BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch had reported how Voice of America English news website was picking up RT propaganda Tweets probably not even realizing that it was helping to spread Putin’s propaganda. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has been far better and more sophisticated in its Russia reporting and still is while VOA news coverage has been a source of embarrassment for experienced VOA reporters unable to get the management to fix the problem. But earlier this month, the same virus of falling for RT Russian propaganda reporting had infected RFE/RL English news website, at least in one RFE/RL news story, or more accurately a gossip story.

RFERL Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 12.12AM ET

RFE/RL has posted a report making crude fun of French President Francois Hollande being photographed wearing a traditional Kazakh embroidered coat with fur trim and a furry hat during his official visit to Kazahstan. Hollande was standing next to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The RFE/RL report even referred to Hollade photographed earlier “sneaking out of an apartment close to the Elysee Palace on a scooter and wearing a crash helmet after a tryst with his lover, a 42-year-old actress.”

It appears that RFE/RL and Russia’s RT English news websites had something in common. They both had this story. Most other major international news organizations did not. Many tabloid media did. Russia’s other propaganda outlet, SPUTNIK, apparently did not. (We could not find it on the SPUTNIK website.)

If RFE/RL felt it had to do this story, it could have done it in a much more useful and tasteful way. RFE/RL report retweeted RT content. What RFE/RL should have done is an analysis as to why the Kremlin propaganda outlet was so eager to exploit this photo and poke fun at Hollande. Did the Kremlin have a specific reason for it other than making Western leaders appear silly or ridiculous? RFE/RL’s job is to analyze rather than to do tabloid news. Was not RFE/RL story very similar in tone to many RT attacks on Western leaders and Western institutions?

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While the photo of Hollande in a Kazakh costume may look mildly funny some — it had some popularity on social media — it was Putin’s propaganda outlet RT that made a big deal out of it, and RFE/RL English newsroom fell for it in a big way. BBC, Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, and VOA did not.

RFE/RL reported: “‘It’s President Francois Borat!’ Britain’s Mail tabloid quipped.”

We can understand a British tabloid salivating over the picture, but not U.S. taxpayer-funded RFE/RL. RFE/RL has a Kazakh Service. Making fun of a national costume may not go well with some people. RFE/RL also has a longstanding issue of the second-class treatment of its foreign-born journalists working at the media outlet’s headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic. They are discriminated against in terms of their employment rights compared to RFE/RL’s American and Czech employees. This is bad for employee morale at RFE/RL, although employee morale at RFE/RL is not nearly as bad as employee morale at VOA.

Such mishaps as the tabloid-like Hollande photo story, although rare at RFE/RL and much more common at VOA, are a sign of lack of leadership and poor employee morale. In 2012, RFE/RL went through a period of managerial disarray when one could even find on its website semi-pornographic photos and videos. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which provides oversight for U.S.-taxpayer funded international media, had brought in a distinguished journalist and media executive, Kevin Klose, who quickly restored high journalistic standards at RFE/RL. These standards are still followed by the vast majority of RFE/RL journalists. We are certain that this RFE/RL report in the form in which it appeared would not have been posted if Kevin Klose were still there.

But Klose retired several months ago, and the BBG has not appointed a new RFE/RL executive. The current interim management team at RFE/RL has done a good job, but the organization needs a strong leader with good journalistic and managerial skills to move it forward and to resolve the issue of different classes of employees. This problem is much worse at VOA, where full-time contract employees have basically no rights and are paid much less then regular employees.

The Voice of America needs strong leadership even more than RFE/RL. At VOA, a complete management change is needed. VOA has a management team which has ruined this once respectable news organization. Many excellent VOA journalists feel powerless and unable to uphold high standards of journalism or even to file and post news stories they want because they are up against hostile and incompetent managers and a complete managerial meltdown.

The BBG’s management arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), has been run by an interim team for several months. They are better than those who came before them, but these interim executives can’t save the agency, and they can’t save VOA.

The current BBG Board has known about management problems at VOA for a long time and has done nothing about it. The Board now appears to wait for new BBG CEO Andy Lack to come and reform the agency. In our view, this is not enough. Waiting can be dangerous in times of the Kremlin’s propaganda assault on the United States. We don’t know how long it may take for Mr. Lack to get his appointment approved by the Obama Administration. Urgent action by the BBG is needed now.