BBG Watch Commentary
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has posted on its official website and uploaded to the BBG YouTube page a badly produced and poorly curated video of the BBG open board meeting held in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, June 23, 2016 during which new Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett outlined her vision of VOA’s mission.
Bennett said: “I found that Voice of America in fact has a very robust and very strong mission that does distinguish us from any other news organizations.”
VOICE OF AMERICA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT:
“Our mission is:
1. To be an objective news source in countries where they have they have no other.
2. To tell America’s stories in ways that our audiences can relate to, focusing on the things that people outside of the United States found appealing and compelling about the United States culture and civilization, such as technology, entrepreneurialism, education, medicine and [inaudible].
3. And the third, which I think is an equally important if not more important, that is becoming an authentic voice of America’s diaspora communities, both enabling us to link back effectively with the countries where these people have come here from, and also telling one of America’s most compelling stories, and that is the stories of the people who make up this country.”
Large parts of the BBG produced video have extremely poor audio quality. Several speakers, including members of the public who spoke Thursday, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) Executive Director Ann Noonan and Adam Clayton Powell III, a University Fellow of the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy and a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communications Leadership and Policy, are practically inaudible on the BBG video while others can be barely heard. In her speech to the board, Noonan complained about being put on a waiting list to participate in the meeting held in a room where many seats were empty and not being able to sign up to speak. She thanked BBG Chairman Jeff Shell for intervening to allow her to speak. Shell apologized for the mishap.
Ann Noonan said that this was her first meeting with the new VOA director in place, “so on behalf of CUSIB I’d like to officially welcome Amanda Bennett.” Noonan added that she was looking forward to establishing a working relationship with Bennett.
Some viewers who saw the BBG video on the BBG YouTube page also saw at the bottom and next to the U.S. government’s produced video two political ads, of which one could be described as provocative and controversial.
One of the ads showed a picture of Hillary Clinton and included a question: “Should Hillary Be Locked Up For Crimes Against America.”
The other ad to the right side of the video on the BBG YouTube page simply asked: “Should Donald Trump be the GOP Presidential Candidate.”
The BBG obviously did not produce or pay for these ads to show on its YouTube page. They were produced by outside political organizations placed there presumably automatically by YouTube for some of the visitors to the BBG YouTube page. Such political ads, however, could be highly confusing, especially for foreign audiences, when seen on the official U.S. government website. Some may assume wrongly that the BBG or the United States government paid for and posted these ads.
The BBG management should ensure that its videos, including the Voice of America (VOA) videos, do not include such ads when they are posted on YouTube and other social media sites.
For International Broadcasting Bureau administrative and technical executives, other SES IBB managers and IBB GM-15 senior staff, here is a:
“Text Tutorial Remove Ads on YouTube Videos”
Step 1 – Go to Creator Studio. To start, make sure you’re logged into your Google/YouTube account and visit your YouTube page. …
Step 2 – Channel Settings. …
Step 3 – Advanced Settings. …
Step 4 – Turn off Advertisements.
Here is a link: Turn Off Ads on YouTube Videos.
The BBG management also needs to ensure better technical quality of its official videos. BBG Watch had to enhance audio on the BBG video, but the audio quality is still poor. We apologize to our viewers.
The video compiled by BBG Watch from the BBG official video includes the segment of the BBG meeting during which VOA director Amanda Bennett made her presentation.
Bennett commented that she has found the Voice of America to be a place of talents and strengths. In a vague reference to the need for management reforms, Bennett added that there is willingness to change to liberate these talents and strengths. In a recent memo to staff, Bennett said she has ordered a series of anti-bias training sessions in the wake of criticisms of bias in VOA coverage of, and commentary on, the U.S. presidential campaign.
Bennett also has posted a comment to an op-ed on the BBG Watch website encouraging greater objectivity and non-partisanship in VOA coverage of U.S. presidential election campaign and said she welcomed constructive criticism from BBG Watch.
One senior BBG official told BBG Watch that Bennett’s ideas what the Voice of America should be reporting on is a “refreshing change of course” but thinks that she may be at this point focusing a bit too much on new projects instead of fixing monumental management and editorial problems.
After the BBG’s Thursday panel on impact, BBG Governor Michael Kemper was quoted as saying, “Everytime John you have one of these panels with your extraordinarily impressive team. I’m just sorry the whole country isn’t watching because it would so dramatically change the narrative about both the quality of people we have working on these critical issues as well as the results and impact we’re having.”
