USAGM Watch Commentary

by Ted Lipien

I was pleased to see that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), where I served as the media outlet’s President in December 2020-January 2021, did very well in its coverage of the U.S.-Germany Nord Stream pipeline deal. On their English-language news website they used a report prepared by the RFE/RL Ukrainian Service. Coverage by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian and Russian Services was even more extensive and excellent.

On the other hand, coverage by the Voice of America (VOA), in the $800-million U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), where I had served as a reporter, editor, language service chief, division director and acting VOA Associate Director, was shamefully inadequate, especially by the VOA central English newsroom. As of midnight Thursday, the Voice of America VOA News English-language website did not show anything on the highly controversial U.S.-Germany deal – many hours after it was breaking news on BBC, Deutsche Welle (DW), Russia’s RT, RFE/RL and almost all other major international and U.S. news websites.

The VOA Russian Service had a very short report, summarizing the official U.S.-Germany statement, but the VOA Russian Service report did not mention strong bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress to the deal signed by the Biden Administration.

The VOA Ukrainian Service had what appeared to be the whole text of the official U.S.-Germany statement, but it had no significant reporting on any U.S. domestic opposition to the deal. The VOA Ukrainian Service website showed a video report with only one expert criticizing the agreement and no congressional or Ukrainian-American views.

In general, it can be said that the Voice of America did not report on Wednesday on the bipartisan congressional criticism of the deal, as it was required to do by the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law.

To summarize, RFE/RL did very well, while the Voice of America in the dysfunctional U.S. Agency for Global Media was shamefully inadequate and totally failed to cover this important story on its English-language news website

Things are not likely to improve at VOA until the Biden Administration completely reorganizes, downsizes and reforms USAGM. In my view, it would be best to disband the agency and create a completely new structure, separating the Voice of America from RFE/RL and other surrogate media outlets. Until this is done, the Biden White House should also now protect RFE/RL and other surrogate U.S.-funded broadcasters, as well as the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), so they do not become more like VOA and USAGM.

When I asked about the latest failure one of my former VOA colleagues, who was one of the best VOA English reporters, he told me that I should not be surprised by the “good enough for government work” attitude of USAGM and VOA managers. It has been going on under the current USAGM and VOA management for many years and has contributed to record low employee morale OPM survey ratings for USAGM over the last decade.

If VOA and USAGM cannot be saved then at least the Biden Administration, as well as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, should protect RFE/RL, OCB, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) from USAGM’s bad example and bureaucratic overreach that threatens their independence and the ability to do a good job.

RFE/RL did well on the U.S.-Germany Nord Stream pipeline deal, but both RFE/RL and OCB journalists who broadcast to Cuba could do even better if they were freed from USAGM’s bureaucracy which has already largely destroyed Voice of America’s impact abroad and ability to cover breaking news. This is not the first such failure at the Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for Global Media. It is one of many.