BBG Watch Commentary
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this commentary had a reference to tweets and retweets allegedly posted on by a manager in the Voice of America Persian Service. We were subsequently informed that the Twitter account, which showed as having been started in March 2013, until it was shut down last week belonged to an impostor and not to any manager or staffer in the VOA Persian Service.
The allegedly fake Twitter account had among its long-time followers the VOA Public Relations Office, the VOA Persian Service, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), at least one senior BBG manager who was at one time in charge of the VOA Persian Service, and scores of VOA, MBN, BBC and other U.S. and foreign journalists, as well as human rights organizations, Iranian pro-democracy activists and many other Iranians. How such an allegedly impostor VOA Persian Service director’s Twitter account could have existed for so long and be followed by the VOA Persian Service itself, as well as VOA journalists and managers, without anybody at the VOA and the BBG alerting the public that it was a fake account, is still a mystery and a stunning admission of management failure at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
For an opinion of how the VOA’s Persian Service treated Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign, see “The end of nation-building: Fulfilling Trump’s promise means halting the endless overseas cash flow,” Analysis/Opinion By Kenneth R. Timmerman, The Washington Times, November 21, 2016.
Possibly emboldened by a near total lack of leadership from Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing and perhaps inspired by Voice of America (VOA) director’s email sent to staff during the 2016 presidential election campaign which praised a VOA report quoting an illegal immigrant calling Donald Trump’s immigration reform proposals as reflecting “hate and prejudice,”, some taxpayer-paid VOA reporters continue to mock President Trump. They openly trash his policies on social media without even trying to hide their VOA and U.S. government affiliation or attempting to present a balanced picture of how Americans of all political persuasions react to the Trump presidency.
Such partisanship and attacks on the U.S. president by VOA reporters is unprecedented in 75 years of VOA’s existence.
The VOA Charter, which is U.S. law, requires VOA employees to produce program content that is balanced with opposing viewpoints.
However, the vast majority of the social media posts by a number of VOA reporters, which BBG Watch has examined, are clearly anti-Trump, completely one-sided, and some even lampoon the U.S. president in truly outrageous and bizarre ways.
Partisanship and personal bias was on full display last December when several VOA newsroom reporters mocked Trump at a holiday party held at the VOA headquarters, calling him “a joke.” They also made fun of Trump’s wife and daughter. At least one VOA staffer live-streamed the anti-Trump jokes, including a sex joke about the future First Lady Melania Trump
It is abundantly obvious that BBG CEO Lansing, VOA director Amanda Bennett and VOA deputy director Sandy Sugawara have failed to properly guide the staff on program usage and policy issues.
A lower-level VOA Newsroom editor reported that “The News Center has received inquiries from several language services whether they should refer to Friday’s executive order as a “Muslim ban.”
These reported inquiries clearly show that the Lansing-Bennett-Sugawara team has failed to lead. The experienced editor properly responded that “the answer is definitely not, because there are many mainly Muslim-majority countries that are not affected by the ban.” Such questions would not have been asked if the senior BBG and VOA leaders have done their job.
Broadcasting Board of Governors Republican member Matt Armstrong, who recently resigned his position on the now advisory board, told contacts in Congress that he has lost faith and confidence in the ability of the BBG Chief Executive Officer John F. Lansing to lead the agency effectively in support of U.S. foreign policy.
According to congressional sources, Matt Armstrong told his contacts on the Hill that when the BBG Board still had full governing authority, Lansing disregarded the recommendations, concerns, and requests of Members of the Board, and has willfully withheld information from the Board.
We could not find the same number of substantive U.S. retweets in defense of Trump’s policies on Twitter accounts of VOA reporters who regularly retweet attacks on his policies. Those can be easily found on the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute Twitter accounts or on conservative U.S. media outlets. VOA newsroom reporters generally do not retweet from conservative U.S. think-tanks and conservative media. In their social media activity, they generally present a distinctly one-sided view of America.
We also could not find any Trump supporters among VOA reporters, of which there are some, retweeting in defense of his administration. They may consider such retweets a violation of the VOA Journalistic Code or may be afraid to identify themselves to VOA and BBG supervisors as being “pro-Trump.”
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, a VOA foreign language service posted online a video in which Donald Trump was called by a Hollywood actor ““punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid.” VOA did not attach to the video a rebuttal or a response of any kind. The video was eventually removed.
