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One Year Later — Dysfunction, News Failures, Self-Promotion and Pandering at the Voice of America

PART IV: Out of the Breaking News Business?  And…some questions

What is Voice of America at this stage?  A “state broadcaster” as VOA Director David Ensor has stated (with transmitters atop U.S. embassies, protected by U.S. Marines).

By Dan Robinson

 

VOA maintains news bureaus in foreign capitals and many of its correspondents are excellent journalists who have developed, or brought with them, the ability to undertake excellent video journalism, and social media engagement.

But time and again in recent years, VOA was seen to be…no other way to say it…lame, appearing to have taken itself out of the business of reliably providing breaking news in any short period of time on its global English website.

Has VOA failed on each and every breaking news test?  No.  But a look back over the past year or so reveals a veritable hit parade of major stories that a reader, if relying only on the Voice of America, would not have seen within seconds, or minutes….even hours of an event occurring.

Just before this was published, the main VOA English news website was seen to have had no live coverage of the speech to the U.S. Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Most of VOA foreign language services, with possibly only one exception (Iran), also had no live coverage. A listener in Asia reported that there was little coverage of the speech on VOA English worldwide radio programs.  BBC English picked up the entire speech, from well before it began, and offered BBC users multiple additional related links.  Users of VOA’s website had to settle for a single story on the front page (it was updated with Netanyahu remarks) and a small window containing barely-visible tweets by VOA correspondents.

VOA had no live studio programming in English during the 2014 mid-term U.S. election that handed Republicans complete control of the U.S. Congress. The BBC once again cleaned VOA’s clock, presenting hours of London-based studio commentary, complete with American news figures and pundits, and remotes from BBC bureaus and reporters across the United States. One current VOA correspondent observed:

“I just looked at the USA page on the VOA website. There are two election- related stories. . .Listening to NPR tonight on my way home I heard how an election should be covered, with reports from correspondents in Iowa, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, etc.  They seemed to think the election was worth more than two stories.”

In another noteworthy failure, VOA English had no live coverage of the major news conference by New Jersey Governor and likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, in which he responded to the controversy over the George Washington Bridge shutdown.  On this story, VOA ceded the domestic news turf to the BBC which carried Christie live.

VOA English failed to carry live on its website the rare news conference by CIA chief, John Brennan, who defended the spy agency following release of a U.S. Senate report on torture. This generated widespread global interest, was covered live by all major U.S. and many international outlets, including the BBC. About VOA being missing in action, a current VOA correspondent observed at the time:

“Good question.  I wonder if the thought even occurred to them.”

When Alan Gross, the American contractor imprisoned by Cuba for years, delivered a statement after his release, VOA English had no live coverage. When President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro made simultaneous statements on the breakthrough in relations, VOA carried only Obama. BBC had both.

VOA erroneously reported that the U.S. vetoed a Palestinian statehood resolution, only rushing to correct/clarify its report following a protest by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, picked up by BBG Watch. Other VOA reports dealing with the Palestinian statehood resolution were never fully corrected, changed or removed.

When a NASA-contracted supply rocket exploded shortly after launch in Virginia, VOA was late posting an online story, and had no multimedia content. The fiery event was reported pretty much immediately by other media, BBC and CNN, prominently featured on their homepages, with continuously updated and expanded stories and video, and follow up reporting. One former VOA journalist observed:

Fox, AOL, other outlets are all carrying it.  It’s all over Facebook.  Is everyone at VOA asleep?”

On a major overseas trip by Secretary of State Kerry, several media organizations carried TV interviews with Kerry. VOA had no video, only able to post a Skype chat with its then State Department correspondent.

As was extensively reported, VOA was late in getting a reporting team on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri to cover rioting fueled by racial tensions in the wake of the police shooting of a young African American.

VOA was frequently late on major stories occurring right under its nose. On Capitol Hill, no VOA service was seen to have reported on testimony by a Syrian army defector about mass killings and torture by the Bashar al-Assad regime. Also uncovered for a few days was passage House of Representatives approval of legislation to strengthen sanctions against North Korea.

The list of fumbles is much longer.  Recall for a moment that in 2014 VOA’s director, and one member of the BBG, told news employees that the organization should move away from trying so hard to be a provider of breaking news, at least in any way competitive with the BBC and other media organizations.

