BBG Watch Commentary

U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) failed to report on President Obama’s statement on the Holocaust Memorial Day. A new legislation in Congress may correct such VOA news failures.

 

Voice of America Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 8.32PM EDT

 

While Voice of America did not report on President Obama’s statement on the Holocaust Memorial Day,  JERUSALEM POST and TIMES OF ISRAEL did. However, media in many countries to which Voice of America actually directs its broadcasts and online content did not. Voice of America once again failed to meet the news reporting obligations of the VOA Charter.

 

We even agree with Voice of America Director David Ensor that VOA should not be a mouthpiece of the White House or anybody else, i.e. it should not publish or even report on or mention every White House statement of no or little news value, of which there are many. But if a VOA director makes this kind of categorical statement, he and his top deputies should at least make sure that Voice of America, which they run and which is 100% funded by U.S. taxpayers, actually covers significant news, including such news originating from the White House, as required by U.S. law. President Obama’s Holocaust statement may not have been the most significant news on Monday, but the Holocaust Memorial Day observances were noted by VOA, so why not report on President Obama’s White House statement. Other media outlets in the U.S. and abroad did. So why not Voice of America?

“Voice of America is not a propaganda organization and it is not a mouthpiece of the White House or of anybody else. It is a proud journalistic organization more than seventy years old.” — VOA Director David Ensor

We do not think that Director Ensor’s quote about VOA not being a mouthpiece of the White House fully explains this latest omission, although it may have something to do with it. One might think that perhaps Director Ensor is so ashamed that he is a U.S. government official, that VOA reporters are U.S. government employees or U.S. government contractors, and that VOA is fully funded by U.S. taxpayers that he wants to make a special point that no White House statement is ever reported by VOA lest foreign audiences might think that VOA is indeed a mouthpiece of the U.S. government and think of it as a government propaganda outlet. But that is not the case. VOA Charter says that VOA news must be accurate and balanced and there are procedures preventing the White House from dictating what VOA should or should not cover in terms of news. If Voice of America does not cover news that should be covered, most critics say that it is the fault not of VOA journalists but of senior VOA executives who have made this news organization largely dysfunctional.

As a public, taxpayer-funded institution, VOA has a much higher mandate than any commercial media outlets to cover U.S.-related news because of its congressional Charter, which says: “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)

Why then Voice of America failed to even mention President Obama’s statement on the Holocaust Memorial Day in its short Holocaust-related news item and another video and text news report?

U.S. Delegation at Holocaust Memorial Day Observance at Auschwitz (Oswiecim)
U.S. Delegation in ‘The March of the Living’ at the former World War II Nazi concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oswiecim-Brzezinka).

Why VOA failed to note in its news report from Auschwitz that Douglas Davidson, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, took part in “The March of the Living” at the former World War II Nazi concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oswiecim-Brzezinka) along with other Americans? We do not know this with absolute certainty, but it is very likely that some former Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who now live in the United States participated in yesterday’s observance.

But at the very least, Voice of America should have mentioned President Obama’s Holocaust statement, if even in one sentence. If VOA is not going to to this, which international broadcaster will? Russia’s RT or Voice of Russia?

Not in this case, but as incredible as it may sound, both RT and Voice of Russia had on several occasions reported on statements from the White House, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Congress that the Voice of America had missed or gave them late and superficial coverage.

The Voice of America is very poorly managed. VOA executives have decimated the VOA Newsroom while expanding the number of bureaucratic positions and pushing for even more executive jobs. They are unable to assure even minimal standards for news coverage and journalism.

In addition to failing to report on President Obama’s statement on the Holocaust Memorial Day, the initial and very short VOA news item on the observances in Israel failed to mention “The March of the Living” at Auschwitz and similar observances in the United States and in other countries.

The timestamp on the otherwise interesting VOA video report from Auschwitz shows that it was not finished until 10:33 PM EDT Monday (4:33AM next day in Europe). For nearly all of the world, it was already the next day, many hours after the actual observances took place at Auschwitz. As of 2:00 PM EDT Tuesday, the VOA report showed only 16 Tweets and 35 Facebook “Shares.” The world’s attention was already focused on other, more timely news. (In contrast to VOA’s weak social media outreach on its video, The Times of Israel report on Obama’s statement had 1,400 Facebook “Shares.”

While the VOA report from Auschwitz had good content, as well as some significant omissions, the first word in it, “OSWIECEM,” the Polish name for Auschwitz is misspelled. (The correct spelling is “OSWIECIM.”) This error has not been corrected for over 24 hours. As of 00:10 AM EDT Wednesday, the misspelling was still there. We are not sure who is responsible, but editors in Washington either put it into the report or did not correct it. Such a mistake immediately undermines credibility of a VOA report for international audiences.

