Voice of America senior correspondent presents an accurate apology for Putin, but on whose behalf?

VOA Charter Commentary

BBG Watch has been contacted by “VOA Charter” who offered to write for us whenever the Charter feels ignored, abused or plainly violated.

Today we post VOA Charter’s first commentary.

Voice of America senior correspondent presents an accurate apology for Putin, but on whose behalf?

VOA Charter

Voice of America senior correspondent based in London, Al Pessin, has published on the VOA English News website an eloquent presentation of how Russia’s President Vladimir Putin justifies his annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine. It was included in a longer news report, or perhaps a news analysis, titled: “NATO Leaders Meet Amid Array of Crises.”

VOA NEWS REPORT BY AL PESSIN: Indeed, NATO has absorbed [Emphasis added] all the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is drawing the line when it comes to actual former members of the Soviet Union, like Georgia and Ukraine.

To stop Ukraine from moving to join the European Union, and ensure it never joins NATO, Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine [Emphasis added] in support of a separatist rebellion he instigated. Since Ukraine is not a NATO member, the alliance has no obligation to help, and no wish to get into a war with Russia.

We found Mr. Pessin’s words to be a perfect and completely accurate presentation of how President Putin explains all sorts of his aggressive moves against other nations and against democratic opposition and independent media in Russia. The problem, in VOA Charter’s view, however, is that the VOA senior correspondent does not make it clear on whose behalf he is presenting this excellent apology for President Putin’s actions. Are these Mr. Pessin’s own views? VOA views? U.S. Government’s views? or views of one of the experts he quotes elsewhere in his news report or news analysis.

By the way, it is also not at all clear whether this is a Voice of America news report, a news analysis or an op-ed by Mr. Pessin.

Perhaps these are also Mr. Pessin’s personal views, but we do not know that for sure. He does not make it clear in his report. The paragraph in which he presents these views does not attribute them to anyone in particular. Earlier in his report, Mr. Pessin quotes a former British official:

VOA NEWS REPORT BY AL PESSIN: “There isn’t a whole lot that NATO can do about this push-back by Putin,” said former British official Nick Witney, now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Maybe we in the West should console ourselves that before Putin started pushing back, we have, over the last two decades, pushed Russia a hell of a long way [Emphasis added] in the other direction.”

At least in this paragraph, it is clear that these are the views of a British expert, but again in the short quote used in the report they may appear one-sided. The VOA reporter did not challenge them or presented a balancing viewpoint from other Western experts on the question of NATO’s alleged threat to Russia.

VOA Charter is not even sure whether this is a fair presentation of Mr. Witney’s own position on President Putin’s moves in Ukraine. VOA Charter has no problem with Mr. Witney’s views, whatever they are, as long as VOA presents them in a balanced report.

What VOA Charter objects to and feels abused by are other parts and omissions in Mr. Pessin’s report. We have no problem with Mr. Pessin expressing his personal opinions or presenting somebody else’s apology for Mr. Putin’s aggressive moves in Ukraine and elsewhere. But Mr. Pessin should have at least made it clear that these are not the views of the Voice of America, U.S. taxpayers, U.S. Congress, the United States Government in general, and many U.S. experts and laymen.

There are, of course, those in the United States and in Europe who express or agree with these or similar views, i.e. that NATO and the U.S. are responsible for President Putin’s military moves and that NATO and the U.S. are completely powerless and unwilling to do anything about Russia’s aggression.

VOA Charter is not saying that these views should not be presented. They should be presented. But VOA Charter wants some measure of balance and objectivity in every VOA report. (VOA Charter does not buy the standard argument of Voice of America executives that all VOA reports in their entirety represent balanced news reporting, because on the issue of Ukraine and Russia they don’t. VOA Charter is also upset by last week’s VOA’s joint discussion with a Russian television channel, in which VOA set aside the VOA Charter, ceded control of the show to the Russian side, and failed to effectively challenge what amounted to an extensive presentation of the Kremlin’s propaganda line.)