While outright, obscene mocking of Donald Trump, such as another VOA reporter calling him “F*ckface Von Clownstick.” and posting memes showing him on a publicly accessible personal Facebook page with a Nazi swastika and as a sex organ, has somewhat diminished in recent weeks, a Voice of America Russian Service reporter reposted on Facebook a French Charlie Hebdo cartoon showing President Trump contemplating choices on a drink dispensing machine: “Expresso,” “Chocolat Chaud,” “Cafe Sans Sucre,” and in biggest letters next to a button, “BOMBE H,” a reference to a nuclear bomb.
A few other VOA reporters, whose generous government salaries and benefits are paid by U.S. taxpayers of all political persuasions, continue to mock Trump’s supporters, which would be a clear proof of personal bias and a violation of journalistic ethics at any news organization, government or private.
One VOA English writer posted on Facebook: “New favorite game: spot the Trump supporter on Metro.” The same reporter also took barbs at Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon, as did another VOA Newsroom reporter who uses “VOA” in his Twitter account name.
The vast majority of tweets and retweets on this “VOA” name bearing account are in opposition to Trump and his policies, including praise and a link to a one-sided analysis of the immigration order by Benjamin Wittes: “Malevolence Tempered by Incompetence: Trump’s Horrifying Executive Order on Refugees and Visas.”
On the inauguration day itself, VOA mocked Donald Trump with a special project called “Trump Bingo,” a link to which was shown prominently on the VOA English news homepage. After BBG Watch reported about it, the “Trump Bingo” was removed.
Before the Lansing-Bennett-Sugawara team took over in 2015/2015, VOA reporters generally observed, with some exceptions, not only the VOA Charter, but also the VOA Journalistic Code or the VOA Conflict of Interest policy.
The VOA Conflict of Interest policy was updated in 2007 by now former VOA senior correspondent Alex Belida.
Here are some excerpts from these now ignored documents:
“VOA recognizes that staff members should be free to engage in creative, civic and personal activities, paid and unpaid, that are separate from their work in our organization. However, before engaging in such outside activities, staff members need to consider whether possible conflicts of interest might arise and consult as needed with supervisors. In all cases, VOA journalists should ensure that any outside activities do not conflict with nor compromise their VOA obligations or the reputation of VOA.”
“For example, before taking freelance journalistic work, paid or unpaid, VOA journalists should make sure that the tone and content of the publication, web site or program are in keeping with the standards of VOA. In general, they should not say or write anything they would not say or write for VOA itself.”
By now, this should have been updated to include personal Twitter feeds, Facebook etc.
More of the policy:
“VOA journalists are also reminded they should not use their professional affiliation with VOA to advocate for political or social causes and when speaking to outside groups, they should refrain from taking sides on public issues.”
“VOA journalists should not perform public relations work, paid or unpaid. Staff members should not counsel individuals or organizations, foreign or domestic, on how to deal successfully with the news media. They should not advise government officials or candidates for public office, whether in the United States or abroad.
“Staff members should not march or rally in support of public causes or movements or sign advertisements or petitions taking a position on public issues, domestic or foreign. They should not lend their names to campaigns, benefit dinners or similar events if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or VOA’s ability to remain neutral in covering the news.
“Staff members should not serve on boards or commissions, paid or unpaid, here or abroad. They should not join advisory committees or similar groups.
“The recommendation on not joining boards or advisory committees applies to émigré groups but does not apply to local or neighborhood organizations including residential organizations, houses of worship, community charities, hobby groups, sports leagues,etc. Educational institutions and alumni groups are also excluded. However, in no case should a staff member’s affiliation with VOA be used to further the goals of any nonprofit, volunteer or other organization.
“If in doubt about your affiliation or activities with any group, consult with a supervisor.
“Similarly, the activities of a staff employee’s family members can create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts. Any staff member who sees a potential for a conflict of interest in the activities of spouse or relatives must discuss the situation with a supervisor.
“Although not bound by the same regulations as employees, Contractors and Purchase Order Vendors should check with their supervisors regarding outside activities that may potentially conflict with their obligations and responsibilities to the Agency, as real or apparent conflicts may affect their continued relationship with the government.”
But the bottom line is this: as it states in the VOA Journalistic Code, “VOA employees recognize that their conduct both on and off the job can reflect on the work of the Voice of America community. They adhere to the highest standards of journalistic professionalism and integrity.”