BBG Watch Commentary

Colleen_BellU.S. media have reported widely on the controversy over President Obama’s nomination and U.S. Senate confirmation by a 52-42 vote on December 2, 2014 of President Obama’s appointment of soap opera producer and contributor to his election campaigns Colleen Bell as U.S. ambassador to Hungary. But U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA), which has a congressional mandate to report all significant news about the United States, whether it is good or bad, has ignored the story on its English news website.

Many of VOA’s foreign language services appear to have ignored the story as well, but we were not able to check all VOA foreign language websites.

Our search of VOA’s main English news website produced no results for Colleen Bell. There were also no results for Senator McCain for the last week. McCain has been the main critic of Bell’s nomination, arguing that she was unqualified for the ambassadorial position in Hungary.

Russia’s RT had a news report: Hungary fuming after McCain calls PM Orban ‘neo-fascist dictator’, RT, Dec. 3, 2014 (with 865 Facebook “Likes,” 336 Tweets and 712 Comments as of 3:00 AM, Dec. 4. BBC had a video report: John McCain: Soap producer ‘unqualified’ for US ambassador post, BBC, Dec. 3, 2014, and a text report: McCain sparks US-Hungary diplomatic row over Orban, BBC, Dec. 3, 2014.

VOA had nothing. VOA also failed to report that the U.S. State Department disagreed with Senator McCain. But Russia’s SPUTNIK reported that “the US State Department does not agree with controversial comments about the newly-appointed US ambassador to Hungary that Senator John McCain made during a speech on the Senate floor, department spokesperson Marie Harf has said.”

“I think it’s no surprise that there are a number of views Senator McCain has espoused that we [the State Department] don’t share. As an administration I would put that in this category,” Harf said Wednesday, adding that McCain’s language regarding the situation in Hungary was “more colorful, which he is certainly known for,” SPUTNIK reported.

Voice of America had no reports about it on its main English news website or websites of many of its language services.

Voice of America English Website Search Screen Shot for Colleen Bell 2014-12-03 at 11.28PM EDT
Voice of America English Website Search Screen Shot for Colleen Bell 2014-12-03 at 11.28PM EDT

Russia’s external media channel, SPUTNIK, had not one, but three Colleen Bell news stories.



While VOA had nothing, nearly all major U.S. media outlets reported on Republican Senator John McCain’s strong opposition to Bell’s nomination. Bell is a Hollywood producer for soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.” According to media reports, she has raised substantial amounts of money for President Obama’s election campaigns.

VOA also failed to report on White House defense of the appointment of Colleen Bell as U.S. ambassador to Hungary. The following video is from Washington Post‘s Post TV.



“If you can remind me, what are Colleen Bell’s qualifications for ambassador?” ABC reporter Jonathan Karl asked at the White House press conference. “Is it that she is a soap opera producer, is it that she gave hundreds of thousands of dollars–or helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Obama reelection campaign? Why was she chosen?,” ABC reporter asked.

Bloomberg reported that Bell’s nomination, along with those of political consultant Noah Mamet for Argentina and businessman George Tsunis for Norway, were criticized by the American Foreign Service Association. The professional association represents 28,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees of the Department of State and other U.S. foreign policy agencies.

John McCain Fights, Loses Good Fight Against Bundler-Ambassadors, by Arit John, Bloomberg, Dec. 2, 2014: “He [Senator John McCain] said Tuesday that given a shift away from democracy in the country, it would be a ‘serious mistake’ to send someone there who doesn’t speak the language, has never been there, and has little relevant experience. He said it’s a very important country where ‘very bad things’ have happened under authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, ‘a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin.’ And yet the U.S. plans to send a soap opera producer, he said. ‘Now I’m sure that television viewing is an important thing in Hungary, but the fact is that this nominee is totally unqualified’.”

None of this was reported on the VOA English news website. Voice of America also failed to report that the Hungarian government criticized Senator McCain’s remarks on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and relations between Hungary and Russia and rejected them as unacceptable.

BBG’s reputation was saved to some degree by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which also reports to BBG and like VOA is also funded by Congress. RFE/RL posted a short news report in English: Hungary Summons U.S. Envoy Over McCain’s ‘Neofascist’ Comment, RFE/RL, Dec. 3, 2014.

This is not the first and only news failure by Voice of America under the current leadership of VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch. On the U.S. mid-term elections night, Voice of America English radio newscasts had no reports about election results and VOA English Facebook and Twitter pages were not being updated for many hours.

VOA cannot be taken seriously when it reports, often badly, on oligarchy politics in Russia under President Putin and on lack of transparency in other countries if it fails to report at the same time after U.S. media that some government positions in the U.S. can also be bought with financial contributions and that this practice at least generates political controversy in America. VOA did, however, find time and resources to post this story: US Men’s Underwear Bottoms Expanding and Shrinking, VOA, Dec. 1, 2014.

International audiences have learned from VOA that “American men are paying more attention than ever to what they wear and a big part of that growth is centered on what most people they encounter don’t see: underwear bottoms.”

Congratulations. The post from December 1 shows 25 Facebook “Recommend,” 4 Tweets and zero Comments (as of 3 AM Dec. 4). The controversy over ambassadorial appointees, the White House, McCain, Boxer, the rest of the U.S. Senate, Hungary, Argentina, Norway, U.S. foreign policy, Orban, Putin and all that political stuff seem trivial by comparison.

If Voice of America had some leadership and management, instead of focusing on men’s underwear, this would have been a good opportunity for VOA to explain that some ambassadorial positions have often gone to friends and supporters of U.S. presidents. Bloomberg reported that based on this historical practice, Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, called McCain’s remarks “ridiculous.”

“You would think this is the first time that any president nominated someone that’s a political appointee,” she said. About 30 percent of ambassadorships have been given by U.S. presidents as political rewards and 70 percent have been given to career diplomats. Some political appointees have superior qualifications even if they have never served as diplomats and most meet minimal standards to be ambassadors.

VOA had an obligation to report on Republican critics of President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees when Republicans in the Senate raised the issue whether the three controversial nominees were qualified to represent the United States abroad. This, rather than the practice of political ambassadorial nominations, which has been a tradition in the U.S. and should be explained to foreign audiences, appears to be the key issue. VOA should have reported on objections to the nominations from career U.S. diplomats. VOA also had an obligation to report on Senator Boxer’s defense of President Obama’s nominees.

“His [McCain’s] record stands at one in three, Arit John reported for Bloomberg. “Only Tsunis, who came off looking worst after McCain’s questioning, hasn’t been confirmed, and his chances under the Republican-controlled Senate set to convene next year are smaller than his comprehension of Norwegian politics,” Bloomberg’s Arit John wrote. She also reported that Tsunis “appeared unaware that Norway has a prime minister, not a president, and referred to a party in the country’s leading coalition as a hate-spewing fringe group.” “But all three were unimpressive and criticized by media outlets in their future postings,” according to the article on the Bloomberg website.

Perhaps Bloomberg’s Andy Lack, who was selected by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to become the agency’s CEO, can arrange for the Voice of America to use reports by some of Bloomberg’s best journalists. Immediate and drastic measures are needed to save VOA as a news organization from its incompetent current management.

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    Two Los Angeles fundraisers — soap opera producer Colleen Belland political consultant Noah Mamet — were confirmed by the Senate as …
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