The news analysis by Mr. Pessin dealing with Ukraine could have been also more balanced. It could have had more depth rather than simply focusing almost entirely on the well-established fact that NATO has no appetite for a war with Russia over Ukraine. A more sophisticated analysis would have also included the question of providing arms to Ukraine and many other measures NATO and the U.S. have been taking or could still take short of going to war with Russia. Mr. Pessin, or his editors, could have found some material for a deeper analysis even in President Obama’s Wednesday speech in Tallinn, Estonia.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our NATO Alliance is not aimed “against” any other nation [Emphasis added]; we’re an alliance of democracies dedicated to our own collective defense. Countries like Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania are not “post-Soviet territory.” [Emphasis added] You are sovereign and independent nations with the right to make your own decisions. No other nation gets to veto your security decisions. [Emphasis added]

These words spoken by President Obama Wednesday in Tallinn, Estonia, could have balanced the simplistic Putin apology narrative blaming NATO and those nations that wanted or still want to join NATO for any aggressive move that Russia takes in the region. President Obama’s words were not included in the Voice of America news report by Mr. Pessin or by his editors. In fact, there was no balance at all to the Putin apology narrative on Ukraine in Mr. Pessin’s VOA report.

VOA Charter also feels abused in another way — the lack of any historical perspective. VOA Charter has no problem with Mr. Pessin eloquently and accurately presenting what amounts to an apology for Mr. Putin, if opposing views were also presented or at least acknowledged. VOA Charter would like to point out that the NATO/West/U.S. threat to Russia is only one narrative and the one that is widely questioned in the United States and in Central and Eastern Europe. It is also a narrative that is hardly supported by historical facts.

In reality, it is President Putin’s Russia and earlier the Soviet Union that have been an aggressive and destabilizing power in the region: (2014 Ukraine, 2008 Georgia, 1968 Czechoslovakia, 1956 Hungary, 1939-1940 Poland, Finland, Baltic States) to give just a few historical examples. This alleged NATO threat to Russia is never directly explained or directly challenged in the VOA news report by Mr. Pessin.

VOA Charter does not deny Mr. Pessin the right to present President Putin’s narrative on Ukraine without regard for historical facts as seen from places other than the Kremlin, but VOA Charter would like to respectfully request that the Voice of America would also present in the same report what would amount to as fair “balance,” and include at least a brief presentation of U.S. official and unofficial views on this specific issue: NATO’s alleged threat to Russia’s security.

VOA Charter is asking for two things to correct and improve this Voice of America news report:

1. “Balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions” on the topic of the alleged NATO threat to Russia.

2. Presentation of “the policies of the United States clearly and effectively” as to why the U.S. Government does not believe that NATO is a threat to Russia and as to why countries in Central and Eastern Europe have the right to choose their own destiny and why the U.S. shares this view.

VOA Charter is afraid that Mr. Pessin failed to adhere to these VOA Charter requirements and used the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America to either express his own personal opinions or to express the opinions of only one side (President Putin and apologists for his actions) on this complicated and multi-sided issue of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Mr. Pessin, or whoever edited and posted his report, could have taken a quote or two from President Obama’s speech in Tallinn, Estonia, or quoted Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairmen of the Senate and House committees on foreign relations, who have called for providing Ukraine with defensive weapons.

VOA Charter also would like to point out Mr. Pessin poor choice of words in these two sentences in his report:

VOA NEWS REPORT BY AL PESSIN: Indeed, NATO has absorbed [Emphasis added] all the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is drawing the line when it comes to actual former members [Emphasis added] of the Soviet Union, like Georgia and Ukraine.

Screen Shot from VOA report by Al Pessin

Screen Shot from VOA report by Al Pessin with sentences underlined by VOA Charter

VOA Charter would like to observe that the word “absorbed,” while it may be linguistically correct, strongly implies that NATO somehow forced these nations to join the alliance when in fact it was these nations which strongly demanded that NATO take them into the alliance to protect them from such aggressive actions from President Putin as those seen recently in Ukraine.

Mr. Pessin rightly refers to “the former Soviet satellite states,” but then he talks about “actual former members of the Soviet Union.” The word “member” implies a voluntary association. Mr. Pessin must know that neither Ukraine nor Georgia wanted to become member states of the Soviet Union. They were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union at the cost of millions of lives of Ukrainians and Georgians who were killed by Soviet Bolsheviks or starved to death.

In general, VOA Charter is highly disappointed by the limited and one-sided character of Mr. Pessin’s analysis and believes that he had ignored both the VOA Charter and history. Once he decided to present the Putin apology narrative so fully and so eloquently, Mr. Pessin should have mentioned a little bit of history, perhaps in a sentence or two, especially how the East Europeans feel about being bullied by Russia.

