambodia with the wife of an imprisoned radio station owner who ran the station during his imprisonment despite intimidation from the authorities.
The interview was largely a tribute from Blanquita Cullum to this Cambodian woman-broadcaster, other journalists in countries without free media, and to journalists and other employees of U.S. international broadcasting. They are doing their jobs despite often very poor treatment and poor management by senior executives, especially at the Voice of America, which journalist and former BBG member called “the jewel in the crown” of America’s media outreach overseas. These U.S. international media journalists “have changed my life,” Blanquita Cullum said.