BBG Watch Commentary

Gulf News BuldingIn a column for Gulf News, a leading English language newspaper of the Gulf region, K. Raveendran, a Dubai-based journalist, wrote that Russian newspaper Pravda and America’s own Voice of America lost much of their relevance.

Pravda literally meant the truth, although much of what the official Soviet daily put out was taken only as propaganda even when some parts of it were true. Ironically, Voice of America, despite its admittedly pro-American make-up and raison d’être, used to be considered as a source of news in many parts of the world.

In an era where the sway over hearts and minds was so important for the promotion of their respective ideologies, both performed vital roles. But with television channels like CNN coming to their own, and the Cold War era itself being dumped into the dustbins of history, these traditional news sources lost much of their relevance.

Also, in the international politics of today, perceptions matter the least as the players do what they think is right; little does it count whether the rest of the world supports their action. Hardly anything is heard about Pravda or the Voice of America these days, although both still seem to be carrying on with their tasks, truthfully that is.

K. Raveendran’s attempt to put Pravda and Voice of America of the Cold War period in the same category was more than unfair and unfortunate, but he makes generally accurate observations about the current success of Al Jazeera in the Middle East, its expansion into the United States, and Voice of America’s decline as an international news source in recent years.

Voice of America has been badly managed, its news reporting staff reduced, employee morale at record low levels, original news reporting de-emphasized by top management and replaced with short wire service news items. A few remaining VOA English Service correspondents, even those based in Washington DC, are seeing their reports discarded or edited down by the VOA website team. News on the VOA English news website are often posted late and include few details international audiences want. While Al Jazeera news reports, even those originating from Washington, get hundreds and thousands of Facebook “Likes” from online readers, VOA stories on the same topics often get less than a dozen “Likes.”

Ambassador Anne Patterson
Ambassador Anne Patterson

Voice of America no longer has its own Arabic Service. Consequently, many interesting stories, such as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson’s August 28 letter to Al Ahram newspaper, in which she denounced as “absolutely absurd and dangerous” the state-run paper’s claims that she was personally involved in a conspiracy to divide and destabilize Egypt, has not been covered at all on the VOA English news website.

VOA language services have been the strongest connection between the VOA Central Newsroom and overseas audiences. VOA language services provide news tips and demand more news coverage. Without its own Arabic Service and without good top managers committed to providing comprehensive original news reporting, Voice of America has lost its previous status and influence in the Middle East and in many other regions of the world.

Ambassador Patterson’s letter got more than 500 Facebook “Likes” on the U.S. Embassy Cairo website. These days, very few Voice of America news reports posted on its English and language websites get anywhere near such number of Facebook “Likes.” BBC, Al Jazeera, and Russia Today regularly get thousands of Facebook “Likes” for many of their top news stories.

Had VOA reported on the controversy involving Ambassador Patterson and Egyptian media, its reporting could have attracted wider attention in the Middle East. This time, Voice of America was not even late or perfunctory, it did not cover the story at all.

It is incomprehensible why Voice of America would ignore such a news story. The Voice of America Charter (Public Law 94-350) says that in addition to providing “accurate, objective, and comprehensive news,” “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”

Ambassador Patterson wrote in her letter to the Editor in Chief of Al Ahram newspaper:

“Good journalism checks facts, scrutinizes sources, and offers viewpoints. This article isn’t bad journalism; it isn’t journalism at all. It is fiction, serving only to deliberately misinform the Egyptian public. Such articles make a successful future for Egypt all the harder to achieve through the propagation of lies and fear.

I call on you to act responsibly and to work to make your country a stronger one, not a more fearful and misinformed one.”

Also see: Outgoing U.S. Ambassador in Egypt Slams State-Run Newspaper, Time, By Noah Rayman, August 29, 2013.

After sending her letter, Ambassador Patterson has left her post in Egypt on August 30. Secretary of State John Kerry has designated Ambassador David M. Satterfield to serve temporarily as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo upon departure of Ambassador Anne Patterson, who has completed her tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt.

In fulfilling its obligations under the VOA Charter, Voice of America should have reported on the media controversy in Egypt and the letter from the U.S. Ambassador to a major local newspaper, even if reporting on this story was already provided by Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa which are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), as is VOA.

We were not able to do a comprehensive search of the Alhurra and Radio Sawa websites or their broadcasts to determine how they may have covered this story.

Newly-confirmed Broadcasting Board of Governors member Matt Armstrong said last month at a public BBG meeting that the the agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting “is a tremendously important part of our foreign policy and for the United States in general.”

Another newly-confired BBG member Ambassador Ryan Crocker went even further in saying that he hopes “to play a role in insuring that our weave with the State Department and other relevant federal entities is solid and appropriate.”

It’s not likely that new BBG Governors Armstrong and Crocker are in favor of weakening the firewall between the State Department and the Voice of America or telling journalists how to report news, but they seem both concerned that Voice of America is failing to provide comprehensive news reporting to the world about America and U.S. foreign policy.

New BBG Chairman Jeff Shell also seems concerned on this score, sources told BBG Watch. They point to his statement that “the best way to showcase freedom and democracy is by free media.”

Voice of America is not meeting its Charter obligations in providing comprehensive news reporting. On the Ambassador Patterson’s letter story, it is irrelevant who was at fault or not at fault, who was right or who was wrong. Voice of America should have covered this story not because it involved a U.S. Ambassador but because it was an important news story. VOA management either did not know about it or chose to ignore it.

On top of that, VOA is also failing in engaging foreign audiences through social media as seen by a dismally low number of Facebook “Likes,” Tweets, and readers’ comments on almost every news report on the VOA English website. Social media engagement is low because those in charge of VOA and those in charge of the VOA website are not committed to original, comprehensive news reporting for international audiences. VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) have the worst management team in the entire federal government as shown again and again in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS).

K. Raveendran’s article in Gulf News does not address such internal failings within the Voice of America, but the columnist makes a valid observation that while Al Jazeera is facing some problems in the United States, it is by far more relevant internationally than VOA.

Read: Al Jazeera makes heavy going of US debut. By K. Raveendran; Special to Gulf News; Published: September 2, 2013.

It will be interesting to see whether a link this Gulf News article will appear Monday morning in the BBG Media Highlights distributed by the BBG Office of Communications and External Affairs. BBG Media Highlights, which are posted online and distributed to the public by subscription, have often ignored media article critical of the agency’s top management.

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