BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary
U.S. tax-funded Voice of America (VOA) has so far (as of 12:20 AM ET, Wed., May 8) ignored on its main VOA News English website a powerful pro-press freedom speech delivered Tuesday afternoon in Washington, DC by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at a World Press Freedom Day event co-sponsored by VOA’s dysfunctional parent federal agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
There is nothing about Senator Cruz’s speech on the main VOA News English website or on VOA News YouTube Channel. There is also nothing about Senator Cruz’s speech on the VOA News Facebook page. Such a speech by a U.S. Senator in support of free press would have been certainly reported on by VOA during the Reagan administration even though even then many VOA Newsroom reporters considered Reagan a danger to peace and democracy. Many of VOA’s main foreign language services would most likely broadcast a translation of such a speech in full during the Cold War because of its powerful pro-freedom message.
It is doubtful that Senator Cruz’s speech was mentioned yesterday or so far today by any of VOA’s foreign language services. The VOA Spanish Service has nothing on its news website about Senator Cruz’s speech. The last news item on the VOA Spanish website mentioning Senator Cruz was on April 3, 2019.
USAGM officials and digital experts did not bother to present Senator Cruz’s speech as a separate video on Facebook to make it easy to find, but they certainly bragged about their digital achievements in their presentations during the event attended by the Senator.
USAGM’s top digital media and public relations experts were also unable to get on average more than five (5) Facebook Live viewers to watch the event at any one time during several hours of largely exceeding boring presentations in which agency officials talked about their digital skills and innovations.
The embarrassing lack of any meaningful online engagement (Live Facebook views could have belonged to agency technicians monitoring the broadcast) showed that the USAGM bloated bureaucracy has become irrelevant and dead under CEO John Lansing and VOA Director Amanda Bennett. Their lack of experience and lack of leadership are hampering the mission of USAGM journalists and media outlets who want to do their job in accordance with the mission.
The highlight of the event was a powerful pro-media freedom speech by Senator Ted Cruz, but hardly any of USAGM’s journalists turned to watch it. VOA English News did not report on it. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) also had nothing on its English news website on Senator Cruz’s speech despite its powerful content and references to the Soviet Union.
USAGM CEO John Lansing, VOA Director Amanda Bennett, VOA Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara, and whoever is now in charge of RFE/RL did nothing to make it happen. The agency’s leadership during the Cold War would have almost certainly made sure such a speech was covered and it would almost certainly be covered even without any directives from the top. On leadership and planning, both Lansing and Bennett have been a disaster.
The fact that Senator Cruz mentioned President Ronald Reagan as a champion of free speech may have doomed the chances of it being reported by VOA News as many VOA Newsroom journalists consider Reagan hardly better than President Trump who was described in VOA programs as a man of “hate and prejudice.” In one VOA foreign language program, Trump was called “pig,” “dog” and similar names amounting to hate speech.
It may, however, be more likely that VOA Newsroom did not know about Senator Cruz’s speech because Lansing, Bennett and Sugawara failed to inform them and did not insist that the speech be covered if it turned out to be newsworthy. It was in fact newsworthy because Senator Cruz revealed some interesting details of how the State Department tried unsuccessfully to prevent President Reagan from putting pressure on Soviet Russia. Even the topic alone — press freedom — made Senator Cruz’s speech newsworthy for many foreign audiences, some of them English-speaking. The VOA Newsroom should have reported on the speech.
When Sen. Cruz spoke about Ronald Reagan as a great champion of freedom, he may not have known that during the Reagan presidency, the VOA Newsroom may have been somewhat less open in expressing publicly its contempt for him, but many VOA English reporters considered him then privately a dangerous warmonger. However, most broadcasters working for VOA foreign language services in the 1980s saw President Reagan as their hero, as did dissidents and many people in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the communist world.
Senator Cruz said that Ronald Reagan overruled the State Department and insisted on calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” and on demanding the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Senator Cruz also spoke about the value of foreign media outreach as an effective alternative to costly and dangerous U.S. military interventions.
