BBG Watch Commentary
We found it interesting that Voice of America (VOA) English news website ignored the swearing-in of Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel, during which Secretary Kerry made comments about U.S. public diplomacy and Under Secretary Stengel commented about Vladimir Putin.
A day after this event took place in Washington several block away from the Voice of America building, VOA English news website posted Wednesday a news analysis which equated Obama with Putin in terms of blame for the latest crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. This news analysis was already translated into Russian and is likely to be translated for international audiences by many of VOA’s more than 40 other language services. But apparently only VOA’s Russian Service had a report on Kerry’s and Stengel’s comments about America’s role in the world vis-à-vis Putin and other authoritarian leaders, extremists and repressive governments. VOA’s main news website, which targets the entire world in English, did not.
But this is what one VOA report said was needed to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia, as it assigned equal blame to President Obama and President Putin:
“Many experts believe a genuine and durable partnership could only be achieved with new leaders in Washington and Moscow.” READ More: “Are US and Russia in New Cold War?” – Voice of America English News Website, April 16, 2014.
The news analysis has already been posted on the Voice of America Russian Service website.
“Многие эксперты полагают, что такое полноценное долгосрочное сотрудничество возможно только при условии смены лидеров в Москве и Вашингтоне.” READ More: “США-Россия: новая «холодная война»?” – Voice of America Russian Service Website, April 16, 2014.
“Many experts believe a genuine and durable partnership could only be achieved with new leaders in Washington and Moscow” was the concluding sentence in a VOA news analysis.
Most experts would agree that this conclusion about the change of leaders is certainly true when applied to President Putin. But to suggest that President Obama is equally or even partially to blame for the recent deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations seems preposterous to us at BBG Watch, where we publish commentaries by both supporters and critics of President Obama and his foreign policy.
Among Obama’s critics, it is hard to imagine a U.S. president who has been more accommodating to the Kremlin than President Obama had been until the most recent crisis over Crimea. He, after all, had suggested and vigorously pursued a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations and offended many U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe with his decision on missile defense, which his critics believe was designed to appease the Kremlin. If anything, his critics charge that by being too accommodating toward Putin, Obama convinced Putin that his aggression would go unpunished.
Obama’s supporters would say that in light of what the president did to try to achieve a good relationship with Russia, equating President Obama with President Putin in a Voice of America news analysis by suggesting that only a change of the U.S. administration and having a new American leader would allow returning to good relations with Russia is hardly accurate or fair to President Obama. If something else was meant by the VOA news analysis, then we will have a lot of confused readers.
Critics might say that international audiences could conclude from this VOA report that either President Obama is just as much to blame as President Putin for the Russian annexation of Crimea and the escalation of tensions over Ukraine or that Voice of America has lost all sense of perspective and proportion. In either case, they might say that the United States is communicating through the Voice of America to the world a distorted view of America and of U.S. foreign policy.
The VOA report does not identify those “many experts” who believe that both Putin and Obama are the obstacle to better relations between the United States and Russia. We do not think that many such experts can be found, at least not in the United States, who believe that President Obama either caused U.S.-Russia relationship to deteriorate or that he is an obstacle to improving it.
We have encountered this kind of strange analysis in one report after another on the VOA English news website, while at the same time we noted numerous failures by VOA to report at all on significant U.S. foreign policy pronouncements dealing with Ukraine and Russia.
Secretary of State John Kerry is an ex officio member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body charged with selecting the VOA director and providing oversight. Under Secretary Stengel usually represents Secretary Kerry at BBG meetings. The VOA Charter, which is U.S. public law, does not require Voice of America to promote U.S. foreign policy — which would be counterproductive in many cases — but it does require that “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” (Public Law 94-350)
The swearing-in of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and remarks by him and Secretary Kerry on U.S. public diplomacy and foreign policy may not be the most important news of the day, but considering the current crisis in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s information war, and VOA’s status as a public U.S. international media outlet, ignoring these remarks by top U.S. diplomats seems at least strange. It appears that among Voice of America many language services, only VOA Russian Service posted a report on the swearing-in of Richard Stengel and his comment about President Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times, “Рик Cтенгел назначен на должность заместителя госсекретаря по публичной дипломатии и связям с общественностью,” VOA Russian Service, April 15, 2014. Otherwise excellent VOA Ukrainian Service did not have a report. Despite the crisis in Ukraine, VOA management and the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) have not provided the service with sufficient staff and resources to update its website. We could not check every VOA website, but we could not find any other reports on public diplomacy comments by Kerry and Stengel.
