Misplaced priorities of BBG Governor

BBG Watch Commentary

We could not find any online trace of U.S.taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) paying any attention to Sunday’s observances in Estonia of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact anniversary. The Estonian Public Broadcasting website had posted a report on Friday, “Victims of Communism and Nazism to be remembered on Sunday,” noting that the Europe-wide Remembrance Day for the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact will be held in Estonia, which also marked the 26th anniversary of the Baltic Way protest against the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn also tweeted an announcement
 


 

A strong recommendation from a Russian independent journalist and new media scholar for VOA to report more on history being distorted by President Putin’s propaganda machine is being largely ignored.

In 2011, Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy who was hired by the BBG to do an evaluation of the VOA Russian Service observed: “History also matters. There is an apparent scarcity of historical themes on the VOA site.”

BBG Governor Matthew Armstrong

BBG Governor Matthew Armstrong

What we did find was a recent blog post by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Matt Armstrong which seems to have offended some Voice of America foreign language and English news programs journalists, and for a good reason. The post also showed poor knowledge of VOA’s history, especially its early years. This is not particularly surprising because VOA’s history has been distorted in various books. History does matter, but according to VOA journalists writing on Facebook, Mr. Armstrong also has trouble understanding how VOA is managed, or mismanaged, today.
 

SEE: Thoughts about CBS Evening News going to VOA’s Steve Herman for Bangkok bombing coverage | By Matt Armstrong | MountainRunner.us | August 21, 2015

 
 

Facebook Comments on BBG Governor Matt ArmstrongFacebook User (Unidentified): Who wrote this piece?
 
Facebook User (VOA English Editor/Manager): Armstrong is a member of our Board of Governors.
 
Facebook User (VOA Foreign Language Service Journalist and TV Anchor): “VOA’s language services have highly competent reporters what are competent in their vernacular but not in English (this is true across the enterprise, e.g. RFE/RL, RFA, etc.).” This is not true – I mean the part where language services reporters are not competent in English – and I am saddened that a Board member would think this. I wonder where he gets this information.”
 
Facebook User (VOA English Editor/Manager): I think Gov. Armstrong is still not completely well-versed in the diversity within VOA.

 
In one area we are familiar with, a good portion of VOA’s coverage from Russia and Ukraine and about President Putin has been embarrassingly weak, sometimes helping the Kremlin’s propaganda by its lack of insight, accuracy and balance. The VOA English newsroom and its correspondent corps have been decimated and mistreated in recent years, but the VOA Russian service also has had serious management problems and has produced some questionable reporting, lacking either balance or substance.

Mr. Armstrong’s comments irked VOA journalists because they know that contrary to his assertions, the Voice of America remains in a deep crisis and lacks not so much English translators but most of all good management and resources to cover news stories they would like to cover in full compliance with the VOA Charter and to be able to put them on social media with good results.

With his overwhelming enthusiasm over a VOA video report placed on a commercial U.S. television network instead of paying attention to some real management and news reporting problems, Mr. Armstrong showed his misplaced priorities and, according to VOA’s own journalists, his lack of knowledge of VOA. The report he praised so eloquently is not duplicated throughout the organization because VOA lacks both resources and staff. Many talented VOA reporters have left in recent years frustrated by poor management.

Contrary to what Mr. Armstrong’s post seems to suggest, VOA English newsroom has to resort to using parachute stringers and correspondents lacking regional experience or to posting inadequate wire service reports all the time. This was especially evident in some of the VOA reporting from Ukraine and Russia during the last two years.

Also contrary to Mr. Armstrong’s suggestions, mainstream U.S.media reporting in general, and on Russia and Ukraine in particular, is far more insightful, often much more detailed and invariably far superior to most of what the Voice of America has been offering, with only a few very rare exceptions. Some VOA language services do produce excellent and unique news stories, but they are not necessarily of great interest to the vast majority of American news consumers. The Bangkok bombing story was.

Furthermore, Mr. Armstrong’s statement that “the U.S. is the only major country without a major English news capability,” is simply not true. If it were true, it would certainly be a tragedy, but fortunately U.S. private commercial media, including The New York Times, NPR, PRI, The Wall Street Journal generally provide superior international news coverage in English, far better than what VOA English news can now provide after the newsroom has been mismanaged and deprived of adequate staff and resources. The State Department is not in the news business, but even its Facebook page has more “Likes” than the VOA English news Facebook page.

