BBG Watch Commentary
VOA News Report, Dec. 4, 2014
VOA News Report, Dec. 19, 2014
In reporting Friday on U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement that U.S will respond “proportionally” to the cyberattack on Sony Pictures blamed on North Korea, U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) did not mention its earlier report, which VOA touted as “exclusive,” that a North Korean diplomat whom VOA had interviewed in New York denied his government’s responsibility for the Sony hacking incident.
With FBI and President Obama confirming previous expert opinions of North Korea’s involvement in the cyber attack on Sony, Voice of America’s earlier unquestioning presentation of North Korea’s claim of innocence looks more embarrassing than ever.
Oscar-winner actor George Clooney, while not referring specifically to Voice of America, said in an interview with DEADLINE that the media failed to do its job and that executives in Hollywood “were so fearful to place themselves in the cross hairs of hackers that they all refused to sign a simple petition of support [for Sony Pictures] that Clooney and his agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, circulated to the top people in film, TV, records and other areas.”
“A good portion of the press abdicated its real duty. They played the fiddle while Rome burned. There was a real story going on. With just a little bit of work, you could have found out that it wasn’t just probably North Korea; it was North Korea,” George Clooney said.
Voice of America made a major contribution to disinformation by releasing a completely unsupported North Korean denial without any questions asked. The denial was picked up from Voice of America by several U.S. media outlets, although to their credit most of them included information from cyber experts challenging the North Korean regime’s claim that was completely missing in the original “exclusive” VOA report which violated the VOA Charter and the VOA Journalistic Code. This was one of many such incidents at the Voice of America in recent years under its current leadership. For some of them, VOA Director David Ensor had to apologize to a foreign government and a leading Russian opposition leader.
Two recent Wall Street Journal editorials, “WSJ-A Broken Voice of America” and “WSJ Opinion Journal-Voice of Anti-Americanism,” also revealed other highly questionable journalistic and managerial practices at the Voice of America and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
But at a government holiday party at VOA headquarters in Washington this week, Voice of America Director David Ensor mocked critics of the VOA North Korean news coverage and made fun of BBG Watch, comparing it to a Jehovah’s Witnesses religious magazine. Ensor also made fun of former senior VOA correspondents who have criticized news and management failures at VOA.
BBG Watch is not saying that VOA should not have reported the North Korean denial, but like most other U.S. and free international media, it should have included in its earlier report credible challenges to North Korea’s claim of innocence, which it didn’t do in its report while providing an open public relations platform to a North Korean government spokesman.
In its most recent report, VOA also did not report that Michael Lynton, chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose decision not to release the film about North Korea was criticized by President Obama although he did not mention Lynton by name, served until last year on VOA’s oversight body, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). VOA also did not mention in its Friday’s report that Lynton was nominated to the BBG board by President Obama and has been described in some news reports as a friend of the Obama family and a financial contributor to Obama’s election campaigns.
VOA should have mention these facts. For the sake of accuracy and balance, VOA also should have reached out to Lynton or a Sony spokesperson two weeks ago for the company’s interpretation of events when it reported on the North Korean denial statement. Voice of America failed to do this while providing an open platform to North Korean officials and North Korean propaganda over the last several years with hardly any significant challenge in those specific reports which were devoted almost entirely to statements by the North Korean regime’s spokespersons. A VOA press release described the North Korean capital Pyongyang as a “vibrant city.”
DEC. 19, 2014 VOA News Report: Obama: US to Respond to N. Korea Sony Attack – VOA News, Dec. 19, 2014.
The earlier exclusive Voice of America report on the North Korean denial of responsibility for the hacking attack on Sony was widely criticized by many current and former Voice of America journalists as lacking credibility and balance. VOA journalists claim that under the current leadership they have very little ability to influence senior management’s editorial and programming decisions.
The earlier VOA report was apparently prepared by VOA Korean Service, but it was posted online in English on the VOA main news website and promoted heavily as an exclusive news report. Balance is a requirement of the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law. VOA Journalistic Code also states that VOA will not serve as an exclusive platform for unchallenged controversial and possibly untrue statements.
DEC. 04, 2014 VOA News Report: [Voice of America] Exclusive: North Korea Denies Involvement in Cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, VOA, Dec. 4, 2014.
