USAGM Watch Commentary by Former VOA English and VOA Foreign Language Reporters
As we pointed out recently, problems that played out at the Voice of America (VOA) in recent years happened under the watch of current leaders of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), led by Acting USAGM CEO Kelu Chao, who previously held the position of the VOA Program Director for many years.
Agency sources report that between 2015 and 2020, VOA and USAGM executives, most of them still in charge of the agency, protected and defended the old VOA Persian Service management.
It wasn’t until former VOA Director Robert Reilly, who served briefly under former USAGM CEO Michael Pack, who himself was confirmed by the Senate only toward the very end of the Trump administration, that action was proposed to reform the Persian Service. Until that time the agency and VOA were led by top executives appointed during the Obama administration, including former VOA director Amanda Bennett and shortly prior to Pack’s arrival by former USAGM CEO John Lansing.
Some of the current USAGM senior executives below Kelu Chao were suspended by Pack who accused them of mismanagement. They denied his charges, sought protection as “whistleblowers” and were eventually reinstated by Chao after the Biden administration forced Pack’s resignation and Chao was made Acting CEO.
In another developing story, which we hope to have more on in coming weeks, there is new evidence emerging that the Voice of America has lost much of its popularity not only in Iran, but also in China.
And audience research also shows that USAGM programs have a much smaller reach in Russia than some of the independent Russian media outlets which operate at a fraction of the cost of USAGM Russian programs.
The latest scandal involves the allegations by Jason Patinkin recently resigned in protest from his job at the Voice of America. It focuses on how VOA managers tend to react when valid questions and criticisms are raised about content. Patinkin, the article notes, reported as a freelancer on “conflicts, extremism, and counterinsurgency in East Africa for major news outlets including the Washington Post, Reuters, and the Associated Press.”
READ: PROPAGANDA MACHINE
By Nick Turse. The Intercept. May 21, 2021.
On Facebook and Twitter, the current VOA acting director Yolanda López (who was appointed by Chao) promoted a story by VOA dated May 14th that places VOA reporting on Ethiopia and Tigray in a positive light.
Dealing broadly with hunger and allegations of atrocities, it credits none other than Patinkin who leveled numerous accusations against VOA in his letter of resignation.
Noting the “flogging” of this VOA story by the acting VOA director in posts on Facebook, one source said that while it does manage to cover several aspects of the story, it nonetheless amounts to “a classic hodgepodge of information [that] buries the lead and dodges reality [and] hides the truth rather than exposing it.”
Patinkin himself unleashes several tweets and retweets about the VOA article. López, he asserts, “is trying to cover her tracks with a story that was only published after I said I was quitting in protest of VOA’s biased Ethiopia coverage”.
VOA Director Yolanda Lopez has failed to stop a pro-Ethiopia govt wartime propaganda campaign, and now is trying to cover her tracks with a story that was only published after I said I was quitting in protest of VOA’s biased Ethiopia coverage. https://t.co/s5mCc8KD2p— Jason Patinkin (@JasonPatinkin) May 22, 2021
An esteemed colleague and friend commented, “If more people like @JasonPatinkin were in journalism, it would be better.” Welcome back to freelance life, Patinkin. We do need you. https://t.co/OsXjeGqYe2— Amanda Sperber (@hysperbole) May 21, 2021
“VOA’s continued tolerance of a wartime propaganda effort is too much. I cannot in good conscience remain associated with this organization.”— Geoffrey York (@geoffreyyork) May 21, 2021
A journalist resigns over VOA’s pro-Abiy coverage and its refusal to report military war crimes.
https://t.co/FWBgpFO5yc by @nickturse
Thinking about my former @VOAAfrica colleagues who have, for years, fought to change things internally and at great risk to themselves. Make no mistake, this is a systemic problem that goes beyond the Horn service. It is a crisis of bad management that starts at the very top. https://t.co/wdDbo2ZkPm— Ayen Grace Bior (@ayen_grace) May 22, 2021
“This is such transparent misdirection. After I submitted my resignation, I was suddenly assigned to cover potential famine in Tigray, and even offered [to] be sent to Ethiopia to report. An obvious attempt to stop me from leaving / buy me off instead of addressing [VOA Amharic service’s] propaganda.”
In a response quoted by The Intercept to Patinkin’s criticisms, López appears to waffle, stating that she is “ . . . not indicating that action will be taken in the future or has been taken in the past”. . . adding that “I can continue assuring you that we are taking this issue very seriously.”
But as The Intercept article notes: “Staff at VOA say otherwise”. NOTE: VOA employees almost always universally seek the cover of anonymity to avoid internal retaliation by management.
Patinkin’s followup tweets and retweets from individuals in the Ethiopian/Tigray community regarding the May 14th VOA article and López’s use of it in her online posts.
Those include one person tweeting about “crimes of the VOA Amharic [service] [which is the] life time enemy of the people of Tigray”, and another thanking Patinkin for “. . .exposing the bureaucratic mismanagement and bias at @VOAAmharic” and yet another showing a demonstration by Oromos outside VOA protesting against Voice of America.
But another tweet, reflecting the complexities of the Ethiopian situation and emotions and politics involved, asserts that “VOA must be doing right by not siding with terrorists and riding with the misinformation wagon..please don’t come to Ethiopia. We have enough of you fake journalists already.”
USAGM Photo: Swearing In of Voice of America (VOA) Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara by VOA Director Amanda Bennett with VOA Program Director Kelu Chao (middle), May 2, 2016. Bennett and Sugawara resigned in June 2020.