The Cold War Soviet narrative of NATO’s threat to Russia is hardly believable in the 21st century and should have been challenged rather than being promoted by Mr. Pessin and the Voice of America. This narrative, as presented by the Voice of America, also shows what many people abroad would take as displays of American or Western arrogance: blaming the victim for President Putin’s aggression because part of the narrative in the VOA report is that by wanting to join NATO (it is not at all clear that Ukraine wanted to join NATO before being attacked by Russia or that it would even want NATO to go to war with Russia) these countries brought these problems upon themselves.

If VOA Charter were a Ukrainian or from some other country experiencing a foreign aggression, we would be very upset with VOA, and U.S. taxpayers should be upset as well.

Mr. Pessin’s analysis combined the apology for Putin with presenting NATO as an ineffective alliance because it does not want to go with Russia. NATO, President Obama and Europe may not be very effective in dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, but VOA Charter still thinks that the VOA report offered a too simplistic and erroneous analysis on both counts. NATO never threatened Russia and NATO going to war with Russia to defend a non-member state was never a realistic option.

The second narrative pushed by Mr. Pessin that NATO seems ineffective in facing security challenges may be more realistic than the Putin apology one, but it is also just one narrative. There are those who would disagree with it. Mr. Pessin did not present those views. But the lack of not only balance but depth of analysis of the alleged NATO threat to Russia is truly highly disappointing.

VOA Charter is even more disappointed in VOA’s senior leadership for not making sure that the VOA Charter be applied to everything the Voice of America does and reports and for violating the Charter on a daily basis. VOA Charter is very concerned by how VOA’s senior management ceded control of the discussion program last week with the Russian television channel and even agreed to call it “Cold War?” With VOA’s acquiescence, the Russian side was delighted to push the theme of the Western encirclement of peaceful and threatened Russia who has now no other choice but to annex Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

It appears that the Voice of America has accepted as its own the Kremlin’s Cold War paranoid and self-serving narrative that anything President Putin does can be explained by NATO’s expansion and NATO’s alleged threat to Russia. VOA Charter thinks that this VOA presentation of Cold War Putin paranoia represents a very inaccurate take on reality and amounts to a very sad and wasteful use of U.S. taxpayers’ money.

Al Pessin is also the author of “Op-Ed: Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real” in The Los Angeles Times, in which he defended VOA’s journalistic integrity against what he said were attempts in the U.S. Congress to diminish it by proposing organizational and management reforms. VOA Charter is also not happy with some of the language in the bipartisan bill, H.R. 4490, to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which badly needs reform, starting with the management in charge of VOA. We fought and we think succeeded in including the entire text of the VOA Charter in the new legislation as it now goes through Congress having been approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and by the whole House of Representatives. VOA Charter believes in accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting whether we like something or not.

What impressed VOA Charter, however, was how Mr. Pessin repeatedly referred in his op-ed to “the Royce bill,” even though the bill was bipartisan. In his op-ed, Mr. Pessin never mentioned Rep. Eliot Engel’s statement that Congress has no intention of turning VOA into a propaganda machine for the U.S. Government.

At least the newspaper clearly noted that the views expressed in the op-ed were Mr. Pessin’s. Perhaps VOA Director David Ensor should allow Mr. Pessin to write his own op-eds and clearly state that they are not subject to the VOA Charter. At least then Voice of America audiences abroad would be less confused as to whether an excellently reported apology for President Putin was presented on behalf of the United States or merely represented personal views of one individual.

VOA Charter’s views are its own.

 

BBG Watch: The VOA report, “NATO Leaders Meet Amid Array of Crises” by Al Pessin did not generate much audience engagement on social media pages. As of midnight, September 4, it was showing only 13 Facebook “Shares,” 21 Tweets and only one comment. The report show that it was posted online at 9:19 AM EDT, September 3.

Many news reports and some op-eds on Russia’s RT website get thousands of Facebook “Shares” and Tweets and often hundreds of comments from readers.

The only reader who commented clearly got the Voice of America report’s main message. The comment could have come from a pro-Kremlin troll, but it clearly repeated what was in the report.

 

Screen Shot of Comment on VOA Report by Al Pessin

Screen Shot of Comment on VOA Report by Al Pessin

 

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NATO Leaders Meet Amid Array of Crises

Al Pessin

September 03, 2014 9:19 AM

CARDIFF, WALES—The 28 NATO leaders are gathering in Wales, in western Britain, for their first summit in two years, amid a new and challenging array of crises.

