BBG Watch Commentary
The Voice of America (VOA) implies that Donald Trump is an embodiment of “hate and prejudice” but does not give him or his supporters an opportunity to respond in a news video report while together with its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), it slides into further chaos under new BBG CEO John Lansing and new VOA director Amanda Bennett.
After some initial hopes, promises of reforms and minor management changes, both Lansing and Bennett have ignored outside advice and kept relying on entrenched agency officials for advice, bringing more disarray to an already ailing agency. The BBG was described in 2013 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and herself member of the BBG Board as “practically defunct.”
Neither Lansing nor Bennett has any prior U.S. government, foreign policy or public diplomacy experience, and neither does BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. He also made a mistake of relying on BBG bureaucrats, which led him to being exposed in trying to do private business in Russia while also going there on U.S. government business without a diplomatic visa. The Russians expelled him to embarrass him and the U.S. government, but the critical question is whether the BBG chairman’s private business activities in Russia represent a conflict of interest with his U.S. government role.
BBG CEO Lansing expressed outrage about “This blatant aggression,” i.e. Russia’s denial to allow Jeff Shell to enter the country, but without disclosing in the same statement: 1. Shell’s plans for private business activities in Russia ruled by the Putin business mafia, or 2. the fact that Lansing and his chief Russia advisor, International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) deputy director Jeff Trimble, allowed this trip to proceed and were in fact permitted to enter Russia while Shell was not. Misleading and deceptive.
Chaos and confusion also continue at the Voice of America. Contradicting her own earlier advice to VOA journalists when she urged them to avoid political bias in their reporting on the U.S. election campaign and even ordered anti-bias training, VOA director Amanda Bennett in an e-mail she sent to staff a few days later (July 8) hailed a Spanish Service video report, which in a clear violation of the VOA Charter, presented only one side of the highly controversial illegal immigration issue in the United States.
VOA had interviewed Larissa Martinez of Dallas, an illegal immigrant who received a full scholarship to Yale University. According to VOA’s description of the interview sent by Bennett, Martinez reportedly called Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s immigration plan one of “hate and prejudice.” It was obvious that no one from the Trump camp was asked by VOA to respond to the charge or to help explain his position on illegal immigration for the VOA report as required by the VOA Charter. Then a few days later Bennett marked the 40th anniversary of the VOA Charter with the statement that “The VOA Charter has never been more important than it is today.” Again, chaos and confusion.
“The world needs a reliable and authoritative source of news and information, which is what the VOA Charter intends us to be. It also states that we are to represent all Americans, not just a single aspect of American society. We are tasked with telling the truth and to tell it from all sides. That’s free press; that’s fair press. That’s the Voice of America,” said VOA director Amanda Bennett.
This did not prevent Bennett from sending this e-mail four days earlier:
July 8 at 1:11pm
Check out this week’s highlights below.
VOA Spanish interviewed two undocumented immigrants who are high school valedictorians in Texas. Larissa Martinez of Dallas, who received a full scholarship to Yale University, said that many illegal immigrants like her live in fear. She called Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s immigration plan one of “hate and prejudice.” Mayte Lara of Austin, who received a full scholarship to the University of Texas, said that to succeed, young undocumented immigrants have to do more than any other social group in the United States. The story, which aired on VOA Spanish affiliates throughout Latin America, received more than 300,000 Facebook views and was shared nearly 800 times.”
While there is nothing wrong with VOA interviewing an illegal immigrant who received a scholarship to Yale, the report did not present the other side of a highly controversial domestic policy issue that divides Americans. Views of many American political leaders, citizens and residents, who object to illegal immigrants receiving the same benefits as legal residents and whose taxes pay a large part of VOA’s $224 million annual budget, were not explained in the VOA report.
No questions were asked by VOA whether an underprivileged U.S. citizen or a legal resident, for example a low-income Mexican-American, would not be more entitled to financial aid or a place in a prestigious American university that went to an illegal immigrant. Specific criticisms of Larissa Martinez’s decision to go public with her story reported widely by U.S. media were not reported in the VOA video. The ethics of privileges and opportunities granted to her but not available to those who unlike Ms. Martinez’s family chose to follow the rule of law–for example, foreign students or family members who patiently wait many years abroad to obtain immigrant U.S. visas–were also not explored.
