BBG Watch Commentary
Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director and co-founder of BBG Watch with former VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists, has been warning for some time that marketing and staffing policies pushed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executives have changed the focus of VOA and other BBG broadcasters from serious, accurate and well balanced journalism to ratings-chasing entertainment and sloppy reporting produced by inexperienced, poorly paid, otherwise exploited, unsupervised and unedited contractors, many without any background in American life and media.
In his latest op-ed in The Washington Examiner, Lipien makes this point again. Anticipating the expected line of defense of BBG bureaucrats, who refuse to acknowledge the problem and dismiss a recent “fake” interview on the VOA Russian website and charges of “pro-Putin bias” as atypical, Lipien cites a study by a prominent independent Russian journalist and new media scholar Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy who found not just one but many examples of the Voice of America Russian Service website giving prominence to pro-Putin and pro-Kremlin views and failing again and again to provide an American perspective on human rights and media freedom violations in Russia.
Lipien was also interviewed by NPR’s Michele Kelemen who reported that a recent webcast on the VOA Russian Service site included a long statement from a Putin supporter in Russia without an effective attempt to counter or balance his pro-Kremlin views.
If American taxpayers had any idea what kind of messages Voice of America (VOA) is sending in their name and at their expense to Russia, they would be hopping mad.
Opposition leaders and independent journalists in Russia have warned that the VOA Russian website has a pro-Putin bias and downplays human rights reporting, but the latest scandal brings the harm to a new level. The VOA site posted a fake interview and embarrassed a leading Russian pro-democracy figure.
The VOA is funded by Americans to broadcast information programs to countries without free media. A leading Russian anti-corruption lawyer and Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, wrote a scathing Twitter comment accusing VOA of “going nuts.”
He dismissed the purported interview with him on the Russian website as “100 percent fake.” He further suggested that someone in Washington should start listening and “let all these guys go.”
The VOA Russian Service removed the interview and apologized to Navalny, no doubt hoping the scandal would soon blow over.
But the story was picked up by RIA Novosti news agency and other Russian media, which reported on it in Russian and English. Significantly, the VOA English website ignored the whole incident.
What we have here is not just an isolated journalistic flop. Russian opposition leaders have known for quite some time there is something fundamentally wrong with the VOA Russian website.
In early 2011, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency that runs VOA, commissioned a study from a highly respected independent journalist living in Russia.
He warned that the website favored a pro-Putin line. It even downplayed a human rights speech delivered in Moscow by Vice President Joseph Biden.
The BBG bureaucrats did not highlight this damning assessment to members of the bipartisan board or to the new VOA director, David Ensor. They told them instead that the Russian Service was doing a terrific job.
On the day the Russian Service editors were getting ready to post their apology, Ensor praised them for being a model of innovation.
The fake interview was obtained by a newly hired contractor from Russia through an exchange of emails.
Someone should have known that pro-Kremlin activists have broken into email accounts of many anti-Putin leaders, but an editor, also recently hired as a contractor, gave his approval instead of doing further checking.
Even after the Russian Service apologized to Navalny, some of its staffers continued a whispering campaign accusing him of giving the interview and then lying about it.
A pro-Putin bias and scurrilous accusations against a courageous human rights activist may explain what kind of journalists the BBG has been hiring recently to manage the Russian website.
Some of them had worked for the pro-Putin media in Russia. To make room for these poorly vetted and poorly paid contractors, BBG executives retired experienced editors.
These officials also told the Russian Service not to be too harsh on the Kremlin because, according to BBG audience surveys, most Russians don’t like it. And that’s bad for ratings, they said.
They allowed VOA websites to be hacked a number of times. And, they failed to tell the Board promptly about the latest incident.
The same BBG officials are also responsible for drafting a plan to restructure U.S. international broadcasting that will be soon presented to Congress.
And, guess what, it would give them more control and turn the agency into an NPR-like structure with both international and domestic programs. It amounts to asking American taxpayers to continue paying for Putin’s propaganda.
Their latest proposal calls for ending VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet. Congressional committees with oversight functions need to step in and clean the place up before these failed bureaucrats do even more damage to America’s reputation abroad.
Ted Lipien is a former VOA acting associate director and co-founder of the nongovernmental Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – www.CUSIB.org).