In 2012 in Chicago, they focused on Afghanistan, and continued the decades-long process of redefining the alliance for the post-Cold War world. They discussed issues like nuclear weapons proliferation, extremist violence, the Syrian civil war and missile defense.

But the threats were distant or theoretical, leaving NATO to struggle to articulate a compelling mission, and to convince its own people to spend more on defense.

This summit “will take place in a changed world,” according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Ukraine, Islamic State

NATO is being challenged by Russia in Ukraine and by the newly prominent Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria. Leaders are also concerned about the Ebola outbreak in Africa, China’s increased assertiveness in Asian border disputes, and fallout from the Syrian civil war, in addition to all of the less urgent issues of two years ago.

The problem, experts say, is that the world’s strongest military bloc finds itself unable to address any of those issues decisively.

“There isn’t a whole lot that NATO can do about this push-back by Putin,” said former British official Nick Witney, now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Maybe we in the West should console ourselves that before Putin started pushing back, we have, over the last two decades, pushed Russia a hell of a long way in the other direction.”

Indeed, NATO has absorbed all the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is drawing the line when it comes to actual former members of the Soviet Union, like Georgia and Ukraine.

To stop Ukraine from moving to join the European Union, and ensure it never joins NATO, Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in support of a separatist rebellion he instigated. Since Ukraine is not a NATO member, the alliance has no obligation to help, and no wish to get into a war with Russia.

“[Russia] is not going to let go of its ability to influence events in Ukraine, and there frankly isn’t a whole lot we can do about it,” Witney said.

Summit agenda

Instead, NATO is planning a series of steps – to be formalized at the summit – to demonstrate its support for its relatively new eastern members and to improve its ability to respond quickly if Russia moves against any of them. That will involve creating a quickly deployable force, and stationing supplies and some personnel on bases near its eastern borders.

“We are faced with the reality that Russia considers us an adversary, and we will adapt to that situation,” Rasmussen said at a pre-summit news conference.

Regarding the Islamic State, which threatens the stability of Iraq and has been brutalizing non-Sunni Muslims in areas it controls, “specifics … are going to be very hard to deliver,” said Robin Niblett, the director of London’s Chatham House.

The United States has been bombing Islamic State fighters, to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting them on the ground. And U.S. and other allied military aircraft have dropped relief supplies for trapped and besieged civilians. But it is not a NATO mission and is not expected to become one.

The summit is expected to call for more steps to fight the spread of extremism and to support Iraq’s new government, which is now being formed, but not much more.

Afghanistan

The leaders will also review progress toward ending the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of this year, and deploying several thousand trainers and advisers. But that can’t happen until Afghanistan’s new president signs an agreement on the status of the new force, and a controversial recount of ballots is still in progress.

As always, NATO leaders will agree on various moves to try to increase the alliance’s military capability, to enable their forces to work together and to confront threats like missile proliferation and cyber attacks.

But Robin Niblett says the Ukraine and Iraq crises may have provided the leaders with a theme to tie such issues together, and to get the attention of their people.

“It is a critical summit,” he said. “It was all theoretical … the world was not perceived to be as dangerous a place to the West as it has turned out to be. This is a summit in which all NATO members and their partners need to step up and start to communicate to themselves and externally and to their publics – this is a dangerous world and there is a purpose to this alliance.”

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VOA CHARTER

To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford. It reads:

The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:

  1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
  2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
  3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)

For more information on the Charter, visit our VOA history page about the 1960s and 1970s.

JOURNALISTIC CODE

Preamble

Since 1942, the Voice of America has built a global reputation as a consistently reliable source of news and information. Accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness, and objectivity are attributes audiences around the world have come to expect of VOA broadcasters and their product. These standards are legally mandated in the VOA Charter (Public Laws 94-350 and 103-415). Because of them, VOA has become an inspiration and information lifeline to nations and peoples around the world.

Summary

Adhering to the principles outlined in the Charter, VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government. They accept no treatment or assistance from U.S. government officials or agencies that is more favorable or less favorable than that granted to staff of private-sector news agencies. Furthermore, VOA professionals, careful to preserve the integrity of their organization, strive for excellence and avoid imbalance or bias in their broadcasts.

The Voice of America pursues its mission today in a world conflict-ridden and unstable in the post Cold War era. Broadcasting accurate, balanced and complete information to the people of the world, and particularly to those who are denied access to accurate news, serves the national interest and is a powerful source of inspiration and hope for all those who believe in freedom and democracy.

