White House denies McMaster firing rumor spread among others by Voice of America senior reporter’s tweets

BBG Watch Commentary

In a tweet with 9:11 PM – 15 Mar 2018 time stamp, Steve Herman, White House Bureau Chief for U.S. taxpayer-funded and U.S. government-managed Voice of America (VOA), which has a legal Charter mandating reporting only accurate news, especially news relating to the U.S. government, quoted from an unconfirmed Washington Post report that President Trump was ready to fire his National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster.

The Voice of America posted a news report on the same topic as one of the top news (number one on the mobile VOA News English website) at 7:36 PM EDT, March 15, 2018 without waiting for an official response from the White House. A note at the bottom of the report on the VOA website said: Steve Herman at the White House contributed to this report.

The VOA report was later updated with the denial from the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, but the headline of the report or most of its speculative content were not changed. The VOA headline, “Reports: Trump Ready to Oust McMaster,” remained in number one position on the VOA English news website homepage as late as 2 AM EDT, March 16, 2018.

Steve Herman whose Twitter account is @W7VOA and where is is clearly identified as “@WhiteHouse bureau chief @VOANews” tweeted a quote from the Washington Post with a link to the newspaper’s report:

“Trump is now comfortable with ousting McMaster, with whom he never personally gelled, but is willing to take time executing the move because he wants to ensure both that the three-star Army general is not humiliated and that there is a strong successor lined up…”

Both VOA director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara have past professional links with the Washington Post. Their boss is Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing. All three were selected for their U.S. government jobs at the BBG and VOA during the Obama administration. The Broadcasting Board of Governors is VOA’s parent federal agency. There is no indication whatsoever that Steve Herman consulted with any of them about his McMaster rumor retweets. However, he has received praise from agency leaders and in Voice of America public relations press releases.

In another tweet with 9:41 PM – 15 Mar 2018 time stamp (screenshots and embeds may show times in a different time zone, depending on where they are viewed), VOA senior White House correspondent Steve Herman wrote that there was a confirmation for the Washington Post McMaster news from CNN.

Herman wrote in an intro to another re-tweet: “A matcher from @CNN:

Finally in a tweet with 10:14 PM – 15 Mar 2018 time stamp, VOA White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman said that the news he was re-tweeting and tweeting about was denied by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

It is important to note that Sarah Sanders was not responding specifically to the Voice of America correspondent’s re-tweets, of which she may or may not have been aware. She was aware, however, of the Washington Post report and the information it presented. It was the unconfirmed rumor which Steve Herman repeatedly re-tweeted about from different media outlets.

In the past, several of Steve Herman’s retweets presented for Voice of America audiences abroad but apparently read mostly by Americans in spite of VOA’s mandated international mission turned out to be largely wrong or completely false.

In October 2017, Herman re-tweeted a tweet from a local CBS TV station, which falsely described a terrorist attack in New York as “An ‘apparent road rage incident that may have ended in a shooting,’ reports @CBSNewYork.”

This time the denial came from the White House, although not specifically in response to Steve Herman’s re-tweets.

Sarah Sanders
@PressSec
Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster – contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.

This did not stop the VOA correspondent from speculating further.

In another tweet with 10:50 PM – 15 Mar 2018 time stamp, Steve Herman wrote: “This from @WSJ:

Rebecca Ballhaus

@rebeccaballhaus

Confirmed: Trump has told Kelly he has decided to oust McMaster, administration officials tell me + @MichaelCBender. Trump doesn’t yet have a replacement in mind and wants a more graceful exit for McMaster than he afforded Tillerson, whom he fired via tweet.

In a tweet with 11:18 PM – 15 Mar 2018 time stamp, VOA correspondent Steve Herman wrote: “And @nytimes:

Maggie Haberman

@maggieNYT

Trump is done with McMaster and has been for some time. McMaster is also essentially saying “screw it” and not pushing to stay. But four admin sources say this anti-McMaster push is led much more by Kelly than Trump right now.

The Voice of America Charter clearly states in point (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)”

Point one of the VOA Charter says: “(1) VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”

The question to be asked is at which point in the age of social media does a senior Voice of America correspondent tweet or re-tweet about an unconfirmed rumor relating to a serious issue or development at the White House without getting an on-the-record response from a U.S. government official? Could foreign audiences or foreign governments trust VOA if some of these tweets turn out to be false? What can they assume or think if this were a national security crisis involving Iran or nuclear powers such as North Korea, Russia or China? Can VOA correspondents be trusted not to report false or fake news, in tweets or in any other format?