Stengel remarked that Putin wrote in his New York Times op-ed that “it was extremely dangerous for any people to think of themselves as exceptional.” Stengel’s comment was that “it’s dangerous when Americans don’t think of themselves as exceptional, and here’s why: Because unlike every other nation on earth, we’re not formed by a common religion, a common blood, even a common culture. We’re formed through an uncommon set of ideas that all people are created equal…” Our search of the VOA English news website did not find any report on this comment or Secretary Kerry’s comment that “the modes of communicating are changing at a lightning pace, from broadsheets to broadcasts to tweets, and that means that public diplomacy has to change with it – it hasn’t yet, enough, so that we can say we are providing really groundbreaking public diplomacy for a groundbreaking era.”
It is hard to imagine that BBC would ignore a similar statement by the British Foreign Secretary. Russia’s RT certainly would not ignore a statement of a similar kind from Foreign Minister Lavrov. We are quite certain that Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) would also report on a similar statement by Germany’s foreign minister at this time of crisis between Russia and the West.
If VOA is suggesting that there is equivalence of blame between President Obama and President Putin over Crimea and Ukraine, then it should give Secretary Kerry’s and Under Secretary Stengel’s comments on Tuesday a few lines on its websites. We can safely say that the Voice of America under its current leadership is not communicating at a lightning pace and is not providing really groundbreaking news reporting and news analysis for a groundbreaking era. VOA’s social media engagement statistics show how poorly it is doing in this area, and the quality of VOA’s news reporting and news analysis is not only vastly inferior to BBC’s, but also vastly inferior compared to a much smaller media outlet such as DW. Russia’s RT and Voice of Russia regularly beat VOA in terms of speed in reporting on major U.S. news from Washington.
— Rick Stengel (@stengel) April 15, 2014
A perk of my job: I got to swear in two brilliant and effective idealists today. Great recruits for America’s team. pic.twitter.com/BNPa0JmBjB
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) April 16, 2014
— Department of State (@StateDept) April 16, 2014
Critics believe that it is profoundly unfair to blame individual VOA reporters for recent Voice of America news reporting failures, which included posting a map showing Crimea as part of Russia, producing a video for Pakistan with a bloodthirsty Uncle Sam zombie character attacking a Pakistani, mistranslating a comment by a former U.S. Secretary of Defense which the Kremlin’s media used to erroneously suggest that he was against NATO membership for the Baltic States, and posting a fake interview with a key Russian opposition leader.
Critics say that these failures are the result of lack of direction and guidance, exceptionally bad leadership and bad senior level management at the Voice of America. VOA executives were quick to point out that they had nothing to do with these mishaps and blamed them on VOA journalists, but as Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) Executive Director Ann Noonan told BBG members last week, VOA executives should take responsibility for these failures. CUSIB, which supports U.S. international media outreach, has been critical of the VOA and IBB bureaucracy, which keeps growing while cutting Voice of America media programs and eliminating language services.
CUSIB EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ANN NOONAN: CUSIB believes that top VOA and IBB executives all share responsibility for this farce [Uncle Sam zombie video] and should not blame those below them, as they have a habit of doing. We are disturbed that experienced and talented VOA correspondents are leaving because they feel abused. We are hopeful that when a CEO is finally hired by the BBG Board — someone with good political sense who knows and understands the organization and its mission — problems of this magnitude may no longer exist.
CUSIB remains troubled by VOA’s online remapping of Crimea to be officially located outside of Ukraine. We’re relieved, that after a media report – VOA corrected its controversial map. Again, this incident demonstrates the need for much better management.
VOA could have certainly found something newsworthy in Tuesday’s remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel and reported on them without being accused by anybody of becoming a mouthpiece for the State Department. BBC would certainly cover a similar event if it included comments on foreign policy and public diplomacy by top British diplomats.
It appears, however, that in the area of reporting on U.S. foreign policy, Voice of America has lost the relevance it once had. For example, the State Department English-language Facebook page has almost as many followers (540 thousand) as the VOA English News Facebook page (561 thousand). BBC Facebook page has ten times as many followers (5.5 million) as VOA Facebook page. Russia’s RT, which only exists since 2005, has three times as many Facebook fans (1.5 million) as VOA which has been in business for more than 70 years. BBC Russian Service also has many times more Facebook fans than VOA Russian Service, as does Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service. Both VOA and RFE/RL are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
VOA journalists blame this poor social media performance on senior executives and accuse them of bad management and de-emphasizing news reporting while promoting coverage of the British royal family and production of similar meaningless light features. According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys, Voice of America has one of the lowest employee morale rating in the entire U.S. government.
