BBG Watch Commentary
In a stunning display of chaos, mismanagement and lack of oversight, key management units within the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have for several years followed and legitimized a Twitter account allegedly belonging to the director of the Voice of America (VOA) Persian Service, which VOA now admits was fake and set up by an impostor and not by the service director who claims to have been unaware of the fake account’s existence until very recently.
VOA has not identified to an inquiring journalist who shared this information with BBG Watch, an independent watch dog blog run by former and current VOA journalists, who the impostor might have been. VOA claimed to the journalist that it did not know the impostor’s identity. “We have no additional information about who set up the account [or] when,” VOA said. The allegedly fake Twitter account was shut down earlier this month reportedly at the request of the Voice of America management.
In an unrelated development, The Washington Free Beacon journalist Adam Kredo reported on February 20 that “A group of nearly 100 prominent Iranian dissidents is demanding that Congress launch investigations into clandestine efforts by the Islamic Republic to influence U.S. policy using a network of lobbyists and propaganda pieces placed in Voice of America’s Persian service…”.
ADAM KREDO: “The group of dissidents—which includes foreign policy experts, university professors, interfaith leaders, prominent real estate developers, and human rights activists, among others—also requested that Congress shine a light on VOA Persia’s activities.
‘We also ask that you launch an inquiry into the Voice of America’s Persian service, whose bloated budget is the largest of all language services under the VOA,’ they write.
‘There have been numerous instances of editorials by the VOA’s Persian service that have been lenient or favorable to Iran’s clerical despots. We consider this to be totally unacceptable and demoralizing for pro-democracy Iranians who watch these broadcasts.'”
SEE: Iranian Dissidents Demand Investigation Into Islamic Regime’s Secret U.S. Lobbying Network | Leading Iranian dissident voices say Tehran infiltrating U.S., VOA Persia service, By Adam Kredo, The Washington Free Beacon, February 20, 2017.
Also in a development not directly related to the fake VOA Persian Twitter account, in a Washington Times op-ed published December 11, 2016, New York Times best-selling author, political commentator, investigative reporter and Republican Party activist Kenneth R. Timmerman accused U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) of being “transformed into the Voice of Tehran.”
Kenneth Timmerman has been a frequent critic of the Voice of America’s Persian News Network.
KENNETH R. TIMMERMAN: “If you had been listening to the Voice of America’s Persian News Network (PNN) in the weeks and months before the U.S. presidential elections, you would easily have believed that Donald Trump was a white supremacist in league with the Ku Klux Klan who raped underage girls, and that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in to become president.
Sure, you would have had the same impression watching MSNBC or CNN (since merged into the DNC). But there’s a big difference: your tax dollars paid for the propaganda on the Voice of America.”
READ MORE: The Persian News nightmare: America’s ‘voice’ has been transformed into the Voice of Tehran, Analysis/Opinion By Kenneth R. Timmerman, The Washington Times, November 11, 2016.
The Twitter account allegedly belonging to the director of the Voice of America Persian News Network (PNN), which is another name used by VOA Persian Service, was revealed as fake thanks to a BBG Watch report in early February. BBG Watch pointed out that the account included many recent anti-Donald Trump tweets, as well as a retweet from the Iranian Foreign Minister criticizing President Trump’s immigration policy. The VOA Persian Service director denied posting these tweets or having anything to do with the fake account.
What was the most damning about the fake VOA Twitter account, however, was that it showed as having been established in 2013 and also showed that it was being followed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America Public Affairs Office, at least one senior BBG manager who at one time served in the VOA Persian Service, scores of VOA central English newsroom and foreign language managers and reporters, as well as the VOA Persian Service itself. This gave the fake Twitter account strong legitimacy among other followers, including many outside journalists.
In an email sent to an inquiring reporter on February 3, VOA said: “As you have noted, the fake Twitter account that was set up in the name of the VOA Persian Service director’s name has been suspended by Twitter after receiving a formal claim of impersonation from VOA.” “Not only do we have verification that the VOA Persian Service director did not set up the account, her name was misspelled on the profile,” VOA also said in a e-email.