Tweets by VOA English Newsroom reporters do not get much audience engagement. Except for a few of his tweets that were re-tweeted in the past by such U.S. media outlets as the Washington Post, Steve Herman’s latest tweets, like most of his other tweets, show very few likes and retweets, and even fewer comments. Comments to some of his tweets re-tweeted in the past by the Washington Post appeared to have been overwhelmingly from partisan, anti-Trump Americans.

By congressional intent, the Voice of America is not supposed to address or attempt to influence Americans, but the internet and social media make it impossible to avoid. The impact of these tweets, if there is any, seems to be largely in the United States — clearly not what the U.S. Congress intended appropriating tax money for the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Steve Herman’s latest tweets were not re-tweeted this time by the Washington Post (it was he who re-tweeted a Washington Post report and other U.S. media reports). These latest tweets, like many others, show very little audience engagement compared to what Washington Post or New York Times reporters get on their Twitter accounts. However, those few readers who commented this time on Steve Herman’s posts, appear to be questioning his tweets or perhaps making fun of his relentless tweeting on this story even after the White House issued its denial.

A. W.
@AwBump
Not to be nit picky or anything, but the reports…. multiple reports are from WH officials. Who are these officials that are reporting this?? Sanders comes out on a tweet and says no out of the blue, then more reports come in.

Ed Tollett
@Tollett_Ed
Quite the rollercoaster thread you’ve got going there Steve. Will he go? Will he stay? Nail biting stuff. 😂

In his news report from the White House on March 14, 2017, “White House Reporters Prefer Sunlight to Spotlight,” Steve herman wrote:

The “mushroom method” refers to keeping reporters in the dark and feeding them manure. Throughout many presidential administrations, reporters assigned to the basement by the West Wing have frequently complained of being treated like mushrooms.

The report had the following introduction:

Steve Herman became VOA’s White House bureau chief in March [2017] after spending 25 years as a foreign correspondent. His previous post required Herman to travel often throughout the world. Now he reports from a small booth on the world’s biggest political stories. Here are his initial impressions of day-to-day work as a White House correspondent.

Voice of America audiences abroad may by now be utterly confused.

The rumor became VOA top news on the main VOA English-language news website. It was in number one position on the VOA mobile site at 2:24 AM EDT, March 16, 2018.

Screenshot of VOA Mobile Site Homepage 2:24 AM EDT, March 16, 2018

VOA Desktop Homepage Screen Shot 2:25 AM EDT, March 16, 2018

VOICE OF AMERICA

Reports: Trump Ready to Oust McMaster

US POLITICS

Last Updated: March 15, 2018 10:36 PM

U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to replace H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

The Post said the president did not want to rush to announce the removal so as not to embarrass the three-star Army general.

McMaster’s ouster is part of a major shake-up at the top levels of the administration, prompting fears that there will be other departures at the White House, the paper reported.

“There will always be change,” the president told reporters Thursday. “And I think you want to see change. I want to also see different ideas.”

Thursday night White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders contradicted the report on Twitter.

Sanders was asked earlier Thursday at the daily White House press briefing to describe the current relationship between Trump and McMaster.

“The president and General McMaster are continuing to work together to put pressure on Russia to do the right thing. Again, I think you can see what the administration’s viewpoint is simply by looking at the actions that we took today by placing new sanctions on Russia,” Sanders said.

Trump has sparred with McMaster, however, over the past few weeks.

The president chastised McMaster last month after the national security adviser said Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election was “incontrovertible.”

“General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems,” Trump tweeted.

Second national security adviser

The report of McMaster’s removal comes at the heels of the sudden firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson two days ago.

If Trump follows through with the decision, McMaster will become the second national security adviser to leave the job since Trump took office.

The first one, Michael Flynn, was fired weeks into his tenure in 2017 after misleading White House officials about his contacts with Russians.

Steve Herman at the White House contributed to this report.

As of 2:25 AM EDT, March 16, 2018, there were zero (0) comments under the VOA report which was posted by VOA News at 7:36 PM EDT on March 15, 2018.

