Imperial arrogance: Voice of America executives pay little attention to foreign leaders Obama calls about Ukraine

BBG Watch Commentary

President Barack ObamaWhen something happens in Washington after business hours, there is a good chance mismanaged U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) will not report it right away, if at all. And if it does, the VOA report will be short, especially if foreign leaders with names difficult to pronounce are involved, one or two sentences at best.

U.S. taxpayers who pay for Voice of America not only to provide news but to represent the United States and explain its policies to the world might be surprised to find out that they and foreign audiences can learn far more about WHY President Obama called Chinese President Xi Jinping and the leaders of Spain and Kazakhstan from The Salt Lake Tribune than they will from VOA.

Of course, many people in the world do not read The Salt Lake Tribune and do not speak English. Too bad, they won’t learn from VOA WHY it was important for President Obama to call these leaders. The VOA Charter (U.S. Public Law 94-350) may require Voice of America to do it, but VOA executives apparently did not think it was important to explain.

We call it imperial arrogance. It is imperial arrogance on the part of Voice of America executives who control and mismanage resources and news coverage at VOA and make the lives of their own reporters miserable.

VOA correspondents are not told by these executives to try to explain at any length WHY President Obama is making these calls or given time and resources to do it. They are told to cover the British royal family and Justin Bieber.

Well, not quite. They are also now told by their bosses to do some coverage of U.S. reactions to the tremendous crisis in Ukraine. Otherwise, BBG Watch might complain. But VOA reporters can’t spend too much time on it. They have not been given time and tools to do comprehensive U.S. foreign policy news coverage U.S. law, which is the VOA Charter, actually requires them to do. VOA executives have other interests and priorities.

There is no higher-level management desire for doing separate reports on these obscure foreign leaders. WHY bother too much with the presidents of China, Spain, and Kazakhstan? That would take too many resources from covering a dog show in New York and latest Hollywood movies. Such coverage can bump up audience numbers in short spots on affiliate stations in Mexico. They can say then to the Broadcasting Board of Governors that their audience is growing and that VOA is having an impact.

Yes, President Obama did call these foreign leaders.

WHY did he bother to call them if they are so unimportant that they do not deserve more than one sentence of explanation from Voice of America? If they are so unimportant, why did The Salt Lake Tribune devote a lengthy article to these phone calls? The news report/news analysis was written by by Matthew Lee and Julie Pace of Associated Press, but an American newspaper chose to use it in full.

This is all that Voice of America English news reported on all three phone calls as of late Monday night:

“The White House said Monday that President Barack Obama began a new round of diplomatic consultations on Ukraine with phone calls to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.”

That is 36 words.

Now, let’s take a look at The Salt Lake Tribune article, On Ukraine, Obama tries to get China off fence. We won’t quote it here, but click on the link and read it.

The article has 881 words, most of it is on explaining why China is “sitting on the fence” when it comes to the Russian military occupation of Crimea and what President Obama and other U.S. officials are doing to change it.

VOA executives obviously think that international audiences are far less interested in this topic than the citizens of Salt Lake City — 845 words less interested. But even using a report from AP or Reuters would not be sufficient — which is what sometimes VOA executives do to pretend to VOA audiences abroad that VOA is covering U.S. and world news.

Those who go to VOA websites for news want to know what VOA reporters found out on background or otherwise from U.S. officials and what the Administration, the Congress and American people really think. They want to know it in depth and in detail. If they wanted to know what Reuters or AP are reporting, they would go to Reuters and AP.

International audiences want more form VOA than AP and Reuters can offer, but they get far less, if anything at all.

We don’t want to suggest that there was no excellent VOA news content today on Ukraine at all. That’s not the case. But on this topic and some others, there wasn’t.

International audiences can never be sure what they will get from VOA and how soon before the news becomes stale. There has been a slight improvement in VOA news coverage in recent days, but it is still largely hit and miss, especially and weekends and after business hours, but today even during business hours. One can still never be sure.

President Xi Jinping was lucky. He got not one but two sentences in an earlier VOA English news report. May be because China is a major power.

But VOA audiences would still not have learned from those two sentences WHY President Obama bothered to call him. Nothing at all.

As to President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, he only got one third of one sentence from VOA after President Obama phoned him about the situation in Ukraine. The phone call took place earlier in the day and was reported by the White House at about 6:50 PM EDT.

Reaching out by President Obama to one of President Putin’s foreign allies to discuss Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine is a significant development, but not to VOA. VOA was even late and superficial in reporting on President Obama’s phone call with President Putin.

