BBG Watch Commentary
A source told us that a senior reporter working in the newsroom of the U.S. taxpayer-funded ($224 million in FY2017) Voice of America (VOA), whose work is described by newsroom colleagues as fair and balanced and who was featured in a recent VOA promotional video, has stopped updating a work-related Twitter account on November 8, 2016 since the moment it became apparent that Donald Trump was going to be elected as the next President of the United States. No explanation for the sudden cessation of Twitter activity by this reporter has been posted. The journalist continues to produce reports which are uploaded regularly to VOA’s main English news website. A source described the sudden stop of Twitter updates by this correspondent as a symptom of a deep managerial dysfunction within the organization run by the government bureaucracy.
Employee morale at VOA and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), as measured by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), has been record low for years, with senior executives scoring even lower in the leadership category in the 2016 OPM’s confidential questionnaire.
According to our source, the number of followers for the VOA senior reporter’s Twitter account, which has been inactive since November 8, is only a few hundred. The reporter had joined Twitter in 2011. Other VOA English newsroom reporters, whose Twitter accounts are still active, also do not have a large number of followers. Few have more than two thousand, with only one VOA reporter showing 50 thousand.
We were able to confirm that the information about the low numbers of Twitter followers of VOA reporters’ work accounts is true. One VOA Newsroom source described the number of unique views for VOA’s premier English-language news website as “beyond pathetic” when compared to other U.S. and some foreign news organizations.
These VOA reporters blame the management for failing to have an impact in nations without free media. There has been also criticism of some of VOA’s foreign language services, including the Persian Service. Some of these critics want to replace BBG CEO John F. Lansing, an Obama administration holdover who has not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
During one week in November 2016, the largest number of visitors to the VOA English news site came from Tokyo, Paris, and Seoul, according to VOA’s own data. The agency has been so poorly managed that BBG’s and VOA’s key management units, a senior level manager, and scores of VOA correspondents have for years followed and legitimized a VOA Persian Service Twitter account which turned out recently to be a fake account apparently set up by an impostor.
Many VOA reporters blame lack of effective leadership and poor management for the organization’s decline in mission relevance, which they say translates into poor engagement with the right kind of audience while the management attempts to increase traffic through the use of “click-bait” animal videos and other mostly non-U.S. fluff content, as well as through paid (with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars) boost ads for some VOA Facebook posts.
In contrast to VOA’s weak performance on Twitter, some BBC correspondents and reporters of other English-language media outlets are followed on Twitter by hundreds of thousands, even millions of social media users. According to VOA’s own data, about half of VOA English-language online traffic comes from the United States. This raises separate fears of propagandizing to Americans with unbalanced and partisan political coverage paid by U.S. taxpayers. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, supporters of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had accused VOA of “state media bias.”
Rory Cellan-Jones, @ruskin147, the BBC’s technology correspondent, has 169,000 Twitter followers. We could not find a link to a Twitter account for one of VOA’s key technology correspondents.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, @andersoncooper, has 9.2 million followers on Twitter.
Former Broadcasting Board of Governors board member, Fox News Dana Perino, @DanaPerino, has 1.49 million followers. The BBG ($777 million in FY 2017, including VOA) is the federal agency overseeing the Voice of America, which is also a federal entity. Senior VOA reporters are federal government employees. Some have salaries of over $150,000 a year in addition to federal government employment benefits.
Some VOA newsroom reporters, as well as BBG executives and VOA managers and editors, appear to have been stunned by Donald Trump’s victory. Critics contend that VOA had failed to prepare foreign audiences for the possibility of Trump’s win, although the reporter who stopped tweeting was one of the few reporting on what was described as a growing support for Trump among a certain segment for the Republican U.S. electorate. The support of Americans for Donald Trump and the reasons they voted for him turned out to be far broader and more widespread than what VOA was reporting.
On the election day, November 8, 2016, the Voice of America had two pre-written “Hillary Wins” programs ready for broadcast, and none for Trump. VOA director Amanda Bennett did not use Donald Trump’s name in her first message to VOA staff after his electoral victory. Even Hillary Clinton was a strong critic of BBG and VOA. In 2013, Clinton called the agency “practically defunct.”
While the VOA correspondent who has suddenly ceased Twitter activity since Donald Trump’s win is considered by some of his colleagues to be one of VOA’s most experienced and a provider of balanced and well-informed coverage, a few other VOA Newsroom reporters and a few VOA language services have been accused by critics of engaging in strongly one-sided, anti-Trump reporting and even posting insulting and obscene comments on social media about the U.S. president.
Featured Photo: Reporters in VOA studio on 2016 election night appear stunned by the possibility of Donald Trump’s victory. This screenshot from a Live VOA Facebook transmission, taken in the middle of the program, shows only 41 Live views worldwide.