AP Photos in the original VOA report are not reposted here.

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13 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Rumor,” huh? What you decried as “rumor” became “news” today. Your rant against Steve Herman and VOA was wrong, wrong, WRONG! BBG Watch is more concerned with ideology than journalism. You chose to accept the word of a White House that has engaged in egregious deception over the reporting of a seasoned journalist. You unrelentingly attack VOA over its journalistic principles, but yours are laughable. You owe Herman and VOA an apology for your vicious, disgraceful, and unjustified attack.

    1. BBGWatcher (Post author)

      Same reply as to the Anonymous.

      The VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code still apply to social media. Therefore, it’s a good thing to encourage VOA correspondents to adhere to both when they tweet. Just because a rumor turned out to be true many days later, does not mean that it should have been reported by a VOA correspondent in a tweet or in a news report without first obtaining and including any official response. That’s where VOA differs from commercial U.S. media. It is written into law, which has not been changed. Tweeting on national security issues by VOA correspondents without adhering to VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code with regard to accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness and presenting official U.S. policy effectively and accurately can be irresponsible and dangerous. VOA tweets made it look as if the National Security Advisor was departing immediately. That was not the case. We said that the Washington Post story could have been reported by VOA, but it had to be done differently. Tweets and re-tweets by VOA correspondents can have a significant impact abroad in crisis situations. That’s why VOA can not afford such mistakes as tweets by a VOA correspondent that the New York terror attack was reported to be a “road rage” incident. Did VOA apologize to its social media audience and the families of the victims? When it doubt, follow the VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code regardless of whether it’s social media reporting or a conventional VOA news report.

  2. David Dyar

    BBG Watch asks in the above article: “Can VOA correspondents be trusted not to report false or fake news, in tweets or in any other format?“. Steve Herman’s reporting here shows the answer is a resounding YES. I agree BBG Watch should apologize to Steve. Your other comment at the beginning of the article that VOA should not report an item like this without waiting for an official response from the White House shows a lack of understanding of how basic journalism works in the minute by minute reporting cycle we are now experiencing. This is an especially egregious comment given the fact that the official response eventually turned out to be incorrect.

    1. BBGWatcher (Post author)

      Same reply as to the Anonymous.

      The VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code still apply to social media. Therefore, it’s a good thing to encourage VOA correspondents to adhere to both when they tweet. Just because a rumor turned out to be true many days later, does not mean that it should have been reported by a VOA correspondent in a tweet or in a news report without first obtaining and including any official response. That’s where VOA differs from commercial U.S. media. It is written into law, which has not been changed. Tweeting on national security issues by VOA correspondents without adhering to VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code with regard to accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness and presenting official U.S. policy effectively and accurately can be irresponsible and dangerous. VOA tweets made it look as if the National Security Advisor was departing immediately. That was not the case. We said that the Washington Post story could have been reported by VOA, but it had to be done differently. Tweets and re-tweets by VOA correspondents can have a significant impact abroad in crisis situations. That’s why VOA can not afford such mistakes as tweets by a VOA correspondent that the New York terror attack was reported to be a “road rage” incident. Did VOA apologize to its social media audience and the families of the victims? When it doubt, follow the VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code regardless of whether it’s social media reporting or a conventional VOA news report.

  3. Hill Observer

    The issue of individual VOA reporters injecting their own biases is well known by now, and became a major problem for VOA management, which was forced to order mandatory “journalism training” for employees.

    In his comment, Dyar asserts that Herman’s twitter activity on this story means that VOA correspondents “can be trusted not to report false or fake news.”

    The fact that the departure of this White House official eventually turned out to be true in no way justifies a VOA White House bureau chief happily jumping on the bandwagon and reposting material from other media so as to give the impression that VOA was somehow as plugged in as other major media on that story.

    VOA is nowhere near having the same sources and sourcing capability that major media outlets have. So, the VOA White House guy throws up a Washington Post link to make it seem as if VOA is on a competitive level with these other outlets.

    As a result, VOA was seen to be reporting that the departure of the White House official was imminent. THAT turned out to be FALSE — but it probably got Herman, who has a big stake in using the VOA platform to help maintain and increase his follower level, additional traction on his social media channels.

