BBG Watch Commentary
A screenshot taken of the Voice of America mobile site at 11:33 AM on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, shows that, unlike nearly all other media, VOA was still leading with an old Obama-Cuba story instead of the Brussels terror attacks.
Some Voice of America (VOA) reporters are upset with management, news editors and website administrators who for many hours on Tuesday did not place the Brussels terror attack story as VOA’s lead news item.
Voice of America chose instead to keep an old Obama in Cuba story at the top of the VOA English News website, while the whole world was focused on Brussels. All major international media, including BBC and Russia’s RT, prominently showed the Brussels story at the very top of their websites. Their coverage was far more extensive and superior to VOA’s coverage.
While VOA did post a short item on the Brussels terror attacks relatively early (4:12 AM ET), some VOA reporters are upset over what they describe as truly minimal initial VOA coverage of the story compared to other world media.
“Terrible news judgment” on the part of the Voice of America newsroom management, one current VOA reporter told BBG Watch.
“As usual, they’re lying,” a VOA reporter said when told that someone within the VOA management claims that VOA was leading with the Brussels story from the very beginning.
“If anyone is claiming that earlier in the day, in that morning time period (EDT) they were leading with Brussels, they are full of it,” was another comment.
“Too much emphasis on Obama in Cuba, not enough on Brussels bombing…,” a current VOA broadcaster told BBG Watch.
Both the full desktop VOA English News website and the VOA mobile website did not have the Brussels story as their top news item. This screenshot of VOA full desktop site was taken at 12:30 PM ET, March 22, 2016.
A former VOA senior correspondent observed:
“I noted that VOA maintains its lead of Obama in Cuba, pushing Brussels into items at the right of the page. BBC has Brussels as the obvious major lead across all pages.”
A former VOA correspondent also noted:
“Yes, I have seen this is an obvious case of not understanding what the true world lead is, and deciding to go with what will make them look good to the White House.”
Others disagree that the VOA Newsroom management was trying to impress the White House. In their view, it’s more a case of poor news judgment, or simply good-enough-for-government-work indifference.
A former VOA broadcaster had this observation:
Not just online, but “when it comes to radio, BBC (as we know) has it all over VOA.
While VOA was plodding along with its usual Africa sports programming, BBC World “Have Your Say” had an hour full of live programming on Brussels. The last live VOA program accessible on the VOA site
was “International Edition” at 0805 UTC (that’s 4:05 AM EDT). It consisted of the usual boring Q&A, followed by a studio discussion with the VOA “Social Media Editor” who talked about what was being seen on Twitter and FB.
In contrast, BBC provided amazing live and some recorded Q&As with eyewitnesses in Brussels.
There may be far bigger issues with VOA news content than a placement of a particular story. “What a mess this story is!,” a VOA broadcaster said about a recent VOA report that failed to meet any of the VOA Charter requirements and instead put forward a narrative that is being also pushed by the Kremlin and Russia’s propaganda outlet RT.
Some of the better VOA newsroom reporters told us that the management pays little attention to news reporting, does not communicate well and is dismissive of concerns voiced by VOA correspondents.
One VOA reporter said that there have been so many screw-ups that he wanted to see how the management plans to deal with it. But “nobody was up on the news,” the reporter was quoted as saying after attending a meeting with the management. Instead, one VOA manager sent “a VERY important memo to staff about the kitchen being cleaned. LOL. You can’t make this **** up,” a VOA reporter was quoted as saying.
One of the many recent mistakes the correspondent may have been referring to involved Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey. His office contacted the Voice of America to point out that he was indeed a Senator from New Jersey, not from Florida as he was mis-identified in a VOA report. Senator Menendez was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 113th Congress and continues to serve as a member of the Committee.
In many cases these mistakes are not made by VOA correspondents but result from poor editing and changes made by newsroom and web desk staff, which includes poorly paid and poorly trained contract employees. A $400 million class action lawsuit has been filed in a federal court against the BBG for treating contractors as federal employees but denying them adequate compensation and benefits.
