Questions About Conflicts of Interest at the Voice of America
By Dan Robinson
By way of BBG Watch, which has become the chief watchdog dealing with issues at the taxpayer-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors, comes a report drawing attention to an issue most Americans didn’t know about.
The BBG Watch report referred to a story published on May 6th by American Thinker, a conservative daily online magazine about what the article called unflattering coverage and discussion in VOA programming about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
SEE: “The Voice of America’s anti-Trump show” By Sierra Rayne, American Thinker, May 9, 2016.
SEE: “U.S. tax-funded Voice of America joins anti-Donald Trump electioneering,” BBG Watch, June 8, 2016.
SEE: “Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty joins Voice of America in posting one-sided anti-Donald Trump video,” BBG Watch, June 8, 2016.
Perhaps without knowing it, author of the American Thinker article, Sierra Rayne, put a finger on something that has been a growing concern in recent years at VOA, one of the group of media outlets run by the BBG.
That issue, one that VOA and BBG officials prefer to keep quiet, involves real or apparent conflicts of interest involving reporting and commentary about global and U.S. events.
Rayne focused on appearances by two well-known Washington journalists, on the long running VOA program “Issues in the News.”
For decades, one of the moderators has been Fred Barnes, a co-founder and executive editor of the conservative The Weekly Standard, run by Bill Kristol, who Rayne noted is a “rabid Trump opponent.”
First, it has been puzzling to many in Washington as to why, with all of the talent available, Barnes has been able to maintain this streak. One would think that a little variation would be in order.
But given Barnes’s connections with The Weekly Standard, Rayne fairly raises the question of whether VOA has a “real or apparent conflict of interest and a potential violation of its charter” by having Barnes “regularly moderate and speak on the Trump candidacy.”
The American Thinker piece also noted the presence on VOA airwaves and its website of Barbara Slavin, the Washington-based foreign affairs journalist who has also served as a moderator and news analyst on VOA’s website.
Noting Slavin’s involvement in moderating programming dealing with Trump, Rayne cites instances between August of 2015 and this past February, in which Slavin posted or forwarded to others, anti-Trump tweets.
The concerns that Rayne, and individuals who commented on the piece, identified are interesting because others have raised similar concerns in recent years, not only about Slavin, but about conflicts of interest by full-time taxpayer-funded journalists who work at VOA.
A story published June 9th by BBG Watch said a VOA journalist (not Fred Barnes or Barbara Slavin but a VOA staff reporter) “posted an anti-Donald Trump meme on her personal but publicly accessible Facebook page, [including] a GIF with a Nazi swastika swinging over Mr. Trump’s face.”
BBG Watch also noted that VOA’s Russian Service posted on Facebook and You Tube Hillary Clinton’s anti-Donald Trump campaign video “with Russian subtitles and no attached balancing material whatsoever.”
Writing in 2015, I noted that I and other retired reporters were attacked by then current and former agency officials and journalists for raising questions about Facebook posts by Myroslava Gongadze, one of VOA’s highest profile foreign language reporters.
There was “blatant mixing of political activism into reporting” as well as editorializing. “No journalist,” I wrote, “whether covering a high-level official or an event should inject themselves into a story in which they have a vested interest.”
SEE: “One Year Later — Dysfunction, News Failures, Self-Promotion and Pandering at the Voice of America PART II: MIXING ADVOCACY WITH NEWS REPORTING” Should VOA reporters inject themselves into a story? By Dan Robinson, BBG Watch, February 22, 2015.
Another former VOA correspondent pointed out that VOA’s “Standards and Practices” guidance states:
“VOA journalists are also reminded they should not use their professional affiliation with VOA to advocate for political or social causes and when speaking to outside groups, they should refrain from taking sides on public issues. . .staff members should not march or rally in support of public causes or movements or sign advertisements or petitions taking a position on public issues, domestic or foreign…”
“VOA journalists should not be props in political photo ops by US (or other) politicians, or accept medals from one side or another in a civil war. I would have run like hell away from any situation like that” said yet another former reporter for VOA.
In another example, one VOA journalist was rewarded with a detail to work with the Special Inspector General for Iraq. At about the time the reporter was resuming duties at VOA, a flattering video he had produced about SIGIR appeared on the SIGIR You Tube channel.
Questions about conflicts of interest, and how much — if any — activism VOA journalists should be undertaking linked to their jobs, have also been raised much more recently, in the early months of new VOA director Amanda Bennett.
Referring to a story broadcast by VOA in May 2016, one reporter reported feeling that “the lines between [journalism and advocacy seemed to be blurred].”
