BBG Watch Commentary
Sources told BBG Watch that an independent Russian journalist who warned about a “pro-Putin” bias of the Voice of America Russian Service is new media scholar Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy.
Dr. Rudenskiy was hired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in 2011 to evaluate the VOA Russian website. In a report, which was not shared with BBG members, Dr. Rudenskiy concluded that the Russian Service had a “pro-Putin bias” and downplayed human rights reporting.
He wrote in his report that “the site provides little if any unique information or bright and perceptive comment, it appears rather mediocre in terms of journalistic quality or design, and it lacks focus on the topics where it potentially could excel.”
Dr. Rudenskiy’s main criticism, however, was directed at what he perceived as a bias in favor of the Kremlin. In his study, he gave several examples of VOA news reports based mostly on Russian official media that lacked an alternative American perspective.
“Vice President’s [Biden] speech in Moscow University , in which he criticized Russia ‘s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event was titled ‘Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours’; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia ‘s ‘legal nihilism’ – an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of ‘pro-Russian’ (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.”
Dr. Rudenskiy was a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, which published the following biographical note about him:
Nikolay Rudenskiy is the deputy editor of Grani.Ru (www.grani.ru), an independent online media outlet. Trained as an ethnographer, he is the author of about 40 scholarly publications and more than 100 journalistic commentaries focusing mostly on public issues in today’s Russia, including defending freedom of the press, exposing persecution of the regime’s opponents and other human rights violations, and combating racism and other forms of bigotry. During his fellowship, Rudenskiy plans to compare and contrast various approaches to the issue of hate speech in Russia and the United States.
Study of Voice of America Russian Service Website for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) by Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy
BBG executives suppressed Dr. Rudenskiy’s study, as they had tried to suppress a similar study critical of Alhurra TV until they were forced by pressure from Congress to make it public.
Dr. Rudenskiy’s study was identified by Ted Lipien, a former VOA acting associate director, in his op-ed “VOA Harms Putin Opposition in Russia” in The Washington Times. The article focused on a fake interview with a Russian anti-corruption lawyer and opposition leaders Alexei Navalny published by the VOA Russian website. The Russian Service removed the interview and apologized to Navalny who wrote in his Twitter account that “Voice of America has gone nuts” and that all those working there should be let go.
In an attack on Lipien, “VOA Public Relations” posted a comment which questioned the accuracy of his description of Dr. Rudenskiy’s study in his Washington Times op-ed:
“Mr. Lipien misleads his audience when he alleges a ‘pro-Putin’ bias, something which could not be farther from the truth. Mr. Lipien should know well, the agency he so sharply attacks is the one that every year hires dozens of independent analysts to conduct rigorous ‘program reviews’ of every VOA language service. Mr. Lipien both misquotes and takes out of context a single remark by one of those analysts about one particular story.”
Asked for a comment, Mr. Lipien told BBG Watch that American taxpayers and members of Congress should read Dr. Rudenskiy’s entire study of the Voice of America Russian Service and decide for themselves whether their money is spent well and whether it favors more the Kremlin or the pro-democratic and anti-Putin opposition.” Sources told BBG Watch that some of BBG executives who had earlier advised BBG members to withhold the Alhurra study from Congress met behind closed door on Thursday to draft a response to The Washington Times article.
Ted Lipien, his nonprofit foundation and a group of volunteers helped to launch BBG Watch and its watch dog website.
We provide additional quotes from Dr. Rudenskiy’s study:
“There are numerous if minor errors in spelling and punctuation, which cannot possibly be listed.”
“it would seem fair that in news coverage and comment on such issues as YUKOS affair or human rights violations in the North Caucasus some kind of special consideration be given to alternative facts and viewpoints.” [rather than only the Kremlin’s viewpoint]
“Now, my impression is that VOA has been too careful in avoiding anything that might look like ‘anti-Russian’ bias.”
