BBG Watch Commentary
Too much foreign travel not related to a core activity can make a government agency defunct.
The Voice of America (VOA), a U.S. taxpayer-funded ($200 million) media entity for foreign audiences within the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) with its annual budget of $740 million, which includes VOA, has become famous for dismal social media performance, missing coverage of important news stories, and late or superficial reporting, as shown in recent BBG Watch posts. But the agency has an extensive program of teaching foreign journalists how they should be doing their jobs. BBG and VOA managers who should be working on improving Voice of America news coverage and social media outreach are busy traveling around the world.
Voice of America homepage link to California shooting did not work as story developed, BBG Watch, December 3, 2015;
Voice of America opponents of ‘countering violent extremism’ not likely to be asked to do it, BBG Watch, December 3, 2015;
Misleading audience claims from US broadcasting agency officials, BBG Watch, November 23, 2015;
Voice of America manager argues for keeping ‘hateful’ Facebook comments on U.S., France, and gays, BBG Watch, November 17, 2015;
Comment: Ashamed of My Voice of America Job After 15 Years, BBG Watch, November 16, 2015;
Voice of America with minimal Paris terror coverage had dismal social media engagement compared to BBC, DW, and RT, BBG Watch, November 16, 2015;
Barbarians in the Headquarters of Voice of America? – Cal State Professor condemns ‘secret visit’ to VOA of Ethiopian regime officials, BBG Watch, November 14, 2015;
Voice of America ignores White House statement on Holodomor genocide in 1930s Ukraine, as does RFE/RL, BBG Watch, November 8, 2015;
VOA Charter ignored, says former Voice of America director, BBG Watch, November 2, 2015;
Matt Armstrong calls Voice of America a ‘fundamental counter to propaganda’, exaggerates successes, ignores failures, BBG Watch, October 25, 2015;
Florida couple having sex while facing arrest number one U.S. news story on Voice of America French site for five days, BBG Watch, October 19, 2015.
It is fairly clear that denied proper resources and support for news reporting, and lacking good governance and leadership from senior Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America executives, VOA journalism has become an international embarrassment.
Where then does $740 million of BBG’s taxpayers’ dollars go?
Much of it goes to the BBG bureaucracy, international travel, and teaching others how to do good journalism while BBG and VOA are incapable of ensuring even the most basic journalistic standards and minimal social media performance outcomes at the Voice of America.
We are not suggesting that some of these activities are not worthwhile in themselves. In many cases, however, they are an example of mission creep and mismanagement in an organization which has abandoned its core values of excellence in news journalism.
BBG bureaucrats use these activities to buy and show an audience growth for placement programs, some of which are deliberately self-censored. Many placement programs require payments from U.S. Government and have little mission value. Some are placed in countries such as Mexico which have free media and multiple other ties to the United States. If such non-news, self-censored placement or additional non-news soft placement in countries that clearly have free media is not counted, the BBG’s mission-oriented global audience has been stagnant or declining for years when global population growth is taken into account. The BBG is rapidly moving away from what many Americans and their elected representatives think should be its core mission: providing underserved audiences in countries without free media with uncensored news and opinions.
Here are a few examples of how BBG and VOA managers and journalists spend their time and taxpayers’ dollars traveling abroad and teaching others to do what they themselves fail to do because of poor governance and poor leadership.
These descriptions were taken from recent Voice of America program “Highlights.”
From VOA Program “Highlights”:
VOA English executive producer… and [representative] of the Office of Strategy and Development conducted a five-day workshop in Abuja, Nigeria, on building stronger news teams. They worked with 12 television journalists from the northern states on establishing newsroom organization, setting standards, improving workflow and quality of story production, as well as finding new ways to engage audiences. “We came with little, but are leaving with a big box of tools and ideas to make a better workplace and better programs,” said one workshop participant
In Bangladesh, English News Programs Chief … and [representative] of the Office of Strategy and Development conducted a series of journalism seminars for staffers of English News Programs affiliate Radio Today. Discussions covered elements of good reporting and journalistic ethics. Radio Today and VOA jointly produce a daily 10-minute news program in English broadcasted throughout Bangladesh on Radio Today’s network of 10 FM stations. “We learned a lot from you,” said News Director Selim Bashar. “Our tie to VOA is so important to us,” said owner and CEO … .