“Our options and foreign policy are not simply send in the Marines for every challenge in the world, but rather America should consistently be a voice for freedom,” Senator Cruz said. “We should be a voice for human rights. We should be a voice for democracy because that truth is powerful and it can transform the world,” he added.
His advice for USAGM journalists was “to highlight dissidents standing up to tyranny.”
Senator Cruz’s main advice, however, was: “we don’t want journalists to promote the US government’s viewpoints. We don’t need them – your role is to inform, and that is a powerful role.”
As it turns out, VOA Newsroom reporters also have their own ideological agenda that not every American knows about. In the absence of any leadership, some radically left-leaning and unsupervised VOA journalists will gladly give a platform to an American Communist like Angela Davis by playing a lengthy excerpt from her speech, but not to Senator Cruz and most other conservative Americans. The VOA Charter requires that they present all responsible American viewpoints in a balanced way, but someone has to tell them to do it. The current management team appointed years ago during the Obama administration is unwilling to enforce the VOA Charter.
What Senator Cruz got so far was about five (5) Live Facebook views and perhaps a few more from a few people who watched the entire video later. They would have had to look through several hours of video to find his speech. The number of total views for the entire video is misleading because it includes anybody who watched any segment during the entire seven or so hours of the event.
As of 12:20 AM ET, Wed., May 8, neither USAGM nor VOA has isolated Senator Cruz’s speech and posted it on social media, but it can be found on Sen. Cruz’s official YouTube Channel from where we were able to post a link. Sen. Cruz’s staff did a better journalistic and PR job than the entire USAGM media agency.
It seems that USAGM and VOA officials and bureaucrats got too tired making arrangements for their costly event organized largely for their own benefit. Satisfied that five people, including perhaps themselves, saw Senator Cruz’s speech live on Facebook, they went home for a well-deserved rest.
Since VOA News did not report on Senator Cruz’s press freedom speech, some of the former VOA journalists who work as volunteers for BBG – USAGM Watch have prepared a transcript of his important remarks.
Well thank you very much. Good afternoon. It is a privilege to be with you. Thank you for having me and let me say thank you for the the important the vital work you do defending truth and defending freedom.
Your mission at the Agency for Global Media is to inform engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. And ours is an age where we have seen digital platforms that allow for rapid and far-reaching dissemination of information.
Our adversaries have weaponized those platforms to spread disinformation at the expense of our allies, societies and our national security.
And it has never been more important for the United States to support our own platforms and to ensure that they are professional cutting-edge and committed to principles of the free press.
Let me talk about America’s voice in the world, then let me talk about the voice of a free press.
America’s voice in the world.
Truth is powerful and often people think that might is the only thing that matters that military force is the only thing that matters that guns and tanks and missiles are the only things that matter.
But truth has the power to transform the world. If you come by my Senate office you may notice that there are three busts in my Senate office.
A bust of Winston Churchill.
A bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And a bust of Ronald Reagan.
And the reason for that is that I think all three understood the power of speaking truth, the power of words.
Yes, Churchill commanded an army, but Churchill’s impact was words that roused the world to defend freedom.
Dr. King—just a few weeks ago I had the privilege of joining several other senators in reading on the Senate floor Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail. Most or all of us have read that before, but I will tell you it is a different thing to read it out loud, to hear it out loud.
You think about it. Dr. King never commanded an army. He simply commanded the words of truth. He simply spoke out against injustice, and that transformed the world.
And Ronald Reagan. You know, some years ago I was in Jerusalem. I was visiting with Natan Sharansky, famed Soviet dissident. Sharansky told me about how even in the depths of the Russian Gulag, the prisoners would pass from cell-to-cell notes:
Did you hear what Reagan said?
“Ash heap of history.”
“Tear down this wall!”
In my office, the dominant feature is a gigantic painting actually larger than this poster board of Reagan’s standing before the Brandenburg Gate saying the words:
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Many don’t know the backstory behind those words. I believe those are the most important words uttered by any leader in
The back story is that three times the State Department edited those words out of the speech, and three times Reagan with his own hand wrote them back.
