BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch had reported earlier that the Voice of America (VOA) English news website was about an hour and a half late in posting a news report on the Obama-Putin phone call Friday and well behind BBC which put out a breaking news top story almost immediately after the White House released an announcement about the call.

Voice of Russia report on the phone call was much longer than the VOA report, which was both brief and lacked balance. BBC report on the phone call was also much longer than the VOA report, as was the news report in English on Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) website. Both BBC and DW reports were balanced.

See: Voice of America not reporting on Obama-Putin phone call, top news story for BBC, BBG Watch, March 28, 2014.

Even when VOA finally reported on the call, its much delayed report about the call had only 134 words specifically on the Obama-Putin phone conversation (as of 12:40 AM EDT Saturday). This particular VOA report has not been updated for several hours. Sometimes VOA news reports, which are posted late, which happens quite often, are augmented later with additional information, but this one was not. It appears that VOA executives made no arrangements for posting significant news updates after 5 PM Friday.

Voice of Russia report about the Obama-Putin call had 288 words. While Voice of Russia website has many highly propagandistic news reports and commentaries on its English-language website, this particular report on the Obama-Putin phone call was balanced.

Unlike the Voice of America report, Voice of Russia report quoted an unnamed senior Obama administration official. It is not clear why VOA did not quote the same U.S. official commenting on the phone call. The most likely explanation is that VOA executives made no arrangements for a VOA correspondent to be at the White House after 5 PM on Friday even though they should have known that anything could have happened due to the crisis situation on the border between Ukraine and Russia. They also seem to have failed to assign sufficient extra staff to work in the VOA newsroom after 5 PM.

VOICE OF RUSSIA: A senior Obama administration official described the call as “frank and direct,” and said the next step is the Kerry-Lavrov follow-up discussions to see “whether the Russians are serious about diplomacy”.

The official also said Obama and Putin discussed the latest version of a “working document” that Kerry and Lavrov have been working on regarding ways to defuse the crisis.

“We have been in close touch with the Ukrainian government in this process,” the official added. Putin calls Obama to discuss possible intl community’s actions on Ukraine, Voice of Russia.

The brief Voice of America report refers only to the White House statement and does not report any Russian reactions to the phone call. This appears to violate the VOA Charter which requires VOA news to be both accurate and balanced. Unlike VOA, both BBC and Voice of Russia presented both U.S. and Russian interpretations on what was said during the phone call. The VOA report lacked balance.

The much longer Voice of Russia report not only includes the official Russian take on the phone call but actually devotes more attention to the White House statement and comments by a senior Obama administration official.

Why Voice of Russia was able to quote a senior Obama administration official and Voice of America was not is truly astounding, as is VOA’s long delay in reporting on the Obama-Putin phone call in the first place.

Russia’s RT media outlet also had more information on the phone call than Voice of America. RT’s report on the phone call had 189 words to VOA report’s 134 words.

RT report in English had a suggestive and misleading headline, “Putin, Obama discuss political chaos in Ukraine,” and did not indicate that it was President Putin who initiated the phone call.

Considering the Kremlin’s massive propaganda effort to capitalize on every news story dealing with Ukraine, Voice of America should have had much more than just 134 words about this important phone call.

BBC report, “Putin calls Obama to discuss Ukraine,” had 318 words and in addition included a nearly one-minute video report by BBC correspondent in Washington Mark Mardell who reported that “It does sound like the Russians are backing away from further conflict.” Voice of America offered no interpretations or any U.S. reactions to the phone call. Unlike the short VOA report, which only referred to the White House statement, BBC reports quoted from both U.S. and Russian comments on the Obama-Putin phone call.

Deutsche Welle report, “Putin calls Obama to discuss crisis in Crimea,” had 278 words about the Obama-Putin conversation. The DW report was also fully balanced with information about the phone call from both Washington and Moscow.

This is yet another instance where senior Voice of America executives apparently had left for the weekend without making arrangements for covering important news after business hours. If they had not left, then they still failed to make the right decisions or were unaware what was happening. They evidently had assigned a Voice of America correspondent to cover the White House in case there was such a phone call — there were many similar phone calls between President Obama and world leaders about Ukraine after business hours and on weekends — or in case any other major news developed.

With Russian troops concentrating near the border with Ukraine anything could have happened after 5 PM Friday, and indeed the White House announcement on the Obama-Putin phone call came out shortly after 5 PM. Yet it appears that the VOA executive editor did not have anybody checking the White House emails and the White House Twitter account after 5PM on Friday, not to mention actually having a VOA correspondent sitting at the White House and reporting from there.

It is almost incomprehensible that time after time VOA executives are able to get away with such major news reporting mishaps caused by their own lack of leadership and management skills. BBC and even Voice of Russia have put Voice of America to shame. Voice of America was not only late in reporting on the Obama-Putin phone call, but it also had very little to say about the call when it finally did report on it, compared to what BBC and Voice of Russia were reporting.

America and the world are in a severe crisis mode over Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine. This is not the time for making managerial mistakes or dismissing them without taking action. The bipartisan oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should hold VOA executives accountable for their failures.