Based on what some of our Russia experts have seen, it would be much better if Americans were not exposed to some of the VOA English and VOA Russian reporting from Russia or Ukraine or about Russia at this time unless it would lead to demands for immediate reforms at the organization.

It is true, however, that after management reforms in 2013 at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), some of the reporting by RFE/RL correspondents from Russia, Ukraine and other countries in Eurasia has been generally excellent and in many cases both unique and outstanding. Such reforms have not been undertaken to any significant degree at the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) in Washington or at the VOA.

Perhaps Mr. Armstrong thinks that with the passage of the VOA Charter in 1976, VOA content has become all accurate, safe and pure. There was nothing wrong with the excellent on-the-scene video reporting by VOA from Bangkok, but the same cannot be said about some other VOA English and some VOA foreign language content in 2015. We would urge Mr. Armstrong to read The Wall Street Journal editorial, “Selling Policy With the Voice of America” about VOA having become partisan in violation of its Charter.

SOHRAB AHMARI, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Iranians watching VOA wouldn’t have heard the Idaho Republican’s objections to the deal. … Iranians heard Mr. Kerry’s opening statement in full but many senators’ objections in truncated fashion or not at all.
 
The VOA’s English-language coverage of Iran is also problematic. Billed as a straight news story, a June 29 report that appeared on VOA’s English-language website cited “analysts” to support the claim that “out-dated ideas are simply no longer a practical factor in negotiations.” Both sources quoted in the story supported a deal, and the article failed to quote any critics to give readers a taste of the opposing view.
 
Such reporting runs contrary to the VOA charter, which requires the broadcaster to “represent America, not any single segment of American society” and to “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
 
The story “should have included a comment or a direct quote from a critic of the Iran nuclear agreement,” the VOA spokesman said in an email.

We can absolutely confirm all of Mr. Ahmari’s observations in the Wall Street Journal as being accurate. What the Wall Street Journal editorial writer describes is not an exception, and these are all recent events. After the departure of former VOA director and the move of his deputy to another position, VOA has a new interim acting director, but this is a very recent change after much criticism from various inside and outside sources.

If Americans become more aware of how unprofessional and one-sided some of the VOA content can be these days, and how it violates the VOA Charter, any remaining support for funding VOA would quickly evaporate.

Mr. Armstrong’s desire for more exposure of VOA content on domestic U.S. media also suffers from the lack of historical knowledge and political savvy. Increased domestic media activities by VOA if it is not fundamentally reformed can lead to its defunding by Congress, which almost happened even during a truly major national emergency of World War II. There is in fact such a bill pending in Congress right now, introduced by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), to completely defund VOA.

There is also another bipartisan Royce-Engel bill, H.R. 2323, to reform the BBG. In May 2014, Mr. Armstrong had referred to the previous version of the Royce-Engel bill, which was approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and passed by the whole House (it was not presented last year for a vote in the Senate) as “overly harsh and not fair” and “less than inarticulate.”

In reacting to these comments from Mr. Armstrong, former BBG Governor, Ambassador Victor Ashe, said last year that “Matt Armstrong is on the wrong track with his strong defense of the status quo at BBG.”

Ambassador Ashe also said “It is stunning that he [Governor Armstrong] would so publicly contradict the efforts of Chairman Jeff Shell.” “Legislation to change the status quo has strong bipartisan backing and will ultimately prevail despite Armstrong.” Ashe added.

Mr. Armstrong should know that domestic media activities, press censorship and other abuses combined with a defiance of Congressional wishes caused the abolishment of VOA’s original parent agency, the Office of War Information (OWI) — the World War II equivalent of the BBG. The decision was taken by President Truman in 1945 and widely applauded in Congress.

The OWI arrogant and ineffective director (or CEO) at the time, Elmer Davis, a journalist who himself engaged in blatant pro-administration policy propaganda, managed to alienate not only members of Congress of both parties and General Eisenhower, but even President Truman. Davis’s final sin was his attempt to interfere with domestic U.S. media. He tried to have U.S. domestic media outlets banned in the U.S. occupation zone in Germany and have a monopoly for his agency’s media content, including VOA. His attempt failed.

