BBG Watch Commentary
U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice America did a much better job covering Malala Yousafzai’s visit to Washington this week compared to VOA’s coverage of Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate’s previous visit to the U.S. in 2013 and her meeting then at the White House with President Obama.
Also this week, VOA scored an exclusive interview with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The interview was recorded Friday in Kyiv by Myroslava Gongadze from VOA’s Ukrainian Service.
President Poroshenko told VOA that Russia should be stripped of its veto power in the United Nations Security Council because of its aggressive actions in the country’s east.
He said “Russia should remain a Security Council member because it is a leading military power, but insisted the global community would be safer if Russia’s ability to play U.N. spoiler were put to an end, VOA reported.
There have been small improvements at VOA under the new interim management, which has been in place for a few months, but the organization is far from what it used to be one or two decades ago. Monumental and frequent editorial mistakes and scandals of recent past have not been repeated and a certain measure of seriousness was restored, but the overall performance continues to be poor as a result of past mismanagement and lack of sufficient resources available to VOA managers and journalists.
Unlike in 2013 when VOA was largely absent during Malala Yousafzai’s previous visit to Washington, this time VOA’s Deewa Service hosted an event at the Newseum called “Malala: Our time. Our place. Our moment in the human race” featuring her and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. The coverage itself was excellent this time, but because VOA lost much of its former prestige, it was not able to use it to its full advantage on social media.
The situation was far worse earlier under the previous VOA management. In 2013, BBG Watch reported that Voice of America failed to cover adequately Malala Yousafzai’s visit in the United States, her appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and her meeting with President Obama.
BBG Watch also reported in 2013 that “where Voice of America failed on Malala news story, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty did not.” Both VOA and RFE/RL are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency and its bipartisan, nine-person board. While VOA is a federal entity, RFE/RL is a private grantee of the BBG. Both are 100% funded by U.S. taxpayers.
In 2013 VOA was under the management of director David Ensor and his chief deputy Steve Redisch. Ensor has since left VOA and his deputy moved to another job within the organization. Well-informed sources gave credit for these changes to BBG chairman Jeff Shell. Kelu Chao, a veteran VOA journalist, manager and China expert is now VOA’s acting director. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has selected U.S. media executive John Lansing to be BBG’s director and CEO. He was sworn in this week and will start work on September 14. He will select permanent heads for VOA and RFE/RL.
This time, the Voice of America sponsored an event with Malala Yousafzai and posted online a VOA English News report and a video with a short stand-up interview. It’s a major step forward for VOA.
However, the Voice of America brand as a news organization has been badly damaged by years of prior mismanagement and poor news handling, former and current VOA correspondents told BBG Watch. It would take major management and structural reforms to undo years of neglect and poor performance.
The Voice of America has only a marginal role on social media. As of 8:15 PM EDT, Friday, September 4, the VOA English News report posted on August 31, is showing 85 Tweets, 371 Facebook “Shares” and only 2 comments, one of them from the United States. 371 Facebook “Shares” for a VOA English News post is actually a rather high number. Some reports from senior VOA foreign correspondents don’t get more than 10 Facebook “Shares.” No doubt Malala’s name attracted attention to this VOA video report, but for some reason the video was not reposted on the VOA English YouTube account.
The VOA video interview was, however, posted on VOA English Facebook and did slightly better. As of 8:20 PM EDT, Friday, September 4, it had 8,200 Views, 414 “Likes,” 15 Comments and 74 Shares. While this is certainly much better compared to how VOA was doing in 2013 and 2014, “the traction has been anemic and it is now out of the news cycle,” one former BBG employee observed. These VOA numbers are still minuscule compared to what BBC, Russia’s RT, or The New York Times can get on social media for similar interviews and news reports.
And while VOA may still be able to cover one or two stories adequately, it does not have enough resources to cover a wide range of news stories. One former VOA senior correspondent made this observation to BBG Watch:
A FORMER VOA SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Meanwhile — some questions (forgive me for repeating)…..NBC (Mitchell) got an interview with Hillary. Before that, Trump had interviews with numerous people, CNN, MSNBC, etc.
What interviews has VOA gotten to date, with ANY presidential candidate of either party? How many people, one wonders, can or will VOA assign to follow the campaigns?”