The description of the interview endorsed by the VOA director in her email implied that it included a strong attack on an American presidential candidate, Donald Trump. He was reportedly accused of spreading “hate and prejudice,” but there was no mention in the description that VOA gave him or his supporters an opportunity to respond. The video posted by VOA implied such criticism but it was not stated as directly as the description given to Ms. Bennett would suggest. The video report itself was, however, definitely one-sided, simplistic and designed to exploit the emotional side of the issue without presenting any responsible counter-arguments.
The description of the report, which Amanda Bennett included in her email, was enough to raise red flags. It certainly contributed to chaos and confusion among VOA reporters, some of whom have posted highly offensive anti-Donald Trump memes on their personal but publicly accessible Facebook pages, where they identify themselves as VOA employees. Some VOA programs attacked Bernie Sanders without the candidate or his supporters being given an opportunity to respond in the same program. The Hatch Act generally prohibits VOA’s federal government employees from opposing or endorsing U.S. candidates for political offices, as does the VOA Journalistic Code. The typical response from VOA in the past was that balance is provided in other VOA programs. Critics have pointed out that such excuses are neither adequate nor consistent with the letter and the spirit of U.S. law.
Bennett’s e-mail to staff may encourage VOA reporters, who can’t control their political biases, to continue their violations of the VOA Charter. It also points to the danger of trying to de-federalize and privatize the Voice of America, which is already heavily dominated, particularly in its central English-language services, by highly politicized reporters who are not shy about showing their personal political preferences in their VOA reporting even though the VOA Charter requires them to be accurate, objective and comprehensive and to present all of America–in this case, both opponents and supporters of illegal immigration–not just one segment of America.
The VOA report on illegal immigration was not only one-sided. It was also one-dimensional, lacking both perspective and context. While Ms. Martinez’s statement that many illegal immigrants like her live in fear may be true from her personal experience, it is also true that millions of illegal immigrants continue to live relatively safe lives in the United States, get free primary and secondary education, and many more are trying to enter the country illegally.
The life of an illegal immigrant in the United States is substantially different from the life of an illegal immigrant in Russia, China or Mexico. The VOA report failed to reflect these differences, although it showed that some illegal immigrants feel safe enough to criticize U.S. public policy and lead relatively prosperous middle class lives in the United States. If anything, the VOA report may encourage more illegal immigration to the United States. VOA failed to challenge Ms. Martinez on anything she was saying and failed to provide what former VOA director David Jackson described as “explain[ing] the political and cultural debate in our society” and making this issue into a “teaching moment” about all of America as it really is.
Why VOA director Amanda Bennett decided to highlight this faulty report which violates the VOA Charter is difficult to guess. She may have not read what was put in front of her by her management team. There were several examples in her email of excellent reports by other VOA services. These examples were also provided to her by other senior and mid-level managers. She should not have included the Spanish Service report in her e-mail to staff, especially after supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had justly accused VOA earlier of “state media bias” against their favored candidates.
A Shadowproof columnist defending Bernie Sanders from one-sided attacks in Voice of America programs observed that “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.”
It’s a correct observation. U.S. taxpayers pay for the Voice of America to exist and to do its work abroad, not in the United States, although VOA programs are available in the U.S. on the internet and can be reused by U.S. commercial media. By paying for a one-sided report with their taxes, Donald Trump and his supporters are in effect subsidizing unanswered attacks on themselves which reach the American electorate, i.e. American voters, who can see these reports on YouTube and other social media platforms. VOA is not a private media organization like The Washington Post. It is not a commercial media organization. It is unique. VOA has its Charter, which VOA journalists are required to observe, because it is U.S. law.