VOA Khmer and the Office of Strategy and Development held the first Cambodia Affiliate Conference in Phnom Penh with three TV affiliates, more than ten radio affiliates and the first web affiliate Thmey-Themy. VOA Khmer’s presentation on ‘digital first’ strategy gained interest among TV and radio affiliates, who want to improve their digital presence. VOA Khmer also gave a presentation about challenges in reporting in Cambodia and introduced BBG Direct.
The new VOA Reporting Center in Niamey, Niger, hosted the first training session for journalists. VOA Africa Division sent a team to train ten French to Africa and Hausa stringers in video shooting and editing skills. [Representative] of the English Division and … of French to Africa led the weeklong training session.
In conjunction with the U.S. Embassy in Quito, VOA Spanish coordinated a Social Media training seminar with 40 participants from radio and television media outlets throughout Ecuador. VOA Spanish was able to promote VOA products and resources, including BBG Direct. Twelve new affiliates were signed up during this two-day workshop. Additionally, the Office of Strategic Development, along with VOA Spanish, organized an affiliate conference in Lima, Peru, for the second year in a row. Nine high-yielding affiliates in South America participated. The success of VOA’s U.S Bureau model was a main point of discussion. Ten new affiliates joined the VOA Spanish network via an agreement signed with Argentinian media conglomerate AlbaVision.
VOA Indonesian held the 2015 VOA Affiliates Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, August 9-11. “Diversity Reporting in a Diverse Country: Challenges and Best Practices” attracted 110 representatives of affiliates from all over the country including radio, TV stations and news portals. Among the speakers was Minister of Religion and former deputy speaker of the Indonesian Senate Lukman H. Saifuddin, Professor Azyumardi Azra, former president of the Islamic State University in Jakarta, and Martha Bayles (Hudson Institute/Smith Richard Foundation) who is doing research on “Balancing the Three Goals of US International Broadcasting.” During the conference, the affiliates voiced their support for VOA Indonesian Radio asking for the continuation of the broadcasts with a six-meter petition. They also organized a social media campaign on Twitter, #savevoaindonesianradio. Additionally, VOA Indonesian received a “Diaspora Award” for its coverage of diaspora-related stories, during the third Indonesian Diaspora Congress in Jakarta, August 12-14. Nearly 2,000 Indonesians living in 50 countries attended the conference.
Swahili and French Service chiefs met with affiliates in Kinshasa, Dakar, and Dar es Salaam to discuss new Africa Division television programing and Washington Bureau opportunities.
BBG Governor Matthew Armstrong met with Burmese President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw June 24 to discuss VOA and public diplomacy. President Sein told Governor Armstrong that he has been a VOA listener since he was a student and thanked him for BBG efforts to train Burmese journalists. They discussed the role of the media in Myanmar’s transition, and Governor Armstrong thanked the President for allowing VOA to establish one of the first foreign news bureaus. U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchel, Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and VOA EAP Director … joined those talks. … Armstrong also visited the country’s second-largest station, Myawaddy TV, where Director Major Thuta said the military-run station welcomes more VOA news and learning English programs.
The BBG Office of Strategy and Development in collaboration with VOA’s Africa Division conducted an eight-day workshop on entrepreneurial journalism in partnership with Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria. The workshop focused on multimedia storytelling, video, social media, and digital publishing. Using 10 iPhones and two Mac computers, the participants learned how to record, edit, and share audio and video on multimedia platforms. They were also exposed to core business development concepts, financing, sales and marketing strategies. Six of the participants developed a business model for a media communications and advertising company and raised more than $5,000 to launch Waves Advertising Limited.
VOA’s Creole service in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, organized a “Journalism and Social Media in the Context of Elections” workshop for ten Haitian journalists. The workshop took place at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington. The participants learned how to prepare clear, objective and balanced reports that will attract their audiences’ attention as well as how journalists today use social media. They had the opportunity to compare the recent elections in Haiti with the ongoing process ahead of the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. Marie Mirlide Laguerre, a journalist with Radio Tele Signal FM in Port-au-Prince, said that the training sessions “gave us added value to what we already know and taught us how to write better, how to ask questions, and how to investigate.”