Matt Armstrong, before the BBG known primarily as the founder of a blog about public diplomacy, said:

“If commercial media are reporting on a story in a way that you think is adequate, that it is 85 percent of what audience needs…if [the] commercial product is doing that, my view is why spend your time when you can just take that commercial [content] and just push it out….”

He went on to assert that VOA should concentrate on providing “context” and “value added” and not be in the position of “competing with commercial media which he said would be a “waste of our resources.” “Let’s take the AP, let’s take the AFP, let’s take the Reuters copy…” he added.

One reporter, and a VOA newsroom manager, asked pointed questions about the ramifications of this approach for a newsroom sitting on a decades-old tradition of being a breaking news leader. The questions appeared to put Armstrong on the defensive. At another time, Armstrong strongly criticized poor coverage by VOA of breaking news. He was apparently instrumental in forcing VOA management to put time stamps on individual VOA news reports.

The problem observed so frequently in which VOA was embarrassingly late compared to other media outlets could well be attributable to pandering by staff (not all, based on emails I have received) to the view that VOA no longer needs to care about having its audience consider it a breaking news source.

Worth noting is that since BBG Watch began making its observations about VOA’s inability to post breaking stories, or even headlines, within seconds or minutes or hours, the breaking news scroll atop VOA’s global website has…disappeared.  GONE.

The BBC, meanwhile, maintains not only breaking news scroll but also has an efficient system of posting breaking news icons at the top of or anywhere in the pages of each section of the BBC World site.

VOA’s message seems to be “we’re not even going to try” to compete, though as I observed earlier, and somewhat of a contradiction, VOA seems to be trying harder.

In response to examples of BBC and others out-covering VOA on major stories, VOA officials and some news staff have responded with the following assertions:

(a) BBC has more money to spend and (b) is better at covering U.S. news because unlike VOA it still directs programming to North America, and has to pay attention to stories that VOA supposedly can safely ignore because it does not broadcast to Americans, or Canadians.

This is ludicrous. A major news story is a major news story.  VOA either decided to produce live studio TV programming with its own staff on the mid-term election, or it did not. . . .to quickly report on its front page about NBC’s Brian Williams, or not. . . either realized that a rare CIA conference deserved to be picked up live, or did not.

As Steve Jobs used to say when introducing a new Apple product — but that’s not all:

In a blow to its own image, and America’s image abroad, BBG/IBB provided minimal notice during the summer of 2014, to its remaining VOA/RFA audiences in Asia, of its implementation of a decision to cut shortwave transmissions. (https://bbgwatch.com/bbgwatch/american-policies-are-being-blasted-to-bits-while-voice-of-america-shortwave-radio-goes-silent-in-asia/)  Some of this was rolled back.  But VOA English news staff were left hanging with minimal notice from their managers.

VOA is weak in ensuring that comments and important detail given to reporters by the White House press secretary and other officials is integrated into online news content.  Doing so would add more depth to news stories, but requires sharp attention and a newsroom capable of quickly processing and integrating such information, assuming VOA correspondents relay it on an urgent basis.  In other words….saying your shift is over is no excuse.

VOA continued a familiar pattern of not reporting on its own controversies, or that of its governing agency….not just the recent House hearing which had content that reflected poorly on the agency.  VOA’s newsroom did report on the House hearing in 2013 that kicked off the current wave of examinations by Congress of BBG “dysfunction” (and H.R. 4490). It did not report on State Department/BBG Inspector General findings of mismanagement and abuse of power, which Foreign Policy found interesting enough to write about (http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/06/17/waste-and-abuse-of-power-at-the-broadcasting-board-of-governors-according-to-audit/)

There is quite a bit more.  But one has to observe that amid all of this, the VOA director and other officials merrily traveled across the country on government-funded trips, to wax enthusiastically to local groups about what a good “bang for the buck” American taxpayers were getting.

These officials also continue to advance a line of thought that VOA plays a crucial role in influencing members of various diasporas in the United States — Somali Americans to cite one example — against becoming jihadists.

How is this taking place….?  Supposedly, by broadening the ways in which agency-produced programming can be accessed in parts of this country where the most young people vulnerable to ISIS and other propaganda are located.

This has become another BBG justification to Congress (which passed a revision of the Smith Mundt Act) to renew, and if possible increase, the annual budget, including for the so-called “Digital First” strategy, despite proven bumbling and indications that VOA products fail to gain traction.

