BBG Watch Commentary
Editor’s Note: A critique of misleading media reports about the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — most if not all of which are believed to have been initiated by BBG and Voice of America (VOA) officials and/or some of VOA’s own reporters who have personal links to editors at such outlets as Politico, The Washington Post, and MSNBC — was posted on social media by a former VOA reporter Dan Robinson.
Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent.
Some of Robinson’s former VOA newsroom colleagues and a few of VOA’s foreign language service staffers, not to mention BBG’s and VOA’s senior leaders, clearly disagree with Robinson’s defense of the VOA Charter which calls for non-partisanship, balance and objectivity.
Under the leadership of BBG CEO John Lansing, VOA director Amanda Bennett and VOA deputy director Sandy Sugawara, VOA has reached an unprecedented level of political bias and partisanship of the kind that The Washington Post, Politico and MSNBC speculate might happen at some future time at VOA during the Trump administration.
Partisanship, political bias and mismanagement have already taken hold at the Voice of America long before Donald Trump became president. Last summer, VOA director Bennett in an email to staff herself highly praised a completely one-sided VOA Spanish Service report in which an illegal immigrant accused Donald Trump of “hate and prejudice.” Bennett quoted this accusation without any balance or an alternative viewpoint. Her email had set the tone for VOA’s slide into partisanship and one-sided reporting during the 2016 presidential election campaign even though later Bennett tried to warn the staff not to engage in partisan commentary on social media and expressed support for the VOA Charter.
Both Bennett and Lansing failed to provide leadership and to make it clear to staff that both U.S. law and the VOA Charter prevent VOA journalists from engaging in advocacy journalism on behalf of partisan causes and politicians. Bennett has promoted advocacy journalism, including one-sided panels which produced false and misleading accusations about ethnic relations in the United States. These accusations were later repeated as fact in VOA and BBG press releases.
BBG employees, whether they are Trump supporters or not, are clearly unhappy with their senior leaders. In a 2016 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), employees gave BBG and VOA senior executives record low ratings in the category of leadership and encouraging employee engagement.
There is plenty of evidence pointing to a leadership vacuum at the agency. Using their online VOA I.D.s, several VOA reporters continue to post to social media cartoons and articles mocking Donald Trump and criticizing his recent political decisions. Such posting, including one-sided VOA news reports, have diminished somewhat, but there are still examples of new ones appearing almost everyday.
These VOA journalists openly identify themselves and being opposed to Donald Trump and his policies. They link their opposition with their VOA identity — an unacceptable practice at any news organization but especially at the Voice of America where many VOA reporters are U.S. federal employees collecting federal salaries. The agency itself is funded by U.S. tax dollars ($777 million in FY 2017). Any supporters of Donald Trump among VOA journalists, however, do not appear to engage in such partisan activities which violate the VOA Charter. Many are also afraid to reveal their political preferences to their partisan-driven supervisors and senior managers.
The Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors have been so mismanaged that even former president Barack Obama gave up on the agency’s leadership composed of former BBG Board chairman Jeff Shell and the Lansing-Bennett-Sugawara troika. Shortly before leaving office, Obama signed into law a legislative amendment to reform the agency along the lines now decried by Politico, The Washington Post and MSNBC as becoming dangerous under Trump.
As Dan Robinson rightly points out, the bipartisan bill had nothing to do with Donald Trump since Obama, Hillary Clinton (who by the way had called the BBG “practically defunct”), and the most partisan among VOA reporters did not expect for a moment that Trump would win. On the election night, the VOA management had not one but two already written “Hillary Wins” broadcasts and nothing for the possibility of Trump’s victory. In their first messages to staff after the presidential election, neither Bennett nor Lansing could bring themselves to mentioning Donald Trump by name.
The current BBG/VOA leadership should not the surprised that the agency is in free fall under their watch. As one BBG Watch commentator put it, “these three [Lansing, Bennett, Sugawara] “have found new depths of creating chaos and undermining the product.”
Another commentator posting on BBG Watch wrote: “The arrival of the new President’s envoys at the VOA/BBG headquarters is sending chills down the spines of some not only in the Cohen Building, but also in Prague. Time for change, time for hope.” Some RFE/RL journalists, who are not U.S. federal government employees, are also engaging in anti-Trump commentary on social media but not nearly as much as VOA reporters, many of whom are U.S. government employees. RFE/RL, just like the rest of BBG’s media outlets, is also funded by U.S. tax dollars.
The following Charlie Hebdo cartoon was reposted on Facebook by a VOA foreign language service correspondent around the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president.
US government-funded media mismanaged for decades
By Dan Robinson
DAN ROBINSON: I would like to speak to members of this group, and I am posting this on a few other radio-related FB groups, to address the wave of recent press reports, and some editorials, including by The Washington Post, fanning hysteria about what Donald Trump might do with the Voice of America. So, I ask for your patience and certainly appreciate feedback on this.
Many have likely seen the Politico pieces about this issue. There was a major Washington Post editorial in December, and many media outlets have picked up this story.
First, anyone concerned about full disclosure by media should know that both Politico pieces were written by the same person, a reporter who spent about four months as an intern at VOA. This reporter acknowledged that I had made a “good point” suggesting that Politico had an obligation to acknowledge this connection, however brief it was. Politico never did so, unless I have missed it.
The MSNBC report by Rachel Maddow that aired January 25th that many also have seen, contained a number of significant errors and was misleading in other ways. VOA current and former employees have since communicated displeasure to MSNBC about that report and asked for corrections.
The 2017 defense authorization bill was signed not by Donald Trump but by Barack Obama before he left office. Yet, a wave of articles and editorials since the election have implied that this was some sort of plot to enable Trump to achieve a “takeover” of VOA and other BBG-managed media. It was not.
US government-funded media have been mismanaged for decades. This is particularly true of VOA, which of course has its permanent corps of defenders, as does the Broadcasting Board of Governors which replaced the old U.S. Information Agency in the 1990’s.
Congress was fed up long ago with dysfunction at BBG, and specifically at VOA. Bipartisan legislation to restructure BBG was passed at one point in the House. But direct lobbying of Congress by BBG officials succeeded in blocking a vote in the Senate. Eventually, some key aspects of restructuring ended up in the defense bill signed by….Barack Obama in December.
The Obama administration was fed up with VOA and BBG, which have fumbled along for years. They issue what many observers believe to be highly-inflated audience figures. In 2016, BBG notched another year of being rated among the worst places to work in the federal government.
As painful as it is for me to say this, having spent so many years there, VOA and the larger BBG have long been ripe for downsizing, at minimum.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle remain disgusted with the BBG and seemingly endless employee morale issues there.
Recent articles are also hypocritical since commercial media organizations have long viewed VOA and its parent agency the BBG, as propaganda outlets, a view that is still widespread among members of the Washington press corps.
Are there many reasons to be concerned about Trump administration treatment of media? Yes. But to hold VOA and its parent agency out as journalistic paragons of virtue, and imply they are just the same as non-government media, ignores basic facts.
Whether under Obama, or now under Trump, USG paid journalists, of which I was one, can no longer pretend they are just like their friends working for commercial media.
The Obama administration endorsed a whole of government approach in countering foreign disinformation. That does not, and cannot, exclude participation in that goal by VOA.
Whatever the Trump administration decides to do with broken U.S. government funded media, it is hard not to think that taxpayers also do not expect VOA and its parent agency to be a key part of that effort, and that fact should not be lost on anyone.
Former White House, Congressional, Foreign Correspondent
Voice of America (1979-2014)