However, the minor misspelling could have been easily dismissed because Twitter account names have a limit on the number of characters. There was absolutely no doubt that the account was created to impersonate the VOA Persian Service director and it succeeded in achieving its purpose without anyone from VOA or BBG for many years protesting that it was fake.
The fake VOA Twitter account included the VOA managers’ photos, a link to the VOA Persian Service website and the following description: “Director @VOAIran /Deputy Director, Executive Editor and Managing Editor of VOA Persian … | Washington, DC |…|Joined March 2013.” Screenshots made before the Twitter feed was taken down show beyond any doubt that this alleged fake account was indeed followed for many years by the VOA Persian Service and many key offices and individuals within the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America.
While following a Twitter account does not necessarily indicate its endorsement, following a Twitter account claiming to belong to a key manager within any organization by the organization’s senior management, numerous reporters working for it and the language service itself where the manager is in charge will be interpreted by almost anyone as a definite sign of endorsement and legitimacy, especially when the organization is part of the U.S. federal government. Otherwise everything that the BBG and VOA post online could be subject to doubt and questioning, which in retrospect should have been the attitude of all outside journalists relying on BBG and VOA online media. Like many other journalists, we fell for it ourselves.
For several years, no one within the management of the Broadcasting Booard of Governors and the Voice of America took notice and no one from VOA or BBG has alerted the employees and the public to this apparently long-term fraud perpetrated by a still unknown party. VOA asked Twitter to shut down the account for impersonation only after BBG Watch had revealed what was on it. As VOA informed an inquiring journalist, Twitter has complied with VOA management’s request and the account is no longer active.
“The only grounds on which BBG and VOA can request suspension of a personal account are trademark violation or impersonation,” VOA said.
“VOA’s claim of account impersonation was filed with Twitter immediately after the VOA Persian Service director alerted us,” VOA further explained. “She does not now nor never has had any personal or professional social media accounts, so when this fake account was brought to her attention, she contacted us for assistance,” an email from VOA said. VOA did not specify when the fake account was brought to the attention of the Persian Service director.
VOA says that it does not know who set up the account in the first place and did not explain why it was allowed by the BBG and VOA management to exist and fool the public and the agency’s own managers and employees, as well as many journalists for so many years. VOA also did not explain why the VOA Persian Service director was not aware of the existence of the fake Twitter account established in her name even though it was followed by her service and scores of key offices and key individuals working for VOA and BBG. This shows an astounding level of the lack of communication, miscommunication and the lack of senior management oversight at the Broadcasting Board of Governors that would be unlikely to be tolerated at most other government agencies but is tolerated at the BBG.
The last tweet on the fake VOA Persian Twitter account as seen in a screenshot taken on February 2 at 1 PM ET said: “Nothing changed @VOANews. Under our charter (Public Laws 94-350/103-415), ‘we do not speak for the U.S. government.'” Such wording suggests, but does not prove, that the account may have been controlled by someone very familiar with the Voice of America.
On January 29, the fake VOA Persian Twitter account showed a retweet from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with the following introduction: “Full statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the #MuslimBan.”
In February 2011, the Iranian Cyber Army was able to hack the Voice of America main English news website and post its anti-American messages addressed to the then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. These messages stayed on the site for several hours. BBG and BBG’s International broadcasting Bureau (IBB) managers on whose watch this failure of cyber security occurred were later promoted and praised by their superiors.
In 2013, Secretary Clinton, who was also an ex officio member of the BBG Board, called the Broadcasting Board of Governors “practically defunct.” Despite these problems, some of the members of the BBG Board, as well as BBG CEO John Lansing and VOA director Amanda Bennett continue to praise senior managers as being an “amazing,” “excellent,” and “exceptional” management team.
Critics say that both BBG and VOA have been in a senior management meltdown, with problems getting worse in the last year and a half.
BBG CEO John Lansing and VOA director Amanda Bennett insist that these critics are wrong.