    What can safely be described as egregious is the attempt by two former VOA correspondents to ignore this aspect of the issue. What Dyar calls this “minute by minute reporting cycle” does not excuse VOA reporters from the need to exercise a bit more self-restraint in their social media posts.

  4. Anonymous
    1. BBGWatcher (Post author)

      The VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code requirements for Voice of America correspondents have not changed. VOA could have easily reported or even tweeted on the Washington Post story by following the Charter’s guidelines. Anything else will lead to VOA correspondents retweeting that the terror attack in New York was just a “road rage” incident or that ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross, citing an unnamed source, discovered that Donald Trump had directed General Flynn to make contact with the Russians during the presidential campaign, which was untrue but caused the stock market to dip. It was not the VOA tweet that caused the stock market issue, but you can see how irresponsible tweeting can cause problems in a national security emergency of some kind. That’s why VOA reporters must be constantly aware of their special role and reminding them to follow the VOA Charter and Journalistic Code is a good thing. Being only partially lucky one time is just a reminder that they could be wrong again, just as they were wrong before with some of their tweets.

  5. Anonymous2

    The Washington Post link posted by Anonymous on your blog earlier today leads to a thoughtful article describing the volatility of this White House, and the dilemma facing the mainstream media (and yes, including VOA) covering a president who changes his mind by the minute. Since many of the scoops by the “fake New York Times” and the Washington Post turn out to be true, they cannot be ignored by VOA or VOA’s White House correspondent. Doing so would be a great disservice to the VOA audience. BBG Watch should acknowledge that its criticism of Steve Herman is wrong and an apology should be forthcoming!

    1. BBGWatcher (Post author)

      Same response to Anonymous 2 as to Anonymous: The New York Times and The Washington Post are not “fake” as you wrote.

      The VOA Charter and VOA Journalistic Code requirements for Voice of America correspondents have not changed. VOA could have easily reported or even tweeted on the Washington Post story by following the Charter’s guidelines. Anything else will lead to VOA correspondents retweeting that the terror attack in New York was just a “road rage” incident or that ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross, citing an unnamed source, discovered that Donald Trump had directed General Flynn to make contact with the Russians during the presidential campaign, which was untrue but caused the stock market to dip. It was not the VOA tweet that caused the stock market issue, but you can see how irresponsible tweeting can cause problems in a national security emergency of some kind. That’s why VOA reporters must be constantly aware of their special role and reminding them to follow the VOA Charter and Journalistic Code is a good thing. Being only partially lucky one time is just a reminder that they could be wrong again, just as they were wrong before with some of their tweets.

      1. Fred Cooper

        I would say without reservation that Steve Herman would not report anything that he suspected would not be true. And in fact it was true, he did not suggest that the ouster would be immediate, and within minutes of Steve’s Tweet the Post story was confirmed by other news organizations. I believe he knew it would be soon confirmed though I have not spoken to him about it.
        Steve may not be well-known to readers here or others in the United States but is long- and well-respected internationally for his decades of reporting, mostly from Asia. During his long stint in Japan before joining VOA, he reported regularly for several news organizations, including VOA. He has reported for CBS, ABC, the BBC, and several other foreign broadcasters, from Canada to Nigeria. He has written for top periodicals including the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review; I could go own.
        Among signs of the respect of his peers, he was elected President of the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club, the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, and was a Governor of the Overseas Press Club of America. Since joining VOA he has been bureau chief in South Korea, Thailand, and India and covered the State Department and White House beats.
        Bottom line: if Steve trusts a Washington Post story or any other, I would too and so should you.

        1. BBGWatcher (Post author)

          We respectfully disagree and insist that it would be much safer and better for the Voice of America if all of its reporters adhered strictly to the VOA Charter and Journalistic Code, not only in their news reports but also every time they tweet or post something on social media. There have been too many tweets with news and information which turned out to be completely false, including tweets from the VOA White House correspondent. On matters relating to national security, such tweets can be extremely dangerous in extreme situations. That’s why such tweeting cannot be encouraged and we will continue to discourage it at all times. Tweets that turn out to be wrong damage VOA’s reputation. Being lucky one time does not change the tweets which turned out to be wrong and is no guarantee that wrong and misleading tweets will not happen again if VOA correspondents are not more careful.

