BBG Watch Commentary
A ‘Dear Leader’ Moment at Broadcasting Board of Governors
Voice of America director Amanda Bennett has finally received what seem like a long-awaited praise from another senior government official working for the same agency. Her in-house laudator was Broadcasting Board of Governors’ International Broadcasting Bureau deputy director Jeff Trimble. He is a civil servant, also holding an SES rank who himself has been frequently praised by his government bosses. With a much longer tenure at the agency than Ms. Bennett, he is more experienced in government PR than the VOA director.
“Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett stole the show mid-way through the March 16 meeting of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD) on Capitol Hill,” was Mr. Trimble’s attention-grabbing lead sentence. He clearly demonstrates his PR abilities, even if his arguments may only be persuasive to those who are unaware that VOA’s relevance and influence are a mere shadow of what they used to be in the past and the organization itself is in deep managerial and existential crisis. He and Ms. Bennett are both former non-government journalists now working for the U.S. government at the agency with a $777 million annual budget (FY2017). “Bennett, who was on a panel to discuss ‘The Past, Present, and Future of Voice of America,’ shared a quote from a recent VOA interview in Seoul with the highest ranking diplomat ever to defect from North Korea,” Mr. Trimble informed his by now presumably highly-intrigued audience. His laudation was posted at U.S. taxpayers’ expense on the BBG’s official website and can be read in full by following the link listed below.
READ MORE: USIM MATTERS Impact at the core of VOA’s past, present and future, Jeff Trimble, Broadcasting Board of Governors Official Government Website, March 23, 2017.
It is significant that Mr. Trimble chose to quote a former official of a highly repressive regime rather than someone among the regime’s countless victims. Considering the BBG’s mission of “supporting freedom and democracy,” it would have been more appropriate to feature a statement from a former political prisoner who had managed to escape from North Korea, but that would require that officials of Mr. Trimble’s senior rank had received clear strategic guidance from the agency’s chief executive rather than the agency’s head being dependent on strategic input from his closest career subordinates, including Mr. Trimble. It was under Mr. Trimble’s partial watch, as one of the longest-serving BBG managers, that key BBG and VOA management units, individual, managers, and VOA journalists followed and legitimized for many years a VOA Persian Service news feed Twitter account that recently turned out to be fake, having been established by an impostor, as VOA now admits.
But, in an otherwise truly breathtaking article with a catching title, “Impact at the core of VOA’s past, present and future,” Mr. Trimble managed to have a few words of praise for his and Ms. Bennett’s mutual boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors director and CEO John Lansing who since September 2015 is now the interim head of the agency as a holdover from the Obama administration. Jeff Trimble himself was profusely praised earlier by former BBG Democratic Chairman Jeff Shell who called him “A Patriot,” while John Lansing, a former entertainment TV cable manager, received so many praises from Jeff Shell, the Hollywood movie executive who recommended him for his government job to the bipartisan BBG Board that approved his selection, it would be impossible to list them all.
In the mutual admiration society that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has become, the tribute from Jeff Trimble to Amanda Bennett seems to have been long overdue. She herself has done her own share of heaping generous praise on managers and a few VOA reporters whose work she likes, but the changes she has brought to the once respected news organization in how it interprets and now ignores some of the key provisions of the congressional VOA Charter have yet to receive their deserved attention from mainstream American media, American taxpayers and the U.S. Congress.
Immediately after Ms. Bennett came on board in April 2016, she ruffled a few feathers among the staff by lauding what she called her fabulous management team. This remark reportedly made some rank and file employees grind their teeth, as they have always rated their agency, described by Hillary Clinton in 2013 as “practically defunct,” the lowest in employee morale within the U.S federal government, and rated their senior leaders and managers even lower. The same ungrateful employees did it again in large numbers in the 2016 OPM survey, which already covered a full year of John Lansing’s tenure at the agency. Jeff Trimble has been with the agency for many years. The discontented represent the majority of agency staffers who participate in the OPM surveys. They could be also be seen by the management, and most likely are, as disgruntled employees who are unable to appreciate what the agency describes as the fabulous achievements of the senior leaders and the hard work of exceptional BBG managers and trusted VOA reporters. Perhaps the discontented should read Mr. Trimble’s article and look at the VOA director’s social media posts to realize how wrong they have been to have such a dim view of what the agency has become under these distinguished government executives. But if they are right — and they are right, in our opinion — they also have the option of showing their doubt, distrust and discontent once again in the 2017 OPM survey and wait for the Trump administration to nominate a new CEO who could reform the agency without undermining its strategic purpose and journalistic integrity. Whether this will happen, remains to be seen, or VOA and BBG rank-and-file employees may hear again from Mr. Trimble four or eight years from now.
