BBG Watch EXCLUSIVE Commentary
Defying her critics in the Voice of America (VOA) Central English Newsroom who object strongly to VOA being engaged in countering violent extremism in any form, Kelu Chao, acting director of U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet targeting audiences overseas, announced that VOA had indeed launched its “Extremism Watch Desk” late last year “to help enhance” VOA’s “terrorism coverage.” The name “Extremism Watch Desk” rather than “Countering Violent Extremism Desk” may have been chosen to appease internal critics in VOA Newsroom and to make the name more appropriate for a news organization. In her email, Ms. Chao also outlined some of VOA’s recent accomplishments, mostly in foreign language services. “Every day, journalists and broadcasters across our agency are making a difference in the lives of audiences around the world. So as we begin 2016, I want to take a moment to share a few of the great things happening here at VOA, and to say thank you for making this past year such a successful one for our agency,” Ms. Chao wrote.
“Extremism Watch Desk” was mentioned briefly toward the end of Ms. Chao’s email. It does not appear to be doing much or playing a significant role in VOA operations and programs. According to an internal source, “Extremism Watch Desk” is not countering or even directly engaged in watching ISIS on the ground, but rather re-writing reports originated by others. It lacks experts on terrorism. According to a source, one of the internal BBG reports the VOA “Extremism Watch Desk” receives is called the Da’esh Daily. It’s put out by the BBG’s Office of Performance Review staff. This daily summary of Da’esh content by United States International Media (USIM), i.e. BBG, is reportedly prepared by one of BBG’s most highly paid SES executives who has journalism background but has not been doing news reporting for years and is not an expert on the Middle East or terrorism.
Sources told us that Ms. Chao would not have been able to establish “Extremism Watch Desk” without full support from BBG’s new CEO and Director John Lansing. But even with his support and the backing of the bipartisan BBG board led by chairman Jeff Shell, she is still facing strong opposition from a small and vocal but largely inconsequential group of Voice of America Central English Newsroom correspondents.
While no scientific polls have been taken, their much more numerous colleagues in VOA’s foreign language services have been silent and are not believed to be opposed in any large numbers to actively countering violent extremism with good, fact-based journalism. Some VOA Central English Newsroom correspondents object to even discussing any such efforts and see it as a violation of their journalistic integrity.
Journalists working for BBG’s non-federal media entities also do not appear to object to countering violent extremism and many welcome it as a worthy challenge. But Voice of America senior correspondent (VOA English) Jim Malone spoke at the October 8, 2015 Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) meeting in Washington against VOA journalists countering violent extremism.
VOA CENTRAL ENGLISH NEWSROOM CORRESPONDENT JIM MALONE: “Let me be clear. As a policy goal, I know of no one who would argue with the notion of countering violent extremism. But the growing focus on and funding of the initiative within VOA and the apparent desire to involve journalists in pursuit of a policy goal casts doubt on our independence and our journalistic integrity.”
Outside observers noted that such objections may spell political suicide for VOA’s taxpayer funding.
One former Voice of America staffer had this comment after reading the statement made to the Broadcasting Board of Governors by VOA senior correspondent Jim Malone:
FORMER VOA STAFFER: “Reading this convinces me he is in dreamland.
The place would not even EXIST were it not for the broader objectives at the moment of helping to support policy objectives, regardless of the journalism component.”
Speaking as a member of the public at the same BBG meeting last October, Adam Clayton Powell III, President of the Public Diplomacy Council and a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California, offered a counterpoint to Jim Malone’s remarks even though he stressed that he was not responding to what the VOA senior correspondent said earlier.
ADAM CLAYTON POWELL III: “These are, by any objective standard, practices which civilized people everywhere can and do condemn. These are, by any objective standard, practices that the best journalism can and should expose, to its credit. These are, by any objective standard, what America opposes.
Your challenge and your opportunity is to state this clearly and forcefully, every day, every hour.”
