BBG Watch Commentary
No well-meaning journalist who cares about bringing news to people living under government censorship and repression of human rights activism questions the enormous importance of U.S. taxpayer-funded free speech media outlets such as Radio and TV Marti which broadcasts and distributes news and opinions content to Cuba as part of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) within the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. federal agency.
Radio and TV Marti has received a lot of criticism in U.S. media in recent years, much of it completely erroneous and no doubt some inspired by Castro’s agents of influence. These critics would like nothing better than for Radio and TV Marti to go away. That’s, of course, not what the human rights community in Cuba wants, and what pro-human rights and pro-free speech Americans want.
Cuban human rights activists have been highly critical of President Obama’s deal with the Castro regime, seeing it as one-sided, a betrayal of the human rights cause, even though some imprisoned human rights activists in Cuba have now been released. Of course, there is still no sign of government-tolerated free press in Cuba. There are persecuted independent bloggers and Radio and TV Marti.
In this context, A. Ross Johnson, a fellow at the Wilson Center and the Hoover Institution, who was director of Radio Free Europe from 1988 to 1991 and S. Enders Wimbush, director of Radio Liberty from 1987 to 1993 and a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2010 to 2012, published an important op-ed in The Washington Post on the continued relevance of the U.S.-based station which has established close links with independent journalists and dissidents in Cuba.
JOHNSON AND WIMBUSH: “The RFE/RL experience suggests that Martí’s role will become more important as diplomatic relations with Cuba are restored and cultural, educational and economic ties with the United States expand. With domestic media still tightly controlled, Cubans will turn to Martí for information on civil society, human rights protests, local opposition blogs, travel rules, economic developments, controversy within the regime — in short, for all domestic news and with a focus on voices from Cuba about Cuba.”
READ: “Radio and TV Martí have roles to play as Cuba enters a new era,” A. Ross Johnson and S. Enders Wimbush, The Washington Post, January 9, 2015.
There is yet another reason for keeping Radio and TV Marti, as well as the Voice of America (VOA), well, alive and properly funded. President Obama’s public diplomacy is in deep crisis, as it was demonstrated last Sunday by the absence of any top U.S. leaders at the anti-terrorism, pro-free speech Solidarity March in Paris. Even the White House now admits that a mistake was made, although it does not say exactly by whom. U.S. public diplomacy handling of the Cuba embargo announcement by President Obama was also demonstrably poor.
Whether one agrees with President Obama’s decision on Cuba or not, it should have been much more effectively presented to Americans, as well as Cubans and other foreign audiences as a U.S. move designed to improve human rights and to help ordinary people of Cuba. That’s not how the White House emphasized President Obama’s decision, and that was also not the focus of the President’s statement.
Someone should have given President Obama better public diplomacy advice. Perhaps someone did, and he ignored it. More likely, U.S. public diplomacy professionals at the State Department do not have any direct access to the President, and the White House staff is just not experienced enough. Public diplomacy and U.S. international broadcasting have had a very low standing and funding for years after the United States Information Agency (USIA) was abolished in 1999.
Did U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley ask for Obama, Biden or Kerry to be present at the Paris pro-free speech rally and was rebuffed? Did Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel ask and was rebuffed as well? He represents Secretary Kerry, an ex officio member of the BBG, at BBG meetings. As a former journalist himself, Mr. Stengel no doubt understands the importance of national gestures of solidarity with other nations and reporting on them by journalists.
We don’t know who did what or what was not done, but since this is not the first time this kind of public diplomacy mishap happened, the ultimate responsibility rests with President Obama. Announcing cancellation of plans for the U.S. missile defense system in Poland on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of the country, going golfing during the funeral of a tragically killed foreign leader, missing important historic anniversaries … the list of recent U.S. public diplomacy blunders is endless.
