By Ted Lipien
Privileged American public media executives, editors, and reporters may not realize how insensitive some of them appear to the Ukrainians who are experiencing the horror of President Vladimir Putin’s war on their country. They also appear insensitive to many people abroad who have lived under war conditions and to their children and grandchildren. I would count among them the families of the victims of Stalin’s war on Ukraine through forced starvation in the 1930s, in which millions of Ukrainians, Russians, and members of other nationalities had died. I would also include the Cold War, which produced the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, and a number of brutally suppressed local uprisings against Communism and domination by Soviet Russia. Many refugees from these Soviet wars of aggression and anti-Communist revolutions and their children live in the United States. Shocked by what Vladimir Putin is doing to the Ukrainian people, they do not want to see Russia’s war on Ukraine trivialized. No sensitive and responsible individual would.
This is not the time for media organizations to describe how their reporters are dealing with stress or for reporters to tweet about “the morning commute” in Ukraine’s capital.
Some recent tweets by Washington public media and VOA English News reporters have indeed, in my view, trivialized the war in Ukraine and possibly created a faulty impression of how the Ukrainians are responding to the Russian aggression and how tragically Putin’s brutal war is affecting their daily lives.
USAGM executives and VOA managers and reporters are some of the most privileged U.S. government Civil Servants employed by American taxpayers. Please show more empathy and sensitivity in your reporting and your social media posts, especially at this time. Consult your colleagues in the VOA Ukrainian Service or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Ukrainian Service, who have been doing an outstanding job of objective news reporting.
In one recent example, contrary to what the VOA English News reporters thought they saw or were describing, “the morning commute” in Kyiv on Wednesday was not normal or ”surreal.” The Ukrainians, faced with an aggressive war waged by Russia, are defending their country. A single poorly worded tweet by a reporter of the U.S. government-funded media outlet can lead people abroad and in the United States to draw many wrong and conflicting conclusions. The VOA Charter says that VOA news must be comprehensive.
But VOA English News is not the only Washington public media with puzzling and insensitive tweets. NPR’s tweet that “Russia’s attack on Ukraine means there’s a stressful news cycle ahead of us” was seen as “silly” by a Yale professor.
USAGM Watch readers may recall that the current NPR CEO since 2019, John Lansing, was the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO, appointed during the Obama Administration and serving well into the Trump Administration. NPR is, of course, not the same as the former BBG/current USAGM or VOA. Only part of NPR’s budget comes from federal funding.
The BBG is now called the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The Voice of America (VOA) in the $800-million USAGM agency is 100% funded by the U.S. Government. Some people noted that what NPR refers to as a “conflict” was an invasion of Ukraine by Russia and not a “conflict” between the two countries.
Words matter even in tweets, especially to people who are being attacked.
Nicholas A. Christakis @NAChristakis is Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale. Physician. Author of Apollo’s Arrow; Blueprint; and Connected.