BBG Watch Commentary
All views expressed are those of the author.
One Year Later — Dysfunction, News Failures, Self-Promotion and Pandering at the Voice of America
PART II: MIXING ADVOCACY WITH NEWS REPORTING
Should VOA reporters inject themselves into a story?
By Dan Robinson
Unfortunately, a prodigious level of pandering and self-promotion is also observed below the level of VOA director, in social media and other activities of certain reporters.
This raises important questions that would and should be debated publicly if VOA were not so off the radar from public scrutiny, questions that should not simply be swept under the carpet by the new BBG CEO, Andy Lack, who considers himself a journalist, not just a media management executive.
It’s not clear whether VOA officials recognize the dangers, or if they care. If they did, they would make sure, and fast, that the people involved in the matters described here understand why they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.
In 2014, while covering Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine, respected VOA Ukrainian Service TV personality, Myroslova Gongadze, used her Facebook page for what former and some current VOA reporters called blatant mixing of political activism into reporting.
Among numerous posts, she displayed video of Biden exiting his SUV to visit a monument to the fallen of the Orange revolution in 2004 and 2005. Gongadze’s husband, Georgiy, was an investigative journalist who was kidnapped and murdered several years before, in 2000.
Observing the video, the impression one gets is that the VOA reporter was selected well ahead of Biden’s stop at the monument. He exits the SUV, Gongadze quickly joins him, and they walk arm-in-arm to the monument.
For security reasons alone, her role with Biden normally would be coordinated and cleared in advance with the Secret Service, which had kept Biden away from what news reports described as an “angry crowd” at another point during the visit.
At other points on the Biden trip, which also included Morocco and Turkey, Gongadze posted photos of herself posing with a Secret Service agent and editorialized about Biden being “a good man”, lamenting that he had not had a “good day” because he had to dodge an angry mob near another memorial site in Kiev.
Other posts promoted the group “Friends of Ukraine” which was lobbying Congress to approve aid to Ukraine’s government. One photo pictured her draped in a Ukrainian flag.
No journalist — whether covering a high-level official or an event — should inject themselves into a story in which they have a vested interest, or depend on instructions from managers to know that avoiding such an impression is important.
When I, and two other former VOA correspondents raised the issue, on the influential BBG Watch site, and on my personal Facebook page, we were attacked by current and former agency employees, though others understood the point we made.
A former head of VOA’s Public Relations office assailed critics of this activism-cum-journalism as endorsing “journalistic rape”. Another current employee said: “There is a certain amount of promotion that’s necessary in developing, engaging, and maintaining a popular news program with a big audience.”
Former VOA intelligence and foreign correspondent Gary Thomas observed that Gongadze “deserves our sympathy and our admiration [but]. . . engaging in advocacy . . . taints news coverage, no matter how well-meaning and noble the cause may be.”
Thomas pointed to VOA’s Standards and Practices guidance:
“VOA journalists are also reminded they should not use their professional affiliation with VOA to advocate for political or social causes and when speaking to outside groups, they should refrain from taking sides on public issues. . .staff members should not march or rally in support of public causes or movements or sign advertisements or petitions taking a position on public issues, domestic or foreign…”
. . . and the Society of Professional Journalists revised Code of Ethics:
“Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. (They should) disclose unavoidable conflicts (and) refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”
Another former senior VOA correspondent said “VOA journalists should not be props in political photo ops by US (or other) politicians, or accept medals from one side or another in a civil war. I would have run like hell away from any situation like that.”
Our concerns were shared, though half-heartedly it seemed, by BBG Watch. Ted Lipien had praised Gongadze for taking a leading role in social media outreach. VOA managers, he insisted, apparently failed to brief her about what was acceptable, or not, to post on social media.
The BBG (a nine-member bipartisan board created in the 1990’s to oversee all U.S. overseas broadcasting, with the Secretary of State serving in an ex officio role) lost no time joining in celebrating Gongadze’s status and visibility. During one of its sessions, Ukraine’s ambassador presented Gongadze with an award from the government in Kiev.
Newly-installed BBG CEO Andy Lack, who has had high praise for Gongadze’s connections and popularity and was with her in Ukraine during Secretary of State Kerry’s January visit, had a smartphone photo taken with her.
After I contacted a VOA official, who formerly headed VOA’s newsroom and plays a role in overseeing adherence to standards for Internet and social media, about the propriety of Gongadze’s Biden trip posts, all but one of them disappeared.
Gongadze has not made any on-the-record comment about the controversy. She continued a level of self-promotion on her Facebook page, posting a photo of herself with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki during Secretary Kerry’s visit to Kiev.
There was no discussion of the issue during a BBG session on February 18th, during which board members viewed a video presentation highlighting VOA reporting on events in Ukraine.
Questions about the mixing of advocacy with journalism also arose involving other VOA reporters, including one who promoted participation in a “State Department project.”
An October 28th BBG news release identified this as “data journalism workshops for journalists and journalism students” in Macedonia. Later, the reporter also used his page to voice support for journalists who were under pressure in Macedonia.
