BBG Watch Commentary
Is President Donald Trump undermining freedom of the press in the United States or abroad as the U.S. tax-funded ($221 million, FY 2017) Voice of America (VOA), part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency ($740 million, FY 2017), is constantly reporting? The answer is not at all, and VOA should know better.
The Voice of America newsroom recently posted a news report quoting the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, as saying that freedom of the press in the United States is under attack from President Donald Trump, with potential national and global consequences. VOA did not provide any solid proof or any counterbalance to this serious charge being spread in the United States and abroad at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. Judging by how some of VOA managers, editors and reporters exercise their freedom of expression to the point of being unprofessional without suffering any consequences, they should know that his charge is completely baseless and should not have been reported without any counter-balance except for a short tweet from Donald Trump which could not possibly provide the necessary political context for such charges and counter-charges.
The Voice of America has been quoting extensively UN critics, some of the pro-media freedom organizations, as well as posting online analyses by its own correspondents which compare Trump to Lenin, Stalin and Mao and suggest that a massive clampdown on the media is already happening in the United States or may soon begin under his presidency. VOA should be ashamed to repeat such charges without any countervailing views. These charges come as close to fake news as they possibly can. Regardless of what any American thinks about President Trump, there is now more press freedom in the United States than ever before. There is certainly more constant criticism of the U.S. president than ever before. VOA editors and reporters should know this. The Voice of America has never seen such unprecedented freedom to engage in one-sided attacks during the administration of any former U.S. president. Therefore, VOA should be more honest when reporting foreign or domestic charges with regard to freedom of the press in America.
Most U.S. administrations compromise on human rights and press freedom in other countries to some degree in diplomatic relations with other countries to advance U.S. political and economic interests. While the Trump administration did not put human rights at the center of its foreign policy (the Obama administration also did not, as seen in Russia, Cuba, and Iran), we have not yet noticed any major compromises when it comes to freedom of the press abroad on the part of the Trump White House. The Voice of America during the Obama administration actively promoted Obama White House policies with regard to, first Russia during the “Reset,” and then Iran and Cuba. Some VOA reporters participated in this propaganda effort and never suggested that press freedom under President Obama was threatened in the United States. Those who had never said a bad word about President Obama, called candidate Trump obscene names and did not stop their personal attacks on him after he was elected and sworn as U.S. president. Their use of obscene anti-Trump memes continued.
The Voice of America is paid for by all U.S. taxpayers and designed to be a media outlet representing all Americans, but the VOA report does not quote any conservative American media experts or any journalists who believe that President Trump may have instead helped to strengthen free speech and media freedom, at least in the United States. As a Jordanian prince and diplomat, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein is not an expert on American democracy. While many left-wing Americans, including some VOA executives, managers, editors and reporters, do agree with his dim view of President Trump and his comments on the media, many other Americans do not. Their views, except for one short tweet from Trump, are not represented in the VOA report cited above, as they should be.
Not only President Trump, but many Americans in general, consider much of the American media to be extremely biased. This view has been confirmed in many public opinion surveys. Public confidence in U.S. media is extremely low. The Voice of America itself and some of its individual reporters have shown in some of their programs a strong bias against President Trump. Some of them clearly agree with the Jordanian prince that Trump is a dangerous man for their preferred political ideology. Already 2016, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein himself called presidential candidate Donald Trump “a bigot.” UN attacks on the United States on human rights issues, including representatives of states whose human rights records are truly appalling, are nothing new and are repeated all the time. VOA report should have made this point. BBC reported in October 2016 that Zaid said at a news briefing in Geneva: “If Donald Trump is elected on the basis of what he has said already – and unless that changes – I think it is without any doubt that he would be dangerous from an international point of view.” Some UN officials from countries under highly repressive regimes, said the same thing about Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, parroting Soviet propaganda. Such one-sided criticism of the U.S. from UN officials is nothing new.
Donald Trump definitely has a different view than his immediate predecessor in the White House of what represents American interests abroad and what is or is not good for democracy. In his view, democracy is definitely not well served by the United Nations, an organization where many of its member states repress democracy and freedom of the press. BBC reported Donald Trump as saying in March 2016 that “The United Nations is not a friend of democracy.” “It’s not a friend even to the United States of America, where as we all know, it has its home,” Trump said. The VOA report does not make any of these points for VOA’s international audiences. The report lacks the necessary balance and context that the Voice of America should provide when quoting foreign diplomats making broad claims and hurling accusations against the United States and its leaders. VOA was established and is funded by the U.S. Congress to provide a true and complete reflection of American political reality and American opinions to foreign audiences only. While not every VOA news report about the United States can be fully comprehensive, this report does not meet this even the basic standards of balance, fairness and comprehensiveness, especially for foreign audiences.