VOA’s “exclusive” news report from December 4 shows only two readers’ comments, both pointing out the history of North Korean official lies — something that the VOA report itself failed to mention.
Since the Voice of America heavily promoted on the VOA website website its earlier “exclusive” news report on the North Korean denial, VOA should have at least mentioned it in its Friday’s report on President Obama’s threat of U.S. response to the North Korean cyberattack.
Critics have pointed out that in seeking, receiving and reporting on the North Korean denial two weeks ago, VOA failed to provide any balancing information, such as statements from numerous experts pointing to the evidence of the North Korean cyber attack. The earlier VOA news report itself also did not challenge the North Korean statement in any way or suggest to the VOA audience abroad that many previous North Korean regime statements turned out to be completely untrue.
While a Voice of America reporter was talking to a North Korean diplomat in New York, VOA executives and news managers apparently did not think of asking him or other reporters to contact and interview Michael Lynton, chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Until last year, Lynton was their indirect boss in his capacity as member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The VOA Charter requires the Voice of America not only to report U.S. news but also to provide balance and a representative variety of U.S. opinions in its news reporting. Voice of America gave priority and exclusive treatment to an obscure North Korean diplomat in New York rather than Michael Lynton or his spokesperson representing a U.S.-based media company. VOA, of course, should have done both.
Speaking at his annual end-of-year news conference at the White House Friday, President Obama did not mention the North Korean denial reported earlier by the Voice of America. Obama said that Sony “made a mistake” in canceling the release of a comedy about a fictional plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader, as a result of the hackers’ threat to stage further attacks.
Friday’s VOA report quoted Michael Lynton as telling CNN Friday that “the Hollywood studio did not make a mistake in pulling the film.” VOA also quoted Lynton as saying that the company experienced the worst cyber attack in American history and that Sony did not give in or cave to the hackers. An accompanying VOA video report, which is also being shown separately, did not mention Lynton’s comments.
In its written report, VOA still failed to convey the essence of Lynton’s tortured defense of the decision not to release the film. Lynton blamed “the majority of the nation’s theater owners choosing not to screen the film.” “This was their decision,” Lynton said.
“Let us be clear – the only decision that we have made with respect to release of the film was not to release it on Christmas Day in theaters, after the theater owners declined to show it. Without theaters, we could not release it in the theaters on Christmas Day. We had no choice,” Michael Lynton’s said.
Lynton’s promise to make the movie available to the public was also not reported by VOA.
“We immediately began actively surveying alternatives to enable us to release the movie on a different platform. It is still our hope that anyone who wants to see this movie will get the opportunity to do so,” Lynton said.
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Lynton responded directly to criticism from President Obama.
“First, I was surprised by the remark. But, I think actually the president and I are coming from the same place. We are obviously both strong proponents of the First Amendment.”
“I think the issue here is that there’s been a general misunderstanding with the press and the public about how these events unfolded, and the fact that we have been absolutely diligent about making certain that this movie get out into movie theaters. And it was only when the movie theaters themselves had said they couldn’t take the movie, that we had to say that we couldn’t release it on the 25th of December,” Michael Lynton told NPR.
VOA did not report these more specific explanations by Michael Lynton while reporting on President Obama’s strong criticism of Sony’s decision on not releasing the film.
VOA also failed to report that until last year Michael Lynton was a key member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. BBG provides oversight for the Voice of America and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets serving audiences overseas. VOA should have mentioned this fact. BBC and other major U.S. and other Western media outlets almost certainly would report if any of their previous or current oversight board members were involved in a public controversy regarding freedom of expression or censorship.
Lynton was appointed to the BBG board by President Obama on July 2, 2010 and served as interim presiding governor from February 2012 until he resigned from the board on May 23, 2013.
Congress funds the Voice of America to provide news reporting that bypasses and counters press censorship in other countries. But by congressional legislative design, at least some BBG members are chosen from among U.S. private sector media executives whose companies are doing big business in countries practicing media censorship, such as China and Russia. The BBG is a bipartisan board. Many of its members have been financial contributors to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Sony Pictures has business interests in Russia, China and in other countries where governments practice press censorship and in some cases block Voice of America news broadcasts and websites.