Negligible Social Media Presence
Citing their multi-million dollar research contract with Gallup, BBG executives claim that VOA has a weekly audience of 187.7 million, and the entire BBG 226 million, but there is widespread skepticism how meaningful these numbers are in showing impact and audience engagement in the most critical countries and regions, since they apparently include placement programs from which news has been eliminated and a large VOA audience to placement programs in countries like Mexico. Audience engagement, which can be seen on VOA’s websites, is minimal with just very few exceptions. If these claims of BBG’s large audiences and impact were both believable and real, the White House, the State Department and the Congress would no doubt reward VOA with a great deal of attention, praise and more money.
Most of the VOA Central English Newsroom reporters who protested most vigorously against VOA countering violent extremism have a truly negligible social media presence, usually no more than a few hundred Twitter followers, in some cases even less. They have not been able to generate any significant audience engagement on their own and would be incapable of countering violent extremism even if asked to do so by the Obama administration, a prospect which still does not appear even remotely possible. Some of BBG’s so-called surrogate media outlets already do and could do more of violent extremism countering if they were better managed and provided with adequate resources.
ISIS supporters have thousands of Twitter and other social media followers; VOA Central English Newsroom correspondents are not even a close match by a very long shot. Some of the most popular BBC correspondents have tens of thousands, and some even over a hundred thousand of Twitter followers. If VOA Central News correspondents were in the same class, perhaps their objections would be taken seriously, but sadly they are not, not even close. They are not engaging with the audience in any substantive way.
Unlike, CNN, The New York Times or Russia’s RT, most of their reports produce very few comments from international readers on the VOA English news website. The group has no political constituency behind them in the United States which could help VOA preserve its budget and pay their $100,000-$150,000-plus federal government salaries.
Lawmakers Object to Keeping Status Quo
“Extremism Watch Desk” may in fact be largely meaningless for BBG’s and VOA’s future fortunes on Capitol Hill, where both Republicans and Democrats are highly displeased with the BBG and propose drastic structural reforms in their bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Lawmakers are also displeased with Mr. Shell’s, Mr. Lansing’s and the current board’s opposition to the key reforms in H.R. 2323. Members of Congress interpret “lobbying against the bill by Mr. Lansing” as a desire “to keep the status quo,” a disappointed senior congressional staffer told BBG Watch.
“Extremism Watch Desk” appears to be too little too late. Even the Obama White House and the State Department have realized some time ago that the Voice of America is largely irrelevant for countering violent extremism in the Islamic world and that other BBG media entities, such as Alhurra TV, Radio Sawa, and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are not doing much better. Years of mismanagement under the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its bureaucratic arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), have made VOA a mere shadow of what it used to be during the Cold War under the United States Information Agency (USIA) before the BBG was created. The same is true to a lesser extent for BBG’s non-federal entities which have also been damaged by consecutive BBG boards and especially the BBG bureaucracy.
Poor Journalism Continues
Critics believe that the mismanagement and effective dismantling of the VOA Central Newsroom had started many years ago under pressure from BBG’s bureaucracy, but it accelerated during the tenure of former VOA director David Ensor who with his deputy Steve Redisch pushed the so-called “43 VOA Newsrooms” concept.
While the VOA central news operation was being undermined, resources went not to VOA foreign language services but to the BBG ever expanding IBB bureaucracy. VOA was forced to employ hundreds of poorly-paid and exploited contract employees in violation of government rules and congressional mandates. In late December, three of VOA’s contract employees have filed a $400 million class action lawsuit against the BBG on behalf of themselves and all other workers who are similarly situated.
As a result of the weakening of Central News, VOA has lost a sense of mission, leadership, and the quality of central news content has deteriorated as the best VOA English correspondents left in disgust. The quality of news content produced by some of the VOA foreign language services has also deteriorated due to lack of central guidance and leadership, but some VOA language services remain effective despite diminishing resources.
A “Concerned BBG Employee” sent us a comment about recent Voice of America English blog posts and a VOA U.S. media review which strongly suggested to VOA overseas audiences that Americans are largely “selfish,” “lazy” and in a “state of fear” of ISIS.
CONCERNED BBG EMPLOYEE: “So we can’t counter violent extremism but we can publish stories calling Americans cheap, lazy, and running scared. Personally, I’m fed up, can somebody step up and take charge of this place.”
Keith Perron, an international broadcaster based in Asia, offered this observation:
KEITH PERRON: “If you take the same story published by the VOA and CNN International, finding over 300 or 400 comments and thousands of shares for the CNN International story on their websites is easy. I have yet to see anything above 50 comments on the VOA website for the same story from VOA.