See: As of 11:30PM, VOA English homepage still has nothing on Obama-Putin phone call, BBG Watch. It is as bad as it can be.

Because the White House released the news about today’s phone call with the Kazakh president after business hours, under the current management at VOA it got only a few words on the VOA English website and most likely has not yet been reported in Ukrainian, Russian and in other languages. These VOA language services have gotten even fewer resources from the management to do this kind of prompt news reporting and news analysis online.

Critics attribute these embarrassing news reporting delays and minimal coverage to poor management of personnel and resources by senior Voice of America executives. They blame VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch for allowing depletion of staff in the VOA newsroom, diverting resources to bureaucracy and production of feature reports, and being unable to organize multimedia news coverage even during a major crisis.

VOA posted a rather short report from the White House earlier in the day, but it did not include information about the Obama-Nazarbayev phone call and has not been updated. VOA also posted a longer and informative news report, US Warns Russia Over Crimea Referendum, VOA, but that report also has not been updated with new information for many hours.

Former VOA senior White House correspondent Dan Robinson, who often worked long hours and on weekends, retired last week. Even he was often unable to get VOA managers to post his reports, news advisories and updates online in a timely manner. But he tried hard, complained, and paid a price for it.

Robinson wrote a letter to the oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), in which he accused senior VOA executives of mismanagement, damaging VOA news reporting, and creating a hostile working environment for VOA writers, correspondents and other employees.

His decision to retire was reportedly influenced by an incident in which he was allegedly verbally threatened by a senior VOA executive. Other talented VOA reporters have also left due to disagreements with the management, particularly with one or two senior managers. Critics say that poor employee morale is seriously undermining VOA news reporting during the crisis in Ukraine.

VOA correspondents who remain with the organization still produce excellent news reports, which are eventually posted, albeit often with considerable delays, on VOA websites. But reporting significant news online promptly and consistently on VOA websites and social media platforms breaks down under the current management, especially after business hours and on weekends. This means vast online audience losses for VOA and good news content parts of the organization are still able to produce.

See: As Voice of America news and personnel management fails on Ukraine, VOA correspondents still offer outstanding reports, BBG Watch, March 10, 2014.

Foreign media outlets — Al Jazeera, BBC, China’s CCTV, Deutsche Welle, and Russia’s RT and Voice of Russia — frequently post their reports on news originating from the White House and the State Department — faster than VOA. Not infrequently, they also report on various U.S. administration statements in far greater detail than VOA.

Some VOA foreign language services manage to succeed despite limited resources and poor leadership at the top of the organization, but even these services are not doing as well as they could through no fault of their own.

VOA Ukrainian Service staffers have been working extremely hard. They do a good job of reporting on U.S. reactions to developments in Ukraine. But the service has not been given sufficient resources by the management to post news reports online promptly and to update its social media pages as frequently as audiences expect. The same is true about VOA Russian Service, which has its own management problems in addition to lacking sufficient resources and training, sources told BBG Watch.

According to our inside sources, senior VOA executives had a special meeting last week on how to organize news coverage about Ukraine, during which criticism from BBG Watch was discussed at some length. But then they still failed to arrange for prompt and effective multimedia coverage of President Obama’s very important statement on Ukraine Friday afternoon. Top executives simply do not know how to do it, but they won’t listen to employees and critics. They are more likely to respond to criticism with screaming.

See: Despite crisis in Ukraine, Voice of America still unable to post news updates online quickly, BBG Watch, March 6, 2014.

VOA executives can continue in their imperial arrogance mode, but it does not mean that foreign media outlets will not report at length about Obama’s phone calls with foreign leaders, making Voice of America look foolish and lost about its mission.

Judging by miserably low social media engagement numbers, international audiences have already realized long time ago that they can’t count on VOA to report news promptly and comprehensively.

These audiences have already gone to VOA’s international competitors to get their news and in some cases also their propaganda. Some of these foreign media outlets are quite good at mixing news with propaganda.

VOA executives are responsible here for a double loss: a loss of important objective news for foreign audiences generated from Washington from a U.S. perspective by American-trained news reporters, and a public diplomacy loss abroad when foreign leaders and foreign audiences begin to realize that a phone call from President Obama to leaders of China, Spain and Kazakhstan means very little to those who are in charge of Voice of America. They see foreign leaders and foreign audiences the same way they see VOA reporters and other employees — with imperial arrogance.