We thought Ms. Bennett was made aware of VOA’s special role when she posted a comment on our website saying that “Like all American media, VOA is trying hard to cover the candidates and issues appropriately — neither pulling punches, nor exhibiting bias.” To her credit, she also ordered anti-bias training for VOA journalists. Bennett said that “constructive criticism is always welcomed, as it helps us get better”, adding that she welcomes any input that helps VOA “do a much better job in following our Charter’s mandate to be impartial and fair.”
But in a later press release, Bennett praised a VOA program–the VOA-hosted panel on young American Muslims–that was by design remarkably one-sided. The one-group panel was an open invitation to further unchallenged violations of the VOA Charter. No wonder that some VOA reporters are confused. One wrote in a private e-mail with great relief that the anti-bias training ordered by Ms. Bennett was not at all about bias but about the right way of reporting on bigotry.
Bigotry, of course, is not limited to any single part of the American political spectrum or any single group. It may play a part in some criticism of illegal immigration, but there are also valid public policy arguments in favor of securing U.S. borders and providing more jobs and opportunities to U.S. citizens and legal residents.
While bigotry is behind some statements in which all Muslim immigrants are portrayed as potential terrorists, VOA is required to analyze all responsible arguments and present them in a balanced, objective and comprehensive way. Statements unsupported by facts must be challenged by VOA instead of being reported without any countervailing content. Some of the controversial statements and opinions from young American Muslims quoted in the VOA press release appeared to show a false equivalency between Islamist terrorist attacks and mass shootings committed by non-Muslims. Participants in the VOA-hosted panel tried to convince the public that the media focuses too much on Muslim terrorists and not enough on terrorists who are not Muslims. Ms. Bennett praised the panel and did not question some of these statements which were included in the VOA press release.
“When a Muslim does something like that [i.e., carryout a mass shooting like the recent attack in Orlando], it’s all over the media. But when a Westerner does the same thing, it doesn’t have the same impact,” the VOA press release quoted Morsal Mohamad, president of the Afghan Students Association at The George Washington University, as saying during the VOA-hosted panel.
This statement is not challenged in the VOA press release, even though a simple Google search shows that Adam Lansa, a non-Muslim mass shooter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in in Newtown, Connecticut, who in December 2012 killed 20 young children and six adults, has 63,600 Google search results in the news category, while Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim U.S. Army major sentenced to death for killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 others in the Fort Hood mass shooting in November 2009 in the name of jihad has only 16,500 Google search results in the news category, even though his terrorist act was three years earlier.
Another unchallenged statement in the VOA press release is attributed by VOA to Mohamed Hussein, executive director of the Somali American Youth Foundation, who also appeared on the panel.
He is quoted as saying that “A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque.”
According to news reports and first-hand accounts, the vast majority of countless suicide bombings and other killings of innocent civilians are in fact carried out by devout Muslims, albeit fundamentalists and extremists. The vast majority of them seems to be highly motivated by religion according to their interpretation of Islam. Vidal Hasan regularly prayed at a mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Whether Voice of America director Amanda Bennett is capable of understanding and enforcing VOA Charter standards is no longer clear. There are simply too many contradictory statements from her and BBG CEO John Lansing, and too much confusion.
Voice of America Spanish Service
VOA PRESS RELEASE
On July 12, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed the Charter into law, institutionalizing what long had been the Voice of America’s standard for journalistic excellence. “The VOA Charter has never been more important than it is today,” said VOA Director Amanda Bennett. “The world needs a reliable and authoritative source of news and information, which is what the VOA Charter intends us to be. It also states that we are to represent all Americans, not just a single aspect of American society. We are tasked with telling the truth and to tell it from all sides. That’s free press; that’s fair press. That’s the Voice of America.”
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
Gerald R. Ford
President of the United States of America
Signed July 12, 1976
Public Law 94-350
Since its creation at the beginning of World War II, the Voice of America has told its audiences the truth. Through that conflict, the Cold War, and the fight against global terrorism and the struggle for freedom around the globe today, VOA has been an example to the world by upholding the principles of a free press.
A brief video on the history of the VOA Charter and its significance can be found here.
