BBG Watch Media Commentary
While noting some of the management scandals at the Voice of America (VOA) and its parent federal agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), under the current leadership of VOA Director Amanda Bennett and USAGM CEO John F. Lansing, both appointed to their positions during the Obama administration, a New York Times report focuses on a risk of possible bias at VOA if President Trump should get his nominee Michael Pack for USAGM CEO to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The New York Times report, however, completely fails to note multiple examples of blatant current partisanship and bias at VOA, as well as other multiple serious violations of the VOA Charter under the watch of Lansing, Bennet, and Deputy VOA Director Sandy Sugawara.
The New York Times report fails to note that an independent study of the Voice of America Persian Service, commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) [the old name of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM)] and released in October 2017, provided even more damning evidence of bias and foreign propaganda in VOA programs in recent years: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY COUNCIL U.S. PERSIAN MEDIA STUDY, Final Synthesis Report, October 6, 2017 (https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2011/11/AFPC_Persian-Language-Broadcasting-Study_synthesis-report.pdf).
READ:Troubled by Lapses, Government’s Voice to the World Braces for New Trump Management. By Elizabeth Williamson, The New York Times, December 12, 2018.
The New York Times report also failed to note multiple examples of unprofessional behavior among some VOA reporters and editors, such as the posting of a fully translated and captioned video by the VOA Ukrainian Service in which Donald Trump is called insulting and obscene names, such as “dog” and “pig,” without any defense, balance or counter-arguments from his supporters.
We show more of of the images of VOA bias and highly unprofessional behavior by some VOA reporters extending over many months under the current leadership appointed during the previous administration. It is hard to imagine that Michael Pack could do worse than what already is an unacceptable mismanagement of a U.S. government agency by holdover officials who lack the necessary experience, skills and ability to manage a federal workforce and U.S. overseas information programs.
Here are some images from the Voice of America during the period under the watch of VOA Director Amanda Bennett and USAGM CEO John Lansing.
Journalists formerly linked with the Voice of America have criticized a earlier Washington Post op-ed by VOA director Amanda Bennett, ”Trump’s ‘worldwide network’ is a great idea. But it already exists.,” for “glaring inaccuracies,” “misleading claims” and being an “absolutely biased and fake opinion piece.”
Iranian-America journalist Mahtab Farid said in a Facebook post:
“This is a sad day for all of us who spent our entire life bringing the truth. If Washington Post allows this absolutely biased and fake opinion piece to be printed, then there is no hope in journalism. Shame on #washingtonpost and shame on #voapnn. #Amanda Bennett truth is more important than holding on to your job.”
Mahtab Farid is an Iranian-born American journalist, linguist, educator and public diplomacy strategist with background in communication and international relations. For over a decade, Farid covered the conflicts in the Middle East and reported on US policy in the region for Voice of America and for USI News, which she founded. She served in Afghanistan as a public diplomacy officer with the US Department of State. Embedded with NATO troops in Forward Operating Bases of Ghazni and Bagram, Farid facilitated conflict resolutions, cultural initiatives, and trained over 90 Afghan journalists including women to help Afghans tell their stories. Upon return from Afghanistan, she joined Georgetown University as a Boren Scholar and taught language and culture at Defense Language Institute. Farid is the recipient of US Department of State Expeditionary Service Award for her service in Afghanistan.
BBG Watch co-founder, Ted Lipien, former VOA acting associate director and head of VOA’s highly successful Polish Service during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy posted on Facebook:
The Washington Post article about the Voice of America by VOA Director Amanda Bennett is so full of glaring inaccuracies and misleading claims, I would not know where to begin to correct them all. I can recommend to American readers who want to know more about VOA my own September 2017 Washington Examiner op-ed, “Equal time for communists? The downhill slide of VOA,” (https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/equal-time-for-communists-the-downhill-slide-of-voa)
In this op-ed, I disprove some of Ms. Bennett’s assertions, but even that is not enough. An independent study of VOA Persian Service, commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) [the new agency name is now the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM)] and released in October 2017 provided even more damning evidence: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY COUNCIL U.S. PERSIAN MEDIA STUDY, Final Synthesis Report, October 6, 2017 (https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2011/11/AFPC_Persian-Language-Broadcasting-Study_synthesis-report.pdf).