White House Statement Obama-Nazarbayev 3-10-14

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 10, 2014

Readout of the President’s Call with President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan

The President spoke today with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to discuss Ukraine. The two leaders affirmed their shared interest in identifying a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. They agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The President noted U.S. commitment to the principle that the Ukrainian people be able to decide their future without fear of foreign interference. The President also encouraged Kazakhstan to play an active role in finding a peaceful outcome for Ukraine.

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Also read our earlier report:

China’s CCTV offers two separate reports on Obama – Xi phone call, Voice of Russia one full report — Voice of America English news has two-sentence summary

BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of America

CCTV English

U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) continues to give late and perfunctory coverage of significant news developments relating to U.S. government, Russia, China, Ukraine, and other major international players and news stories.

On Monday, VOA English website had only one sentence describing the content of President Obama’s call with President Xi of China and even that took VOA a while to post, while China’s CCTV posted two separate, full-length reports, one of them with video. Voice of Russia also posted a full-length separate report on the Obama – Xi phone call about Russia and Ukraine.

As of 1:00PM EDT Monday, VOA Chinese Service had a slightly longer report on the Obama – Xi phone call, but VOA Ukrainian and Russian services did not. The White House statement on the phone call which took place Sunday evening was released Monday at about 7:00AM EDT.

VOA news reporting in English and foreign languages suffers from mismanagement by senior executives and diversion of resources to the bureaucracy and production of feature reports, including dozens of such VOA reports in recent years on the British royal family and several reports recently on Canadian pop star Justin Bieber while significant news from the White House, the State Department, and the U.S. Congress were not being reported by Voice of America or were reported late and superficially.

Voice of America correspondents have been complaining for years about mismanagement, poor employee morale, and failures in news reporting and website management, but their complaints have been ignored by VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch, sources told BBG Watch.

Highly respected VOA White House correspondent Dan Robinson retired recently and sent a blistering condemnation of the management in a letter to the oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

Individual VOA correspondents produce excellent news reports, such as this one by Elizabeth Arrott in Yalta, Crimea, On The Scene: Elizabeth Arrott in Yalta, Crimea, VOA, March 10, 2014, but in general, VOA news coverage is spotty and updating of news websites is irregular. There has been some improvement toward the end of last week, as a result of criticism from BBG Watch and others, but it did not last past business hours into the weekend.

According to the White House statement, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping “affirmed their shared interest in reducing tensions and identifying a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.” The statement also said that “the two leaders agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, both in the context of Ukraine and also for the broader functioning of the international system.”

As of 1:50PM EST, the Voice of America English website only had a two-sentence summary of the phone call in one of its reports.

“The President noted his overriding objective of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and ensuring the Ukrainian people are able to determine their own future without foreign interference.  The two leaders committed to stay in touch as events unfold,” the White House statement said.

China’s state-run international media outlet CCTV had posted two separate reports, a longer one from Xinhua news agency and another one with video.

Chinese, U.S. presidents exchange views on bilateral ties, Ukraine over phone, CCTV, March 10, 2014

Chinese, US presidents discuss bilateral ties, Ukraine, CCTV, March 10, 2014

VOA Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 12.52PM EDT

The longer CCTV report on the Obama – Xi phone call had 334 words. VOA English news one sentence summary of the content of the phone call had 22 words.

Voice of Russia separate full-length report on the Obama – Xi phone call had 188 words.

US and Chinese presidents discuss Ukraine crisis, Voice of Russia, March 10, 2014

The Voice of America Charter says that “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” (U.S. Public Law 94-350)

Even Al Jazeera devoted more space to the Obama – Xi phone call about Ukraine and Russia than the Voice of America English news website. Although Al Jazeera did not have a separate report on the phone call, its description of the content of the conversation from Chinese sources had 74 words to VOA’s 22.

VOA NEWS: The White House said Monday that President Barack Obama had spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the situation in Ukraine. The two leaders affirmed their “shared interest in reducing tensions and identifying a peaceful solution” to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

Readout of the President’s Call with President Xi of China

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THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 10, 2014
 
Readout of the President’s Call with President Xi of China
 
The President spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the evening of March 9 regarding the situation in Ukraine.  The two leaders agreed on the fundamental importance of focusing on common interests and deepening practical cooperation to address regional and global challenges for the development of bilateral relations. In that context, they affirmed their shared interest in reducing tensions and identifying a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.  The two leaders agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, both in the context of Ukraine and also for the broader functioning of the international system.  The President noted his overriding objective of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and ensuring the Ukrainian people are able to determine their own future without foreign interference.  The two leaders committed to stay in touch as events unfold. 
 
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