BBG Watch Commentary
Someone calling themselves “VOA Public Relations” responded to Ted Lipien’s op-ed in The Washington Times.
We post Lipien’s opening paragraph with the link to the article.
“VOA Public Relations” response is posted below as well as a reply to it from 1Amendment.
Faked interviews, lax Web security are signs a shakeup is needed
By Ted Lipien –The Washington Times Wednesday, February 8, 2012 Illustration by John Camejo for The Washington Times
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency in charge of critical U.S. information programs to countries such as Iran, China and Russia, can only be described as a failed enterprise in need of emergency surgery.
Just as the new Voice of America (VOA) director, David Ensor, was praising the VOA Russian Service as a model of innovation during a speech to mark the broadcast’s 70th anniversary, the Russian Service was posting an apology to Alexei Navalny, a famous Russian anti-corruption lawyer, opposition leader and blogger, for publishing an online interview with him, which he described as “100 percent fake.” Mr. Navalny said he never granted this interview (he hasn’t been giving any interviews recently), accused Voice of America of “going nuts,” and suggested that all VOA Russian staff should be let go. The alleged interview, apparently obtained through an exchange of emails, included uncharacteristic attacks on other Russian opposition leaders who are Mr. Navalny’s allies against the Kremlin. No one bothered to confirm whether the answers received by email came from Mr. Navalny. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) also had a similar incident in which someone impersonated another opposition figure in Russia.
VOA Public Relations
Mr. Lipien is wrong about VOA’s Russian Service, and he badly misstates the facts on almost every point.
VOA’s Russian website did publish comments it believed to be from Russian blogger and opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The article was taken down promptly when Mr. Navalny tweeted that he did not give the interview. VOA has apologized, saying in part “As a result of this incident we will strengthen our editorial standards and enact additional safeguards.”
Mr. Lipien, a former VOA journalist, should also know he is wrong when he says “In 2008, the BBG (VOA’s parent organization) ended VOA radio and TV broadcasts to Russia.” In fact, after the end of the Cold War, VOA radio and television programs were carried on a number of affiliate stations throughout Russia, but under Russian government pressure almost all those broadcasts were stopped. Since then, VOA’s Russian Service has built a reliable online audience with a vibrant website that provides fair and balanced coverage.
Mr. Lipien also unfairly implies the journalists who are recent arrivals from Russia and VOA stringers in Russia are somehow a liability. These dedicated reporters go through U.S. national security clearances and are the driving force behind the Russian Service’s expansion in a rapidly evolving digital environment. No one should be criticized for being a “recent arrival” in the United States of America.
Mr. Lipien misleads his audience when he alleges a “pro-Putin” bias, something which could not be farther from the truth. Mr. Lipien should know well, the agency he so sharply attacks is the one that every year hires dozens of independent analysts to conduct rigorous “program reviews” of every VOA language service. Mr. Lipien both misquotes and takes out of context a single remark by one of those analysts about one particular story.
Finally, Mr. Lipien’s quote: “Their websites have been compromised a number of times by unknown hackers”is also false. The assertion appears to be that if a website is hacked, it is somehow the result of lax managerial oversight. To the contrary, it is probably targeted because of its importance. VOA has stringent safeguards in place. Unfortunately, hackers are often one step ahead.
This is not the kind of journalism that Mr. Lipien would have been able to indulge in during his days at VOA, and it does a disservice to his former colleagues.
It also occurred to us that it is not Ted Lipien but the Russian anti-corruption lawyer, human rights activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny who wrote that “Voice of America went nuts” and “someone should call some people in Washington and tell them to let all those guys go.”
We suppose that you will not be inviting Mr. Navalny to your next “rigorous” program review. He might suggest measures that even Lipien would not. Nor should you invite the independent journalist who concluded that the VOA Russian website has a “pro-Putin bias” and downplays human rights reporting.
By the way, most of Lipien’s former colleagues in the Russian Service were retired, pushed out, or left because their complaints about a “pro-Putin bias” were ignored by the management and they couldn’t take it anymore. That’s the truth from someone who knows.
Mr. Lipien is wrong on every point and misses the point. Really?