President Obama said on Friday that he was sympathetic to Sony’s concerns, but added, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here.”
While Michael Lynton is no longer a BBG member, concerns about current or possible future business interests of BBG members in countries practicing censorship remain, although very few Americans, including foreign policy experts, are even aware of this potential conflict of interest. The Sony film controversy may have focused public attention on the wider conflict between business considerations and freedom of expression from a slightly different angle. The U.S. Congress may want to look at this issue in its legislative attempts to reform the BBG.
In addition to VOA, the BBG also provides strategic direction and oversight for U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio and TV Marti) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV).
While Michael Lynton was BBG’s interim presiding governor, he reportedly supported and defended the management’s decision to lay off dozens of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty journalists in Russia as part of downsizing and restructuring of RFE/RL operations. The BBG-approved firings of Radio Liberty reporters were widely condemned by leading Russian human rights activists, including former President Mikhail Gorbachev, and by U.S. pro-media freedom NGOs.
The BBG board also had approved at about the same time the plan to eliminate Voice of America shortwave radio broadcasts to Tibet and to reduce some VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China. After protests by members of the U.S. Congress and a demonstration staged in March 2012 by a group of Tibetans in front of Michael Lynton’s Sony office in Los Angeles, VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet and VOA Chinese broadcasts scheduled for elimination were retained by the BBG. The BBG also reversed itself on the dismissal of RFE/RL journalists in Russia and rehired many of them.
Of the two VOA news reports on North Korea, the second one — despite its several flaws and omissions — is far better than the first one. But in addition to failing to present Michael Lynton’s defense more fully and failing to mention his former BBG association and his links with President Obama, the second VOA report also had a least one sentence that presented only a partial and misleading explanation of the economic crisis in North Korea. VOA said that “the sanctions have devastated the North’s economy,” when they probably have only a secondary effect when compared to the main causes of the economic collapse: inefficient centralized communist economic planning, corruption, enormous military spending, and lack of economic and personal freedoms. This kind of incomplete and superficial reporting is a disservice to Voice of America’s international audiences and to American taxpayers.
VOA News Reports
December 04, 2014 2:09 AM
WASHINGTON—North Korea has firmly denied charges that it is behind a massive cyber-attack against Sony Pictures.
A North Korean diplomat in New York told VOA Wednesday his country has nothing to do with the cyber-attack that crippled the Hollywood studio’s computer system last week.
“Linking the DPRK to the Sony hacking is another fabrication targeting the country,” said the official, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“My country publicly declared that it would follow international norms banning hacking and piracy,” the official claimed.
This is the first time the North has denied its involvement in the cyber-attack on Sony. Pyongyang has been largely silent on the accusation, sparking rampant speculation that Pyongyang might have sponsored the attack.
Some press linked the cyber-attack to Pyongyang’s anger over Sony’s upcoming comedy “The Interview,” the plot of which involves an attempted assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Earlier, the North denounced the movie and vowed to “mercilessly destroy” anyone associated with it. Pyongyang also sent a letter to the White House asking President Obama to stop the movie, calling the distribution of the film “undisguised sponsoring of terrorism.”
The movie is scheduled for release on Christmas Day in more than 60 countries around the world, including the U.S.
Last updated on: December 19, 2014 2:52 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed that U.S will respond “proportionally” to the cyberattack on Sony Pictures that the FBI has blamed on North Korea.
Speaking during his annual end-of-year news conference at the White House, Obama said Sony “made a mistake” in canceling the release of a comedy about a fictional plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader, as a result of the hackers’ threat to stage further attacks.
Obama said he was sympathetic to Sony’s concerns, but added, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here.
“Again, I’m sympathetic that Sony as a private company was worried about liabilities and this and that and the other. I wish they would have spoken to me at first. I would have told them do not get in a pattern in which you are intimidated by these types of criminal attacks,” he said.
Related video report by VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez:
The president also said there was no sign that North Korea worked together with another country on the cyberattack. He said the U.S. will respond to the hacking in “a manner and time we will choose.”
During the press conference, Obama also defended his policies during the past year, saying the U.S. economy is improving and that America is leading around the world. He then fielded questions on a range of issues, including the dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and his controversial executive action on immigration, and his relationship with congressional Republicans.