VOA Deeva (Pakistani Service) Facebook post in the vernacular language about Malala Yousafzai’s visit to Washington from September 1 was showing 431 “Likes,” 15 “Shares” and 21 Comments as of 9:45 PM EDT, Friday, September 1.
VOA’s relatively low social media and audience engagement numbers are a result of many years of managerial neglect. The Facebook numbers for the VOA interview do not even come close to those for a New York Times video documentary about Malala Yousafzai which was posted on October 12, 2014.
As of 8:20 PM EDT, Friday, September 4, the New York Times video is showing 387,766 Views, 14,382 “Likes,” 5,435 “Shares” and 653 Comments.
But the news event with Malala Yousafzai sponsored by the Voice of America is a major improvement over what the VOA Pakistani Service was producing under the previous senior management.
We repost BBG Watch reports from March 19, 2014 and from December 12, 2014 which illustrate the problems with news handling and some of the VOA’s language services. There has been a positive change since then, both in management and in editorial content, although the Voice of America is still far from being healthy. The BBG’s bureaucracy within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is still in control of 34% of the BBG’s budget, hoarding resources and setting priorities which have resulted in some of the scandals and excesses described by BBG Watch, Wall Street Journal and in the Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports, which are also posted below together with links to various media articles about VOA and BBG.
What’s worse – Voice of America zombie promo for Pakistan or its video of well-stocked food shops and fat kids in starving North Korea?
BBG Watch Commentary
Please help us decide by watching videos.
Under the same executive management, VOA had produced two videos. One of them is a 2011 VOA news report from North Korea. The second one is a recent VOA promo for a program designed for placement on television stations in Pakistan.
To us, both videos exhibit extremely poor production values. The North Korean report has the additional distinction of being a platform for Pyongyang’s anti-American propaganda with hardly any challenge and for showing well-stocked shops and well-fed children of the ruling elite in a country known for starvation.
We understand that both videos were produced under the same VOA executive management which even bragged about the North Korean video in a press release. VOA public relations specialists described the capital of North Korea in their press release as “a vibrant city.”
We want to thank WND and its reporter Steve Peacock for bringing the VOA zombie video promo to our attention through their investigative report.
WND posted a Voice of America screen shot of “a bloodthirsty zombie version of the Uncle Sam character” who “bites the neck of a foreign man in a promotional video the Obama administration is using to catch the attention of Pakistani youth.”
VOA already distributes the program, called “Zindagi 360,” through a local Pakistani cable company, but the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which provides direction and oversight to VOA, is setting its sights higher and wants to target young Pakistanis through nationwide distribution, Steve Peacock reported.
“While the promo clearly is intended to be humorous, if not satirical, BBG is using it as a calling card in its search for a distributor capable of spreading its message,” he wrote.
We would add that to be exact it is not the BBG Board itself that is directly responsible for these videos. Members of the nine-person bipartisan BBG Board may have not even seen the videos.
Those responsible are Voice of America executives working together with strategic planners, program placement and affiliate relations specialists and public affairs experts of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). They are desperately trying to expand the audience no matter how poorly designed and produced these programs are and how much they violate the VOA Charter and basic journalistic standards.
READ: WND EXCLUSIVE — U.S. GOVERNMENT: AMERICANS ARE ‘KILLER ZOMBIES’: ‘Uncle Sam’ portrayed as bloodthirsty cannibal | By STEVE PEACOCK, WND
One comment under the article said:
“So they are making the illiterate of other countries see America, as filled with blood thirsty zombies, hell bent on destroying the world.
And we wonder why Americans are becoming more despised around the world every day????”
WND, formerly WorldNetDaily, is an independent news company engaged in investigative journalism. It describes its mission as revitalizing the role of the free press as a guardian of liberty, and exposing wrongdoing, corruption and abuse of power. According to his bio, Steve Peacock is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the Tampa Tribune, WND, Drug Enforcement Report, Corrections Journal and the Revered Review. He also is a teacher, storyteller, actor and poet.
BBG Watch is not surprised that after becoming aware of this Voice of America video for Pakistan, Steve Peacock wrote about it in an article for WND.
For the VOA management’s side of the story before the zombie promo was produced see this VOA press release: VOA’s Zindagi 360: Reaching a New Demographic in Pakistan, November 15, 2012.