SEE: UN Rights Chief: Trump is Undermining Freedom of the Press | VOA News, August 30, 2017
VOA News quotes Zeid as saying that “words have consequences, actions have consequences and both must be chosen wisely.” “He says President Trump’s characterization of respected newspapers and media outlet as liars and crooks is damaging,” VOA reported. It is widely known that some of these media outlets are not at all “respected” by a large segment of Americans. The VOA report should have made this point clear to its international audiences in line with its mandate to be accurate and honest about what Americans really think and say.
VOA News also reported that the UN Rights Chief “says the reference to journalists as dishonest and bad people and purveyors of fake news is potentially dangerous.”
As reported further by VOA News, “Is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists? And, let us assume that a journalist is harmed from one of these organizations, does the president then not bear responsibility for this, for having fanned this?” he asked.
Critics might argue that vicious and personal attacks by some of the Left-wing U.S. media on Donald Trump may have just as easily inspired radical Left-wing Antifa violence against innocent U.S. civilians, including some journalists. The VOA report does not make that point. VOA in general hardly ever notices Antifa violence while posting hundreds of reports about “fascists” and “neo-Nazis,” even though, like Antifa, they are also a fringe group in the United States without any mass social following or community support. Foreign audiences reading VOA reports online might think that fascists and neo-Nazis are now in every American neighborhood chasing after journalists and human rights defenders.
The VOA report on the UN Rights Chief’s comments continues: “Zeid notes freedom of the press is a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution, adding he is amazed that instead of defending this right, press freedom is now under attack from the president of the United States.” VOA report did not provide any actual examples of press freedom being under attack by President Trump. They would not be easy to find, considering that VOA reporters have compared him to some of the major 20th century mass murderers and suffered no reprisals whatsoever from the Trump administration. We don’t know of any U.S. journalists who suffered any reprisals from the Trump administration for criticizing President Trump, but officials running the Voice of America did put five VOA Mandarin Service journalists on leave with pay and fired some freelance commentators because they resisted senior management’s efforts to shorten an interview with a Chinese whistleblower, Guo Wengui, who wanted to fully expose corruption within the government and the communist party in China. These, however, were Obama administration holdover officials who are being accused of caving in to pressure from Beijing. They deny these accusations, claiming their commitment to journalistic excellence and fairness even for Chinese communist bosses, but when it comes to the Trump administration, they tolerate one-sided and biased reporting by some — not all — VOA correspondents.
VOA also reported the UN Rights Chief as saying: “We see now in Cambodia for example, the licenses of media, radio programs are being lifted off the air. And, the president of the United States — his remarks are being cited,” he said. “Is this going to expand in this way?” It is a good question, but the UN Human Rights Chief should have pointed the finger instead at the repressive Cambodian regime.
The Voice of America and Radio Free Asia (RFA) have been restricted from rebroadcasting their programs on local stations in Cambodia, but VOA should know that it is the local authoritarian regime that is responsible for imposing these restrictions. Any connection to Donald Trump is far-fetched. Heather Nauert, U.S. State Department spokesperson, said the Trump administration was “deeply concerned” by what she described as the deterioration in the democratic climate in Cambodia. She specifically rejected charges that President Trump’s statements about some of the U.S. domestic media outlets undermined efforts to promote free speech and media freedom. She said that the United States takes these efforts “very seriously.” The VOA report did not make this point in reporting the UN Rights Chief’s charge, even though the VOA Charter requires that VOA must present U.S. policies clearly and effectively. Even such U.S. media outlets as CNN and The Washington Post, which President Trump has criticized, often provide more balanced reporting and present U.S. official policies better and more fully than the Voice of America.
The VOA Charter also requires VOA reports to be balanced and comprehensive. The only balance in the VOA report for the long list of accusations against President Trump is his own short tweet, embedded by VOA at the end of the report, which says: “Thank you, the very dishonest Fake News Media is out of control!”
A single Trump tweet is hardly a sufficient balance for the main charge in the VOA report that Trump is undermining the freedom of the press at home and abroad, nor does it put the story in a broader context of bitter and divisive U.S. politics, in which VOA now plays a role against Congressional intent. That explanation is the key to understanding of what is truly behind much of the U.S. domestic criticism against Trump, in addition to the fact that the presidential candidate widely supported by the left-wing media and expected to win, shockingly for many journalists, including some at VOA, failed to get sufficient support from the U.S. electorate and lost. The Voice of America’s management also expected Hillary Clinton to win. On the election night, VOA had two already written “Hillary Wins” reports but not a single Trump bio ready for broadcast.
Any American citizen, including Trump, has the right of free speech and the right to defend himself or herself against what he or she views as false, partisan-motivated accusations. Some media attacks on Trump have been unprecedented — and so has been his reaction, but his criticism of the media has not produced any media restrictions in the United States that we know of. On the contrary, one could argue that Trump’s bluntness in criticizing some media outlets for what he believes is their bias, partisanship and sloppiness may have in fact broadened freedom of speech and led to a more open political debate involving more Americans than ever before. The VOA report does not make any of these points, but it should, as it is required by the VOA Charter.
