BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12:45 PM ET Friday
VOA Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12:45 PM ET Friday

In yet another example of leadership and managerial chaos at U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) and its federal parent agency, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), VOA waited until next day (Friday noon) to post on its main English-language news Facebook page on U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s critical comments in Manchester, New Hampshire, about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s sexual behavior even though VOA quickly uploaded to Facebook Thursday evening two posts on Trump’s defense of his behavior and on his attacks on his Democratic Party critics.

Michelle Obama finished her speech in New Hampshire at 1:00 pm ET Thursday. It took Voice of America 23 hours to create a Facebook news post in English on her speech without any video. BBC had a Facebook post with video of Michelle Obama speaking within three hours. BBC’s Michelle Obama speech Facebook post received hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of Likes and Comments. VOA’s Michelle Obama Facebook post has hardly any Likes (178 as of 12:45 pm Friday) or Comments (6 as of 12:45 pm Friday).

In an unrelated development, Voice of America removed from Facebook a one-sided VOA Ukrainian Service video in which Hollywood actor Robert De Niro called Donald Trump a “pig” and other names, which the service translated into Ukrainian without providing any balancing content or rebuttal, as required by the VOA Charter. See: How do you call Trump a pig in Ukrainian? Voice of America will tell you,” BBG Watch, October 12, 2016.

VOA Ukrainian Service Facebook Video De Niro Calling Trump Pig Screenshot 2016-10-12 at 1.14 AM ET
VOA Ukrainian Service Facebook Video De Niro Calling Trump Pig Screenshot 2016-10-12 at 1.14 AM ET. After BBG Watch reported on this VOA video, VOA removed it from Facebook.

Internal and external critics, including many VOA journalists, say that Voice of America’s much heralded “Digital First” strategy appears to be a complete bust under new VOA and BBG leadership if one does not count meaningless gains from animal videos or from Facebook ads paid with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars, which produce some Likes but very few actual views.

VOA English News actual website had a little over three million (3.2) monthly visitors reported in September 2016, 45% of them from the United States. Current legislation says that VOA must seek audiences only outside of the United States although it places no barriers on VOA content being accessed by Americans who have, in any case, a preponderance of other media options.

In December 2015, just one U.S. newspaper, The Washington Post, reported 76 million visitors, and 64 million visitors in April 2016. The New York Times had close to 73 million unique visitors to in April 2016.

In January 2015, BBC reported in a press release that “more than 101 million unique browsers used the website and news app globally during the month of January, generating a record 1.35 billion page views.”

The Voice of America is nowhere near BBC, The New York Times, and other such major news organizations in online views or audience engagement. Even Russia’s propaganda outlet RT has a far greater number of online viewers than VOA.

VOA also seems incapable of countering Russian propaganda and disinformation. While some VOA reporters are able to expose propaganda, VOA has been posting from time to time one-sided news reports which repeat Russian or Chinese propaganda narratives without any balance or challenge.

Last month, Voice of America used Putin’s narrative in a VOA Russian Service report and ignored Vice President Joe Biden’s speech on WWII history and U.S. policy toward Russia.

ALSO SEE: Voice of America rewrites history on Mao’s murderous rule, BBG Watch, September 16, 2016.

While the delay in VOA producing the Michelle Obama Facebook post is more likely a result of inexperienced, unskilled and chaotic management, there have been numerous accusations, some of them from Bernie Sanders supporters, of VOA engaging in state media bias in its 2016 presidential election coverage. VOA is staffed by U.S. federal government employees and contractors. VOA’s annual budget is $224 million (FY 2017). The entire BBG agency costs U.S. taxpayers $777 million.

Like VOA, Russia’s RT and SPUTNIK also did not have any Michelle Obama Facebook English news posts on Thursday but had posts on Donald Trump.

Under its new management, the Voice of America is also posting poorly-produced “click bait” animal videos that have nothing to do with the requirements of the VOA Charter and often include misspelled subtitles. Some of these VOA fluff videos, as well as a VOA Ukrainian Service one-sided anti-Trump video, have been removed recently after criticism from experienced VOA reporters and BBG Watch.

Screenshot from Voice of America video which was removed after criticism from VOA journalists and BBG Watch.
Screenshot from Voice of America video which was removed after criticism from VOA journalists and BBG Watch.