Another recent misstep was a Voice of America headline calling Cuban dictator Raul Castro President Obama’s “Ally of New Era of US-Cuba Ties.” While no one denies that President Obama has to deal with Raul Castro in the normalization of relations process, several VOA reporters said that such a description was wholly inaccurate. In their view, it distorted not only U.S. policy but made President Obama and the United States look naive in the eyes of the world. Others have pointed out that this is definitely not the public diplomacy message the White House or the State Department would have wanted to send to international audiences, especially since it does not reflect the current complex state of U.S.-Cuban relations. They also said that such an inaccurate description with reference to President Obama is also offensive to many political prisoners and other victims of Raul Castro’s dictatorship, which President Obama challenged on human rights during his visit.
Many of the best VOA English newsroom correspondents and reporters have left or retired in recent years to avoid poor treatment by management and being embarrassed by VOA’s declining performance and frequent mistakes. Some of the better ones who remained for various reasons describe themselves as “miserable” under the current VOA and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) management.
Since September 2015, the BBG, which is the federal agency in charge of VOA and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets serving oversees audiences, has new CEO and director John Lansing. He has made some welcome policy and personnel changes in other areas, but according to one senior and highly respected VOA correspondent, they have not seen “any new direction” as far as the management of VOA news and news personnel are concerned. Other noted some minor improvements in VOA news coverage since the departure of former VOA director David Ensor several months ago, reassignment of his deputy and subsequent arrival of new BBG CEO John Lansing. No one is saying, however, that any of the structural problems with the agency and its management have been resolved.
An outside expert, scholar and writer Martha Bayles, reported serious management and employee morale problems at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a non-federal media entity also overseen by the BBG. Like VOA, RFE/RL also has not had a permanent executive in charge for many months.
John Lansing sent out a memo on March 21 informing staff that as a result of employee feedback and the 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which showed that the BBG has once again scored at the bottom of all federal agencies in employee morale, he directed management to come up with a plan to address three major areas of concern:
A. Developing and Implementing Effective Internal Communication Practices
B. Defining and Clarifying Agency Mission, Goals, and Leadership Roles
C. Improving Performance Management and Manager Skillsets
A 15-member cross-agency group was formed to develop recommendations to address those concerns. But employees have noted that some of the most senior BBG managers whom they blame for causing low employee morale are still in their jobs and some are advising Mr. Lansing. Some of the managers in the “improve-employee-morale-group” possess so little tact that they are equally capable of offending rank and file employees, ordinary taxpayers, members of Congress, foreign government officials and Mr. Lansing himself, one individual who is connected with the agency observed. These longtime executives, who in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State and former BBG member Hillary Clinton had made the agency “practically defunct,” are trying hard to convince Mr. Lansing that all journalists are chronic complainers and resistant to digital reforms, which is simply not true.
The Voice of America still has many dedicated albeit unhappy employees and a few well-meaning managers who also suffer under the bureaucratic behemoth of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). At a recent meeting with the VOA English Division staff, acting VOA director Kelu Chao reportedly told everyone to “feel free to say whatever you want”.
Sources said that she herself has been bullied by some of the longtime newsroom managers and senior staffers. They complain about potential government censorship of VOA program content and refuse to counter violent extremism, arguing that it would be a violation of their journalistic ethics. In fact, there is no censorship of any kind, only mismanagement and poor performance. Some of the most vocal complainers about countering violent extremism and potential censorship have hardly any worldwide following on social media.
A VOA reporter said that reporters saw the comment about speaking one’s mind as “crazy.” The reporter did not elaborate whether it was because newsroom staffers fear retaliation or have lost faith that any change is possible. At the meeting Kelu Chao reportedly announced that new VOA director should be on board soon. Award-winning investigative reporter and media manager Amanda Bennett was mentioned as a leading candidate. There have been no recent updates.
“We can’t seem to get up the courage to fight back at the incompetents, and so just trudge on,” another VOA reporter was quoted as saying.
“It’s like we’ve given up entirely,” yet another currently employed VOA reporter said.