BBG Watch EXCLUSIVE
VOA Director Orders Bias Training In Wake of Criticisms
By BBG Watch Reporters
In a memo to staff, VOA Director Amanda Bennett says she has ordered a series of bias training sessions in the wake of criticisms of bias in VOA coverage of, and commentary on, the U.S. presidential campaign.
In recent weeks, BBG Watch, which has emerged as the primary independent watchdog for the troubled agency — the Broadcasting Board of Governors — has noted personal social media posts by some VOA journalists, commentaries, and a video posted on VOA’s global website that it said showed clear political and other biases.
The allegations of bias in VOA news and opinion products confronted Bennett and her deputy, Sandy Sugawara — both with newspaper backgrounds — with what is likely their first major crisis since taking over in May.
In her memo, Bennett said:
VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT:
“It is always extremely important – and especially so during this polarized election season – that we all scrutinize ourselves and our coverage for bias. To help us do just that, Steve Springer will be conducting best practices bias training in each Division over the next two weeks. I strongly encourage that each of you make a special effort to attend his session – and not just those of you who will be actively involved in covering the campaign. Avoiding bias is important for all our coverage, and the more we as news people learn about how to cover issues fairly without pulling any punches the better we will all be.
I am posting some additional material on my VOA Director Chat Facebook page, including the text of a message I submitted for posting to BBG Watch on this subject. If you would like to join the discussion, send the email you used to sign up on Facebook to Sahar Mohammadi in Public Affairs and she will add you to the group.”
Steve Springer, a former CNN and al-Jazeera staffer who was also a former head of VOA’s central newsroom, is said to be organizing and presenting the training sessions.
Since coming on board at VOA, Bennett has reached out to and encouraged input from, staff including use of a Facebook discussion group that is closed to public view.
Reports by BBG Watch have drawn attention to posts by at least one individual identifying as a VOA journalist posting on a personal but publicly accessible Facebook page anti-Trump memes. One included a GIF of Trump with a Nazi swastika swinging over his head, another a GIF of a penis bearing a resemblance to Trump.
BBG Watch also identified reports and opinion pieces on the U.S. election campaign and candidates that were “highly partisan, lacking in balance, and not paired with any countervailing information or opinions within the same single report, single website segment, or single website page.”
In a piece published in May, a writer for American Thinker raised questions about moderators of a high profile VOA program Issues in the News, Fred Barnes and Barbara Slavin, whom the writer identified as having anti-Trump connections, or having posted anti-Trump remarks.
“During the GOP primaries,” said the article, “the [VOA] program has repeatedly focused on the Republican nomination race, and in particular on Donald Trump. To say the coverage and discussion of Trump has been less than flattering would be an understatement.”
The American Thinker piece pointed to what it identified as anti-Trump tweets Slavin had posted or re-tweeted, reflecting what it called “negative and subjective views of his candidacy.”
A June 16th article on the Shadowproof website drew attention to a commentary written by Jamie Kirchick, published under the VOA page called “US Opinion and Commentary,” where Slavin’s and Barnes commentaries also appeared without being paired in the same web space with any balancing content or identifying the authors’ connections with the Voice of America.
Under the headline “U.S State Media Runs Hit Piece on Bernie Sanders“, author Dan Wright noted that Kirchick had “elsewhere openly advocated for the election of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as president.”
“Kirchick’s polemical style,” the piece said, “includes numerous misleading and malicious claims, such as Senator Sanders has ‘scorn for basic democratic procedure,’ and that Sanders ‘has spent his entire life extolling the virtue of left-wing dictatorships’.”
“Senator Sanders, according to this story in a US state media outlet, has been a ‘shill’ for undemocratic regimes, with the conclusion being drawn that Sanders does not really believe in democracy, despite his own proclamations of being a democratic socialist,” said Wright.
Former VOA Chief White House Correspondent Dan Robinson wrote that recent articles “put a finger on something that has been a growing concern in recent years at VOA. . .one that VOA and BBG officials prefer to keep quiet, [involving] real or apparent conflicts of interest involving reporting and commentary about global and U.S. events.”
“Taxpayers should get more information about connections the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, and other media outlets it manages have with various Washington-based and other think tanks spanning the ideological spectrum,” Robinson wrote.
Most recently, BBG Watch drew attention to a video posted by VOA that “encouraged viewers to think about a purported equivalency between Islamist terrorism and homegrown American terrorists, U.S. citizens who may be inspired by racism or hate of gays.”
BBG Watch’s Ted Lipien said:
“The VOA video makes a big deal out of semantic differences between the label of ‘Islamic’ versus ‘Islamist,’ which is a legitimate point, but it overlooks or glances over other highly material facts when comparing relatively rare racist-inspired terrorism in the U.S. with Islamist terrorism in the U.S. and abroad.”
These overlooked facts would include, Lipien said, “countless suicide bombings against innocent civilians; genocide of Yazidis and Christians; slavery of women; executions of children and by children; mass rapes; crucifixions; throwing homosexuals from rooftops; rocket attacks on civilian targets in Israel; and knife attacks on Israeli men and women.”
Former Broadcasting Board of Governors member Blanquita Cullum described the video as emblematic of “many serious problems at the Voice of America” and “indicative of the depth of those problems and the dangers this agency now poses through lack of balanced reporting which in turn results in confusion, disinformation, misinformation and a selective, narrow and superficial view of issues.”
The first of what could be several internal meetings about the the bias controversy is scheduled to take place this Thursday.
In a separate comment for BBG Watch addressed to Lipien under his op-ed, “Robert E. Sherwood on avoiding election coverage bias at Voice of America,” Bennett described the remedial actions. Bennett said “constructive criticism is always welcomed, as it helps us get better” adding she welcomes any input that helps VOA “do a much better job in following our Charter’s mandate to be impartial and fair.”
“Like all American media, VOA is trying hard to cover the candidates and issues appropriately — neither pulling punches, nor exhibiting bias,” said Bennett.