What Radio and TV Marti can do in response to the Cuba embargo decision is to show the people of Cuba that Americans don’t really want to keep the Castros regime in power. Radio and TV Marti has done this. What VOA can do is to report on the controversy over low-level U.S. representation at the Paris Solidarity March and show that most Americans are critical of the Obama Administration on this issue. In this instance and in many others, VOA has done a poor job, largely because of mismanagement by senior executives.
What should have been done is plain and simple truth and plain and simple good journalism, which has always been a long-term role of U.S. taxpayer-funded U.S. international media outreach.
A text and video report by VOA English News from the Paris Solidarity March on Sunday failed to mention the controversy over the absence of any top U.S. government leaders. The VOA report cried out for an explanation as to why President Obama, Vice President Biden or Secretary of State Kerry were not in Paris, but it was not provided in the VOA report. Late Sunday, VOA posted online a report on the controversy, but it was not VOA’s own news. Instead, VOA posted a a report from Reuters. Monday, VOA finally had its own very short news report on the White House admitting it erred in not sending a top official to attend a solidarity rally in France following last week’s terror attacks in Paris.
Unbiased, balanced fact-based journalism and presenting various points of view is not official U.S. public diplomacy per se. But in terms of representing all of America, it is and will continue to be an important indirect substitute for official U.S. public diplomacy whenever it fails, as it has failed again and again under the Obama Administration, the George W. Bush Administration and other U.S. administrations as well.
Foreign policy decisions are made by U.S. presidents. Public diplomacy is created and carried out at the White House and at the State Department and should be more than just a promotion of policy decisions, but often it is. We are not advocating for VOA to be a direct tool of public diplomacy of any U.S. administration, but to abide fully by its VOA Charter, which assigns VOA a public diplomacy role on behalf of all of America that is compatible with good and ethical journalism.
The role of Radio and TV Marti and the Voice of America is to practice good journalism that reflects the complex reality Cuba, the United States and the world, which at times and in this case may be quite different from what any U.S. administration is doing or saying, or not doing and not saying. Not everyone understands these distinctions between publicly-funded U.S. journalism and U.S. public diplomacy. Radio and TV Marti and the Voice of America serve long-term interests of the American people and the United States as news and journalistic organizations. They also provide invaluable free speech help to the people of Cuba and many other countries.
But there is one more element to this issue. Radio and TV Marti, the Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors need better management and better managers, as they also need more funding to carry out their mission if they can be better managed. Reading the Washington Post op-ed by A. Ross Johnson and S. Enders Wimbush or a BBG press release, one might think that everything is OK at OCB in the management department.
Unfortunately, that may not be the case. According to a blog Miami New Times article by Trevor Bach, “TV Martí Blew Its Coverage of Historic U.S.-Cuba Moment:”
TREVOR BACH, MIAMI NEW TIMES: “Yet when the biggest Cuban-American story in a half-century broke — Barack Obama and Raúl Castro’s announcement that they’d move to normalize diplomatic relations — the Miami-based network was caught in utter disarray, employees tell [Miami]New Times, exposing the systemic disorganization and poor leadership that have blighted the network for years.
‘What happened… was absolutely incredible,’ said one longtime Martí employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘It just seemed like we were so completely unprepared’.” (…)
Yet even with hours of advance notice, TV Martí ended up bungling coverage of the president’s remarks.
After an introduction by two Martí anchors, producers struggled with transitioning to a live shot and had to cut back to the studio. After initially broadcasting Obama’s words in English, the network scrambled to connect to the simultaneous Spanish translation. Producers’ panicked voices often could be heard over the president’s. No one was there to run the teleprompter for the hosts. (…)
In addition, years of cushy, unscrutinized hirings, said another employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, had left the network with ineffectual, bureaucratic leadership and little accountability.
READ: “TV Martí Blew Its Coverage of Historic U.S.-Cuba Moment,” Trevor Bach, Miami New Times, December 22, 2014.
Whether the initial TV Marti coverage was as chaotic as the Miami New Times article presents it is difficult to fully confirm, but there is definitely some truth to it. A BBG press release, “Martís Provide Comprehensive Coverage Of Historic Cuba Policy Shift,” paints a completely different story.
BBG PRESS RELEASE: “On December 17, as the news broke of President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, the Martís carried the breaking story live to the island. Reporters and staff in the Martí newsroom deftly reported on U.S. contractor Alan Gross’s release, while preparing for the historic simultaneous speeches by President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Obama’s speech was carried live with Spanish translation on Radio and TV Martí, as well as streamed online on martinoticias.com. In addition, more than 20,000 SMS messages were sent to Cuban subscribers, and a special edition of the digital newsletter El Pitirre was distributed via email to hundreds of thousands of recipients.
Alan Gross’s press conference, as well as reaction from Cuban-American lawmakers, analysts and citizens in Cuba, was covered on all the Martí platforms.
That evening, TV Martí held a special edition of its 5pm newscast “Antena Live,” and for the next several days Radio Martí hosted special programming to debate the specific details of the rapprochement, discuss the impact of these changes and clear up confusion that had developed on the island as a result of Cuban media’s coverage.
Online, martinoticias.com received more than 75,000 page views that day, by more than 27,000 visitors. The network’s social media profiles were also reaching significant audiences. One story alone on the Martinoticias Facebook page got more than 79,000 views and was shared, liked or commented on 1,763 times. And on Twitter, links to Martí stories received almost 40,000 impressions and were clicked on more than 800 times.
In the weeks following, the Cuban government provided few details on the agreement and as a result, rumors and confusion have spread widely. The Martís have responded by examining in-depth the key components of the new policy and providing perspective on how it will affect daily life.
In stark contrast to the Cuban state media’s coverage, the Martís are providing on-going, balanced information and analysis, with perspectives from US government officials, human rights experts and citizens from the U.S. and Cuba. Voices supporting the decision, as well as those in opposition of the measure, are equally represented.
A special section on martinoticias.com’s front page is devoted to the on-going coverage this historic event and its ramifications. The section will also serve as an archive of all related content developed by each of the Martí platforms.”
A. Ross Johnson and S. Enders Wimbush also describe in their Washington Post op-ed some of the news initiatives of Radio and TV Marti that look impressive on paper. But we have also seen reports that last summer during a BBG open Board meeting at OCB in Miami, the Radio and TV Marti newsroom was partly dark and virtually empty in the middle of the day. Meanwhile, several illegally fired Radio and TV Marti journalists are still waiting to be reinstated in their jobs as ordered by a Federal Arbitrator and confirmed by a U.S. court.
If several currently employed Radio and TV journalists talk anonymously with Miami New Times reporters and complain about the quality of news coverage, employee morale cannot be all that great. This is confirmed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys, which show disturbingly low and poor results, not only for OCB, but for the entire federal part of the agency.
It’s always a mixed picture in terms of performance, whether it is OCB or VOA, because there are some truly outstanding journalists working there. BBG has also had outstanding managers, such as now retired former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Kevin Klose who had twice saved RFE/RL from a major crisis.
But the anti-employee management culture, which is also highly negative for the quality of some news program content, especially at VOA, has persisted at the BBG for years. Shortly after being sworn in, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell emphasized the importance of supporting journalistic talent and high employee morale. His directive was ignored by federal senior executives. Employee morale has since declined even more, especially at VOA.
Mr. Shell has already made some other effective changes, such as putting a stop to the unseemly persecution by BBG bureaucrats of fired OCB journalists, although these employees have not yet been reinstated. There is hope that new BBG CEO Andy Lack will carry this process forward. It’s important for Chairman Shell, BBG Governors and for Mr. Lack to question everything they hear from BBG bureaucrats or read in their self-promoting press releases.
The White House has admitted a mistake on the Paris Solidarity March. It’s time for BBG officials to face up to their mistakes and vastly improve their management practices and treatment of journalists. We believe that frankly most of these highly-paid executives are not capable of making this transition. Some of them have done enormous damage to the agency. It will be up to the new CEO to rehabilitate the BBG. We wish him luck.