“Vice President’s speech in Moscow University , in which he criticized Russia ‘s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event was titled ‘Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours’; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia ‘s ‘legal nihilism’ – an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of ‘pro-Russian’ (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.”
“Perhaps additional background info, such as Russia’ place in Freedom House international rankings, would have been relevant, too.”
“Overall Impression of Journalistic Quality: Is the journalistic quality of the website at a high professional and informational level?
My answer is ‘sorry but no’. The site provides information of satisfactory quality, but it is mostly derived from other sources. Even the report about American Vice President’s meeting with Russian opposition figures was based on Ekho Moskvy and Gazeta.Ru information (VOA’s own interview with Leonid Gozman was added later.) The selection of topics and timeliness leave much to be desired (see below.) The language, if mostly grammatical, tends to be bland and colorless, which reduces the appeal very much. This applies especially to headlines: new Russian journalism has developed a special culture of catchy and witty headlines, and an advanced user expects to find them. Many photos lack expression and appeal.”
“Much of the content doesn’t seem of interest to the Russian Internet audience.”
“Many ‘political’ pieces are less than inspiring, too. A brief account of the presentation of a new book on Cold War lacks substance.”
“Such examples could be easily multiplied. On the positive side, I would like to mention an excellent article on government corruption in the North Caucasus.”
“Regrettably, some interesting topics were underreported.”
“A brief news item based entirely on Russian sources; an American perspective one could have expected from VOA was lacking completely. The same can be said of the scandal involving Vladimir Putin, Western stars and charity money: VOA’s website failed to provide any information or comment from the American side, missing a good opportunity to raise its profile.”
“As for the ‘market niche’ mentioned in the question, I’m afraid it can hardly be located at the moment.”
“Timeliness … is probably one of the website’s weakest points. As far as I could monitor, all big ongoing stories (Biden’s visit, Japan ‘s disaster) were reported with long delays compared to Russian online media. The piece on Biden’s planned meeting with human rights activists on March 10 was among top news a few hours after the meeting actually took place.”
“On March 12, information on the explosion at a nuclear power plant in Japan , which was distributed in the morning Moscow time, did not appear on the site till evening.”
“On the homepage one can see many headlines of news stories dating from a day or even two days before.”
Usefulness: Does the content provided on this site increase understanding of topics or events, and does it provide a basis for forming opinions, making decisions and rendering judgments?
”My general answer to this one would rather be negative. The site provides quite an amount of diverse information, but not all of it seems relevant to the interests of the audience. A clearer focus on specific issues linked to VOA’s mission is needed. Independent forming of opinions by users could also be encouraged by more perceptive comments by high-level contributors – this is where VOA’s competitive position is rather weak. There are few if any bright columns by good authors; the Poedinok (Single Combat) section is entirely about international politics, doesn’t seem appealing to users and is updated at a slow rate. The Editorial section appears somewhat more useful; I wish it carried more on human rights and democracy in Russia.”
“In my view, the site doesn’t look attractive or contemporary.”
Does this site fill a clear niche that positively distinguishes it from others in the target area? Please explain.
”Based on what I said before, my answer to this question is definitely negative. The site provides little if any unique information or bright and perceptive comment, it appears rather mediocre in terms of journalistic quality or design, and it lacks focus on the topics where it potentially could excel. Reaching somewhat beyond the scope of this evaluation, I talked to several people I know in Moscow ; some of them are professionally involved with online media, others are not, but all are avid Internet users. The result of this informal poll was about as I had anticipated: nearly half of the respondents never heard of the VOA website, others just knew about its existence, and only a couple of media professionals had a more or less clear idea about it. I don’t recall VOA being quoted or referred to in the Russian segment of the Internet including social networks or in offline media. On March 18, I found VOA ranking 219th in the Rambler.ru list of online news sources while, for example, Radio Liberty (not exactly the most popular website) ranked 43d.”
In January 2010, Dr. Rudenskiy delivered a lecture “Shrinking from Brainwashing: The Russian Media’s Response to Political Challenges” at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC.