Voice of America and Broadcasting Board of Governors need immediate attention and reform
By Ted Lipien
If you hate U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and everything about him, the Voice of America (VOA) American-taxpayer funded media outlet for foreign audiences ($224M in FY 2017) is a media outlet you want, even though it is also paid for by Americans who had voted for Donald Trump. In violation of its legal public mandate, VOA has been running hit pieces on the businessman turned Republican politician, engaged in one-sided attacks and resorted to name calling and using negative labels against him and his associates and supporters throughout the U.S. election campaign and beyond. Very few Americans are paying attention to this perversion of public service, but they should. If you are a voter who had cast a ballot for Donald Trump, or even if your are a critic of some of Trump’s views but want objective and impartial analysis, by law you are entitled to it from the Voice of America. Unfortunately, most of the time you are not going to get it under VOA’s current leadership. There is hardly any space for equal time on the Voice of America for those who voted for and supported Donald Trump.
With the help of U.S. taxpayers’ money, the Voice of America during the 2016 election campaign had translated into a foreign language and posted online a video of Hollywood actor Robert De Niro calling Donald Trump “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid.” (Due to criticism, the VOA Facebook video was eventually removed after several days online. What you will see below is a VOA video with foreign language subtitles provided by VOA journalists. You will also see English subtitles from BBG Watch describing the various violations of journalistic ethics and the VOA Charter in this VOA video.)
It is perfectly fine for Robert De Niro or any American to make his or her personal views known at his or her own expense. It is also perfectly fine for a U.S. commercial media outlet or the Voice of America to report on it, if it is indeed news worth reporting. Unlike the U.S. tax-funded Voice of America, a commercial media outlet is not required to provide a rebuttal to any public charges or accusations of this type, if it does no want to. There was such a rebuttal to De Niro’s attack on Donald Trump from another Hollywood actor Jon Voight. It was available to VOA journalists and editors but was not picked up and used in VOA’s foreign language captioned video. Many commercial U.S. media outlets had posted balanced reports on De Niro’s attack on Trump, but VOA had failed to do that.
Overall, while far from being completely objective and neutral, even the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mainstream U.S. media outlets have offered more balanced reporting on the 2016 U.S. election campaign than the Voice of America. Many Americans may think that The Washington Post is indeed a very “liberal” newspaper, but they might be surprised to learn that for some Voice of America executives and managers, who used to work for or published in The Washington Post, the paper is apparently not “liberal” enough. These VOA managers have decided that Donald Trump and millions of Americans who have voted for him are not entitled to even a very limited balance of views that sometimes can be found even in the so called “liberal” or “conservative” media.
This lack of balance in VOA reporting and the lack of respect for alternative American viewpoints may surprise many Americans because — by U.S. law — VOA has to offer balanced and comprehensive reporting all the time. Being funded by all American taxpayers, again — by law — the Voice of America must represent all of the United States, not just Clinton’s, Sanders’s or Trump’s supporters. The VOA Charter, which is U.S. public law, requires VOA to report news accurately and with balance all the time. There are no exceptions to this requirement. It does not matter whether a Republican or a Democratic administration is in power. In passing the VOA Charter in 1976, the U.S. lawmakers insisted that the Voice of America must remain completely impartial and non-partisan when it comes to U.S. politics.
Otherwise, as critics of VOA among Bernie Sanders’s supporters had pointed out “…electioneering and hit pieces on US citizens obviously fall outside those parameters. 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.”
The journalist and Bernie Sanders’s supporter who wrote these words in a commentary for the left-leaning Shadowproof website was absolutely right. The VOA Charter and the VOA Journalistic Code have been completely ignored by the current leadership of the Voice of America and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which even Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State and herself member of the BBG board, called in 2013 “practically defunct“ in its ability to carry out its information mission abroad. The BBG’s annual budget, including VOA’s, is now $777 million (FY 2017). Most of it is being wasted on the bloated bureaucracy and its countless executives and managers who are responsible for record-low employee morale and record-low employee confidence in senior leaders, as measured again this year by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
The Shadowpoof commentator described VOA reporting as “state media bias,” but it is much more than that. One-sided reports, name-calling, and character assassinations did not stop at the Voice of America with Donald Trump’s victory. In its post U.S. election reporting, the Voice of America used such labels as “a populist, hard-right insurgent,” to describe Trump’s strategist Stephen Bannon and “white nationalist and anti-Semitic vitriol,” and “white nationalist and anti-Semitic vitriol and anti-women views” to describe the content of Breitbart News — again without any balance.
BBG Watch: A recent VOA news report called Stephen Bannon, Trump’s campaign chief executive, “a populist, hard-right insurgent.”, while in other VOA reports, Democratic Party activists, John Podesta, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile, were identified only by their titles as chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and chairperson or acting chairperson of the Democratic National Committee.
VOA has not referred to Brazile or any other Clinton supporter as a “hard-left,” “insurgent” or any other similar name. No labels of any kind against Brazile were used in VOA reports even when in violation of journalistic ethics she shared questions with Clinton’s campaign staff for a CNN-sponsored debate.
VOA also called Breitbart “an anti-establishment platform that occasionally has been home to white nationalist and anti-Semitic vitriol”, but did not ask Breitbart for a response or provide any examples. Contrary to such an accusation from VOA, much of Breitbart content appears strongly pro-Israel.
One does not have to be a Trump supporter, a Republican or a Democrat, to know that the use of such highly partisan language by the Voice of America in news reports does not do America and its people any good. There have been one-sided attacks in Voice of America programs not only against Trump and his supporters but also against Senator Sanders and even against Senate Democratic leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV).
I have been told that in their emails to staff, the current VOA and BBG executives could not even bring themselves to mention Donald Trump by name but insisted that they want to continue to do their U.S. government jobs. In more than 30 years of my previous work at the Voice of America, I have never seen post-election messages from agency and VOA heads in which the next president of the United States was not mentioned by name, or such egregious political bias in VOA reporting.
I think it might be better for the top agency chiefs, for the Voice of America, for BBG and VOA employees, and for the country, if these government officials and executives would consider resigning at this time and try to find more politically satisfying employment elsewhere. Their lack of experience in U.S. international media outreach and U.S. public diplomacy endangers what used to be a quite strong bipartisan support for America’s critical information mission abroad. These days, the Voice of America content is readily available to voters in the United States on the Internet. Biased reporting by VOA conceivably could in some cases affect voting outcomes, especially among some U.S. ethnic communities. The Voice of America has become a problem that needs immediate bipartisan attention. The disastrous status quo of U.S. international broadcasting cannot be tolerated any longer. BBG’s post-election claims of audience gains are bogus. Digital outreach is dismally low and program placement is often done in countries with existing free media, or is subject to prior censorship.
Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress should unite to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America to save their failed mission from a complete meltdown. The best way to accomplish this would be to start from scratch: abolish the BBG as a board and as a federal agency and create new, lean and effective U.S. international media outreach and U.S. public diplomacy outreach to countries and regions that truly need it. This requires separating VOA from U.S. funded surrogate media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), and perhaps recreating what used to be the United States Information Agency (USIA) as a public diplomacy management center for the U.S. Government, and ultimately for the American people so that their values and views are presented accurately to the outside world.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He is also one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch.