Former senior White House correspondent for the Voice of America Dan Robinson has responded to the BBG Watch op-ed by former VOA director David S. Jackson, “JACKSON: The Voice of America is Not a Wire Service, And It Shouldn’t be Expected to Act Like One.”




By Dan Robinson


Mr. Jackson’s comment, in which he complains about “outsized expectations” and makes excuses, is interesting considering that he was at the helm of VOA for a number of years under the George W. Bush administration.

During that time, VOA broadcasters, correspondents, editors, writers, language service staff, were certainly not operating under some erroneous assumption that they should not be performing as rapidly, accurately, and comprehensively as possible.

Through the decades VOA personnel were being measured, and often measured themselves, against competing outlets such as the BBC, and even other international broadcasters known for excellence in reporting.

These outlets were RECOGNIZED as competition for the same audiences VOA news and other products were aimed at. As a correspondent in Africa and Asia, I knew that my competition was not only BBC, but also Radio France and Radio Australia and Deutsche Welle.

But Jackson yells STOP! Unfair! VOA was never “designed” for that. He and some others assert that VOA’s job is to provide “context” and “explanatory background” concerning American “culture and policies”.

Were he still VOA director today, and become aware of any fraction of the type and scope of problems BBG Watch has helped to illuminate, would he not be concerned?

Damned right he would, because as long as VOA still uses the slogan “Give us 5 minutes, and we’ll give you the world. . .” it’s putting itself forward as a NEWS ORGANIZATION.

We’re not sure if Jackson has a habit of listening to VOA output via the Internet, or regularly views VOA’s front page. One can only surmise that it has not been with the intensity that BBG Watch has observed things since 2008.

He takes affront at the audacity of BBG Watch, the only real independent watchdog commenting on BBG operations, to have a “growing tendency” to describe VOA performance in an unfavorable light as compared to “other national and international news organizations.”

Tendency? Back to the comparison — why shouldn’t VOA’s performance be contrasted with the BBC World Service?

Did we hear protests from Jackson and others when former director David Ensor described VOA as a “news company”?

Would any “news company” survive being described as too understaffed and not “nimble” enough to be competitive and “provide a comprehensive world news service in a 24/7 information environment” — a common excuse also heard from former and current VOA reporters and managers?

For decades, as Jackson surely recalls, VOA had a central newsroom that at former levels of strength and competence, ALWAYS attempted to do the best job on breaking news.

This was a major source of pride for many who spent decades in the organization. Language services themselves also came to adopt this work ethic (and later were encouraged to develop into their own separate news operations, an experiment that did not always work so well).

So, are these language services not to view themselves in any way as competitive with parallel services at the BBC from a reporting and social media and online perspective?

Jackson asserts that VOA should “focus on providing content that its audiences can’t get everywhere else [and focus on providing] more comprehensive, contextual coverage – including discussion and debate  – of U.S. issues and policies, especially those involving foreign affairs.”

At the same time, he says VOA should still be providing “a timely and accurate main story [to] make sure nobody beats it on covering the U.S. government reaction and statements, and the American perspective when appropriate.”

So, what do we have here, and where do you draw the line? When does VOA stop directing human, financial and technical resources toward providing the “timely and accurate main story” and shift to that favorite talking point: “explaining Americans, and American policy.”?

On any recent major breaking news story, rapidly breaking developments do not stop at some point and say: OK, VOA….now it’s time to begin focusing on “context” for your audiences that (supposedly) only VOA can provide. VOA needs to be competent at BOTH, all the time.

Indeed, what Jackson and others of like mind describe does not require a newsroom of the size that VOA currently has, or a VOA the size of what it is today.

I have suggested that providing “context” and running a far more efficient and impactful organization in the digital realm can be done with a substantially smaller agency than the BBG with its $750 million annual budget. . .

. . .an agency where it’s made clear to everyone from day one that their purpose is not to “worry” about breaking news or being compared, unfairly as it is alleged by Jackson, to other news outlets operating far more efficiently than VOA has in recent years.

Jackson’s approach is also similar to the philosophy voiced by BBG member Matt Armstrong.

During a memorable appearance in the VOA newsroom in 2014, he looked reporters straight in the eye and said VOA should concentrate only on producing “contextual” background reports while basically taking itself out of the business of covering breaking news.

Armstrong’s comments reflected a huge and shocking lack of understanding about . . . the news. “If Reuters, AP, AFP, anybody, is doing a story adequately for the audience then we should just run theirs and spend our resources on something else that is of value….” he said.

Saying VOA should, as he put it, be covering “not what we need but what the audience needs,” he went down a familiar rabbit hole of trying to be seen as fully supportive of “quality of news and. . .journalism”, but also urging a major shift to “contextual” reporting and away from breaking news.

Sure, let’s just run “theirs”. Give audiences what “they need, not what we need”. Try going through that analysis on every breaking news story.

In his first days as BBG CEO, John Lansing made de-focusing “day of” news a key part of his management platform.  But less and less has been heard about this in recent public statements.

Perhaps that’s because he realized what everyone knows: NEWSROOMS cover the NEWS.

In the future, VOA will either be capable, and recognized as such by its remaining audiences, of competently covering global and U.S. news — both breaking news and deeper reporting — or it will not.

Though they occurred far too slowly, improvements in VOA breaking news coverage can be attributed in no small measure to pressure created by critiques appearing on BBG Watch, and occasionally from other external observers.

These critiques had an enormous impact on the public discussion, and on members of Congress. That’s a fact that Jackson and others screaming about a “tendency” to unfairly criticize VOA will find difficult to deny.


Dan RobinsonDan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent. Views expressed here are his own.


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