We will quote just one congressional voice from that period about OWI’s and VOA’s domestic media activities, but there were also many other highly critical comments in Congress and in U.S. press. The Congressional Record for the years 1942-1945 is full of criticism and ridicule for OWI’s domestic media activities, as well as its overseas activities through VOA and through other media outreach. There were also a few voices in defense of OWI and VOA, but they were few and far between. Congressman Leon H. Gavin of Pennsylvania on May 24, 1945 quoted from the Washington Daily News editorial “ABOLISH THE OWI” of May 22, 1945: (page A2492) Congressional Record Proceedings and Debates of the 97th Congress First Session Appendix, Volume 91–Part 11, March 23, 1945, to June 8, 1945.

 

REP: LEON H. GAVIN: “The American people don’t want Government owned and operated newspapers and radio stations in this country. They would distrust the information and opinion thus transmitted, justifiably suspecting it as propaganda”

 
The Voice of America barely had enough support after the war to continue its overseas broadcasts; its controversial agency was abolished and VOA was placed in the State Department. The benefit of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was that it helped VOA to avoid domestic political controversy during the Cold War of the kind that the Wall Street Journal editorial correctly highlighted. If Mr. Armstrong thinks that these issues have disappeared because this is 2015 and not the 1940s, he is mistaken. H.R. 4490 and H.R. 2323 are proofs that Congress is still interested how the agency is managed, perhaps not as much as in the 1940s, but the congressional concern seems to be growing. For the first time since World War II there is a bill to defund VOA. This should be a major warning to the BBG.

Reforming the bureaucracy, strengthening VOA’s news reporting, listening to members of Congress and avoiding domestic political controversies is what Mr. Armstrong should use his energies to focus on right now rather than on largely misleading and unproductive propaganda of success.

Mr. Armstrong outspoken support for a domestic role for VOA is, in our view, completely misplaced, dangerous, and frankly, bizarre. He may have forgotten the multitude of truly derisive social media comments that greeted even the partial weakening a few years ago of the Smith-Mundt Act restriction on domestic distribution by the BBG of VOA content, which was originally not even a restriction on the use of VOA content but merely on the U.S. government providing it to private U.S. media at taxpayers’ expense.

These restrictions were put in place not only to protect the private press in the United States, but also to prevent any opportunity for the government to influence U.S. domestic media as OWI/VOA did with some disastrous results during World War II. Mr. Armstrong’s enthusiasm for greater VOA presence in domestic U.S. media runs counter to what most members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers want VOA to focus on right now in response to the separate and different in nature and purpose assaults of Putin and ISIS propaganda. Bureaucratic support for domestic content distribution of VOA programs is already a drain on limited U.S. government resources in the time of international crisis. The focus should be exclusively on overseas audiences and on Putin’s and ISIS’s propaganda, not on U.S. domestic media or any U.S. domestic audience. That is not where U.S. taxpayers want to see their money go.

But it is Mr. Armstrong’s largely empty bragging in the face of the overwhelming need for urgent structural reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors that is most worrisome, especially since he chairs the Special Committee on the Voice of America in the 21st Century. After he died in California, it took days for the VOA Russian Service to post a substantive analysis of British-American historian Robert Conquest’s enormous scholarly legacy in exposing Stalinist crimes while the service’s management found staff, time and resources to produce a video on a cat fashion show.

Mr. Armstrong was nominated by President Obama on April 11, 2013 to fill a Republican position on the BBG board. He was confirmed by the Senate on August 1, 2013. He noted that the post which he had authored was his personal opinion. This is good, because we don’t think it reflects the opinion of BBG Democratic Chairman Jeff Shell and some of the other BBG members of both parties.

We think it might be better if any new BBG Governor who will replace Mr. Armstrong would pay more attention to the agency’s real problems: the bloated IBB bureaucracy, bureaucratic dysfunction, VOA’s disappearing broadcasts and VOA’s dismally poor performance on social media. This would be far preferable to worrying what VOA can or cannot place on domestic television networks in the U.S. For those who know the history of U.S. international broadcasting, the latter can only lead to nothing but trouble in Congress and among U.S. taxpayers for the agency and its budget.

In his post Mr. Armstrong took a barb at his critics:

 

MATT ARMSTRONG: “Beyond the highlighting of the professional journalism produced by VOA (especially in light of continuing criticism that intentionally focuses on the past rather than present, or dismisses structural and cultural friction some of the same critics helped ossify), it utilizes a disused avenue for Americans to access foreign affairs.”

 
We see a problem with Mr. Armstrong’s argument. The entities closest to the ever growing IBB bureaucracy, particularly the Voice of America, have been left far behind in the social media competition. This is what the critics Mr. Armstrong seems to be alluding to have been pointing out for years.

