BBG Watch Commentary

Article by former Voice of America (VOA) journalist Gary Thomas in Columbia Journalism Review on journalistic practices at VOA and management of U.S. international broadcasting within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).After his replacement had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, now former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Victor Ashe posted a comment in which he apologized to Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) for the refusal of Voice of America (VOA) top management to answer question from Gary Thomas, a former senior VOA correspondent who was writing an article about VOA for publication by CJR.

Victor Ashe wrote that the VOA decision not to answer questions from a journalist was “unfortunate” and was made “at the direction of David Ensor [VOA Director] and Steve Redisch [VOA Executive Editor].”

BBG Watch confirmed from other sources that top VOA leadership approved the refusal to answer Gary Thomas’s questions. One of our sources forwarded to us the following official response from VOA: “VOA’s management team consulted with each other on Mr. Thomas’ questions and responded in this way because we felt they were inflammatory and biased.”

Ashe pointed out that both David Ensor and Steve Redisch “proclaim loudly that VOA prints both sides of a news story.”

Ashe also wrote that “VOA never consulted with the BBG Board at that time when they made the decision to stiff the Columbia Journalism Review which is a respected publication. Our source provided us with the following official response from VOA: “VOA did not consult the Board on this matter. I do not know what the Board thinks about Gary Thomas, but VOA management believe he was a valued employee and respected correspondent.”

However, Kyle King, Director of the VOA Public Relations Office, was less than complementary of Thomas’s professional skills in writing his article for CJR:

“It is disappointing CJR would publish this commentary, which contains multiple errors, and calls for changes that are either unrealistic or have already been proposed by the very organization Mr. Thomas maligns.

A simple look at the Voice of America’s website demonstrates we are a hard-hitting and effective international multimedia news organization.

Our audience numbers have never been higher. They are based on VOA’s credibility as an independent news organization.
In Africa, we are big on radio and mobile. In Iran, one in five adults watch us every week on TV.

There is nothing “schizophrenic” about what we do.

Times have changed from the days when newsroom journalists rewrote wire copy for shortwave radio. Today, VOA produces dozens of television programs, has nearly 50 separate websites and a wide range of mobile platforms, in addition to radio, podcasts and social media.

Audiences look to VOA for accurate and balanced news they cannot get on state controlled media in many countries, and we provide that in more than 40 languages.

Posted by Kyle King, Director, VOA Public Relations on Wed 3 Jul 2013 at 05:23 PM”

David Ensor’s spokesman Kyle King accused Thomas of “multiple errors” but did not specify them. Voice of America had a chance to clarify at least some issues, but Gary Thomas reported that VOA management refused to answer his questions which he had submitted when he was writing the article:

“VOA was offered an opportunity to comment on the issues raised in this article, and questions were submitted to the agency for response. It declined to answer any of the questions. The VOA Public Affairs Office’s response was: ‘Frankly speaking, the questions submitted by Mr. Thomas, a former VOA employee, contain multiple errors and suggest a bias that concerns us greatly. We invite those who want to evaluate the quality of VOA journalism to look at our websites or our programs that reach over 135 million people each week in 45 separate languages’.”

According to a note under his Columbia Journalism Review article, “Gary Thomas spent 27 years at Voice of America before retiring in 2012. He was a senior correspondent and news analyst specializing in national security and intelligence issues. He served in Islamabad and Bangkok and covered stories throughout South and Southeast Asia.”

Former Voice of America acting Associate Director Ted Lipien posted this comment:

“I am appalled that a U.S. taxpayer-funded media organization set up to champion press freedom, with a splendid history and an important role now and in the future, would choose to respond to Columbia Journalism Review and attack Mr. Thomas’ professionalism in such an old Soviet-style fashion. Not even Mr. Putin uses such crude tactics anymore.

Similarities between Voice of America (VOA) management’s response to a journalist seeking answers and how the Soviets dealt with press inquires they found annoying are striking. Soviet apparatchiks refused to answer questions from Western reporters about human rights and responded with attacks on the journalists themselves and their professional integrity, accusing them of bias, distortions and hostility. This is exactly what VOA leadership has done through its spokesman in response to Mr. Thomas’ article.”

Gary Thomas risked his life covering news for VOA in such hotspots as Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the current VOA management did not have a decency to answer his questions and still insists that they did nothing wrong.

The apology came from now former Broadcasting Board of Governors member, Ambassador Victor Ashe.

“It is unfortunate that VOA declined at the direction of David Ensor and Steve Redisch to answer questions submitted by Gary Thomas when they proclaim loudly that VOA prints both sides of a news story. VOA never consulted with the BBG Board at that time when they made the decision to stiff the Columbia Journalism Review which is a respected publication. Now a former Board member, I was embarrassed this happened. It reflects poorly on VOA and not on Gary Thomas.

Victor Ashe
former US Ambassador to Poland, 2004-2009
Mayor of Knoxville, 1988-2003
BBG Board member, 2010 to 2013

Posted by Victor Ashe on Sat 3 Aug 2013 at 12:44 PM”

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