Governor Kemper may not be aware that Americans, including Bernie Sanders’s and Donald Trump’s campaign officials and supporters are indeed watching Voice of America content and are expressing their outrage at what they say is “state media bias” in VOA election coverage. Shadowproof website contributor Dan Wright criticized VOA for posting at taxpayers’ expense “electioneering and hit pieces on US citizens.” Wright was referring to a commentary on the VOA website which accused Bernie Sanders of being “a ‘shill’ for undemocratic regimes.” “VOA does not have the right to advocate for a particular candidate or even to attack one. That is not within its charter, nor should any US citizen have to subsidize their own defamation,” Wright wrote.
Commentator Sierra Rayne writing in American Thinker reported that “[o]ne of VOA’s flagship programs is Issues in the News, where “[p]rominent Washington correspondents discuss topics making headlines around the world,” has two American journalists who should be balancing one another but who are both strong critics of Donald Trump.
“During the GOP primaries, the [Voice of America English] program has repeatedly focused on the Republican nomination race, and in particular on Donald Trump,” American Thinker commentator wrote. “To say the coverage and discussion of Trump has been less than flattering would be an understatement.”
“Slanted [Voice of America] journalism“ on Trump, a reader from Russia posted a comment under a report on the VOA English news website. Another Russian posted a comment “How legal is it for the Voice of America, in light of U.S. legislation, that the [U.S.] government’s media resource funded by U.S. taxpayers, is involved in the election campaign?”
Amanda Bennett deserves credit for acknowledging that there is a bias problem at VOA and for her willingness to address it.
BBG Governor Matt Armstrong, however, continues to tout the BBG as a journalistic model even for American media. According to Armstrong, “We have no peer. BBC is not our peer. Deutsche Welle is not our peer. We are unique.”
BBC, of course, is an international media giant, while VOA cannot be found on cable TV around the world because it does not have a 24/7 international TV news program in English. VOA also does not even come close to BBC, and not even Russian RT, in audience engagement for its website and social media pages. VOA can’t even compete in web traffic and audience engagement with the few remaining independent news websites operating with much more limited resources and under constant pressure in Putin’s Russia.
BBC and Deutsche Welle would never post such a poor quality video as the BBG did. DW and BBC offer the highest quality news, news analysis, radio, and television.
Matt Armstrong, whose term on the BBG board will soon expire, may be right; the BBG is unique.
A media and communications organization that produces almost inaudible videos is certainly unique in its inability to compete with BBC, Deutsche Welle, RT, or Al Jazeera.
Some of the better VOA journalists will freely admit that quite a few of VOA video reports look as if they were done as part of a high school journalism class project, and in some cases even not as good as what some talented high school students are capable of achieving using multimedia tools of expression.
Bennett is not the executive bearing the ultimate responsibility for technical mishaps. It rests with the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau executives and staff, although VOA talent is sometimes used to shoot these videos.
Together with other BBG entities, VOA is a victim of the current system, which BBG executives still refuse to reform by resisting key structural changes proposed in the H.R. 2323 bipartisan BBG reform bill.
Because of their opposition to abolishing the part-time BBG board, the so-called Thornberry Amendment, named after Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) who introduced it in the House version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), could result in de-federalization of the Voice of America.
De-federalization, however, would make VOA even more partisan and dysfunctional. Hopefully, the de-federalization of VOA will not happen when the Thornberry Amendment is discussed in the House-Senate conference later this summer. But the bureaucracy definitely deserves to be eliminated. This would allow the federal Voice of America and non-federal U.S. taxpayer-funded media entities to re-focus on their different missions and to have more control over resources.
On the positive side, one trusted inside source which favors radical reforms said that the BBG impact panel on Thursday was interesting and providing hope, as was the Middle East Broadcasting Networks’ women’s program.
But as for impact now, there is little evidence that the BBG has much of an impact in countries, regions and among groups where it really matters for U.S. interests and national security. This lack of impact was confirmed by one of BBG’s current members Dr. Leon Aron in a congressional testimony earlier this month. As Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce observed earlier this year, “this broken agency is losing the info war to ISIS & Putin.”
At the BBG board meeting on Thursday, both Dr. Aron and BBG Chairman Jeff Shell indicated that there is no consensus among current BBG members as to what position to take on the proposed legislative solutions to the agency’s many problems. This would suggest that some BBG members favor more drastic reforms than Jeff Shell and BBG CEO John Lansing are willing to support. The terms of most BBG members have already expired or will expire soon, but they continue to serve until their replacements are nominated and confirmed by the Senate.
