BBG Watch Commentary
Five Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service journalists have been put by VOA director Amanda Bennett on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation into charges that they allowed accusations of corruption to be made against Chinese Communist Party officials without seeking “in advance” a response from the Chinese government. When it comes to President Trump, however, VOA — still under the leadership of Obama administration holdovers — uses far more relaxed journalistic standards for providing balance and seeking “advance” responses to serious accusations.
On April 28, VOA reported that “Reporters Without Borders accuses him [President Trump] of engaging in ‘hate speech’ against journalists.” VOA also reported that “Freedom House questions whether he [Trump] believes in the fundamental principles of press freedom.” The VOA report added that “the Committee to Protect Journalists, which last year labeled him [Trump] an ‘unprecedented threat’ to global media freedom, says things haven’t gotten any better since he took office.”
Since the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America has a public mandate to report news, there was nothing wrong with reporting these statements. We want VOA to report such views. They should be reported. The way they were reported by VOA, however, raises some questions. Most people in China and quite of few Americans know that Chinese Communist Party officials are not democratically elected, are human rights abusers, and are corrupt to the core. The VOA director was still extremely concerned that these communists might be unjustly accused of corruption by a Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui. VOA director’s actions have led to what was described as “unbelievable” drop in VOA’s reputation and credibility in China.
On the other hand, not everyone in the United States agrees with accusations that President Trump is an enemy of free press. His supporters (millions had voted for him) are convinced that his criticism of the media is justified and in a way it contributes to free press and freedom of expression in the United States. These views were not reflected in the VOA report. No one in the VOA leadership or the leadership of VOA’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), seemed to have noticed or taken any action.
The VOA report did not say whether VOA tried to obtain in “advance” responses from the White House to serious charges against President Trump of being an enemy of free press and before publishing them on its U.S. taxpayer-funded website. There was no response in the VOA report from Trump or his officials to these accusations. Clearly, Donald Trump does not merit the same journalistic standards of fairness at the Voice of America as the Chinese Communist leaders.
When it comes to charges of “hate speech” and Voice of America’s recent performance, VOA director Amanda Bennett, her deputy Sandy Sugawara and their boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, should be especially careful in allowing accusations against President Trump to be published by VOA without seeking in advance a response from the administration, providing proper balance even if a direct response cannot be obtained, and — above all — putting all of it in domestic U.S. political context for VOA audiences abroad. This is what the VOA Charter requires VOA to do under the U.S. law. VOA is not a private news organization. It is funded by U.S. taxpayers, both those who oppose Trump and those who support him.
During the 2016 election campaign, also under the watch of the current Obama administration leadership, the Voice of America posted online a video subtitled and translated into a foreign language — all at U.S. taxpayers’ expense — in which a Hollywood actor called Donald Trump: “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid.”
There was no balance or a response from Trump or his supporters. VOA did not report that another Hollywood actor, Jon Voight, defended Donald Trump after De Niro likened him to a dog and also said that he wants to punch Trump the face. No VOA reporter or manager involved in the production of this video, which was eventually removed, was placed on administrative leave by the VOA director pending an investigation.
A few VOA reporters also posted on their personal but publicly accessible websites memes showing Trump with a Nazi swastika and as a sex organ. One VOA reporter called Trump “F*ckface Von Clownstick” in a Facebook post.
That’s why when it comes to using the “hate speech” label, VOA newsroom reporters, who are federal government employees whose generous, in some cases six-figure salaries, are paid by U.S. taxpayers and who are required to follow the VOA Charter, owe U.S. taxpayers and their foreign audiences much more than just reporting serious accusations without much balance and no response or context.
Here is some advice and commentary from former Broadcasting Board of Governors international media professionals, one of them a former BBG member, that could also be useful to Ms. Bennett, Ms. Sugawara, and Mr. Lansing.
“‘Balance’ does not necessarily mean finding someone who agrees with Trump. It means describing for VOA’s foreign audiences the political and media atmosphere in the United States over the last two years, the abandoning of balanced reporting, the number of media outlets, including the Voice of America under its current leadership, that jumped on the Hillary Clinton campaign bandwagon, the nastiness of the rhetoric from all the networks, particularly the cable networks, the fact that many of these outlets, including VOA, were pounding it out that Hillary Clinton was going to win in a landslide and not least, the fact that the media won’t take ownership of its role in the process.
This goes a long way to explaining Trump’s visceral dislike of the media. He has plenty of faults, to be sure. The media egged him on.
And he still won, even though on the election night VOA had two ready to go ‘Hillary Wins’ pre-written broadcasts, and none for the possibility of Trump’s win.
Balance is just one of the standards of journalism. They are not journalists — period. Sometimes balance is thrown out there to justify what is in essence a one-sided attack. What a joke. What a horror. What an outrage. “
Some Voice of America Newsroom reporters also showed their lack of objectivity and neutrality by lampooning Donald Trump, his wife, his daughter and the current Counselor to President Trump Kellyanne Conway. During a satirical skit performed at a federal building on government time and streamed live on Facebook, these U.S. government employees even mocked First Lady Melania Trump with sexual content. “And the No. 1 top reason to love America: It’s where a woman who posed naked for a men’s magazine can be First Lady!,” a Voice of America reporter said. These VOA reporters never told similar jokes about former President Obama and his family. BBG CEO John Lansing assured NPR listeners that at the Broadcasting Board of Governors “we have the greatest respect for the President.”
By the way, we have yet to see VOA English Newsroom reporters being outraged and expressing solidarity with their VOA Chinese colleagues who were humiliated by the upper management by being investigated and placed on administrative leave for opposing censorship.