VOA radio and TV broadcasts to Russia were terminated by the BBG just 12 days before Russia attacked Georgia in 2008.
At a program review that same year, BBG experts told the Russian Service not to use the word “occupation” in relation to the Russian attack because “most Russians don’t like this term.” When asked what word they should use, these BBG experts said “just be quiet.”
Since you accuse Mr. Lipien of misquoting the independent Russian journalist who wrote a devastating critique of the VOA Russian website, we will quote from it at length. Keep in mind that this person fights against Putin’s censorship and risks his life everyday. This is what this Russian journalist wrote:
“Now, my impression is that VOA has been too careful in avoiding anything that might look like ‘anti-Russian’ bias. A telling example of this attitude can be found in the coverage of Vice President Biden’s visit to Moscow. The reporting focused on Biden voicing support for Medvedev’s ‘modernization,’ traveling to Skolkovo etc., all of which was amply covered by national TV channels. But Vice President’s speech in Moscow University, in which he criticized Russia’s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event was titled ‘Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours‘; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia’s ‘legal nihilism’ – an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of ‘pro-Russian’ (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.”
Asked whether the journalistic quality of the website is at a high professional and informational level, the independent Russian expert pointed out that VOA relies too much on Russian media sources.
“My answer is ‘sorry but no’. The site provides information of satisfactory quality, but it is mostly derived from other sources. Even the report about American Vice President’s meeting with Russian opposition figures was based on Ekho Moskvy and Gazeta.Ru information (VOA’s own interview with Leonid Gozman was added later.) The selection of topics and timeliness leave much to be desired.”
The independent Russian journalist noted that some topics, which the Kremlin does not like to see covered by the Russian media, are also underreported by VOA.
“Regrettably, some interesting topics were underreported. Thus, the story of an alleged prisoner swap scheme involving Viktor Bout, which featured prominently in independent Russian media (Kommersant and others), was only reflected in a brief news item based entirely on Russian sources; an American perspective one could have expected from VOA was lacking completely. The same can be said of the scandal involving Vladimir Putin, Western stars and charity money: VOA’s website failed to provide any information or comment from the American side, missing a good opportunity to raise its profile.
As for the ‘market niche’ mentioned in the question, I’m afraid it can hardly be located at the moment.”
The Russian journalist also questioned the overall usefulness of the VOA Russian website. Here is his response to the question: Does the content provided on this site increase understanding of topics or events, and does it provide a basis for forming opinions, making decisions and rendering judgments?
“My general answer to this one would rather be negative. The site provides quite an amount of diverse information, but not all of it seems relevant to the interests of the audience. A clearer focus on specific issues linked to VOA’s mission is needed. Independent forming of opinions by users could also be encouraged by more perceptive comments by high-level contributors – this is where VOA’s competitive position is rather weak. There are few if any bright columns by good authors; the Poedinok (Single Combat) section is entirely about international politics, doesn’t seem appealing to users and is updated at a slow rate. The Editorial section appears somewhat more useful; I wish it carried more on human rights and democracy in Russia.”
“The site could potentially excel in offering objective information on different aspects of American life – especially where such information is ignored or distorted by Russian pro-government media. To give just one example: many Russians, even among the educated class, are convinced that all talk about freedom of the press in the U.S. is mere eyewash and media are effectively controlled by the government or business interests. Systematic exposure and refutation of such myths could be one of VOA’s main goals; however, the site doesn’t seem keen on this sort of work.”
Some members of the VOA Russian Service had serious doubts about the authenticity of the interview but were afraid to voice their objections or their objections were ignored. Why? Those responsible kept insisting in private that Mr. Navalny gave the interview and then lied about it. Why would they say that? Perhaps Mr. Lipien is not so wrong after all. The management should have kept at least some experienced editors to spot fake interviews and put a stop to such outrageous claims that could have come from the Putin media and his supporters.
And yes, the management is responsible for the security of the websites. You can’t have perfect security, but during President Obama’s visit to Moscow all VOA websites were shut down for TWO days. Can you imagine the White House website or CNN website being completely out for two days? We can’t, but it happened at VOA.