BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary
U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) has ignored “The Donald” pro-President Trump exhibition in Albania by Albanian artist Avni Delvina which has attracted attention from Albanian and international media. The artist lives in Italy. His previous exhibition in Albania’s National History Museum was sponsored by the Italian Embassy in Tirana.
The latest exhibition of Avni Delvina’s work, which ended today, featured both provocative and whimsical portraits of Donald Trump. One was a drawing of Vladimir Putin holding a Donald Trump mask.
VOA Albanian Service did not post on its website on the pro-Trump art exhibition even though it has video journalists working for it in Albania who have been reporting on other cultural events, including a recent photographic exhibition.
The last time the service has posted online an interview with the artist was in 2013, a search of the VOA Albanian website showed.
[UPDATE: After BBG – USAGM reported on the Voice of America’s failure to cover the Avni Delvina “The Donald” art exhibition in Tirana, the VOA Albanian Service has posted a report on February 24, 2019, a day after the official closing of the exhibition.]
In addition to being widely covered by Albanian media, “The Donald” exhibition in Tirana of Avni Delvina pro-Trump art was covered by Mexican Exelsior, French Le Point, TV5Monde, and News4Europe. The French News Agency, Agence France Presse (AFP), reported in French, English, and Spanish: “Wielding a weapon made of dollar bills, tackling Barack Obama, challenging George Soros to an arm wrestle — Donald Trump is the hero of a Tirana art show by an Albanian painter who considers the US president an ‘idol’.”
Our search of the Voice of America English and Albanian news websites has produced no evidence of any coverage of the exhibition. The U.S. Embassy In Tirana also had no social media posts about the pro-Trump art exhibition which received considerable news coverage by Albanian media. The U.S. Embassy, unlike VOA, does not claim to be a news organization. It may have wanted to avoid appearance of being a sponsor of the exhibition since it did not sponsor it. VOA had no such excuse.
Donald Trump appears not to be a favorite of the current high-level VOA executives who were appointed during the Obama administration and have not been replaced by the Trump administration. Some VOA reporters who do not want to be identified, fearing that it could harm their chances for promotion and better assignments under the current Obama era management, say it is likely that many VOA reporters and editors may be at this point reluctant or even afraid to initiate coverage which would put Donald Trump in a favorable light or appear critical of his political foes.
When VOA reporters and editors see their high-level U.S. government executives and even mid-level managers expressing in public their support for partisan U.S. Democratic Party causes and posting photographs of themselves and their family members with Democratic Party figures, journalists draw appropriate conclusions what may be good for their careers, critics of the agency’s top management have warned. If a VOA stringer in Tirana sees VOA managers in Washington announcing on Facebook their personal links to the Democratic Party, he or she may be reluctant to initiate news coverage which could be seen as favorable to Donald Trump or the Republican Party. A VOA manager in another VOA foreign language service which during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign posted a particularly one-sided vicious attack on Donald Trump was posting on a personal Facebook page numerous photographs with a high-level Democratic Party U.S. official.
In an email sent out to staff in July 2016, VOA Director Amanda Bennett had quoted an illegal immigrant describing Donald Trump’s immigration program in a VOA Spanish Service interview as being driven by “hate and prejudice” without mentioning whether the report had balance as required by the VOA Charter. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, VOA Ukrainian Service posted a video in which Donald Trump was described “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid.” The one-sided election campaign video attack was eventually removed but only after repeated outside criticism.
Amanda Bennett said that she supports the highest journalistic standards and at one point ordered anti-bias training for VOA reporters, but anti-Trump comments from some VOA journalists posting on social media continued to appear for well over a year after her anti-bias training announcement.
In December 2016, Voice of America newsroom reporters, editors and managers, who are U.S. federal employees, collaborated on preparing a holiday skit, in which in a U.S. federal building and on government time they lampooned President-elect’s daughter Ivanka Trump, told a sex joke about Mrs. Trump, and said repeatedly that Donald Trump was “a joke.” VOA reporters streamed some of these jokes online and posted photos of themselves making fun of Donald Trump and his family.
