BBG Watch Commentary
While VOA English News report “Obama Calls for Updated US Policy on Cuba” lacked both substance and balance, the VOA Spanish Service and Radio and TV Marti provided more comprehensive reporting. Unfortunately, English-speaking international audiences and audiences of other VOA foreign language services relying of VOA English News may have been poorly informed and even mislead by VOA report.
With its short news item that lacked both balance and substance, U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) presented worldwide English-speaking audiences with an incomplete and at least partially misleading account of President Barack Obama’s statement on U.S. policy toward Cuba by failing to mention his meeting with Cuban dissidents at the same event in Miami on Friday. President Obama met with Ladies in White leader Berta Soler and Sakharov Prize winner Guillermo Fariñas, two Cuban dissidents currently visiting the U.S.
A news item on the Miami meeting, which appeared on the VOA English news website, had only 132 words. While VOA English-language news service reported that President Obama said it is time for the United States to revise its policies regarding Cuba, it had nothing about his meeting with two of Cuba’s leading dissidents in South Florida and his statement that he admires their sacrifices.
The Miami Herald described Obama’s second statement as “a rare White House recognition of the peaceful opposition on the communist-ruled island.” The paper also reported Obama as saying that “his policy of supporting civil society in Cuba is beginning to show results, but that Washington must continue to be ‘creative and thoughtful’ in its policies.”
Read more here: “‘Incredible night’ as Obama meets Cuban dissidents in Miami,” BY JUAN O. TAMAYO, Miami Herald, November 8, 2013.
What the Voice of America English News website reported about Obama’s statement on U.S. Cuba policy was technically accurate in one respect only — that President Obama made such a statement.
But by omitting other material facts and explanations, VOA English news item was highly misleading for international audiences. It failed to meet several of the requirements of the congressionally passed U.S. law, the VOA Charter, which says that VOA news must be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” [Emphasis added.]
The VOA Charter also says that “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies” and “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.”
At the very least, the VOA English News website should have told international audiences of President Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents to avoid creating an impression or generating possible accusations abroad (and in the United States since the news item was on the Internet and U.S. media can use it for free under the 2012 modified Smith-Mundt Act) that the U.S. President is insensitive to human rights violations in Cuba or that he and his administration might be caving in to Castro’s demands. This was inaccuracy by omission on the part of VOA, in addition to the lack of balance.
Many human rights activists around the world, including those in Iran and in other parts of the Middle East, view President Obama and his administration as being weak on human rights. many dissidents in Russia and China say the same thing. VOA English News had a professional duty to report on his statement, to report on his meeting with Cuban dissidents and to let international audiences make up their mind based on all relevant facts.
VOA English News failed to provide all relevant facts. It would not have made their very short news item too long if they did.
Even if some other U.S. and international media also failed to provide comprehensive reporting on this and similar news stories that may not make it to the top of their news lineups, U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA has a special journalistic and also legal obligation to offer “comprehensive” and “balanced” news reporting and to “explain” U.S. policies more fully to international audiences even in a short news report.
While the Voice of America is not specifically required by law to report on human rights issues, the broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. federal agency and the bipartisan board which oversees VOA, says that “the BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
In this case, the human rights component was very much part of the news story as demonstrated by President Obama’s emotional meeting with Cuban dissidents. It was not part of the VOA English News report.
Ironically, by not reporting on the human rights aspect of the story, Voice of America English News website found itself in the same company with the pro-Castro English-language and Spanish-language HavanaTimes.org, which also failed to mention Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents — to which one of the readers posted this comment:
“Incredible, even RIDICULOUS that HT would report this story and not mention that President Obama met with two internationally recognized, award winning Cuban activists, during this same event… Shame on HT for being a loyal lap dog of the Castro regime instead of an actual news organization!”
Read more: “Obama Makes Tepid Call for Change in US Policy on Cuba,” HavanaTimes.org, November 9, 2013.