The latest is still a relatively minor news reporting failure on the part of VOA, which in recent months also missed or reported late and superficially on far more significant foreign policy pronouncements on Ukraine and Russia, not only from Secretary Kerry, but also from Vice President Biden and President Obama himself.
SECRETARY KERRY: “One of the things that I think about in this job a great deal, more and more as I look at the number of failed and failing states and the challenges of a cacophonous, turbulent world with an extraordinary amount of sectarianism, religious extremism, ideological radicalism, and teams of young people all in touch with the rest of the world through their smartphones, all looking for the promise of prosperity, jobs, education, and too many of them looking out at a political wasteland – so communicating in the midst of all of that is more important than it has ever been.
And one of the things that I’m looking for and really was excited about sitting down with Rick to explore was the question of: How do we tell America’s story with credibility? How do we validate our own values and reach out to the world in this difficult time? And how do we sell – and maybe “sell” is the wrong word – I think how do we promote, advocate for the values that put that great seal up there and made this the Ben Franklin Room and have created a tradition and history of diplomacy that we are so proud of? How do we explain ourselves and communicate and interact with people where change is coming at them and us faster than ever before? And while I made a joke a few minutes ago about people who resist modernity, truly who are resisting modernity, where there is a clash of culture and the future. The art is to find a way to thread that needle, and that’s why we’ve found what I hope is somebody who will qualify in this challenge as being an artist, who will meet the challenge of this moment.
Nobody knows better than the editor of the – the former editor of one of our nation’s leading magazines that the modes of communicating are changing at a lightning pace, from broadsheets to broadcasts to tweets, and that means that public diplomacy has to change with it – it hasn’t yet, enough, so that we can say we are providing really groundbreaking public diplomacy for a groundbreaking era. And there is no one, in my judgment, more equipped, more prepared, and more ready for this challenge than Rick Stengel. We all know that he is deeply idealistic, and we admire the incredibly close friendship that he developed with Nelson Mandela, the godfather to his son Gabriel, and a hero, obviously, to all of the world. MORE of Secretary Kerry’s Remarks Here.
UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: So you also added me as an idealist, and I did my best through many years in journalism to hide the fact that I was an idealist. And many journalists – journalists who some people think are cynical, it’s really because they’re disappointed idealists, but I never was disappointed. And as the Secretary said, I did launch this campaign for national service, as we did seven times during my time as managing editor. And I thought, finally, I ought to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, and that’s another reason I said yes right away. Also, that issue got very little advertising, so – (laughter) – but there’s a deeper reason that I really wanted to do this, which is – I’m going to mention somebody that you’d never think I would mention in this context: Vladimir Putin.
Last summer, Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he said that it was dangerous – in fact, he said it was extremely dangerous for any people to think of themselves as exceptional. I think it’s dangerous when Americans don’t think of themselves as exceptional, and here’s why: Because unlike every other nation on earth, we’re not formed by a common religion, a common blood, even a common culture. We’re formed through an uncommon set of ideas that all people are created equal, that we’re endowed by – with certain unalienable rights. MORE of Under Secretary Stengel’s Remarks Here.
By the way, this is how in a media interview last year Voice of America Director David Ensor described VOA’s role as a journalistic organization:
DAVID ENSOR: First of all let me just make clear that actually I am not an appointee of the Obama administration directly. I am an appointee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has four Republicans, four Democrats, and then the tie-breaker who’s the Secretary of State normally represented by the Under Secretary [for] Public Diplomacy at the meetings. So I’m actually a bipartisan appointee, an unusual person in that sense. And the reason for that is because it was so important to make sure that there is a firewall between the journalists who cover the news at Voice of America and whoever is president at the time. Voice of America is not a propaganda organization and it is not a mouthpiece of the White House or of anybody else. It is a proud journalistic organization more than seventy years old. MORE of VOA Director David Ensor’s Remarks.
Whether Director Ensor likes it or not, The VOA Charter, 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.” (Public Law 94-350). Were these comments by Secretary Kerry and Under Secretary Stengel so insignificant that no news media outlet would report on them? Not quite. cnsnews.com had a report, “Swearing in Diplomat, Kerry Describes Battle Between Modernity and Extremism,” as did NEW YORK POST, “Former Time editor sworn in at State Department.” If these U.S. media outlets had the story in English, why not U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America for the entire world?
Former Secretary of State and former BBG member Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. is losing the information war and the war of ideas. She also said that U.S. international media outreach is defunct. This certainly appears to be the case at much of the rudderless Voice of America under its current management, which in a typical fashion blames journalists for its own failures.