And they proceeded to have arguments where the State Department said, “Mr. President, you can’t say this.”
“Mr. President, this is too belligerent.”
“Mr. President, this is unrealistic we all know the Berlin Wall will stand for all eternity, so you cannot say something like this.”
And each time Reagan wrote it back.
He said with a smile, “you don’t understand. This is the whole point of the speech.
In just a few years after those words were uttered, the Berlin Wall was torn to the ground. That’s important to reflect on.
The United States didn’t bomb the Berlin Wall. We didn’t send in tanks to demolish it.
It was simply the words, the the power of speaking the truth and tyrannies who fear truth.
That’s something America should should remember: that our principles can tear down walls, can topple tyrannies, can promote freedom.
Our options and foreign policy are not simply send in the Marines for every challenge in the world, but rather America should consistently be a voice for freedom. We should be a voice for human rights. We should be a voice for democracy because that truth is powerful and it can transform the world.
And that’s also where an American free press and the USAGM come into play.
Now to be clear, we don’t ask journalists to promote the viewpoint of the United States government.
There are plenty of countries in the world where governments run their media and the media is little more than a propaganda
outlet for whatever the policy views are of the particular regime in power.
Instead we believe in a different kind of press one that aligns with American principles.
It’s a testament to our system of government that we encourage and protect dissent, that we encourage and protect a free media because freedom depends upon a free media.
It’s also important that we have focused, we’ve been open and candid in discussing the need for reform.
I’m heartened that evidence of reform, the evidence is that it’s working.
For instance what Alberto Fernandez has done at the Middle East Broadcast Networks is as impressive as it was necessary.
Alhurra was transformed and relaunched, not on the basis of past practices and old assumptions but against the backdrop of contemporary media analytics tools, priorities, and above all else media realities.
The station is now for the first time in a long time set to compete at the highest levels to distribute information in the Middle East.
I know that USAGM’s leadership is committed to replicating that sort of success across the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Marti, and Radio Free Asia.
Over and over again, I hear about your efforts to incorporate hard-nosed data analytics to the promise, including the promise of new technology such as AI for the newsroom.
The need for reform will of course continue, but USAGM is headed in the right direction, and all of these efforts are aimed at ensuring that USAGM media outlets provide the best, the timeliest, the most accurate information possible.
And again, we don’t want journalists to promote the US government’s viewpoints. We don’t need them – your role is to inform and that is a powerful role.
Tyrannies fear truth. They shudder from sunlight. So relay facts and I’ll tell you, few things are more powerful than highlighting dissidents. That’s a role I’ve taken seriously in the Senate in the last seven years.
Over and over again, I’ve gone to the Senate floor to highlight dissidents standing up to tyranny, standing up to oppression because simply shining a light and telling their stories causes tyrants to fear the repercussions.
Your role in engaging foreign audiences is a second and a powerful testament to America’s principles. Rather than asking you to push prepackaged American talking points, you or independence which audiences can see and sense for themselves is our talking point, not a free press that pushes American values but a free press that is the embodiment of American values.
And finally, your mission to connect people.
Many of your outlets are broadcasting to places of alienation and isolation. In too many of those places people have lost hope, and the work you do is invaluable in bringing news of a different world.
Speaking to power, speaking to oppression, speaking for freedom, speaking for human rights is powerful. It is transformational and it is at the very core of your mission.
And so for that I simply say thank you.[Applause]
BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary
Nothing shows better that the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has become irrelevant and dead in the digital age under its current leadership of CEO John Lansing and Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett than the number of four (4) Live Facebook viewers for its World Press Freedom Day event in Washington, DC as seen in the screenshots taken by BBG – USAGM Watch.
The number of Live Facebook viewers was usually 5 for most of the event. It went up to 8 once for a few seconds and then quickly dropped to 4. At the end of the event there were only three (3) Live Facebook viewers.
The event no doubt cost U.S. taxpayers thousands of dollars. The audience seen in the video also seemed sparse.