After President Obama’s State of the Union Address, Keith Perron offered this comment:
KEITH PERRON: “Before I begin. I need to state that I have always been a fan of the Voice of America and a supporter of the VOA’s mission. But…….
To be honest. I found VOA’s coverage of Obama’s final State of the Union Address a bit awful.
The BBC World Service, BBC News (television), CNN International (not domestic) had far better coverage. Even the domestic services of China Radio International (English and Chinese) had better coverage.
I have to be honest. I expected more from the VOA on this one.”
BBG Not Mentioned
The Washington Post article, “Obama administration plans shake-up in propaganda war against ISIS” by national security reporters By Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung on January 8 makes absolutely no mention of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America, Alhurra TV, Radio Sawa or Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.
It would have been inconceivable that a similar article on countering propaganda written during the Cold War and quoting U.S. government officials would not have mentioned Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America numerous times.
“Had that happened during the Cold War [a government agency, VOA and RFE/RL ignored in media reports, as well as by the White House and the State Department] heads would roll, major reforms would be implemented and boards would be replaced,” a former BBG executive told BBG Watch, “but nothing like that is happening now — yet another sign of how irrelevant the agency has become due to poor structure and mismanagement.” “Absent major structural reforms, one CEO, no matter how good or how experienced, will not be able to fix this mess,” a former BBG executive said.
Mismanagement Under BBG/IBB Continues
Crippling power and digital equipment outages last month at the Voice of America, lasting hours and in some cases days without effective fixes, have shown how wasteful, disorganized and incompetent IBB has become. After many of the best VOA Central English correspondents have left in recent years, understaffed and poorly-managed VOA newsroom was far behind BBC, Russia’s RT, Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), Al Jazeera, New York Times, Washington Post and hundreds of other international and U.S. media in reporting on sexual assaults on women in Cologne. By sitting on the story for well over a day, VOA Central English Newsroom was in the company of government-run media in such countries as North Korea, Cuba, and Iran.
Kelu Chao’s email on January 8 said that the Extremism Watch Desk “shares information with other BBG broadcast entities to generate content in English for use throughout the house while adhering to the VOA Charter and our Journalistic Code.”
Who Is Kelu Chao?
Unlike her critics in Central English Newsroom, Kelu Chao’s background is in VOA’s foreign language services which account for the vast majority of VOA’s overseas audience. In more than twenty years, she has worked as a studio announcer, field reporter, editor, Hong Kong Bureau Chief, Mandarin Service Chief, East Asia Division Director, and VOA’s first Language Programming Director from 2001 to 2007. A native of Taiwan, she earned a Bachelor’s in Journalism from National Chengchi University and Masters’ in both Speech Communication and Instructional Media from Kent State University. In addition to being Voice of America Acting Director, she continues in her duties as Associate Director for Language Programming, where she oversees the production and distribution of television, radio, Internet, and mobile content in nearly 50 languages.
Kelu Chao and “Countering Violent Extremism Desk” Under Attack in July 2015
Last July, Kelu Chao was sharply questioned by a number of Voice of America Central English Newsroom correspondents about members of the bipartisan BBG board promoting “countering of violent extremism” and her own assertion that some VOA programming was singled out as a way to combat violent extremism.
According to an internal email from one of the VOA participants in the meeting last July, a longtime VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent “expressed some concern that a VOA program was singled out not for its journalistic strength but for its value as an extremism countering tool.”
Kelu Chao reportedly “responded by saying the Hausa program Dandalin has a very good record of pointing out IS record in regards to violence against women and children, and is an effective way to counter extremism.”
Another VOA English Central Newsroom staffer asked “if this kind of agenda driven journalism was consistent with our [VOA] charter.” The questioner was referring to a BBG editorial meeting that was attended by a number of high level VOA executives at the Hudson Institute where BBG member Kenneth Weinstein is the President and Chief Executive Officer.
Kelu Chao reportedly “responded with the assertion that VOA’s presence at the event enhanced the knowledge of who we [VOA] are and what we do.”
A VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent reportedly “suggested that VOA’s attendance at a meeting intended to ‘counter’ violent extremism was clearly counter to the [VOA] charter.”
Kelu Chao reportedly said that the VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent “was reading too much into the meeting; it was a one day retreat she said; the goal was to talk about how we [VOA] do things.” According to an internal Voice of America email, Kelu Chao said at the July 2015 staff meeting “there were no ‘concessions’ made by VOA.”
A VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent reportedly “asked why the [Hudson Institute BBG retreat] meeting was off the record which suggested there was something to hide.”
Kelu Chao reportedly responded that “she didn’t organize the event and it wasn’t up to her as to its public status.”
A VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent “was insistent the agenda of the meeting was clearly counter to our [VOA] charter,” an internal VOA memo said.
Kelu Chao reportedly responded that “there was nothing on the agenda [of the Hudson Institute ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ meeting] that can’t be public.”
In a later exchange, Kelu Chao was reportedly “asked point blank if she would push to make the meeting public,” but the writer of an internal VOA memo who is connected with the VOA Central English Newsroom noted that he “didn’t see any commitment made.”
Another VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent reportedly “challenged VOA inclusion in the symposium and said our very presence undermines our [VOA’s] credibility.”
Kelu Chao reportedly said “she views it differently, and that the use of the words undermine or countering wasn’t part of VOA’s presentation, rather VOA officials simply talked about who we are.”
Another VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent reportedly “read from the [Hudson Institute meeting] Agenda statement saying that the goal was to coordinate our message.”
Kelu Chao reportedly “insisted that no one in the State Department is telling us what to broadcast.”
A staffer asked about the role of Hudson Institute in the meeting and Kelu Chao reportedly said that “Governor Weinstein organized the meeting (Weinstein is head of the Hudson Institute) but wasn’t aware of any overt role that the Hudson Institute had in the meeting.”
A VOA Central English Newsroom correspondent reportedly “recounted a conversation she had with Sr. Management where she was asked to give priority to a story that had little news value but that originated from the VOA CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] desk. The question was “whether or not this constituted proof that we were receiving pressure to play up CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] stories.”
VOA Central English Newsroom head Clara Dominquez reportedly said that “she had no agenda in pushing the CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] story and that as far as she is concerned reporters have the freedom to push back on stories that they believe are editorially unsound.”
The email writer who was at the July 2015 staff meeting concluded that “amongst the staff there remained many unanswered questions about the CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] Desk.”
Kelu Chao reportedly said that “the CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] desk was the result of 8 million dollars to expand our presence around the world and amongst that money has been used to offer 8 people positions.” She also reportedly said that “the goal was to enhance the ability of our services to get language content translated into English more quickly.”
According to the July 2015 email writer, “there was much confusion as to why Central News was not asked (or purposely excluded) from the creation of the Desk, and what its exact goals were and whether or not some of those goals might include reporting to DoD or other Govt. institutions.”
The writer listed the following questions:
– What is it, who works for it?
– Why Central news did not know of its existence?
– An explanation of why we were not involved in its products?
– Is there pressure to make CVE Desk stories top line items?
Further in the July 2015 email, the VOA writer said that one of the VOA Central English Newsroom correspondents “asked a very pointed question as to whether or not considering the danger that we have put our correspondents, and because this is a clear violation of the Code of Ethics if those who attended the meeting [BBG meeting on countering violent extremism] could in good conscience remain in their positions.”
The July 2015 email from a VOA writer continued:
I may have missed the response to this question, but I don’t see one.
As this point the meeting began to circle its tail.
This reporter can say without editorializing at all that the mood in the newsroom was dark, and that very few journalists were satisfied, despite reassurances that the reality of the event was being misinterpreted.
Concerns centered around the optics of the event. Despite being reportedly ‘dead boring’ our mere attendance may put our overseas journalists at risk.
It was noted that public perception already leans towards us being a governmental mouthpiece and that doing anything to reinforce that notion compromises our broader goals of being a provider of free and fair information to our viewers.
In Conclusion I choose to quote from Pres. Jimmy Carter’s memo of understanding on the Re-organization of the USIA from 1977.
