BBG Watch Commentary

Ted LipienTed Lipien, a former Voice of America (VOA) acting Associate Director in charge of VOA Central News operation, has posted a comment under a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) article by Gary Thomas. The article had received an angry response from VOA Public Relations Director Mr. Kyle King, a chief spokesman for VOA Director David Ensor.

Like Mr. Thomas, Lipien is a journalist with over 30 years of experience. He also reported from various international hotspots and interviewed high U.S. and foreign government officials, dissidents and other public figures. As a director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), he defended Radio Liberty journalists who had been fired in Russia by the previous management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Some of them have now been rehired. He was also active in a largely successful effort to save Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to China and VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet. He also defended an independent American journalist Matthew Russell Lee whom a VOA official tried to ban from covering the UN as an accredited reporter because of a private dispute with a VOA correspondent. In 2010, Lipien helped to launch BBG Watch with a grant from Free Media Online, a media freedom NGO he founded in 2006.

Article by former Voice of America (VOA) journalist Gary Thomas in Columbia Journalism Review on journalistic practices at VOA and management of U.S. international broadcasting within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).Like Mr. Thomas, Lipien was also a target of the VOA Office of Public Relation’s attack on his professional reputation after he had published an op-ed in The Washington Times in early 2012. In it, he exposed findings of a study commissioned by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) from an independent Russian media scholar who concluded that VOA Russian Service website had a “pro-Putin bias.” Sources told BBG Watch that IBB and VOA officials tried to hide the study from Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members.

For more reports on the Thomas Affair follow this LINK.

TED LIPIEN: I am appalled that a U.S. taxpayer-funded media organization set up to champion press freedom, with a splendid history and an important role now and in the future, would choose to respond to Columbia Journalism Review and attack Mr. Thomas’ professionalism in such an old Soviet-style fashion. Not even Mr. Putin uses such crude tactics anymore.

Similarities between Voice of America (VOA) management’s response to a journalist seeking answers and how the Soviets dealt with press inquires they found annoying are striking. Soviet apparatchiks refused to answer questions from Western reporters about human rights and responded with attacks on the journalists themselves and their professional integrity, accusing them of bias, distortions and hostility. This is exactly what VOA leadership has done through its spokesman in response to Mr. Thomas’ article.

VOA’s management had been given a chance to clarify any issues but refused to answer questions. They dismissed the questions themselves as containing inaccuracies and showing bias, thus not being worthy of a response from a U.S.-taxpayer funded media freedom institution. (How can any journalist win against such Politburo logic?)

Then they relaunched their attack on Mr. Thomas, again accusing him of errors, which — if there were any — they had refused to correct earlier but still do not identify.

It is the Internet and social media where VOA English news simply cannot compete because of bad managers and bad management decisions. For example, a Russia Today English video news report on media censorship in Turkey from early June received over 150,000 views on YouTube. Voice of America failed to send a VOA English staff reporter to Turkey at the height of the protests. Its video report on the Turkish protests filed at about the same time from Washington, got less than 300 views on YouTube.

This pattern is repeated news story after news story. A social media outreach index (Sum of Facebook “Likes,” Tweets, and Readers Comments) for news reports on Edward Snowden on June 24 was as follows:

Voice of America English – 32
Al Jazeera English – 1,205
Russia Today English – 11,642

Al Jazeera beat VOA by 37 to 1, Russia Today beat VOA by 363 to 1. This happens day after day. VOA English news reports are posted late. They are often short versions of wire service reports. It takes many hours for some to show up on VOA’s Facebook page, if they show up at all.

Since VOA English News did not have a staff reporter on the ground in Turkey and direct access to protesters in early June, its news coverage automatically tilted to reporting statements from Prime Minister Erdogan.

VOA Director David Ensor denies it and defends coverage as balanced and responsible, but it is easy to check, and social media statistics speak for themselves.

As of a few days ago, Russia Today English had 920,983 YouTube subscribers and 1,012,986,279 views (that’s over one billion); Voice of America English had only 23,763 subscribers and 26,948,148 views.

The Turkish Service saved VOA’s reputation in Turkey to some degree, but most language services are also barely surviving under the oppressive management of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). IBB has already largely destroyed VOA’s radio and television capabilities but failed to even come close to Russia Today or Al Jazeera in social media engagement. What IBB “achieved” with its management practices is the lowest employee morale as measured by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

It comes as no surprise to me that VOA officials responded to Mr. Thomas’ article in a way they did. The IBB management culture has been hostile to journalists for years and is the main obstacle to making U.S. international broadcasting more effective.

Ted Lipien retired from VOA in 2006. His last position was acting VOA Associate Director in charge of Central News Programs.

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