At least for now, if BBG employees managed to overcome their aversion to reading agency leaders’ self-praising announcements, they might discover one of Ms. Bennett’s recent Facebook posts which boldly hailed a star VOA correspondent who compared information being given out by the Trump White House to “manure” — yes, as the substance composed of animal waste, although what he really meant was probably human excrement. Earlier, another VOA reporter used an F-word and an obscene meme in Facebook posts to describe Donald Trump. While she praised the VOA news report about the “manure” quality of White House information, these earlier, obscene social media posts did not receive any praise from the VOA director. Such crudeness, as in using F-words to describe the U.S. President, is clearly unacceptable to most people, including no doubt Ms. Bennett, but with words like “manure,” it seems that at least as far as a few reporters and some of their bosses at VOA are concerned, more creative and more subtle use of bathroom language will be tolerated in what appears to be a misguided effort to help a U.S. taxpayer-funded news organization achieve some kind of impact in the digital age.
Jeff Trimble’s article in praise of Amanda Bennett was big on documenting such impact by citing other examples of purported extraordinary accomplishments which may be completely unknown to most agency employees and, what is more disturbing, VOA’s foreign audiences. The only other complaint that one could possibly make is that Mr. Trimble’s article was not in the least an independent and objective evaluation. He happens to be at the same time the setter of goals and the evaluator and interpreter of his agency’s performance, including his own. He relies in this in-house self-evaluation on the the multimillion dollar government contract given by the BBG to a private audience research company, which is no doubt very grateful to make a profit.
Some skeptics, including all the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who had had voted unanimously for the BBG reform bill, its chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), and many other outside experts, have concluded long ago that all this praise is nothing more than the agency’s own government PR. Critics charge that this self-promoting BBG propaganda hides the fact that much of today’s VOA content is pre-censored so it can be shown on government channels in some Muslim countries, or distributed in nations like Mexico that already have free media and supply millions of visitors to the U.S. each year. “Most of the language services right now don’t reach a lot of people and are compromised by lousy placements with ‘partner’ radios/TV, including government ones, that abuse the programs,” a former VOA broadcaster now based abroad said. “VOA TV features, I glimpse every once in a while in Urdu on government TV are pathetic stuff. No reason whatsoever for hip youngsters in Pakistan (the future) to watch,” the journalist, who had once worked for VOA, observed.
Another deficiency of Mr. Trimble report, a truly minor one to anyone easily impressed by its overall literary splendor, was his omission of several recent VOA stories which indeed had a terrific impact, although perhaps not the one U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. Congress expect from VOA and are willing to pay for. For example, a VOA report which compared Trump’s “Fake Media” comment to threats against journalists hurled by such mass murderers as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, was even cited by The Washington Post. The VOA story had such a powerful impact on those undisturbed by the knowledge of history abroad that it was taken very seriously by a tin-pot dictator of Cambodia. After reading it, he threatened a crackdown on the opposition media only to be disappointed later that no VOA reporter was arrested on the orders of the U.S. President, as he and others might have easily assumed from reading the VOA report that mass arrests and executions of journalists under President Trump were imminent, just as they had occurred under Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
We are not going to get here into discussing the even greater impact of an older VOA-produced video posted on social media with a VOA logo during the 2016 presidential election campaign. In this excellent VOA production skillfully translated and subtitled for foreign speakers and bilingual American voters (a significant portion of VOA’s web traffic come from the U.S.), Donald Trump was called “dog,” “pig” and other juicy epithets. Director Bennett did not praise that particular video, which was removed only after external criticism. She did, however, praise VOA reporters who interviewed family members and friends of terrorists as a terrific example of “investigative journalism.” Friends and relatives told VOA that they knew the accused mass murderers as decent and polite young men with a bright future. Some also complained to VOA that Chechen refugees in America have to live in constant fear for their lives. This seemed such a great journalistic scoop that VOA forgot to challenge many of the obvious lies in these reports.