A commentary posted earlier this year on ShadowProof, a progressive investigative reporting website, noted:

DAN WRIGHT, SHADOWPROOF, JUNE 16, 2016: “…electioneering and hit pieces on US citizens obviously fall outside those parameters [VOA Charter]. VOA does not have the right to advocate for a particular candidate or even to attack one. That is not within its charter, nor should any US citizen have to subsidize their own defamation.” SEE: “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump camps accuse Voice of America of state-media bias,” BBG Watch, June 17, 2016.

In 2013, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State and herself an ex officio BBG board member, called the Broadcasting Board of Governors “practically defunct” in its ability to tell America’s story abroad and engage in the war of ideas. Reporting quickly on social media on a political speech by the U.S. First Lady that can have an impact on the presidential election by being able to produce a news report and social media posts that are objective and include countervailing content for balance and comprehensiveness is a basic task that the Voice of America still has not mastered. VOA in fact has gotten worse in the last several months under the new inexperienced management team.

Michelle ObamaOther U.S. and international media, including BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), promptly posted on Facebook on Michelle Obama’s Thursday speech in which she referred to campaign comments about women as “cruel, frightening” but without mentioning Donald Trump’s name.

U.S. FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: “The fact is that in this election, we have a candidate for president of the United States who, over the course of his lifetime and over the course of this campaign, has said things about women that are so shocking, so demeaning, I simply will not repeat anything here today. And last week we saw this candidate actually bragging about sexually assaulting women. And I can’t believe that I’m saying that: A candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women.

I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. So while I’d love nothing more than to pretend like this isn’t happening and come out here and do my normal campaign speech, it would be dishonest and disingenuous for me to move on to the next thing like this was just a bad dream.

See, because many of these girls have faced unthinkable obstacles just to attend school, jeopardizing their personal safety, their freedom, risking the rejection of their families and communities. So I thought it would be important to remind these young women how valuable and precious they are.

I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls. I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. And I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and they should make their voices heard in the world. I walked away feeling so inspired, just like I’m inspired by all the young people here, and I was so uplifted by these girls.”

donald-trump-official-photoDonald Trump also spoke Thursday. Without commenting directly on Michele Obama’s speech, which was delivered at about the same time, he responded to some of the accusations:

U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE DONALD TRUMP: “They will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family, they will seek to destroy everything about you, including your reputation. They will lie, lie, lie, and then again they will do worse than that, they will do whatever is necessary. The Clintons are criminals, remember that. They’re criminals.

This is well documented, and the establishment that protects them has engaged in a massive cover-up of widespread criminal activity at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation in order to keep the Clintons in power.

Never in history have we seen such a cover-up as this, one that includes the total destruction of 33,000 e-mails, 13 iPhones – some by hammer – laptops, missing boxes of evidence, and many, many other things.

People who are capable of such crimes against our nation are capable of anything. And so now we address the slander and libels that was just last night thrown at me by the Clinton machine and the New York Times and other media outlets, as part of a concerted, coordinated and vicious attack.

It’s not coincidence that these attacks come at the exact same moment, and all together at the same time as WikiLeaks releases documents exposing the massive international corruption of the Clinton machine, including 2,000 more e-mails just this morning.

These vicious claims about me of inappropriate conduct with women are totally and absolutely false.”

Unlike the Voice of America, BBC had two Facebook posts on Thursday with videos, one of them showing Michelle Obama’s and Donald Trump’s comments side by side.

BBC Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12.01 PM ET
BBC Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12.01 PM ET (BBC post from Thursday)

The first BBC Michelle Obama Facebook post was uploaded Thursday at 4:05 pm ET. By Friday afternoon at 12:01 pm was showing over 20,000 Likes, 1,400 Comments, 3,000 Shares, and 765,000 Views.

BBC Michelle Obama Donald Trump Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12.36 PM ET
BBC Michelle Obama Donald Trump Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12.36 PM ET (BBC post from Thursday)

The second BBC Facebook post showing Michelle Obama’s and Donald Trump’s remarks side-by-side was uploaded at 7:00 pm ET Thursday and by Friday afternoon at 12:36 pm ET was showing over 10,000 Likes, 1,300 Comments, 2,300 Shares and 819,000 Views.

The Voice of America did not post on Facebook its report on Michelle Obama’s Donald Trump comments until noon Friday. In 45 minutes this extremely late VOA Facebook post without video managed to get only 178 Likes, three (3) Shares and six (6) Comments. After more than six hours on Facebook, at 6:45 pm ET Friday this VOA post had only 282 Likes, four (4) Shares and 11 Comments.