And unless I have missed something, the effectiveness of VOA and other components of BBG in pushing back jihadist tendencies in this country — has yet to be proven.  But I am sure someone in the Cohen Building will come up with statistics.

It does appear that rather than insisting on the kind of thorough house-cleaning seen that the American public demanded at the Veterans Administration and U.S. Secret Service, lawmakers are in part willing to give another pass to our nation’s civilian media directed abroad.

Congress is going to slightly increase the BBG budget.  But it would take tens of millions if not a few hundred million more for VOA and other agency broadcasters to have hope of truly competing with the likes of the BBC (read “I can see you in my hotel room and you’re really an option to getting my news from London”)

But wait — competing with the BBC is not the objective.  Or is it….based on the obvious responses VOA has had to observations on BBG Watch about failures in thoroughly and rapidly covering breaking news?

What is Voice of America at this stage?  A “state broadcaster” as VOA Director David Ensor has stated (with transmitters atop U.S. embassies, protected by U.S. Marines).

What part of VOA and other components of the agency are co-mingled with State Department efforts (BBG Internet censorship interdiction efforts are part of the State budget)?  How about USAID, and its Twitter campaign in Cuba?  Any communication between agencies on that one?

What intersections exist between BBG and the State Department Center for Strategic Counter Communication which “[coordinates], [orients] and [informs] government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism”.

Recently it was reported (http://dailysignal.com/2014/09/19/u-s-diplomacy-strategy-time-terrorism/) that the CSCC “added English to the languages in which it broadcasts, which also include Arabic, Pashtu and Dari?”

These and many other questions should be asked, but probably won’t, because there is a profound lack of interest outside the beltway (significantly more interest when the VA, or Secret Service, or GSA stumble).

And of course, public diplomacy blogs and ideologues (mostly on the right, and likely seeking another tour of duty courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer) will do their best to keep a dysfunctional agency alive.

And that’s the biggest question, one that has been asked in different ways by people in middle America who have remarked in online comments over the past year.  It is why, after so many screw ups, an agency like this SHOULD be sustained?

I would argue that the answer should not be because the agency is a job supplier for journalists who, as many have told me need to put bread on the table, or that it MIGHT be able to get the job done against ISIS and Putin.

The answer should be that there is a reasonable expectation — cutting through the familiar BS and propaganda we are so used to hearing from 330 Independence Avenue — that this ship with holes can not just float, but repair itself, and aggressively compete . . .

. . . as a journalistic force not simply entitled because it still exists, but one worthy of renewed respect that it once had, but frittered away with a series of dumb moves . . .

Unfortunately, none of this is simple.  Because despite that lofty goal, there are loopholes everywhere (not usually discussed). . . in the VOA Charter. . .and throughout the organization.

As difficult as it is for many current and former VOA journalists to accept, after all is said and done, and particularly in the current global climate, BBG, VOA and all the others are viewed primarily as PROPAGANDA tools in the first major information war of the second millennium.

But Congress has re-upped for another fiscal year, about $750 million for agency operations.  The old Washington adage about the difficulty of killing longstanding government programs — even those that repeatedly demonstrate their dysfunction — still applies.

Speaking of ships . . .it was confirmed on Tuesday that Andy Lack has decided his time will be better spent tackling the problems at NBC in the wake of the Brian Williams suspension, then putting his energies into sealing the holes in the hull of the BBG.

The Washington Post quoted sources at the State Department as confirming this, and BBG Watch reported that board chairman Jeff Shell addressed agency staff on Wednesday.

Remember — Lack was sworn in only in January and made his first formal remarks to BBG and VOA employees on February 18th.

That is likely to add momentum to renewed steps in the House of Representatives to pass legislation that failed to pass in 2014 aimed at cleaning up the BBG mess.

Quite simply, lawmakers will have little patience to wait for months before acting.  The Obama administration (recently from the mouth of Secretary of State Kerry) and the drafters of last year’s bill say they are on the same page, aside from known differences over wording.

READ: PART I: Looking Back: Lack of Accountability, Continuing Maximum Hubris, and Facing Realities

READ: PART II: MIXING ADVOCACY WITH NEWS REPORTING

READ: PART III: A LOOK ACROSS THE TERRAIN . . . ANOTHER BILL IN THE WORKS . . . AND SOME DECEPTIVE PRACTICES

 
 

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