The Code

All staff who report, manage, edit, and prepare programming at VOA in both central and language services therefore subscribe to these principles:

Sourcing

VOA news and programming must be rigorously sourced and verified. VOA normally requires a minimum of two independent (non-VOA) sources before any newswriter, background writer, political affairs writer, correspondent, or stringer may broadcast information as fact in any language.

The only exceptions to the double-source requirement are facts directly confirmed by a VOA journalist, or significant news drawn from an official announcement of a nation or an organization. In those rare instances when a secondary source offers exclusive significant news (e.g., a verified news agency exclusive interview with a chief of state or prominent newsmaker), this story is attributed to the originating agency by name.

Accuracy and Balance

Accuracy and balance are paramount, and together, they are VOA’s highest priority. Accuracy always comes before speed in VOA central service and language programming. VOA has a legal obligation to present a comprehensive description of events, reporting an issue in a reliable and unbiased way. Though funded by the U.S. government, VOA airs all relevant facts and opinions on important news events and issues. VOA corrects errors or omissions in its own broadcasts at the earliest opportunity.

VOA is alert to, and rejects, efforts by special interest groups, foreign or domestic, to use its broadcasts as a platform for their own views. This applies to all programs and program segments, including opinion or press roundups, programs discussing letters, listener comments, or call-in shows. In the case of call-ins, views of a single party must be challenged by the interviewer if alternative opinions are unrepresented. In interviews, points of possible discussion are submitted in advance if requested by an interviewee of stature (e.g., a chief of state). However, VOA journalists always retain the right and responsibility to pursue newsworthy angles, including entirely fresh lines of questioning, during such interviews.

Whenever VOA reports a charge or accusation made by an individual or a group against another, or presents one side of a controversial issue, a response and/or balancing information will be included in the first use of a news item or feature containing that material. If the balancing information cannot be obtained by the program deadline, or the subject of the charge declines to comment, that will be made clear in VOA’s account, and the balancing material will be broadcast as soon as it is available.

Fairness

VOA has, in the words of the Founding Fathers, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” VOA is required to present a full and fair account of events. VOA broadcasters evaluate information solely on its merits, rejecting incitements to violence, sensationalism, personal value judgments, or misleading emphases. Attributions are specific and complete.

VOA journalists (including correspondents, news and language stringers, political affairs writers, and program hosts) avoid at all times the use of unattributed pejorative terms or labels to describe persons or organizations, except when the individuals and groups use those labels to describe themselves or their activities.

In news, features, and current affairs programming, VOA broadcasters will meticulously avoid fabricating, distorting, or dramatizing an event. If sound at an event illustrates the reporter’s account of that event and is edited for time, the remaining sound effect reflects what occurred in an accurate and balanced way. If there is a risk of misleading the audience, no use will be made of sound effects not actually recorded at the event being described.

Context and Comprehensiveness

VOA presents a comprehensive account of America and the world, and puts events in context. That means constant vigilance to reflect America’s, and the world’s, political, geographical, cultural, ethnic, religious, and social diversity. VOA programming represents the broadcast team’s best effort to seek out and present a comprehensive account of the event or trend being reported.

VOA broadcasters will avoid using announcing or interviewing techniques that add political coloration or bias to their reportage or current affairs programming. Music will not be used to make editorial statements. VOA journalists and all those preparing news and feature programming avoid any action or statement that might convey the appearance of partisanship.

Procedures

When performing official duties, VOA broadcasters leave their personal political views behind. The accuracy, quality, and credibility of the Voice of America are its most important assets, and they rest on listeners’ perception of VOA as an objective source of world, regional, and U.S. news and information. To that end, all VOA journalists will:

  1. Always travel on regular, non-diplomatic passports, and rely no more and no less than private-sector correspondents on U.S. missions abroad for support, as set out in the guidelines for VOA correspondents.
  2. Assist managers whose duty is to ensure that no VOA employee, contract employee, or stringer works for any other U.S. government agency, any official media of another state, or any international organization, without specific VOA authorization.
  3. Adhere strictly to copyright laws and agency regulations and always credit the source when quoting, paraphrasing, or excerpting from other broadcasting organizations, books, periodicals or any print media.
  4. In addition to these journalistic standards and principles, 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. They work to foster teamwork, goodwill, and civil discourse in the workplace and with their colleagues everywhere in the world, all to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the Voice of America.
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