But as we pointed out in our commentary, [BBG Governor] “Matt Armstrong calls Voice of America a ‘fundamental counter to propaganda’, exaggerates successes, ignores failures,” individual Voice of America language services, and especially journalists of BBG’s grantee, surrogate media outlets such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), which are better managed than BBG and VOA, are capable of excellent work despite numerous management failures at the federal level.
BBG WATCH: “Some individual BBG-employed reporters are capable of outstanding work and are, in fact, doing outstanding work. If they are not doing well on social media, it may be because the Voice of America news brand has been damaged by actions or inactions of VOA and BBG executives. If irrelevant news items are posted by Voice of America, it may be because resources, training and leadership are missing or because there is an impression that this is what the management wants.
Excellent journalism still found from time to time at VOA does represent a counter to propaganda and violent extremism, as Matt Armstrong claimed, without VOA reporters resorting to propaganda. But the overall agency performance is highly uneven. VOA, and even RFE/RL, sometimes fall for Kremlin propaganda or fail to challenge it adequately. This is largely not the fault of BBG-employed journalists, many of whom are now poorly-paid, poorly-trained and exploited contractors because the BBG bureaucracy — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) has been diverting money to itself. It’s a result of years of dysfunction, mismanagement and waste, which Mr. Armstrong failed to fix since he became a board member in 2013.”
It is clear that one CEO and one part-time oversight board cannot manage well both VOA and the surrogate broadcasters. Unfortunately, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG’s new CEO John Lansing are resisting the key provision of the bipartisan H.R. 2323 BBG reform bill which calls for separating the Voice of America from the better-managed non-federal media entities. They should drop their opposition.
For the sake of balance, here are a few examples of some of the excellent work still done by individual Voice of America journalist and services.
From VOA “Highlights”:
“Democracy is universal. It does not have different ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ parts,” exiled Tibetan Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay told VOA about upcoming elections. “In regards to Tibet, we have already accepted democratic principles, including suffrage, freedom of speech, direct elections.”
“It’s clear Russia’s intention is not the defeat of ISIS, but to prop up their ally in
Damascus,” Marcin Zaborowski, Executive Vice President of the Center for European Policy Analysis, told VOA Persian. “The Russian military is demonstratively copying past American air campaigns (televised) on CNN… showing everyone that we have the same planes, the same smart bombs,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former member of Russia’s Duma and a prominent opposition politician, told VOA reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow.
“Thanks to the Voice of America, we have a window that allows us to freely express ourselves, both to the world and to Venezuela,” Carlos Rosales, son of Venezuelan opposition politician Manuel Rosales, told VOA Spanish.
“It was genocide. We need to understand…. Sometimes stone can be evocative and I think that’s true in this case,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) told VOA Ukrainian at the dedication of a Washington memorial millions of victims of the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine, the Holodomor.
House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael
McCaul (R-TX) told VOA congressional reporter Cindy Saine that a lack of U.S. political or military strategy for Syria has created a power vacuum that Russia has now stepped in to fill.
“Most migrants are uninformed and do not realize the danger of the situation in Libya. They do not know that smugglers are becoming more violent,” IOM Mediterranean coordinator Federico Soda told VOA French to Africa’s Nicolas Pinault in Rome. “For women, sexual abuse is common.” Coverage of the European migrant crisis includes live reporting from camps in Italy, France, Austria, and Germany plus interviews with Nobel-Peace-Prize-nominated Eritrean priest Father Mussie Zerai and Oxford University professor Matthew Gibney.
Before John Lansing took his BBG CEO job last September, a group of BBG employees appealed to any new CEO to reform the dysfunctional bureaucracy. One of the problems these anonymous employees wanted the new CEO to address was the out-of-control travel by BBG and VOA executives and managers while journalists do not have basic resources to do their jobs.
Briefing Memo 3 for New BBG CEO – What Do IBB Executives Do? They Travel, BBG Watch, July 27, 2015