The Voice of America report also seems to mischaracterize Trump’s tweet about “fake media.” While he references what he calls “Fake News Media” rather than all journalists, the VOA report used the term — “the journalists.” “He called the journalists ‘truly dishonest people’,” the VOA report said. But in the tweet reposted by VOA, Trump referred to “fake media,” not “the journalists” in general.
Perhaps the most glaring inadequacy of this VOA report is its failure to explain how press freedom in the United States is actually being threatened by President Trump, as the UN Rights Chief from Jordan asserts. Some may argue that press freedom is being strengthened by Trump’s ability to use social media to expose some of the U.S. media for their own bias and their one-sided attacks on him being presented as objective news. U.S. media has not stopped to correct Trump’s own mistakes and false claims, while his criticism of mistakes and false media reports has also contributed to more, not less, freedom of the press.
The Voice of America could have used some of its own one-sided anti-Trump programs and social media posts by its own journalists as examples to prove the point that press freedom in the United States is flourishing under Trump and to show that perhaps his criticism of some of the media is not totally unjustified. Trump has been called in one-sided VOA programs “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid,” as well as a purveyor of “hate and prejudice,” a quote from an immigrant, which VOA director Amanda Bennett included in one of her emails to staff in 2016. When after the 2016 election VOA reporters compared President Trump to Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, nothing happened to them and they continue to post VOA news reports highly critical of his presidency, in many cases without meeting all the requirements of the VOA Charter for accuracy, balance and comprehensiveness.
One VOA reporter even used an F-word to describe Trump, calling him “F*ckface Von Clownstick” on a personal but publicly accessible Facebook page. Shortly before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the VOA reporter wrote on a personal Facebook page: “if F*ckface Von Clownstick gets elected on Nov 8, I will not be able to say anything on Facebook against him anymore, as dictatorship will have descended on this land.” The prediction turned out to be completely untrue as far as the Voice of America and the rest of the U.S. media are concerned. If anything, VOA’s and other media attacks on President Trump have intensified in recent months.
Earlier, during the 2016 election campaign, at least one VOA Newsroom reporter posted memes on Facebook for public viewing, showing Donald Trump with a Nazi swastika and Donald Trump as a sex organ. A few Voice of America reporters mocked Trump, his daughter, and his wife in a satirical performance at VOA newsroom holiday party which was at least in part streamed on Facebook. They said he was “a joke,” and a joke of a sexual nature was told about his wife. “And the No. 1 top reason to love America: It’s where a woman who posed naked for a men’s magazine can be First Lady!,” a VOA reporter said. Earlier this year, another VOA Newsroom reporter posted a meme with British men exposing their behinds to President Trump prior to his visit to Great Britain. Although such behavior is completely unprofessional when engaged in by news reporters, it tends to prove the point that freedom of the press in the United States does not seem to be threatened from the White House, but professionalism by the media may be threatened by some of the journalists themselves.
According to complaints from their more professional colleagues, some VOA newsroom reporters have not stopped using swear words at work to describe President Trump and continue posting blatantly biased news reports. President Trump has been called a “pr**k, and as**ole and a f**king retard.” in daily conversations among some of the reporters in the VOA Newsroom. They are still working for the Voice of America as U.S. federal government employees.
Their top bosses, including those running the Broadcasting Board of Governors agency, have not done much to discourage such crude behavior which, if nothing else, shows potential for extreme journalistic bias. After many months of F-words being heard in the VOA Newsroom almost every time Trump’s name was mentioned by some of the VOA correspondents, news writers and editors, a lower-level VOA manager finally issued a “CIVILITY IN THE WORKPLACE” memo on July 11, 2017, which said in part:
“Should you disagree with a colleague, with the current administration, or with the actions of others, do not disparage or denigrate them in front of your co-workers. While we all recognize that nobody is perfect, let’s practice some basic civility. Anything less than that is unprofessional.”
Press freedom is not being threatened at the Voice of America or in the United States, but the VOA Charter and its mandate for good and balanced journalism at U.S. taxpayers’ expense seem to be under considerable threat from some of VOA’s own executives, managers, editors and reporters working as federal employees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. BBG’s Obama-era CEO John F. Lansing dismisses such criticism. After numerous one-sided anti-Trump reports were posted on VOA websites and obscene memes were posted on social media, Mr. Lansing told NPR that his agency has “the greatest respect” for the President.
We don’t want the Voice of America to have “the greatest respect” for the U.S. President whoever he may be. We want the Voice of America to be true to its Charter, be journalistically independent, accurate, balanced, objective, comprehensive, and a good value for all American taxpayers.