VOA’s Best Practices Guide cautions employees about “[conflicts] of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest” and states: “[VOA journalists] are expected to remain neutral and objective. That means that you should be careful and try to avoid conduct or activity that would question your neutrality and objectively as well as the neutrality and objectivity of VOA.”
Back to the May 6th article in American Thinker — in particular its focus on Barbara Slavin’s involvement in VOA programming.
Outside critics began drawing attention to this issue several years ago, noting the appearance of commentaries on various foreign policy subjects, usually the Middle East or U.S.-Russia relations, that were being posted on VOA’s main English website.
Slavin’s commentaries, at one point, were not labeled at all. After criticism from BBG Watch, they were described for a while as a “column” but lacked any explanation of who she was, what her affiliation with VOA was, or whether her views reflected those of the U.S. government. Her bio on the VOA website said “Barbara Slavin Reports.”
These pieces became more numerous, and attracted criticism from current and former VOA journalists, and from readers and from some staff members.
“I’m noticing. . .there is more ‘commentary’ being slipped onto the website in the guise of ‘news’ [including pieces by] Barbara Slavin. If [management] wants to label her ‘editorials’ as such, that’s fine by me, but not without such a caveat,” said one reporter who still works for VOA at an overseas location.
In January of 2015, one U.S. reader of VOA’s website said: “How is this column objective? It is embarrassing that VOA published this. Journalism has gone so downhill.” Another said: “This is outrageous. Do American taxpayers pay for this content?”
To this day, it’s not known what financial arrangements Slavin has with VOA, for either her opinion pieces, which now appear under a separate section labeled “U.S. News and Opinion”, or her participation in VOA’s “Issues in the News.”
On her VOA commentaries Slavin is identified as: “. . .Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
In 2015, that read as: “Senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. . .” as well as a “regular commentator” for VOA, NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN.”
At that time, her commentaries also contained this disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.”
This disclaimer seems to have disappeared from her recent commentaries, including one on June 7th titled “The Unraveling of Donald Trump.”
Indeed, it’s not known how many freelance writers are contracted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors which runs VOA to pen editorials. Taxpayers, who are of varying political philosophies, would certainly be interested in this information.
Also interesting are connections Slavin has with current and former VOA management.
The Atlantic Council, where Slavin is based, was also the landing place of former VOA director David Ensor. Ensor’s tour at VOA began in 2010, about the time VOA journalists began to voice concerns about how her commentaries were being labeled on VOA’s website.
The Atlantic Council website briefly cross-promoted Slavin’s June 7th piece on Donald Trump. The new VOA director, Amanda Bennett, remains connected with Ensor. Slavin and Bennett are Facebook “Friends” on one of Bennett’s two accounts.
Long before Bennett joined VOA, for some VOA reporters, it has been unseemly for VOA to be providing someone with a constant platform in this way.
As BBG Watch asserted in a March 2015 article focusing on one Slavin commentary criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
“VOA executives apparently have not thought through what allowing unchallenged personal opinion columns on its websites means for what foreign audiences may think about this U.S. publicly funded media organization and what members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers may think about its adherence to the requirements of the VOA Charter for balance and objectivity.”
SEE: “Another no rebuttal Voice of America column attacking Netanyahu,” BBG Watch, March 21, 2015
As for Fred Barnes, his Wikipedia entry and FOX News bios mention nothing about his relationship with taxpayer-funded VOA, though his Washington Speaker’s Bureau profile does.
The May 9th article in American Thinker raising questions about the Barnes/Slavin combo at VOA where coverage of Donald Trump is concerned, ended this way:
“Were this a private broadcaster, there would be no issues. But as a public broadcaster, VOA is legally obligated to avoid any perceptions of bias. Consequently, not only does Trump need to look at either shutting down VOA or substantially reforming it if he becomes president, but formal complaints should be lodged in the interim to ensure that all VOA coverage of his campaign is conducted by truly fair and balanced individuals.”
It’s a valid question. Taxpayers should get more information about connections the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, and other media outlets it manages have with various Washington-based and other think tanks spanning the ideological spectrum.
Taxpayers also have a right to know more about exactly how much of their money has been, and still is, being spent padding the incomes of professional journalists in the non-government sector, especially if there is a chance they are obtaining another platform to voice personal opinions under the guise of the VOA Charter.
Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent. Views expressed here are his own.
Featured image: a screenshot of one of the previously used Voice of America (VOA) images for Barbara Slavin.