Dan Robinson, former Voice of America Senior White House correspondent, former VOA foreign correspondent and former language service director who retired in 2014, posted this comment about Amanda Bennett’s article:
It is predictable that Bennett, one of two Obama-era officials heading VOA and the recently re-branded USAGM, leaps at the opportunity presented by a Trump tweet to pen a longish opinion piece for The Post.
VOA and USAGM (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors) have been doing everything possible to ingratiate themselves with Trump, and various other administration officials.
Trump doesn’t need USAGM to get his words out, especially an agency that continues to issue what are widely viewed as highly-inflated audience figures (claiming in recent weeks to have increased 67 million IN ONE YEAR), and an agency that continues to be plagued by mismanagement and scandal.
Greta Van Susteren’s addition to VOA (she is a ‘volunteer’ contributor, not a full time employee) was a stunt by management, designed to boost VOA’s already damaged journalistic reputation, via among other things her established Twitter following (she uses this Twitter channel both for personal and ‘official’ purposes to promote agency programming, as well as her own books and activities).
Since the 2016 election result, agency officials have hoped that Trump would be impeached or resign, so they could hold on to their jobs.
They have planted alarmist articles in a range of media warning of a potential Trump takeover of the agency. Yet, now with puff pieces such as this one by Bennett, they appear be trying to persuade Trump to just leave the agency alone, or better, pump millions more into its current $800 million+ annual bill to taxpayers, as Ronald Reagan did with the old USIA and VOA in the 1980’s.
Bennett’s cheer leading session notwithstanding, readers should not overlook some important facts:
Just-published results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) show USAGM still at or near the bottom among federal agencies, described in past Post reporting as a ‘regular bottom feeder’.
In 2017 and 2018, USAGM faced calls from members of Congress for at least two investigations, regarding management’s treatment of Mandarin language broadcasters who were dismissed after a program with a Chinese dissident was cut short — by management.
Bennett herself had to dismiss Hausa-speaking staff and launch an investigation into charges that bribes were accepted from a Nigerian official.
Most recently, a program for Cuba produced by R/TV Marti was condemned by the USAGM CEO, John Lansing, who called it “inconsistent with our professional standards and ethics.” [Bennett is not responsible for Marti broadcasts, but John Lansing has the ultimate responsibility for both Martí and VOA.]
Recently, it was discovered that USAGM attempted to register in advance domain names likely to be used by BBG Watch, an independent watchdog website publishing articles uncovering mismanagement and scandals at the agency.
As 2019 approaches, the agency has provided no report, at least none known to the public, on any of these. This agency is famous for investigations that simply. . . . fade away.
Bennett had to order VOA journalists to take — wait for it — JOURNALISM TRAINING, and training courses on how to resist injecting personal bias in their reports. VOA reporters were found to be using their personal, and official, social media channels for advocacy.
Who can forget that in 2016 — under Bennett’s watch — VOA staff members put on a satirical show that lampooned the incoming president, his wife, and a key advisor — all of this taking place in a federal government building on taxpayer time?
President Trump and his advisers may have forgotten that by now, if he was ever made aware. Or it may be that Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, and others in the administration and in the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill are too satisfied with the VOA and its new face, Greta Van Susteren.
Finally, isn’t it about time for The Post to start being honest with readers about the fact that Bennett, who occupies a powerful and influential position in Washington, is married to Donald Graham? That’s information that should be of interest to consumers of Post reporting and the opinions it publishes.
Dan Robinson is a former chief White House correspondent and foreign correspondent for Voice of America. He retired from VOA in 2014.