During a meeting with Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employees in Washington on March 4, 2015, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG Governor Kenneth Weinstein answered questions focusing on the circumstances of the federal agency’s CEO Andy Lack’s departure only after a few weeks on the job, legislative proposals to restructure the agency and non-federal grantee media organizations, the BBG’s image in the United States and abroad, employee morale, and challenges in news reporting in response to disinformation from nations such as Russia.
A question from Voice of America English News Programs correspondent Pete Heinlein solicited comments from BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and Governor Kenneth Weinstein on the VOA Charter and the bipartisan H.R. 4490 2014 United States International Communications Reform Act to reform the BBG. The bill, introduced last year by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Democratic Member, was unanimously passed by the committee and the House of Representatives but was not voted on by the U.S. Senate. Rep. Royce announced he plans to reintroduce the bill later this year.
READ: Chairman Ed Royce Statement on Resignation of U.S. International Broadcasting Executive Andy Lack, BBG Watch, March 6, 2015
Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, praised some of the recent Russian-language programming initiatives undertaken by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Voice of America (VOA), which are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. She also said last Wednesday at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that she and Secretary of State John Kerry join the Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel and other Committee members in supporting reform of the BBG.
Some Voice of America journalists worry that the bill, if reintroduced, passed by Congress and signed by the President with its original language, would turn them into “propagandists.” Al Pessin, a senior VOA foreign correspondent currently based in London, wrote in a June 2, 2014 Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Op-Ed Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real” that “The Royce bill [it was a bipartisan, Royce-Engel bill — BBG Watch] maintains some of the original VOA charter language, requiring “accurate, objective and comprehensive” news, but only in the service of U.S. foreign policy.” “The two are not compatible,” Al Pessin wrote.
Rep. Eliot Engel strongly denied that the bill’s intention was to turn the Voice of America into a propaganda tool for any U.S. administration.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the BBG “practically defunct” in terms of communicating with audiences abroad. “Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and we need to get back into it,” Hillary Clinton said in September 2014.
Chairman Royce also called the agency “defunct” on several occasions. BBG Chairman Jeff Shell said last week that he disagreed with the use of this term and blamed it on Washington politics. Shell also said that he strongly supports some of the management reforms proposed in the legislation.
Secretary of State Kerry said last month that he is 100 percent supportive of Rep. Royce’s efforts to pass legislation to reform the BBG despite slight differences of opinion regarding some of the bill’s language.
The AFGE Local 1812 BBG employee union expressed strong support for the bill, particularly for its proposed structural and management reforms, while expressing some reservations with regard to the VOA mission language.
Peter Heilein, who asked Jeff Shell about the BBG reform legislation, is the Chief of English News Programs Division at the Voice of America. He was previously the Chief of the VOA Horn of Africa Service, VOA Moscow Bureau Chief, and a VOA correspondent based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
At the same meeting with BBG employees, Governor Kenneth Weinstein commented on news reporting by the Voice of America.
READ: New media scholar Nikolay Rudenskiy is author of ‘pro-Putin Bias in VOA’ study, BBG Watch, February 11, 2012
READ: Voice of America Reuters report on toppling Lenin statue in Kiev gets 18 Facebook ‘Likes’ – BBC 7,709 – Russia Today 2,800, BBG Watch, December 9, 2013
READ: With Andy Lack leaving BBG for NBC, Voice of America continues to hobble, BBG Watch, March 3, 2015
READ: Assistant Secretary Nuland praises BBG Russia broadcasts, agrees with Chairman Royce on need for BBG reform, BBG Watch, March 6, 2015
PETE HEINLEIN, VOICE OF AMERICA, ENGLISH NEWS PROGRAMS: “Hello, I’m Pete Heinlein from English News Programs. I have listened to you saying you were going to keep your head down on legislative issues, but sometimes we look to you as our representatives. You have a voice that may be we don’t have. There is one issue in particular that I know many journalists are concerned about and that’s language in the legislation that seems to change us from reporting about policy issues to supporting policy issues. Some of us see that as changing us from journalists to propagandists. And we would like to ask you what you can do, what we can do, to avoid this kind of a situation where we’re going to lose our independence, we feel.”
I remember my first week here in Washington when I first got nominated for this position and sat down and I read the VOA Charter, right, and I talked to David Ensor [Voice of America Director] and I talked to others in the building.
This is not a new situation, right. This is not something that suddenly has appeared with 4490 [H.R. 4490 BBG reform bill] or something else. The charter of this organization, and VOA in particular, has a conflict in it, at least for me. David and I have argued about this for years now. And I’ve talked to many of you about it for years now. I have a different feeling. When I read it, and I’ve read it probably, the Charter, probably now 300 times, 400 times. We’re asked to, on one hand, to report on an unbiased, journalistic basis, and the best way that we can show American values is by telling the truth to the world and that’s going to show people what our values are. Let other people be propagandists. We can show our values by telling the truth and telling it in a good, comprehensive and brave way. That’s part of our charter. The other part of our charter is to tell America’s story and we are funded by the U.S. taxpayers, so we’re not a private organization, we get out money from the U.S.taxpayers, and the other part of our mission is to tell America’s story. Now, you can intellectually kind of square that circle, right, and can do both of them at the same time. And I think in most cases we do a wonderful job here doing that, of being honest and unbiased journalists, but also telling America’s story to the world. But there are often times when that comes into conflict and, personally, the language in — and I’m going to get into the 4490, and I apologize.
But the language in 4490 on the reforms they want to make to the VOA Charter is incomprehensible to me. I’ve read it a hundred times. It doesn’t make it any clearer to me. To me, it makes it even more unclear. And I’ve been privately outspoken to the people on the Hill and in the White House, and I think that needs to be fixed. And I hope they do fix it, right, so. [Applause] But I will say, it’s not new, in my perspective. I think the history of this organization has always had this kind of conflict, and I don’t think that’s going to change even after 4490 legislation passes, if it does pass.
BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS GOVERNOR KENNETH WEINSTEIN: “I’m in agreement with Jeff and I’ve also shared my concerns privately on some of the language in the reform bill with people I know on the Hill.
All that being said, I do think [that] occasionally — and this is rare — occasionally there are stories that come out of the [VOA] newsroom that I wish — and I say that with the greatest of respect — there is sometimes a tendency for stories to come out, kind of a quote from one person and a quote — an American official says, a Russian official. And I’ve seen this occasionally.
I would love to see greater analysis when a Lavrov quote is given an equal stature to a Kerry quote.
This isn’t saying that we should, we’re not propagandists, but when Lavrov is clearly lying — 90 percent of the time he is — I think we ought to try, in a story, it would be a good thing to have a little more detail on this.
And I know we’ve talked about this kind of stuff as a board. The journalism is generally excellent, but occasionally stories creep through.
Obviously, we’re working on deadlines. News is moving fast.
That’s the one area which doesn’t, in my mind, at all violate the charter, but I’d like to see where we could square the circle and do it occasionally more effectively.”
BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS CHAIRMAN JEFF SHELL: “We have an obligation to do honest journalism, that means exposing dishonesty. We should expose it, even if it’s Kerry, you know, so.”