BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary
FOR BACKGROUND SEE:
NBC’s Andy Lack visited Ukraine as US official in charge of Voice of America — Firewall Breached Part I
Voice of America Ukraine Expert Called Joe Biden A ‘Good Man’ After Traveling with Him to Kyiv and Covering His 2014 Visit — Firewall Breached Part II
Violations of VOA Charter — Firewall Breached Part III
After Andy Lack left the agency in 2015, some Voice of America journalists working under new senior management headed by John Lansing (now at NPR) and VOA director Amanda Bennett engaged in unprecedented one-sided partisan bashing of not only Trump, although he continues to be the main target, but also Trump voters, the Republican Party and mainstream American conservatives in blatant violations of the VOA Charter. This happened under Lack’s successor, BBG CEO John Lansing, VOA Director Amanda Bennett and VOA deputy director Sandy Sugawara. They were recruited with approval from BBG chairman Jeff Shell who not only had a close relationship with Ben Rhodes in the Obama White House but had contributed to Obama’s presidential campaigns and to the Democratic Party. Shell, however, did not have a direct role in shaping VOA programs. Bennett and Sugawara did under the overall direction from John Lansing who became Shell’s replacement for Andy Lack.
Andy Lack was also recruited for his federal position by Shell who in his private sector job was and still is the chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group and reports to CEO of NBCUniversal. The BBG chairman’s position was for Shell a part-time government public service job. Andy Lack had a full-time top executive job at the federal agency for which he was approved by the bipartisan BBG Board headed by Shell. Since this was during the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama, the BBG Board by law had at that time a majority of Democratic Party members, but it is common for both Republicans and Democrats serving on the board to approve choices made by the chairman. Shell was nominated as the Democratic chairman of the BBG Board by President Obama. Under the legislation regulating the agency, Shell automatically lost his chairman’s position on the BBG Board of Governors when President Trump took office but remained as one of the board’s Democratic Party members. Shell only recently voluntarily resigned his government position.
The Voice of America is one of the international media entities of the $800 million USAGM. The agency’s taxpayer-funded mission is to support press freedom abroad through its various media outlets, including VOA. Shell recruited Lack for what he thought would be a long term appointment, but Lack resigned after a few weeks when he saw the opportunity to become chairman of NBC News. After Lack’s departure, Shell recruited John F. Lansing to be USAGM CEO. Lansing in turn recruited Amanda Bennett to be the VOA director. Lansing resigned recently to take up the CEO post at National Public Radio (NPR) after a tenure marked with multiple scandals, culminating in his right hand man and chief strategic advisor Dr. Haroon Ullah pleading guilty to federal charges to stealing thousands of dollars from the U.S. government. Lansing was apparently completely unaware of his top aide’s crimes.
Because of his short tenure, Lack did not leave much of a mark at USAGM and the Voice of America can’t be blamed for any past or present scandals at the agency. Former and current agency employees who interacted with him briefly described him as both smart and engaging but not very familiar with the federal government bureaucracy. His trip to Ukraine was not unusual in itself. USAGM serves as an international travel agency for its large ranks of highly-paid executives. It may, however, shed some light on how the agency and the Voice of America may have been used by Vice President Biden and by some of its own executives and journalists to influence Ukrainian officials in Ukraine and Ukrainian-American voters.
Some of the attacks on Trump by VOA reporters, which started in 2016 and continued into 2019, would not have been tolerated even by the most liberal U.S. media outlets because of their crude and sometimes obscene nature. Ironically, VOA English Newsroom reporters and the VOA Ukrainian Service do not use such obscene hate speech against anybody else, including Russian President Vladimir Putin who is responsible for the illegal annexation of Crimea and for launching of war in eastern Ukraine against a sovereign state.
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign the VOA Ukrainian Service translated, produced and posted on the official VOA Ukrainian social media page a video by Hollywood actor Robert De Niro calling the then Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid.”
Similar highly-partisan anti-Trump comments and memes were also being posted by several VOA English Newsroom reporters on their personal but publicly accessible Facebook pages which also heavily feature their VOA reports.
The one-sided De Niro political video was later removed after critics wrote to Bennett, Lansing and members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors that it violated the VOA Charter, the 1976 U.S. law which requires VOA news to be accurate, objective and comprehensive and “represent America, not any single segment of American society.”
VOA websites and personal social media accounts of VOA journalists working for the U.S. government have a certain niche following in the United States. In some key states, these ethnic voters could have a significant impact on the outcome of U.S. presidential elections. At the same time, a substantial portion of web traffic for VOA English news reports, perhaps nearly half, does indeed come from Americans who definitely could be influenced on how they vote by one-sided, partisan reporting by the Voice of America which violates the VOA Charter.
For the first time in its history, a VOA-produced report used hate speech and condoned violence against an American politician. To our knowledge, never before has VOA used such language against any political figure, not even against Stalin. At about the time VOA reporters were condemning Trump with the most abusive language, VOA posted a highly sympathetic profile of the one of the Iranian Mullahs.
In pointing this out, we are not defending anything President Trump says or does. VOA should be reporting objectively and with proper balance on any criticism of Trump and his administration.
The current concern expressed by some media commentators on the left is that President Trump may try to use the Voice of America to target Americans with propaganda, but they failed to note that so far VOA is run by VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara who were both appointed in 2016 during the Obama administration. They have tolerated an unprecedented level of anti-Trump and anti-Republican Party propaganda produced by partisan VOA editors and reporters instead of making sure that the VOA Charter, which requires accurate and balanced news reporting, be strictly observed.
All the most recent abuses happened under the watch of former BBG CEO John Lansing, who is now at NPR, VOA director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara. Prior to the arrival at the agency of these Obama administration officials in 2015 and 2016, such blatantly partisan, biased and abusive public postings by VOA reporters simply did not happen although from time to time some VOA Newsroom reporters would engage in subtle partisanship, especially against Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. However, nothing compares to the explosion of partisan bias in VOA programs starting with the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. The recent and current agency and Voice of America executives must therefore shoulder the blame for these unprecedented violations of the VOA Charter rather than putting the blame on individual VOA journalists who obviously did not think that what they were doing would get them in serious trouble with their superiors who had failed to provide adequate leadership, guidance and oversight.