• Keeping the Voice of America’s news gathering and reporting functions independent and objective. The Voice’s charter, enacted into law in 1976, provides that “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive”; that VOA will “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions”; and that VOA will present U.S. policies “clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.” Under this Administration, VOA will be solely responsible for the content of news broadcasts—for there is no more valued coin than candor in the international marketplace of ideas. I also plan to nominate an Associate Director who will be responsible for the administration and supervision of the Voice of America.
• The new agency’s activities must be straightforward, open, candid, balanced, and representative. They will not be given over to the advancement of the views of any one group, any one party or any one Administration. The agency must not operate in a covert, manipulative, or propagandistic way.
EDS NOTE: This is in no way, an exact transcript, I left out the pointed and thoughtful questions of many people. My apologies.
Kelu Chao’s January 8 E-mail Listing VOA Accomplishment Mostly Among VOA Foreign Language Services
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Friday, January 8, 2016 5:51:04 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Kelu’s Kudos
Every day, journalists and broadcasters across our agency are making a difference in the lives of audiences around the world. So as we begin 2016, I want to take a moment to share a few of the great things happening here at VOA, and to say thank you for making this past year such a successful one for our agency.
As we know, VOA journalists oftentimes report under very difficult conditions. Recently, a member of the Bangla Service received a prestigious award for doing just that. Sakib Swapnil was one of 36 media professionals to receive the 2015 UNICEF Meena Media Award for creative work in radio, for reporting on the health of young girls in Bangladesh. Sakib’s report was part of the “Better Health, Better Life” radio program that airs on Radio Today in Bangladesh and is a co-production between VOA’s Bangla Service and Radio Today.
In case you missed it, the Hausa Service’s Ibrahim Ahmed was among the recipients of the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award. The awards honor the courage, integrity and professionalism of individuals in reporting the news on U.S. government international media. Ibrahim spent weeks traveling through Nigeria during the height of Boko Haram terror attacks in 2015. He faced considerable danger after extremists condemned his reporting, forcing him never to sleep in the same place twice. Congratulations again, Ibrahim, for your impactful coverage of the country’s elections.
The Africa Division launched two new youth programs last month that are already receiving kudos throughout the region. The Somali Service radio program Dhalinyarada Maanta (Today’s Youth) gives young listeners a new forum for exploring social issues and getting the latest news, along with music and technology features. The Horn of Africa Service Amharic-language show Gabina (a front-seat taxi ride) includes entrepreneur profiles, music features and discussion of social issues, including early and forced marriage.
Meanwhile, welcome aboard to Somali Service Editor Mohamed Olad Hassan. Mohamed’s decade of reporting from Somalia for the BBC served him well as a contractor at VOA. We are glad to have him on staff and look forward to Mohammed playing an even greater role in our multimedia coverage.
And although politicians and pop stars in Cambodia have some of the most popular Facebook sites in their country, no one tops VOA. VOA Khmer has the #1 Facebook page in Cambodia based on the number of “likes” received — more than 2.5 million. Special thanks go to multimedia broadcaster Sophat Soeung and his team for engaging audiences with diverse content. Sophat also has been breaking down silos across the building, working with our Kurdish and Afghan Services, for example, to enhance our social media engagement. Thank you all for your collaboration and great work!
Congratulations to Central News on the launch of its year-long multimedia series, “All Over the Map.” Special thanks go to reporter Victoria Macchi and multimedia journalist Arash Arabasadi who are heading up this informative and highly-polished production that explores lesser-known immigration stories and profiles immigrant communities across the United States.
Late last year, VOA launched its Extremism Watch Desk to help enhance our terrorism coverage. The desk shares information with other BBG broadcast entities to generate content in English for use throughout the house while adhering to the VOA Charter and our Journalistic Code. Thanks to Ernest Torriero and his team as well as the Urdu, Deewa, Afghan, Turkish and Kurdish Services for generating this informative, original content.
And please join me in welcoming Jane Bojadzievski, our new international broadcaster with the Macedonian Service. He has an impressive portfolio of radio and VJ reporting, anchoring programming, and enhancing web and social media production.
These are only some of the happenings at VOA in recent weeks that deserve recognition; I wish I could share them all. More next time.
For now, thank you all for making 2015 a great year for our agency.
Happy New Year,
Language Programming Director