BBG Watch Commentary
International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials included today in BBG Media Highlights a Columbia Journalism Review article by a former Voice of America (VOA) senior correspondent which was missing from yesterday’s Highlights. The article, written by Gary Thomas, was critical of VOA and IBB management.
It is not clear whether IBB managers or IBB employees preparing the Highlights omitted the article yesterday on purpose. An unofficial explanation BBG Watch received through our sources was that employees preparing the Highlights did not find the article even though it was available online for many hours before the Highlights were sent out and IBB managers knew that the Columbia Journalism Review article was going to be published.
In the past, IBB officials regularly censored out from BBG Media Highlights articles critical of their performance. Censored articles included those in mainstream media, such as those appearing in major newspapers, as well as articles in blogs and online only media publications. Blogs critical of the agency’s management, including those of The Heritage Foundation and World Affairs Journal, were usually banned, but articles from blogs showing the agency in a positive light were included.
According to our sources within IBB, some BBG members protested to IBB executive staff that such censorship is unworthy of an agency that champions freedom of the press. According to our agency sources, IBB officials came up with various explanations that kept changing over time. As of late, some critical articles are being included in the Highlights, but still many are not.
In a Soviet-style practice, IBB officials put some critical articles — but not all — in a special emails sent out to BBG members only but not shared with American and world public in the Highlights. Government officials in charge of getting the truth out, were in the business of suppressing it. This practice was very similar to how Soviet Politburo members received uncomfortable news in secret transcripts of Radio Liberty and Voice of America programs during the Cold War.
IBB officials could have had reasons for ignoring the Columbia Journalism Review article if indeed they did it on purpose. July 1 was the day on which they planned to unveil their announcement that from now on they can legally distribute Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti news and other programs to Americans. They led with this story in their Media Highlights and issued a separate press release. Including Gary Thomas’ article, which argues that VOA and IBB managers have largely destroyed Voice of America’s ability to deliver hard news in a timely fashion, would put a question mark over their announcement.
Another reason for ignoring the article was inclusion in it of a highly dismissive and arrogant response from the Voice of America Public Affairs Office. It not only accused Thomas, a journalist with over 30 years of experience who served and risked his life bringing news from Afghanistan and Pakistan and was VOA’s national security analyst, of being inaccurate and biased, but it also failed to answer any of the questions submitted on his behalf by Columbia Journalism Review editors.
“VOA was offered an opportunity to comment on the issues raised in this article, and questions were submitted to the agency for response. It declined to answer any of the questions. The VOA Public Affairs Office’s response was: ‘Frankly speaking, the questions submitted by Mr. Thomas, a former VOA employee, contain multiple errors and suggest a bias that concerns us greatly. We invite those who want to evaluate the quality of VOA journalism to look at our websites or our programs that reach over 135 million people each week in 45 separate languages’.”
It is widely believed that a Soviet-style response, which many compared to how repressive regimes answer journalists’ questions about human rights, had to be approved by top VOA and perhaps IBB officials. In the past agency officials launched a similarly vicious attack on another former employee, a journalist and manager with an impeccable record at the agency, for publishing critical op-eds in Washington papers. BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812, leaders point out that this is also typical of how some top IBB and VOA executives treat current employees. These executives have been repeatedly rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys as being some of the worst managers in the federal government. The agency also has the lowest employee morale under IBB management.
At this time, it is not known who at the higher management levels approved the response to Columbia Journalism Review, but BBG Governor Victor Ashe, who was appalled by it, is reportedly asking questions. Ashe told a reporter who called him that he and other BBG members were never consulted on the questions and the response and would have never approved the response that was given if they were. He said that such a response is typical for officials of nondemocratic governments and is unworthy of VOA.
Gary Thomas believes that the response Columbia Journalism Review editors got from the VOA Public Affairs Office had to have been approved at higher management levels.
“According to the relevant editors at Columbia Journalism Review dealing with my piece, this response came from VOA Public Affairs. Whether this response was dictated by higher authorities of VOA management, I do not know. However, from my professional experience, I cannot conceive of such a response to what I hope was a substantive piece on the malaise afflicting BBG/VOA coming from a Public Affairs Officer on his or her own authority.”
An intervention by a BBG member combined with such comments and inquiries may have convinced IBB officials to include the article in today’s BBG Media Highlights. Even though it is one of the most significant analyses of U.S. international broadcasting issues in recent years and was published in one of the most prestigious American journals devoted to media topics, IBB officials put it in the fifth place and a description they gave it reveals nothing about its critical content.
The question to be asked is should Americans trust officials serving them news who defame their own former journalists, try to hide the truth from their superiors and American public, and mistreat their employees and contract journalists? And yet, even though much of the news coverage has been undermined by inept and oppressive management, VOA and Radio and TV Marti media professionals still produce some excellent programs that help those who don’t have access to free media and contribute to U.S. national security. These BBG journalists and other employees deserve better treatment and better leadership to be able to serve their overseas audiences without living and working in fear of their own executives.
BBG Media Highlights, July 2, 2013