VOA’s parent agency CEO John F. Lansing has been at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) since 2015. The previous name of the agency was the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). John Lansing told NPR in February 2017, “we have the greatest respect for whoever is the President.”
As CEO John Lansing was saying these words, there were multiple obscene anti-Trump social media comments and memes posted by VOA Central English Newsroom reporters, some of which remained online for many more months after Lansing’s NPR interview. Some of the public social media postings by VOA reporters showed Trump with a Nazi swastika over his head and as a male sex organ.
When checked in November 2017, public social media posts of some VOA reporters included such descriptions of President Trump as “f*uck cheeto with hair” and “three cheers for f*cking Trumpy and his neo-Nazi crew.” Another VOA reporter referred to Donald Trump on social media as “F*ckface Von Clownstick.” For the first time in its history, on the U.S. Election Day in November 2016, the Voice of America did not have a ready-to-broadcast profile of the Republican Party candidate, but it had two ready-to-air profiles of Hillary Clinton.
To our knowledge, current staff of VOA Albanian Service did not engage in public posting of anti-Trump memes and social media comments. These violations of VOA professional standards were limited mostly to several VOA English Newsroom reporters and a few reporters in some other VOA language services.
Amanda Bennett met with Albanian President Ilir Meta in Tirana in 2017 during one of her trips abroad as the VOA Director. The VOA Public Relations Office said that the Albanian President told Ms. Bennett he relies on VOA for international and regional news.
It is important to point out that the Albanian Service has had a reputation of being one of the most professional and successful at VOA even though some Albanian-American critics say the service appears to maintain a potentially dangerously cozy relationship with some leading Albanian government officials and politicians. Some VOA employees have received and accepted honorary recognition medals from the Albanian government. Some Albanian politicians are, however, critical of VOA Albanian Service. Prime Minister Edi Rama accused Voice of America of broadcasting “from the garbage bin” after the outlet’s Albanian service published an investigation into how his party allegedly manipulated hiring in the prison system. VOA rejected the criticism.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett met with Prime Minister Edi Rama during her 2017 trip to Albania.
VOA Albanian Service Facebook and Twitter pages do not show a particularly strong audience engagement in the number of “likes” and comments. Some of the few comments that are posted on Facebook appear to be originated by the same individuals showing their contempt for President Trump. The VOA Albanian Service Twitter page has practically no “likes,” retweets or comments of any type.
Whatever is the cause of ignoring the pro-Trump Albanian artist by VOA at this time, we can’t think of any good reasons for not having a report on the VOA Albanian Service website and social media pages on his just concluded exhibition in Tirana.
Our brief search of the VOA Albanian Service Facebook page did not produce any sign of coverage even though the service had a post on the British “National Wedding in the United Kingdom” fashion show. VOA Albanian Service Twitter feed also had nothing on the pro-Trump exhibition.
What coverage of the art exhibition by the Albanian Service could have provided is some balance to frequent anti-Trump comments and memes being posted on the service’s Facebook page under its news reports about President Trump.
Here is one example of an anti-Trump meme comment posted today on the VOA Albanian Service Facebook page.
There is nothing wrong about VOA posting news in which President Trump is criticized, but the VOA Charter requires both balance and comprehensiveness. If the VOA Albanian Service Facebook page can have a comment from an Albanian reader showing a meme of Trump on Putin’s leash, it should not be afraid to report on a painting exhibition by an Albanian artist showing Trump challenging his critics.
Some individuals abroad, including Russian, Chinese and Iranian trolls, use social media all the time to attack the United States, its institutions and its politicians. If a foreign artist shows that there are Albanians who support Donald Trump, what is wrong with the Voice of America reporting on it?
VOA should, of course, also report on what the Albanian critics of the exhibition, if there were any, as well as critics of Donald Trump have to say. That is how the Voice of America used to cover news and cultural events with balance and fairness under most previous VOA and agency directors. It would have been just as bad if the same highly respected artist had an anti-Trump exhibition in Albania and VOA Albanian Service ignored it.
Are VOA reporters and editors afraid of something?
Several retired and current Voice of America reporters have contributed to writing this BBG – USAGM Watch commentary.