BBG PRESS RELEASE
JUNE 24, 2016
(L-R) BBG’s Director of Research Sonja Gloeckle, Ernie Torriero, director of VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk, and OCB’s Chief Content Officer Natalia Crujeiras were three of the six members of the panel that focused on impact during the BBG Board meeting.
WASHINGTON – The Broadcasting Board of Governors met Thursday at its Washington, D.C., headquarters to receive status reports on important initiatives and to discuss BBG networks’ reach and impact with target audiences.
In a panel discussion moderated by CEO and Director John F. Lansing, representatives from each of the BBG networks gave examples of the specific ways they are achieving and measuring their impact with key overseas audiences.
“Impact is undoubtedly the driving force behind the diverse work we do at the BBG,” said Lansing. “No longer are audience numbers sufficient for measuring how successful we are. Instead, we can go much deeper and examine the true results of our great programming.”
A key theme that was derived from the panel discussion: BBG networks are achieving impact around the world and further growth is indeed possible.
Bay Fang, Radio Free Asia’s Managing Director for Northeast Asia, highlighted an RFA journalist’s reporting on sham hospitals set up by North Korean workers in Tanzania. The reporting was seen by South Korea’s ambassador to Tanzania, who alerted the country’s minister of health. The minister then shut the hospitals down.
Ernie Torriero, director of the Voice of America’s Extremism Watch Desk, talked about a Yazidi woman who was disfigured by a landmine while trying to escape ISIL. Because of a series of VOA stories on her plight, he said, people have stepped forward to help her get the medical treatment she needs.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Daisy Sindelar, regional director for Europe and a Russia specialist, shared an impact example from the RFE/RL-VOA jointly produced Russian-language news program Current Time. She said medical workers in a Russian industrial city appealed to President Vladimir Putin that they were receiving less than half of their monthly salary. After Russian officials said the mistake would be addressed, Current Time investigated and discovered that their pay had been raised by a small amount. Current Time posted a video on the story that received 630,000 views on social media and generated a national conversation about inadequate salaries.
Said Sindelar: “The really interesting thing for us is it took a conversation that was going on at a local level and turned it into a country-wide conversation. People were writing into Current Time and saying ‘the same thing is happening to me. ’”
Another panelist, Nada Alwadi, the community manager for the Middle East Broadcasting Networks’ Raise Your Voice campaign to fight radicalism, spoke of her use of digital media to connect with audiences and provide a platform for them to discuss important issues. She said her live stream interview of a Saudi female activist on women’s issues in Saudi Arabia sparked many comments from people in the Middle East, some challenging what the woman was saying. She added that the discussion continued for about three days after the live stream.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s Chief Content Officer Natalia Crujeiras shared an example of how a Martí report resulted in government action. She said coverage by a Martí journalist on more than 500 Cuban refugees stranded in a town in Colombia with no access to critical necessities prompted local authorities to provide basic items.
“So that to us is a good example of how because you follow a story and care and the audience trusts you, then you can influence other media and governments to take action,” Crujeiras said.
Prior to the panel, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell applauded the release of award-winning investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova but urged authorities to clear her name. Her suspended sentence includes a five-year ban on traveling outside the country. He also urged authorities to immediately reopen RFE/RL’s bureau in Baku, which has been closed since December 2014.
“We want to recognize the assistance in support of Khadija from many outside organizations – Congress, the State Department, NGOs and others – who pressed her case in public and private,” Shell said. “The need for this support continues because Khadija isn’t truly free yet.”
Shell also cited a series of ongoing threats to BBG journalists around the world, including the nearly year-long imprisonment of RFE/RL’s correspondent in Turkmenistan, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, and called for his immediate release.
In related business, the Board approved resolutions honoring the 65th anniversary of VOA’s Armenian Service, the 65th anniversary of VOA’s Georgian Service, the 20th anniversary of VOA’s Bosnian Service and the 15th anniversary of the Macedonian Unit of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
Minutes, documents and a video recording of Thursday’s meeting will be available on bbg.gov.
About the BBG
The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an independent federal agency supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international media. Its mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. BBG networks include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí). BBG programming has a measured audience of 226 million in more than 100 countries and in 61 languages.