Undeterred by such minor omissions, Ms. Bennett hailed a few days ago a VOA story for including an interview with someone who claimed to be a poor Somali fisherman. This person somehow obtained the right kind of boat and weapons and with his companions managed to seize a freighter from its crew in the high seas. The person being interviewed was nothing more than a pirate and a hostage taker, but he told VOA he was not a Somali pirate. His self-serving claim became the highlight of the VOA report and the VOA director’s Facebook post. He was presented as a desperate man fighting for livelihood and economic justice. The BBG then reinforced the “Desperate fishermen?” narrative in a e-mail sent to subscribers of VOA news, albeit with a question mark. Still, it could be assumed that the message coming directly from the U.S. government agency had to have a strong impact among Somali fishermen and others who might be contemplating piracy and terrorism as a criminal activity organized by others since they would not be able to afford buying expensive equipment and weapons on their own. They can now present their piracy or terrorist acts as being undertaken in the name of economic equity and social justice, feel better about it, and perhaps attract a few new followers
The star example of impact in Mr. Trimble’s excellent article was, however, a statement from a former North Korean diplomat who had defected and said that he and his former colleagues at the North Korean Foreign Ministry were carefully monitoring VOA broadcasts. Talking to North Korean defectors, including former regime officials is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is nothing surprising or new in the admission that when they still loyally served the “Dear Leader” and his son, as part their work for the regime they followed VOA broadcasts which presented life in North Korea in far more rosy colors than it really is. Such monitoring of VOA broadcasts by North Korea could be just as well proof of a negative impact among the actual target audience, i.e. the oppressed North Korean citizenry who expect from VOA words of hope rather than repetitions of the regime’s slogans and trying to win its favor.
Prior to Ms. Bennett’s arrival at VOA but while Mr. Trimble was already at the agency, VOA regularly broadcast what amounted to being largely unchallenged North Korean propaganda. One such VOA produced video showed well-stocked stores and well-fed children of the communist elite in North Korea, a nation known for starving its ordinary citizens. A VOA report and a VOA press release even called Pyongyang “vibrant and busy with activity.” A few years later, VOA went as far as to repeat North Korean propaganda without any challenge that Pyongyang had nothing to do with the SONY e-mail hack. The North Korean claim, which VOA obtained by interviewing a diplomat at the North Korean mission to the UN, was quickly debunked by the Obama White House.
Whatever one thinks of Mr. Trimble’s article in praise of Ms. Bennett, the Voice of America definitely has an impact, but it may not be the kind of impact most Americans want and are ready to pay for with their tax money. In years past, VOA leaders used to show great pride in the work of VOA reporters by highlighting interviews they were able to obtain with such great figures as Vaclav Havel and other anti-communist and anti-Soviet dissidents who spoke the truth in VOA broadcasts. VOA directors and journalists felt no special need then to interview also the jailers of these brave men while they still had them in their custody. These were the Cold War’s hostage takers and terrorists although they would probably describe themselves as the enforcers of socialist justice. While there were a few VOA interviews with communist government and party officials during the Cold War, it was nothing compared to thousands of radio conversations VOA had conducted with anti-communist opposition figures and human rights activists.
These days, BBG and VOA brag about interviewing friends of terrorists, North Korean diplomats (not just those who defect but also those still working for the regime), and making phone calls to Somali pirates. Unlike Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa, today’s interviewees tell blatant lies, often left unchallenged by VOA. As longtime critic of the agency, investigative journalist Kenneth R. Timmerman, who is one of the potential candidates to be the next presidentially-nominated and Senate-confirmed BBG CEO, observed in a recent Washington Times op-ed, “The Persian-language services of both VOA and RFE/RL [Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty] have long been a disaster, mocked in Iran because they broadcast pro-Iranian regime propaganda and not the pro-freedom message they were intended to convey.”
It can be safely stated that thanks to the current leaders in charge of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America, VOA is definitely not what it once was. Jeff Trimble’s article in praise of Amanda Bennett makes that unintended point perfectly clear.