VOA executives cannot assure adequate news coverage and editing standards. It is easy to blame journalists for these mistakes, but this much more than a case of a misspelled word or even the fact that a significant statement by the U.S. president is ignored. In the larger scheme of things, it is VOA executives who obviously do not realize the importance of strong U.S. administration genocide-related statements in VOA news reporting to such countries as Russia and China where current rulers deny or try to minimize other genocides carried out by their predecessors.

The main VOA English news website also ignored President Obama’s statement on the Armenian Remembrance Day and a visit of a congressional delegation to Armenia to mark the anniversary of the 1915 genocide.

See: Voice of America English News website fails to report on Obama’s statement on Armenian Remembrance Day and Congressional visit to Armenia, BBG Watch, April 25, 2014.

Voice of America also failed to report on President Obama’s statement on the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II and on the sending of the U.S. delegation to for the ceremony in Rome. It did not mention Pope John Paul II’s contribution to putting an end to communism in Eastern Europe or the fact that he improved the Catholic Church’s relations with other religions, including Judaism, Islam, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion, and that he had prayed in a mosque and in a synagogue. Both Russia’s RT and Voice of Russia mentioned these themes. Voice of America also did not report that Pope John XXIII “was seen as a peacemaker who saved thousands of Jews when he was a Vatican envoy in Turkey during World War II and he helped put an end to age-old Catholic prejudices against Jews when he became pontiff as well as helping to ease the Cuban Missile Crisis.” This was reported by Al Jazeera.

See: Voice of America failed to report on Obama’s statement on canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II, BBG Watch, April 28, 2014.

So what does Voice of America report under the leadership of VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch?

Compared to the total of many dozens of reports VOA had posted online on the British royal wedding in 2011, the British royal baby christening in 2013, and a drunk driving arrest of Canadian pop-star Justin Bieber, VOA had only three reports relating to the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, and only one on the actual ceremony in Rome. VOA even produced recently a video report for Pakistan showing a blood-thirsty zombie dressed as Uncle Sam attacking a Pakistani. It was supposed to be humorous. It was not.

The Congressional delegation, whose visit to Ukraine and Armenia was ignored by VOA English news and most VOA language services along with President Obama’s statement on the 1915 genocide of Armenians, was led by U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member. Being keenly aware how Voice of America has been mismanaged in recent years, these two prominent members of Congress along with others, both Republicans and Democrats, have proposed H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act, which if passed by Congress and signed by the President, will  address problems in how the part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors manages U.S. international media outreach through its large, expanding and highly dysfunctional International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) bureaucracy. Lawmakers also appear to want to address serious management issues at the Voice of America and to improve U.S. public diplomacy.

Chairman Royce said:  “The free flow of information and ideas is at the core of a democratic society.  Across the globe – whether it is reaching the young Iranian protesting the regime in Tehran, covering the elections in Afghanistan, or countering Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe – freedom of information is key to the success of our national security objectives.  Unfortunately, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency charged with leading the U.S. effort to inform and empower foreign audiences, is badly broken.  It is time for broad reforms; now more than ever, U.S. international broadcasts must be effective.”

Ranking Member Engel said: “Around the world, millions of people are denied access to objective news.  My recent trip to Ukraine was a strong reminder that the competition of ideas is still very much alive and that the United States has an important role to play in facilitating the free flow of information and in sharing our values.  The legislation that Chairman Royce and I introduced will strengthen our international broadcasting operations by improving management, enhancing coordination, and empowering journalists and editors to produce high-quality programming that keeps pace with the rapidly evolving international media landscape.”

According to the House Foreign Affairs Committee press release The United States International Communications Reform Act:

Clarifies the Mission of the Voice of America (VOA). The VOA charter states that VOA will provide a “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.” Over time, VOA has abandoned this mission and adopted a mission of the so-called “surrogates” to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies. This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts.”

 

The original VOA Charter is included in The United States International Communications Reform Act. But because of management failures at the senior executive level at the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau, the Congress has stepped in with stronger wording about public diplomacy. Had recent VOA directors simply followed the VOA Charter,  and IBB executives showed respect for it, this latest bipartisan  congressional  intervention may not have been necessary or it may have been less severe. But as we see, even to this day top executives at the mismanaged and dysfunctional Voice of America are  not capable of  insuring news reporting on significant presidential statements about Holocaust, other acts of genocide, and brave men who had opposed these crimes and confronted tyranny and injustice. These U.S. administration statements may have a strong public diplomacy impact, but they are also news that Voice of America is required to report anyway.

If VOA won’t report on these U.S. statements to countries without media freedom, then who will?   If VOA and IBB executives mismanage the agency and ignore the law, which is what the VOA Charter is, they should not be surprised that members of Congress will respond with stronger measures to enforce the law. VOA and IBB executives have only themselves to blame that the Congress is now telling them what to do in a bill supported by members of both parties.

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