BBG Watch does not question the need to target young audiences in key strategic areas of the world, but it appears to us that the zombie promo and the VOA North Korean video report both insult the intelligence of TV and online viewers and are doing more harm than good. At U.S. taxpayers’ expense, they make Americans look infantile, naive, and crude.
BBG Watch has long been reporting about massive mismanagement at the senior Voice of America and agency level and appallingly low standards of journalism, good sense, good taste and civilized behavior some of VOA top executives have imposed upon this once highly respected and journalistically solid organization.
There are, of course, still many excellent journalists working at the Voice of America and producing outstanding reports, but their working conditions are poor and employee morale is dismal. Management of news, programs and staff by senior VOA executives is equally dismal, and journalistic standards are rapidly declining.
We repost our report on the Voice of America North Korean video widely bragged about by a senior VOA executive. Compare and decide whether this is a serious news organization or an institution run by amateurs.
VOA and North Korea: Criticism of 2011 press release and VOA video describing Pyongyang as ‘vibrant city’
DECEMBER 13, 2013
BBG Watch Commentary
With a new focus on North Korea following the execution of a once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, we recall our earlier criticism of top VOA executives for their news handling policies and naive views of repressive regimes. A VOA executive who was so impressed with the VOA video describing Pyongyang as a “vibrant city” that he issued a press release is still in charge of planning VOA news coverage of North Korea and Ukraine.
VOA and North Korea: Criticism of 2011 press release and VOA video describing Pyongyang as a vibrant city
BBG Watch, an independent website run by former and current Broadcasting Board of Governors employees, wonders who signed off on the press release on the BBG official website, BBG.gov, quoting a Voice of America journalist who just completed a rare reporting assignment to North Korea, as saying that the country’s capital city Pyongyang is “vibrant and busy with activity.”
“Relative to what?” — BBG Watch wonders — “the Gulag? What are they smoking, or have we missed the opening of a new shopping mall with chic boutiques in downtown Pyongyang? Apparently, we did,” says BBG Watch. The VOA press release, issued earlier, even has a photo of a well-stocked store.
Keep in mind that North Korea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, but you wouldn’t know it reading the press release on the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ website. At the BBG they have not yet heard of a Potyomkin village, says BBG Watch.
Link to the video on YouTube.
A VOA correspondent report from Pyongyang includes a video which is devoted largely to repeating North Korean anti-American propaganda claims with almost no attempt to counter any of them in any substantive way.
The video ends with a saleswoman dancing for the VOA reporter in a modern-looking store in Pyongyang.
VOICE OF AMERICA PRESS RELEASE [One of the original press releases showed a photo of a well-stocked North Korean shop which was featured in the VOA video. A second photo in the press release is no longer loading from the VOA server.]
Officials appeared to be conveying a message that they want to improve strained relations with the United States.
September 27, 2011
Voice of America journalist Sungwon Baik, who just completed a rare reporting assignment to North Korea, says officials there appeared to be conveying a message that they want to improve strained relations with the United States.
Baik was granted access to North Korea earlier this month, after receiving an unprecedented written invitation by North Korean officials, to cover the 17th International Taekwon-Do World Championships in Pyongyang from September 6th through the 12th.
North Korean officials at the event said on a number of occasions that they were familiar with VOA broadcasts and that the news programs are well recognized. “The first time I thought they were just trying to be polite to me,” Baik said, “but then it was like 6 or 7 times a day they would say that VOA is very important and you can come back.”
In addition to his reporting on the taekwon-do championships, Baik was allowed to walk around Pyongyang and ride the subway, but always accompanied by an official. He describes the city (click here) as vibrant and busy with activity.
Baik, whose reports aired live on the VOA Korean Service during the taekwon-do competition, interviewed a North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee, Chang Ung, who expressed hope the event would be a turning point in relations with the United States and could pave the way for future cultural and sports exchanges.