There was also this comment posted under the report in HavanaTimes.org:
“Obama’ remarks were aimed at the Castros. It is a shrewd way of sending the message that Obama is willing to make changes if … Keep in mind Obama was attending a fundraiser in the home of the founders son of the most ANTI-Castro organization in the US. He met with and was photographed with two of the three most prominent dissidents in Cuba. Yoani Sanchez being the third. It should be clear what his politics on US/Cuban relations are. Castro sycophants who read into Obama’s remark and see hope for unilateral concessions are sorely mistaken.”
Editors running the VOA English News website could have consulted with the VOA Spanish Service or Radio and TV Marti, both of which reported more comprehensively and with balance on this news story.
While some other news organizations also failed to report on Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents — probably because Reuters and Associated Press (AP) did not mention it in their also very short dispatches — many other media outlets — including the Voice of America Spanish Service, Radio and TV Marti, UPI, Fox News, and Latino Fox News — did offer more comprehensive and balanced reporting on this story.
Does it matter that Voice of America English News fails to report accurately, with balance, and comprehensively on a news story like this one if other BBG-managed operations like the VOA Spanish Service and Radio and TV Marti do their jobs right?
Of course, it does. That’s why American taxpayers pay for this free international news and information service.
It does because VOA English News has a potential of reaching the entire English-speaking world. In fact, in this case, some media outlets in countries like India picked up China’s Xinhua news agency report that also failed to mention President Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents.
Read: “Update policies on Cuba: Obama,” The New Indian Express, November 9, 2013.
The failure that occurred also means that other VOA language services — with the already noted exception of VOA Spanish — might also translate and use this flawed report from VOA English News, thus confusing and misleading non-English-speaking VOA audiences.
Also, even this very perfunctory and flawed VOA news report got far more Facebook “Likes” than the vast majority of other VOA reports, many of them from Reuters, that hardly get any “Likes” from readers. This show that audience interest in this particular news story from the Voice of America was very high and also that VOA managed to confuse and mislead a lot of online readers with its incomplete and bad reporting.
Recently, the VOA English News website ignored a number of internationally important human rights related news stories and mislead audiences abroad about human rights related issues, also by providing incomplete reporting or failing to balance news stories, in addition to failing to report on others altogether. One VOA English News report suggested to international audiences that the U.S. legal system would deal just as harshly with peaceful Greenpeace protesters as the courts in Putin’s Russia, where 30 Greenpeace activists are currently jailed.
Read: “Voice of America repeats Russian politician’s attack on Greenpeace without retort, misleads world on U.S. law,” BBG Watch, November 4, 2013.
VOA English News also had posted an equally short news item that lacked both substance and balance on President Obama’s recent meeting at the White House with Pakistani girls’ rights activist Malala Yousafzai. The VOA newsroom and the VOA web team were alerted to the White House meeting by a VOA correspondent and given all the information well ahead of time but failed to post a comprehensive and journalistically solid news story.
While this bias against human rights news stories may not be intentional, it reflects a complete meltdown of editorial leadership and management structure at the Voice of America and the BBG’s management arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). VOA Director David Ensor and his deputy Steve Redisch either don’t check the VOA website or do not realize that they have a problem.
Senior VOA reporters have been complaining about mismanagement and problems with the VOA English news website, but sources say that most of their complaints have been ignored by senior managers. Both Ensor and soon to retire IBB Director Richard Lobo say that progress is being made, the state of VOA is strong (Ensor) and foreign audiences are being reached as never before (Lobo).
However, well-placed sources have told BBG Watch that the new BBG Chairman, Jeff Shell, is planning major reforms and management changes at VOA and IBB with the support of other newly-appointed BBG members and the two longer serving board members who are also champions of management reforms.
Some additional points:
Even the very few comments under the VOA report, most of them from the United States, show that this is a highly controversial issue that cannot be reported on the way VOA English News did in this case.
Unlike VOA English News, the Voice of America Spanish Service did report on President Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents.