BBG Watch Commentary
Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War Lost: The Intersection of ‘Misremembering’ and Under-Reporting
By The Federalist
“In war, truth is the first casualty.”
The second casualty may be the journalist who forgets this admonition.
Presently, the so-called Voice of America (VOA) “newsroom:” if it had a motto, it might be: “It’s not news. It’s an afterthought.”
Early into 2015, one of the largest stories involving broadcast journalism involves Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News. It has been revealed that Mr. Williams seriously misrepresented himself and a story from the Iraq War in which Mr. Williams erroneously made claim to being in a helicopter shot down during an engagement.
Mr. Williams has maintained this fiction for a very long time. How he came upon the notion that he could keep it that way is inexplicable, since all military missions involve some form of after-action reports and any number of military personnel.
Now the story is out and Mr. Williams has “temporarily” given up his anchor duties. The decision is being called a “hiatus,” but reasonable people are likely to conclude that it will be much more than that.
As reported by BBG Watch, if you were wholly and only reliant upon the English website of the Voice of America (VOA) and most of its foreign language news websites, you would have to conclude that there was no story because there was no mention of it anywhere until well after large scale reporting by domestic American media and international media as well.
Keep in mind that individuals inside the VOA newsroom make a very big deal of their supposed “journalistic credibility and integrity.” Somehow, this story, with its major treatment by what seems to be all top tier broadcasting entities in the United States and abroad, has escaped the attention of the agency’s “journalists.”
This story certainly has not escaped the attention of Reuters and Associated Press news services which the agency has become heavily reliant upon for news reporting and stories on its website, as well as Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia’s RT TV, web and social media platforms and Russia’s SPUTNIK news agency and radio
Belatedly, after BBG Watch made comment on the absence of agency coverage, a story did show up on the agency website at/or about 8:45AM Eastern Time in the US on Sunday, February 8, 2015. True to form in the current construct of the VOA newsroom, the story appears to be a rewrite of Reuters and Associated Press accounts of the situation surrounding Mr. Williams.
Thus, we find ourselves asking the question: was the belated reporting by VOA a sin of commission or omission or both.
To some it may be taking on the appearance of both, one following the other.
If you examine the big picture, you might take into consideration the following:
The chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is Jeffrey Shell. This is is public service job. In his private sector role, Mr. Shell is since September 2013 chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. He previously served as chairman of NBC Universal International from 2011-2013. In August of 2013, the U.S. Senate confirmed Mr. Shell as Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees all U.S. civilian international media. He was nominated to the bipartisan BBG Board by President Obama. Voice of America is one of the U.S. taxpayer-funded news media entities overseen by the BBG.
While our sources who know him assure us that Mr. Shell is a person of integrity, would not interfere with news reporting under any circumstances, has strongly supported independent journalism, and apparently has the full support of his company management to do so, one must in this case question even more the judgement of Voice of America executives and editors because of the long absence of reporting on this story by the VOA newsroom and its web operations and what kind of signal it sends to VOA’s international audiences and domestic supporters of the BBG’s mission abroad.
- Was this a purely pedestrian moment for the VOA newsroom, one which has been encountered before and is made possible through mismanagement by senior VOA executives and diminished staffing overnight and weekends?
- Could it have been a misguided and counterproductive effort by someone within VOA ranks to spare NBC, Brian Williams and/or Mr. Shell the embarrassment of having the story reported on via US Government international broadcasting which Mr. Shell also directs as BBG chairman?
This would be clearly against Mr. Shell’s interests and, according to our sources, clearly against his intentions.
Appearances matter as they are left to the beholder. Not too many among VOA’s audiences may know about any connections to NBC and Mr. Williams, past or present – corporate or personal, among BBG and VOA executives, but some people abroad, and especially in Washington, may know something about NBCUniversal corporate structure. NBC News is rebroadcast in some foreign countries. Even if audiences abroad know nothing about NBCUniversal, but happen to watch U.S. media abroad including NBC News, or foreign media such as Al Jazeera, BBC, and RT — how does it look to them when major news outlets everywhere report for many days on this American news story, and the Voice of America does not?
On its face, it seems to be emblematic of a dilemma the agency finds itself in when its top most official has a connection to a private sector entity that becomes embroiled in an issue and seemingly finds its way into the operations of the public sector: both of which are – to outward appearances – engaged in the same profession.
On its face, this raises the issue of conflict of interest, as does any commercial business NBCUniversal may be doing in China or in any other country suppressing free media while BBG media entities are trying to overcome and counter such government censorship.
It is a legitimate issue anytime someone simultaneously encumbers positions heading or having present or even past connections to organizations simultaneously conducting similar or even not so similar operations when large amounts of money and business profits are at stake.
When Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment, Inc., was BBG’s interim presiding governor, his company was reportedly doing business in Russia as President Putin was clamping down on domestic and foreign media, including the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), both managed by the BBG. At least one other former BBG member was also doing private business in Russia while still serving on the BBG board.
Appearances of potential conflict of interest matter, especially in the news business.
There is no escaping it.
According to its website, “NBCUniversal owns and operates a valuable portfolio of news and entertainment television networks, a premier motion picture company, significant television production operations, a leading television stations group, world-renowned theme parks, and a suite of leading Internet-based businesses.” Some of these NBCUniversal operations are in China. NBCUniversal is a subsidiary of Comcast Corporation.
Although Mr. Shell is not running NBCUniversal News Group, which is led by Patricia Fili-Krushel and most directly affected by the Brian Williams scandal, as chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Mr. Shell is still a key member of the NBCUniveral executive team. The News Group includes NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC and the Weather Channel as well as digital platforms including the NBC News Digital Group, MSNBC.com and CNBC.com. Some of their programs are sold and distributed abroad. There is nothing wrong with that.
This kind of U.S. media activity may even contribute to the spread of information and ideas in closed and semi-closed societies, but it still leaves at least an appearance of conflict of interest between hard-hitting journalism that should be always practiced by U.S. government-funded BBG media entities and private U.S. companies trying to make money in countries where the government decides which ones among commercial U.S. companies can do media business in those countries. China and Russia would be among those countries. Cuba could also be among them.
In his private sector role, Mr. Shell oversees worldwide operations for the motion picture group including its global theatrical and home entertainment businesses, but in these circumstances, some might suggest that it may behoove Mr. Shell to at least temporarily relieve himself of his duties as the BBG chairman; or he should tender his resignation and allow the White House to find a replacement. No one would blame him if he did that or accuse him of doing anything wrong.
Mr. Shell should also launch an independent investigation to find out why the Voice of America delayed reporting on the Brian Williams story, and he should make those findings public. This would demonstrate his commitment to resolving the Brian Williams issue, remove any appearances of conflict of interest, and move the NBCUniversal forward in the attempt to salvage the NBC News network’s worldwide credibility and reputation. Certainly there would possibly be some supportive sentiment on the part of NBCUniversal stockholders in this regard.
As for the agency, it remains dysfunctional and defunct and is likely to remain that way for whatever constitutes the remainder of Mr. Shell’s appointment.
As this situation clearly demonstrates, there is a downside risk when a person actively encumbers two major media posts both inside and outside the government even if that person does nothing wrong and has the best intentions.
We see this as a no-win situation for Mr. Shell. It is not a situation of his making. However, how it plays out will be a major reflection on what leadership of the BBG has produced to this point in rehabilitating a failed agency.
All this becomes part of an historical record. In today’s world of perpetual digitized archiving, that means it will always be there. It doesn’t go away and has a very long radioactive shelf life.
In addition, this is yet another issue that lands squarely on the desk of Andrew Lack, the BBG Director also referred to as Chief Executive Officer (CEO). That’s the next question that comes up:
Where is Mr. Lack in the picture of this delayed reporting by the VOA newsroom?
We heard that he was traveling.
Was he aware of the VOA newsroom being far behind on reporting this story?
Was he aware that other international broadcasters, including the BBC and Russia’s RT and SPUTNIK, devoted timely front page website space to reporting on this story?
What is or will be his response to the agency’s under-performance in this matter?
On its face, “journalistic credibility and integrity” becomes highly suspect when there is the appearance that a major news story – a major story about how news is reported or misreported – appears to have been spiked by either accident or intent.
What should also be remembered is the VOA newsroom and website is exactly where David Ensor (VOA director) and Steve Redisch (VOA executive editor) have put it, through their highly flawed idea of creating “43 newsrooms” among the existent VOA language services.
For the most part, these language services do not function 24/7. And now, it appears that the VOA newsroom isn’t and has been willfully set up to be operated in a deficient way, as far as coverage of breaking news is concerned. And even with the resources of Reuters and Associated Press available, the effort still falls flat.
Some people suggest the agency needs more funding.
We’ve heard that line before. Let’s put it this way:
A conveyor belt running 24/7 into the Cohen Building with boxes of $100 dollar bills won’t fix what’s wrong with this dysfunctional and defunct agency. The people who created the problem are still there. Get the picture?
Some other Cohen Building spin is that it isn’t an important story or an international news story.
That is patently absurd.
This spin is debunked out of hand by the obvious coverage that was devoted to it by both domestic US and international broadcasters.
NBCUniversal has a global reach for its multimedia programming. This incident had serious negative consequences for NBC News and its credibility.
In the broader context, it goes to the heart of moral and ethical issues in journalism that apply universally to commercial and government broadcasters.
For the agency, if you purport to be a paragon for journalistic credibility and integrity, the news and the reporting of news has to be above reproach, particularly as a broadcaster for the United States Government.
Moving at the speed of a tortoise crawl did not serve the agency’s news reporting interests as called for in the VOA Charter, plain and simple. And in turn, it doesn’t serve the national and public interest.
The More Things “Change,” The More Things Remain The Same
The agency with a deserved reputation for being dysfunctional and defunct continues its old tricks.
We note that the purveyors of this permanent state of being for this agency (until Congress finally closes it once and for all as is becoming the most likely inevitable scenario) have organized a chocolate party – a so-called “networking event” for people who are all under one roof to begin with. Apparently the excuse for this event is Valentine’s Day, which is coming up on February 14. The actual event is on Friday, February 13, 2015. Friday the 13th: the ultimate symbol of bad luck. Maybe it is prophetic.
So, here is a message for Mr. Lack:
As you take over the reins of this dysfunctional and defunct agency, here are things to consider:
1. You don’t need a Valentine’s Day chocolate party.
2. You don’t need an ice cream social, another one of this group’s favorite ways of wasting time that can otherwise be put to more productive use.
3. Find out who these people are, how much they are paid, why they can’t do work that is consistent with the agency’s mission and why they are allowed to waste taxpayer money for this foolishness.
4. You don’t need a box of chocolates or an ice cream cone. What you need, Mr. Lack, is a functioning Voice of America newsroom, which you don’t have and which demonstrates to observers that at least as far as the Voice of America is concerned, the agency is functionally and materially,