VOA Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12.45 PM ET Friday
VOA Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12.45 PM ET Friday

While VOA had done nothing Thursday on Michelle Obama for its Facebook VOA English News page, it had posted on Thursday at 7:25 pm ET on its website a report on her speech — nearly six and a half hours after the First Lady finished speaking in New Hampshire. The VOA report failed to note that Michelle Obama has not criticized Hillary Clinton’s husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who has been accused of more serious sexual misconduct than Donald Trump and that she once extolled Beyoncé, who performances include questionable sexual content, as a role model for her daughters. One of the very few comments under the VOA Facebook post which appeared to have come from abroad simply said “Monica Lewinsky.” Foreign audiences are far more knowledgeable and intelligent than what some VOA executives, writers and editors think of them.

Like BBC and almost all other major international and U.S. English-language news media outlets — with the notable exception of the Voice of America and Russia’s RT and SPUTNIK — Germany’s DW quickly produced a Facebook post on Michelle Obama’s speech. DW News Facebook post went up at 5:35 pm ET Thursday and by 12:45 pm Friday was showing 334 Likes, 17 Shares and 63 Comments.

Unlike the VOA report, DW report pointed out that some social media users “also connected her [Michelle Obama] with former President Bill Clinton’s past.” DW posted a tweet with a photo showing Michelle Obama sitting next to Bill Clinton and a caption: “Michelle Obama To Bill Clinton ‘Bill thank you for being a champion for women’.” Many foreign media outlets are far more knowledgeable and far more sophisticated than what some VOA managers, editors and writers assume they are.

DW Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12:45 PM ET
DW Michelle Obama Facebook Post Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 12:45 PM ET (DW post from Thursday)

While VOA English News had nothing on Facebook on Michelle Obama Thursday afternoon and and Friday morning, VOA’s flagship Facebook page had two posts Thursday afternoon on Donald Trump bitterly attacking his critics for their attacks on his sexual behavior and comments.

The first VOA Trump attack post went up on Facebook at 7 pm ET Thursday. By 12:46 pm ET Friday, the VOA post was showing only 330 Likes, eight (8) shares, and five (5) Comments.

The second VOA Trump attack post, with a misspelling in the introduction, went up on Facebook at 9 pm Thursday. As of 12:46 pm ET Friday, that VOA Facebook post was showing only 89 Likes, 11 Shares, and 10 Comments.

Amanda Bennett
Amanda Bennett

Voice of America English news content, including Facebook and other social media platforms, is overseen by three top executives: Amanda Bennett, VOA Director; Sandy Sugawara, VOA Deputy Director; and Clara Dominguez, Managing Editor

Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor but she lacks prior experience in managing government entities or large news organizations.

It appears that neither of these top executives regularly monitors VOA websites and social media pages, not even in English, or they are unable to spot numerous problems with news reporting, editing and presentation of content material. BBG and VOA executives are overseen by the bipartisan, part-time BBG Board. Some of its members have been known to do private company business in Russia and China, the very countries where the Broadcasting Board of Governors is charged with supporting free media and democracy.

John Lansing
John Lansing

The executive who is in charge of the federal agency overseeing the Voice of America is Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO and director John F. Lansing. In an email to staff dated September 14, 2016, Lansing wrote:

BBG CEO AND DIRECTOR JOHN LANSING: “Over the past year I have watched this exceptional team achieve strong audience growth, give life to exciting new content opportunities, particularly in digital and mobile media, push for industry-leading ways to achieve impact in our programming, as we collectively work to inform, engage and connect with people in support of freedom and democracy.” SEE: 45% of visits to Voice of America English website are from the U.S. – EXCLUSIVE, BBG Watch, October 4, 2016.

Lansing is a successful former private media sector manager of Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, DIY, Cooking Channel and Great American Country, but he lacks prior experience in international affairs, intercultural communications, government operations, U.S. foreign policy or U.S. public diplomacy. He had assured VOA journalists that the BBG is making improvements, but BBG’s federal employees have once again given the agency’s senior executives low marks in the OPM’s 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). Lansing defends his leadership record as producing improvements.

One VOA journalist who wants to remain anonymous commented: “We are all adults there and do not fall for his explanation of FEVS. We are very capable to read it correctly. ‘We are improving’ ???? You must be kidding, Mr. CEO!” SEE: CEO Lansing explains for BBG employees their FEVS answers, BBG Watch, October 7, 2016.

Lansing has been with the agency since September 2015, while Bennett took over as VOA director in April 2016.

As reported by Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson, “Broadcasting Board of Governors, another regular bottom-feeder that oversees the Voice of America and other government broadcasters…is going backward.” on leadership and employee engagement.