          Here are some of the examples of such unfortunate tweets: The VOA White House correspondent retweeted the false ABC news report on President Trump and General Flynn and even called the later disgraced and suspended ABC reporter Brian Ross “arguably the most connected broadcast reporter for some decades when it comes to learning about details of federal criminal investigations.” Brian Ross was indeed suspended by ABC. It does not matter how good the correspondent was if he or she makes a major mistake. Tweeting about a correction later does not erase the damage done by an earlier tweet with false information put out under VOA’s name. We’re not talking about minor but major erroneous reports.

          The VOA White House correspondent also initially tweeted that the horrific terror attack in New York was apparently a “road rage” incident. Imagine what would happen if in 1963, a VOA reporter in Dallas reported a false claim with regard to the assassination of President Kennedy. What would happen if the VOA White House correspondent put out a wrong tweet in a real nuclear confrontation with North Korea?

          The Voice of America cannot afford such mistakes. VOA reporters are government employees whose salaries are paid for by American taxpayers. The standards for VOA reporters must be much stricter, as they indeed are in the VOA Charter. Let’s stick with the VOA Charter and apply it to all reporting activities by VOA correspondents, including those on social media. Anything else is playing with fire and can undermine public support, public funding and VOA’s credibility with its audiences.

          https://twitter.com/W7VOA/status/936630109917900800

          https://twitter.com/W7VOA/status/925454484398100484

  6. David Dyar

    I think it is time to call out BBG Watch’s warped interpretation of the VOA Charter whenever it criticizes reporting by VOA. There is nothing in the charter that requires VOA to hold off on reporting a news story until a response is made to the issue in the report. In this case, Steve and the VOA newsroom reported the response from the White House when it was issued sometime later after the initial report on McMaster. That perfectly fulfills the “balance” requirement of the charter. If you take BBG Watch’s interpretation of the charter to its logical conclusion, then VOA should not report on the State of the Union address until after the Democratic response.

    There are literally thousands of articles in the VOA file which report on statements by the President without any response from his opponents. Yet you never hear BBG Watch complain about those reports violating the charter’s call for balance.

    The “balance” called for in the charter can met by reporting the response after the initial report is made.

    1. BBGWatcher (Post author)

      Surely, Mr. Dyar, you are not trying to lampoon our position in support of the VOA Charter and Journalistic Code by taking your analysis to such extremes as to imply that we would not allow coverage of the State of the Union by the President without airing a simultaneous response from the opposition party. (The response should definitely be aired as soon as possible, and even during the speech wrong claims should be corrected by VOA anchors if there is an opportunity to do so.)

      There is, however, a big difference between covering live public events involving the President and members of Congress and reporting on rumors. Not that rumors should never be reported by VOA, but they should definitely be reported in full adherence to the VOA Charter.

      What we want to avoid is a VOA correspondent tweeting about a false rumor that can cause the stock market to go down — which a VOA correspondent did and even tried to build up credibility of an ABC News reporter who got the story completely wrong and was eventually punished and suspended by ABC.

      As far as we know, nothing happened to the VOA correspondent, and we’re not at all suggesting that his tweet had caused the market to drop temporarily because, as we know, VOA does not have that kind of influence or relevance anymore. (Actually we should be concerned that the vast majority of followers and comments to VOA English newsroom correspondents’ tweets come from the U.S. and the vast majority of them express strongly partisan views against President Trump. What does that tell you of how VOA reporters follow the VOA Charter, reflect all significant views and represent to the audience all significant political groups in the U.S.?) But VOA’s credibility was damaged by these false tweets. We also do not want a VOA correspondent to tweet that a horrific terrorist attack in New York might just be a “road rage” incident. It was not.

      We agree with you that in certain instances it is OK if balance is provided a little bit later, but it is never OK to tweet about serious topics involving accusations against U.S. officials or national security issues without being absolutely sure the information is accurate and, in many cases, without first having obtained an official response. That’s where the Charter comes in. We really don’t want a VOA correspondent to be suspended and VOA’s credibility undermined.

      That’s what makes VOA different from partisan media of both sides in the U.S. It is written into law. It is written in the VOA Charter. We hope your were not making fun of our support for this very significant document. It is especially important now that the VOA Charter be protected.

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