As recently as last weekend, VOA English newsroom had posted a news report which compared President Trump to such 20th century mass murderers as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Some VOA English Newsroom reporters had posted on social media memes showing Donald Trump with a Nazi swastika, made fun of him, his wife and his daughter in a public employee event, and called him “A Joke” and “F*ckface Von Clownstick.” VOA English News had also posted last weekend a AP report on the alleged Trump administration plans to use National Guard to round up illegal immigrants hours after the White House said that the report was completely wrong and kept the report online for many hours without any denials, updates or corrections.
John Lansing told NPR’s Morning Edition that “It’s our job is to report all sides of a story and we have the greatest respect for whoever is the President, and their point of view is something that’s newsworthy and we report that.”
But former Voice of America director Robert Reilly who had served at VOA during the George W. Bush administration wrote in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that “he saw the Robert De Niro video that Voice of America’s Ukrainian service posted online last October, adding subtitles and VOA’s logo,” in which “Mr. De Niro unloads about Mr. Trump: ‘He’s so blatantly stupid; he’s a punk; he’s a dog; he’s a pig; he’s a con’—and so forth.”
Current VOA director Amanda Bennett said in a recent interview for The Los Angeles Times: “You don’t do a story that doesn’t show the opposite viewpoint. If you’re making a criticism of somebody, you allow the person or the institution you’re criticizing to make a comment.”
Many individuals outside of the BBG and VOA were fooled by the VOA Iran Twitter feed account not only because of its endorsement by numerous BBG and VOA managers and reporters, as well as the VOA Persian Service but also because, contrary to assertions by BBG and VOA executives, some of the Voice America content has become mismanaged, one-sided and partisan to such an unprecedented degree in recent months that the account’s tweets and retweets bashing Donald Trump and his policies seemed in line with other VOA social media posts.
The misled followers of the fake VOA Persian Twitter account included, in addition to the BBG and VOA management and reporters, several BBC and other European reporters, some Middle East Broadcasting Netwrork (MBN) Alhurra and Radio Sawa journalists (MBN also falls under the BBG), a Washington Post reporter, Iranian human rights organizations and ordinary Iranians.
Neither BBG nor VOA has disclosed full details of the management’s failure in this case or apologized to their employees and the unwitting followers of the VOA Twitter account which turned out to be fake. Instead, the management sent an email to staff in which the burden of monitoring individual online identities was placed squarely on the rank and file employees.
An email sent to all staff on February 10 by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the BBG’s management unit filled with highly-paid federal government bureaucrats, warned: “In the past few weeks, we’ve seen incidents of online impersonation of VOA journalists and staff.” (The fake VOA Persian Twitter account was online not for a few weeks, but for several years.)
The IBB Administrative Notice to employees also advised: “If you have a public profile due to your work for VOA, it’s important to periodically check to make sure you aren’t being impersonated.”
The responsibilities of the senior and mid-level management, which failed spectacularly by endorsing and not discovering for many years the fake account impersonating a key VOA manager, were not mentioned in the management’s email to staff. Critics said that this kind of haughty management attitude toward journalists and other agency employees is bound to affect employees’ assessment of the senior agency leaders in the upcoming 2017 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey (FEVS).
As reported by The Washington Post, the 2016 OPM survey showed yet another drop in employees’ confidence in senior leaders and placed the agency in terms of employee engagement and morale at the bottom of the list of federal agencies, where it has stayed for many years. Columnist Joe Davidson described the BBG as “another regular bottom-feeder that oversees the Voice of America and other government broadcasters … going backward.”
Two Trump administration advance team members, Matthew Ciepielowski and Matthew Schuck, are currently evaluating the management of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and are expected be making their recommendations to the White House. Under a new bipartisan BBG reform legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama last December, President Trump can nominate a new individual to head the Broadcasting Board of Governors. His nominee would be subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
The VOA Charter, which has ben U.S. law since 1976, is quite clear that VOA content must be both accurate and balanced, while clearly presenting U.S. government polices and all responsible U.S. opinions on these policies. Critics say that the VOA Charter has been for the most part ignored by the VOA management in recent years, but especially in the past year and a half. The management denies that it has failed to uphold the Charter.