The FBI on Friday for the first time publicly linked North Korea to the cyberattack on Sony. North Korea has denied any connection to the cyberattack.
The massive breach, which occurred November 24, resulted in the leak of tens of thousands of documents, including sensitive emails and personal information.
At the time of the hack, the Sony film studio had scheduled a Christmas Day release of “The Interview.” But, following threats of terrorist attacks, several major theater chains said they would not show the film.
Sony announced Wednesday it was scrapping the December 25 release. It has no current plans to release the film.
The FBI said the hacking “reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States.”
A hacker group calling itself Guardians of Peace earlier promised a “bitter fate” for those attending any showings of “The Interview.” The group invoked the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and warned people to “keep yourself distant” from theaters showing the film.
Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton told CNN Friday that the Hollywood studio did not make a mistake in pulling the film. He said the company experienced the worst cyber attack in American history and said Sony did not give in or cave to the hackers.
“Guardians of Peace” reportedly sent a message to Sony executives calling the decision to cancel the movie “very wise.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had said “there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters.” President Barack Obama also downplayed the threat, saying his “recommendation would be that people go to the movies.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said North Korea’s actions are a “brazen attempt by an isolated regime to suppress free speech.”
The FBI said its conclusion that North Korea was involved in the hacking is based in part on the discovery of links to malware previously deployed by North Korean agents. It said it also observed “significant overlap” between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. has previously linked to North Korea.
It said the tools used in the Sony attack were found to have similarities to a cyberattack North Korea carried out last year against South Korean banks and media outlets.
The film portrays Rogen and Franco as frustrated television journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korea’s leader. In the film’s climactic scene, Kim Jong Un’s head is seen exploding when his helicopter is hit by a missile.
Pyongyang strongly denounced the comedy as an act of terrorism and called for Sony to cancel the film. It praised the hacking as a “righteous deed,” while insisting it was not involved.
Many in Hollywood took to Twitter to speak out against Sony’s decision to scrap the movie’s release.
Comedian Jimmy Kimmel called the move “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist’s actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” Actor Rob Lowe declared it an “utter and complete victory” for the hackers. Steve Carell, whose own film set in North Korea has been canceled, said it was a “sad day for creative expression.”
Leonid Petrov, a Korea analyst at Australian National University, told VOA the U.S. would have limited options for dealing with Pyongyang.
“I don’t think the U.S. government has any leverage to influence North Korea,” Petrov said. “There’s no negotiations, there’s no diplomatic representation. There’s no trade. There’s basically no exchange, no joint projects.”
The U.S. and its allies have already imposed round after round of economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs. The sanctions have devastated the North’s economy and left it isolated from the rest of the world, but also resistant to further punishment.
Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at the Netherlands’ Leiden University, agreed the U.S. has few good choices.
“I think the only thing you can do is take a very tough line on what you think should happen. So if North Korea is behind this, the best thing the U.S. could do is make sure this picture does get released one way or the other and protect from further hacking attempts.”
The president faced a number of questions on his recently announced decision to normalize relations with Cuba.
Obama defended his action to move, saying it will give the United States a greater opportunity influence the communist government there. He said he does not expect changes with Cuba to happen overnight, and he said it will likely be some time before Congress begins a debate about the possibly of lifting the trade embargo with the island nation.
He said it is clear that isolating Cuba has not worked. “What I know deep in my bones is that if you’ve done the same thing for 50 years and nothing has changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome,” said Obama.
He said that while he recognizes that Cuba is “still a regime that oppresses its people,” he believes the new policy of more openness should give the U.S. a chance to have more influence in the country and bring changes that a decades-long embargo failed to achieve.
After Friday’s briefing, the president left Washington for Hawaii, the state where he was born, to spend the Christmas holiday.
BBG WATCH ALSO RECOMMENDS CHECKING: Voice of America promotes N. Korean press release-like VOA news report as exclusive, BBG Watch, Oct. 23, 2014
Beer – Yes, but no Voice of America report on North Korea sanctions vote in Congress, BBG Watch, Jul. 29, 2014
AND: 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, Mar. 19, 2014
Link to the video on YouTube.