For more information about this release or to arrange an interview with Sungwon Baik, contact Kyle King in Washington at email@example.com. Visit www.voanews.com for more information in English or in any of our language services. END OF VOA PRESS RELEASE
BBG Watch Commentary
Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Writer Sohrab Ahmari was interviewed for a WSJ Opinion Journal video on programming lapses combined with a management meltdown at the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
The Wall Street Journal joins other mainstream U.S. media and international media reporting and commenting on VOA news and management failures, the BBG’s inability to prevent them, as well as mismanagement at the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). Many of the executives responsible for these failures are still in their management positions. Some were moved to other management positions and still collect their six-figure salaries and frequently travel abroad at taxpayers’ expense. Members of the bipartisan BBG board have been unable or unwilling to remove them.
Links to Washington Post, Washington Times, BBC, NPR and other media articles about mismanagement and dysfunction at Voice of America and BBG can be find at the end of our report on the Wall Street Journal editorial video. We also included links to various reports from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
The Wall Street Journal interview (November 11, 2014) was prompted by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) 2014 independent audit of the Broadcasting Board of Governors financial statements.
As pointed out in a press release issued by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the OIG requested audit shows “continued lapses in financial oversight and non-compliance with federal regulations including the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and the Prompt Pay Act.”
REP. ED ROYCE: “In testimony before the Committee, former Secretary Clinton called the BBG ‘defunct’. We cannot allow the BBG to continue limping along. Russian propaganda is dominating the information space in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe; we need U.S. international broadcasters to be effective – more now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The BBG must be restructured to meet the security challenges we face worldwide.”
Wall Street Journal has picked up on this assessment in its editorial opinion video. Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Writer Sohrab Ahmari made numerous references to the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General independent financial audit of the BBG as well as to the bipartisan reform bill, H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, which passed the House in July 2014 but still requires passage by the Senate. The bipartisan bill was introduced in April 2014 by Rep. Ed Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).
But the main focus of the Wall Street Journal opinion video was the Voice of America. The December 11, 2014 WSJ video has an online title: “Opinion Journal: Voice of Anti-Americanism.”
The WSJ editorial video starts with the now famous Voice of America promotional video for Pakistan showing a blood-thirsty zombie dressed like an American Uncle Sam attacking an Asian man.
After much criticism from BBG Watch and others, the Voice of America zombie Uncle Sam video was removed from the VOA website, but this is hardly the only or the most recent example of editorial, programming, and managerial meltdown at the Voice of America, which continues to this day.
Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Writer Sohrab Ahmari is interviewed by Wall Street Journal Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Henninger.
Wall Street Journal Opinion VIDEO: Voice of America is a Voice of Anti-Americanism
Link to Wall Street Journal Video
Wall Street Journal Opinion VIDEO: Voice of America is a Voice of Anti-Americanism (TRANSCRIPT)
WALL STREET JOURNAL DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR DAN HENNINGER: “What you are looking at is not Onion Television; that is foreign propaganda, anti-American propaganda.
You know, throughout the tensions between the United States/Europe and Vladimir Putin, a little known fact has been that the Russians have been using every instrument of their media to run anti-Western propaganda.
The question is what does the United States do to get the truth out to international audiences?
I’m joined now from London bureau by Editorial Page Writer Sohrab Ahmari.
Sohrab, thanks for joining us.”
SOHRAB AHMARI, WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: “Thanks for having me, Dan.”
WALL STREET JOURNAL DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR DAN HENNINGER: “Sohrab, you’ve been taking a look at the U.S. effort and the State Department’s recent audit of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and I take it that it is not really, shall we say, a pretty picture.”
SOHRAB AHMARI, WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: “Yea, Dan, you were speaking about the omnibus bill. Well, part of that omnibus bill is about $700 million a year that Congress gives to the Broadcasting Board of Governors which is a bipartisan board that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the other freedom broadcasters. And the latest audit just shows systemic flaws in how the BBG oversees the grants that are sent to the various freedom broadcasters like Radio Free Europe, not taking care of equipment, not accounting for equipment, lack of funds control. It really seems that it’s a mess there. There and very little oversight, in part because the Broadcasting Board of Governors is an itinerant boarded. It only meets once a month. Clearly, there needs to be more direct management. And the best evidence is actually did the clip that you have just showed. That’s actually footage from Voice of America showing a zombie Uncle Sam attacking young South Asians. This was a promotional video for their Urdu Service aimed at Pakistanis. Although it was never aired, it was online as a promotional video, so … it’s shocking.”