Social Media Voice of America Site Stats English News Foreign Correspondent’s Reports In A 30 Day June/July 2015 Period

 
VOA Report 1: 6 Facebook “Shares” | 1 Comment

VOA Report 2: 3 Facebook “Shares” | 0 Comments

VOA Report 3: 100 Facebook “Shares” | 0 Comments

VOA Report 4: 7 Facebook “Shares” | 2 Comments

VOA Report 5: 2 Facebook “Shares” | 1 Comment

VOA Report 6: 3 Facebook “Shares” | 2 Comments
 

BBG FY 2014-2016 Web Traffic

The table above was created by the BBG and shows official BBG data. It was placed in the BBG FY 2016 Budget Request. The document does not list social media outreach and audience engagement numbers because they are dismal compared to BBC’s or RT’s.

We have pointed out before that more IBB and VOA executives should be resigning en masse instead of bragging about their nonexistent accomplishments and the failed “Digital First” strategy. Mr. Armstrong’s post may convince them that they are on the right track. This is surprising because we were initially encouraged by Mr. Armstrong’s earlier public criticism of news handling by VOA. Something happened. Last year Mr. Armstrong was quoted as telling the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) that “You can’t censor the Internet.” He may have misspoken.

One might ask, however, why would anyone want to extend VOA’s current news reporting and social performance or IBB’s management performance onto non-federal BBG media entities, such as RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA), much less offer it to U.S. domestic media? Executives in charge of the IBB have shown they are incapable of running sophisticated social media campaigns. RFE/RL is doing much better on social media than VOA because it has managed to keep at least some distance from the IBB bureaucracy.

Examples of Social Media RT Site Stats for Similar English News Reports During the Same June/July 2015 Period

 
RT Report 1: Facebook “Likes/Shares” 3,600 | 425 Comments

RT Report 2: Facebook “Likes/Shares” 2,100 | 71 Comments
 

Data from March 2015

 
VOANews.comAlexa03-10-15
VOANEWS.COM Alexa rank: 3,505 (1 is Best)
 
 
 
BBC.comAlexa03-10-15
BBC.COM Alexa Rank: 155
 
 
RT.comAlexa03-10-15
RT.COM Alexa Rank: 411
 
 
golos-ameriki.ruAlexa03-10-15
VOA RUSSIAN GOLOS-AMERIKI.RU Alexa Rank: 37,079 (1 is Best)
 
 
 
rferl-svoboda.orgAlexa03-10-15
RFE/RL RUSSIAN SVOBODA.ORG Alexa Rank: 6,467
 
 
 
VOARussianFacebook03-10-15
VOA RUSSIAN FACEBOOK LIKES: 39,900
 
 
 
BBCRussianFacebook03-10-15
BBC RUSSIAN FACEBOOK LIKES: 336,950
 
 
 
RFERLRussianFacebook03-10-15
RFE/RL RUSSIAN FACEBOOK LIKES: 313,364
 
 
 
VOAEnglishFacebook03-10-15
VOA ENGLISH NEWS FACEBOOK LIKES: 898,337
 
 
 
BBCEnglishFacebook03-10-15
BBC WORLD ENGLISH NEWS FACEBOOK LIKES: 9,980,409
 
 
 
RTEnglishFacebook03-10-15
RT ENGLISH NEWS FACEBOOK LIKES: 2,433,372
 
 
 
VOAYouTube03-11-15
VOA YOUTUBE: 42,505 Subscribers | 39,827,781 Views
 
 
 
RTYouTube03-11-15
RT YOUTUBE: 1,471,573 Subscribers | 1,372,574,299 Views RT International, RT’s English-language news channel, leads the way with 1.3 billion views and 1.4 million subscribers. All RT videos (English and in other languages) account for more than 2 billion views.
 
 
 

We believe this dismal social media performance is one of the key areas Mr. Armstrong should be focusing on when looking at VOA instead of worrying about placing VOA video reports on U.S. domestic media and worrying whether U.S. domestic media will use them.

We do have cautious confidence, however, that the newly-named BBG CEO and director John Lansing has already identified some of the management, broadcasting and social media underperformance issues at the Voice of America and the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau. This is based only on our reading of his initial statement after his appointment was announced, but we hope that he will succeed and not depart after a few weeks like the previous CEO. He can’t do it, however, without help from the administration and the Congress. The propaganda of success is not helpful to reforming the agency. We truly hope Mr. Lansing will work with Congress. Otherwise, the agency may be doomed.

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