All the best digital media and PR experts at the USAGM agency could not get more than 5 Live Facebook viewers to watch their World Press Freedom Day event and could not even fill all the seats despite getting Sen. Cruz to speak.
If these top agency digital media experts can’t get more than 5 people to watch such an event live on Facebook, how could they possibly be able to counter Putin’s propaganda.
One can just hear howls of laughter in the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation warfare outlets.
What Went Wrong with USAGM • VOA • RFE/RL?
• In recent reporting from Venezuela, the Voice of America highlighted the propaganda language of the Maduro regime and Russia’s state media that tried to present a popular uprising and a limited defection of troops from the Maduro regime as a coup against a legitimate government.
• The American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) found in an independent study conducted in 2017 that the Voice of America Persian Service and Radio Farda managed by another BBG/USAGM media entity, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), “on the whole, perpetuated to audiences the appearance of pro-regime propaganda, rather than objective reporting, on the part of both the VOA and Farda.”
• A follow-up AFPC study in 2019 concluded that “Even with the reforms carried out to date, the USAGM’s Persian-language outreach remains far too opaque and unaccountable.”
• A respected former USAGM analyst, Kim Elliott, Ph.D., claims that the agency manipulated audience research to produce false audience data.
• Former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce revealed in December 2018 that both the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty targeted Americans with illegal Facebook ads.
• The Wall Street Journal reported that RFE/RL has been accused by the U.S. State Department of disseminating autocratic propaganda in broadcasts to Central Asia.
• Award-winning Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova resigned from both VOA and RFE/RL in protest against censorship and poor management at both of these media organizations managed by USAGM with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars. Ismayilova, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan because of her reporting, published on Facebook a blistering criticism of RFE/RL management, accusing them of lack of courage, “crisis of career stagnation“ and inability to communicate with their own journalists.
• Chinese Americans have been giving money to defend the suspended VOA Mandarin Service journalists who protested against the senior management’s decision to cut short already announced live three-hour interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui who promised to reveal corruption within the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese spying activities in the United States. At least one VOA journalist who protested against the shortening of the interview has been fired. In 2017 Chinese Americans staged protests in front of the Voice of America building in Washington, DC during which they performed a mock funeral to show that VOA has lost respect and credibility among the Chinese who defend human rights. VOA director denies that pressure from China influenced her decisions which she claims were driven by her desire to maintain high journalistic standards.
• Human rights activists have asked for a U.S. government investigation of any potential personal conflicts of interests of VOA and BBG and USAGM officials who may have significant business interests in China.
• During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, the some VOA foreign language services translated and posted campaign videos with slurs against Donald Trump. In one complete election campaign video in English and one foreign language produced and posted on an official VOA Facebook page with a VOA logo and without any rebuttal, Donald Trump was called by a Hollywood actor “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid.” The VOA video was later removed. VOA ignores conservative Americans such as Candace Owens or James Woods while giving a platform for monologues by American Communist Angela Davis and Hollywood actor Robert De Niro. The VOA Charter, U.S. law which requires balance in VOA programs, is being ignored.
• USAGM CEO John F. Lansing and VOA Director Amanda Bennett had been warned about some these problems but ignored most of the outside critics until mainstream U.S. media started to report on the scandals. John Lansing reportedly told one critic offering private warnings a year ago about mismanagement within the agency to stop contacting him.
• Following the public disclosure of some of the scandals, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for a leadership change at the USAGM. He made his remarks about U.S. international media outreach in his congressional testimony on March 27, 2019
“And I would urge to get a CEO of that organization in place so that the BBG will have the right leadership so they can do the traditional mission – perhaps in a different information environment than we did back in the Cold War, but can perform its function in a way that is important and noble, and reflects the enormous resources that are – that American taxpayers have put towards that,”Secretary Pompeo told members of Congress.
“I’m very concerned about it,” Secretary Pompeo added.
• Film documentarian and former U.S. Information Agency (USIA) official Michael Pack who is President Trump’s nominee to be the next USAGM CEO is still awaiting his confirmation by the U.S. Senate.