Another example from 2014 raised questions about the extent to which officials of BBG, IBB, and VOA are encouraging VOA reporters promote themselves as activists, or perhaps choosing to exert no oversight.
On August 15th, the NBC program “Press Pass” — hosted that day by Kelly O’Donnell — highlighted a VOA reporter on the plight of the Yazidi people in Iraq (http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/iraq-turmoil/yazidi-activist-people-are-facing-genocide-iraq-n181831).
The chyron read: “Voice of America journalist and Yazidi activist Dakhil Shammo on the situation in Iraq between Yazidi faithful and ISIS militants.”
During the interview with O’Donnell, the VOA reporter spoke about having been part of a delegation of Yazidi activists that visited the White House and State Department, advising the Obama administration regarding the situation in Iraq.
As sympathetic as the world continues to be to the plight of various segments of Iraq’s population, this was another example of VOA reporters pushing the envelope of activism-cum-journalism.
It’s not clear how many of these appearances take place, how the approval process works and what role senior VOA and other officials have. For a federal agency (again, which Ensor has called a news company), and its public relations machine, these are considered home runs.
Activism-cum-journalism at VOA has generated concerns among some reporters in the agency who usually seek to avoid the appearance of, or actual, conflicts of interest.
“Believe me, there has been a slippery slope in this area for a long time,” said one correspondent in VOA’s central newsroom after being contacted about one of the examples above.
One senior VOA editor raised the Yazidi issue with managers, saying: “I wouldn’t be so naive as to think that people from VOA services have not been lobbying the government in the past for their particular ethnic specialties, but this trumpeting of his background as a “journalist” gives a new definition of the word.”
Attention was also drawn to the matter of BBG and VOA paying a few outside part-time writers to provide commentaries on various subjects, that are then posted on VOA’s main English website.
Several years ago, as part of efforts by the VOA English web operation to gain more online traction, a decision was made to begin posting articles labeled as a “column.”
Initially, these did not contain a full explanation of who the writer was, or make clear that they did not reflect the views of the U.S. government, or VOA. Some lacked bylines altogether, containing only a bio at the end of the article.
I personally began to protest this practice to the management of both VOA’s central newsroom, and to the then editor in charge of the English web desk, pointing out that use of the term “column” was unclear, to say the least.
The commentaries continued to run and became more numerous, and have brought criticism from current and former VOA journalists.
A reporter who files for VOA from overseas said: “I’m noticing, in addition, that there is more “commentary” being slipped onto the website in the guise of “news. [including pieces by journalist] Barbara Slavin. If the management wants to label her “editorials” as such, that’s fine by me, but not without such a caveat.”
Indeed, it’s still not known what financial arrangements VOA has made with Slavin, who writes primarily on Mideast/Iran issues, and others whose opinions appear on VOA’s front page.
In a comment posted on BBG Watch, a former VOA correspondent wrote:
“I personally am opposed to editorials and opinion columns such as Slavin’s, on VOA. It may be fine for a privately owned news organization to have editorials, but I think they make it harder for VOA to gain the trust of its audience that its reporting is objective.”
Managers of VOA’s newsroom and other officials can (and did at times) dismiss such concerns. But it was apparent that questions raised in BBG Watch and elsewhere, including reactions by American readers if VOA’s site, to some of the pieces, had some impact. Two such comments read:
“Alan G. from: North Carolina
January 15, 2015 04:34
How is this column objective? It is embarrassing that VOA published this. Journalism has gone so downhill.
Thomas Rodrick from: Amherst, NY
January 16, 2015 03:06
This is outrageous. Do American taxpayers pay for this content? It is anti-American.”
Another comment raised a question of bias:
“. . .u curiously leave out the reasons why Bibi & amp; most of Israel feel threatened by Iran. With their daily threats to WIPE Israel OUT, & amp; Having fomented multiple bands of lethal terrorists @ its borders, with masses of rockets at their ready; Iran is well advanced into their clearly articulated diabolical m.o. The US has already failed in preventing the second worst rough state on the planet namely N. Korea from going nuclear. Israel will not stand by as the worst one jauntily tries slipping by as well. Slavenly or not, ducking barbs or absorbing them, by way of bombs or bombast, BIBI will not be snookered by imbeciles of VOA’s ilk, into submission! “
The VOA website still carries bylined articles by Slavin, and others. But there is no information immediately at the top of each piece identifying relationships with VOA.
The reader must wait until the end where it’s explained that, in Slavin’s case, she is a “senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. . .” as well as a “regular commentator” for VOA, NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN. However, in a clear indication that criticisms have had an effect, what were labeled “Columns” are now labeled “Opinions,” and at least some of her newest articles (not all) even started to carry a disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.”
PART III: A LOOK ACROSS THE TERRAIN . . . DECEPTIVE PRACTICES
Let’s survey the terrain roughly a year after the controversy erupted over H.R. 4490, the House-passed bill that proponents said is critical to lasting reform of U.S. international broadcasting/media, but which opponents assert will destroy journalism at VOA.
The bill had Democratic and Republican support on Capitol Hill, in large part triggered by a record of mismanagement, and according to inspector general reports, illegality at BBG.