WALL STREET JOURNAL DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR DAN HENNINGER: “It’s fantastic. I take it that the disarray among the Broadcasting Board of Governors has had a real a material effect on the quality of our information services. Most people know what Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty used to be, but take it that the product has kind of degraded as [due to] this lack of management structures … has fallen apart as well.”
SOHRAB AHMARI, WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: “I think that the biggest problems have been at the Voice of America. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia — they’ve had their problems too, but on the whole their function is to serve as a surrogate. So. it’s surrogate press for closed societies that can’t have a free press around the world: Russia, Iran, China and so forth. And a lot of the work that they do is still that good surrogate work.
It’s Voice of America where you often have…We’ve documented cases where they’ll invite Iranian officials and give them uncritical platforms to share their views where the Iranians already get the Iranian regime points of view 24/7 from the regime’s own propaganda organs. Why should American taxpayers provide them with that … additional platforms. So that’s where … VOA is where the real quality lapses have [happended].”
WALL STREET JOURNAL DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR DAN HENNINGER: “Sohrab, give us a quick glance at the reform bill which Congress has put together on this because they’ve noticed there’s a problem.”
SOHRAB AHMARI, WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: “I think that H.R. 4490, which has passed the House and I think the Senate will be taking it up once the Republicans take over the Senate next year, is a really good bill because it gives … instead of the Broadcasting Board Governors, there will be a full-time CEO, so there will be better financial management and better quality control. And it also makes it clear that the purpose of Voice of America is to support American public diplomacy efforts. It’s not to be just any other broadcaster. It’s to help advance American foreign policy goals abroad. And providing that kind of mission to VOA I think will [help to] really clean up its act then.”
WALL STREET JOURNAL DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR DAN HENNINGER: “Thanks much Sohrab. Absolutely fascinating.”
Agency few Americans use generates controversy, this time with contractors, Joe Davidson, The Washington Post, November 24, 2014.
Broadcasting Board Outsources Controversial Newsroom Contracting, By Charles S. Clark, Government Executive, October 8, 2014.
Calling VOA Volunteers: Receive Ebola Vaccine And Report on Experience, Nick Massella, FishBowlDC, October 17, 2014.
One Agency’s Short-Lived Idea to Have Its Employees Test a New Ebola Vaccine By Charles S. Clark, Government Executive, October 30, 2014.
READ: Voice of America removes anti-Azerbaijani program, By Seba Aghayeva, Trend, October 30, 2014.
Can America Still Win the Information War?, Michael Gonzalez, THE BUZZ, The National Interest, September 15, 2014.
Fixing U.S. International Broadcasting – At Last!,” Dennis Mulhaupt and S. Enders Wimbush, The Weekly Standard, July 3, 2014.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
Unmuffling the Voice of America: Congress has a chance to fix an error and give the U.S. a fighting chance in the international war of ideas, Robert R. Reilly, The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2014.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Op-Ed Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real,” Al Pessin, The Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2014.
COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW
End of an era? Congress tries to neuter Voice of America’s journalism, Gary Thomas, Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2014.
LIPIEN: A propaganda-free Voice of America – Congress must prevent U.S. tax dollars from helping America’s enemies, Ted Lipien, Washington Times, July 16, 2014.
What in the world: Voice of America’s Lithuanian stir and EU needs UK security, BBC, February 3, 2014.
Opinion: The impact of Russian propaganda on Lithuania is greater than we thought it was: Poor translation of Washington memoir causes controversy, thanks to Voice of America, Audrius Bačiulis, The Lithuanian Tribune, February 3, 2014.
DALE: Only way to save U.S. international broadcasting is complete reform, Helle Dale, The Washington Times, June 23, 2014.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Voice of America Shouldn’t Be A Whisper: Putin’s propaganda machine is in high gear, while the U.S. scales back the VOA. Why?, John Lenczowski, The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2014.
Russian Accuses Voice Of America Of Fake Interview, Michele Kelemen, NPR, February 20, 2012.
Waste and Abuse of Power at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, According to Audit, By Reid Standish, Foreign Policy Blog, June 17, 2014.
Voice of America wasted estimated millions on improper contract payments, Radio Free Asia gets clean bill of health, BBG Watch, May 3, 2014.
IBB – BBG Debacles – Legal by Jane Doe, BBG Watch, June 16, 2014.