VOA PRESS RELEASE
June 29, 2016
What is it like to be a young Muslim in America?
“It definitely is a struggle — not only being a Muslim, not only being a Muslim American — being Somali, being black, being young — there’re a lot of identities that you have to reconcile,” said Mohamed Hussein of the Somali American Youth Foundation in Virginia, one of the panelists in a discussion broadcast by the Voice of America on Tuesday from the Newseum in Washington.
“Being Young and Muslim in America” was moderated by the VOA Afghanistan Service’s digital managing editor, Akmal Dawi in the wake of the carnage in Orlando that has left lingering questions about how young Muslims are assimilating into the American mainstream. “We’ve heard from pundits, we’ve heard from experts, we’ve heard from political figures about what Muslim Millennials feel, think, need and want,” said VOA Director Amanda Bennett. “Through this panel discussion with these Muslim Millennials themselves, we were able to understand the tensions they feel and the hopes they have.”
“When a Muslim does something like that [i.e., carryout a mass shooting like the recent attack in Orlando], it’s all over the media. But when a Westerner does the same thing, it doesn’t have the same impact,” said Morsal Mohamad, president of the Afghan Students Association at The George Washington University.
“A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque,” said Mohamed Hussein, executive director of the Somali American Youth Foundation, who also appeared on the panel.
“I think that oftentimes people try to split it [i.e., the Muslim community] into moderate Muslims and conservative Muslims, but there is a lot of diversity past that. And I think that that’s one of the nuances that gets lost in discussions about Islam in the U.S.,” said Oya Rose Aktas, a recent college graduate of Turkish background living in Washington, D.C.
“I also think that focusing on cyber radicalization kind of loses sight of the bigger picture,” Aktas added. “You have to focus more on community groups; you need to focus more on human interactions; you need to focus more on making sure that people are living fulfilling, satisfying lives outside of the Internet.”
Othman Altalib, a board member at the ADAMS Center, one of the largest Muslim organizations in the United States, said that most U.S. Muslim groups have not been able to effectively counter the Islamic State’s appeal to disaffected youth. “Let’s get our youth involved in the community,” he said. “We should lead by example,” added Mohamad, citing the need for Millennial Muslims and Muslim leaders in the United States to serve as “examples to follow.”
Hussein noted that the U.S. Muslim community is diverse and that each person brings a different experience based on his or her country of origin. He said mosques and Muslim community centers engage worshipers in conversations about democracy in America, and added that they approach voting as the best way to express free will and preserve freedoms. “We don’t tell them who to vote for,” he said.
“Our common American experience is what unites all of us living in this country,” said Akbar Ayazi, director of VOA’s South and Central Asia Division. “No matter what god we believe, what faith we follow; no matter what background we have, no matter where we come from — we have one thing in common and that’s our humanity. We all pursue the same ideal, which is the American dream.”
The event was streamed live on multiple VOA language platforms, reaching audiences around the world. More than 67,000 people watched on the VOA Central News Facebook page alone. In addition, #YoungMuslimVOA trended on Twitter throughout the broadcast.
Through its eight services on radio, television and the Internet, VOA’s South and Central Asia Division broadcasts news and information about America and the world to regions that are vulnerable to extremism and terrorism. The division’s Afghanistan Service reaches roughly 40 percent of the country’s adult population with programming in Dari and Pashto. The Azerbaijani Service reaches audiences in Azerbaijan and neighboring provinces in Iran. The Bangla Service serves Bangladesh and the Bangla-speaking Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura as well as several Arab and Muslim countries. VOA Deewa broadcasts to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, where more than 50 million Pashtuns live. The Urdu Service serves Pakistan and diaspora communities. The Kurdish Service reaches more than 30 million Kurds living in the Middle East and Eurasia. Turkish Service programming is vital to a nation where press freedom increasingly is restricted. The Uzbek Service reaches audiences in Uzbekistan, Central Asia and Afghanistan. And the newly established Extremism Watch Desk also supports VOA’s mission by enhancing the agency’s in-depth coverage of extremism around the world.