BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Civil Service Employees Satire Trump, Future First Lady, Bill Clinton

And the No. 1 top reason to love America: It’s where a woman who posed naked for a men’s magazine can be First Lady!

Lampooning Donald Trump at the Voice of America, December 14, 2016.
Lampooning Kellyanne Conway at the Voice of America, December 14, 2016. Photos and videos were posted by some VOA Newsroom reporters on Facebook.

“You’re a joke, you’re a joke.”

— Federal civil service employees at the Voice of America (VOA) U.S. taxpayer-funded multi-media outlet doing a satire on Melania Trump and Donald Trump at “VOA Follies,” an employee-organized holiday event (by a relatively small group of VOA newsroom managers and staffers) held at VOA headquarters in a federal building in Washington, D.C., December 14, 2016.

You have to hand it to some of the civil servants in the Voice of America newsroom at 330 Independence Avenue, SW, in Washington, D.C., just a few steps from the Capitol building, a couple of miles from the White House. Some, but not all of these federal managers and employees, who ultimately report to their parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) with its $777 million proposed budget in FY 2017 (including VOA), are nothing if not persistent.

Donald Trump with Nazi swastika GIF - a screenshot from a Voice of America reporter's personal but publicly accessible Facebook page.
Donald Trump with Nazi swastika GIF – a screenshot from a Voice of America reporter’s personal but publicly accessible Facebook page.
Donald Trump penis GIF - a screenshot from a Voice of America reporter's personal but publicly accessible Facebook page.
Donald Trump penis GIF – a screenshot from a Voice of America reporter’s personal but publicly accessible Facebook page.

In addition to having posted online one-sided hit pieces against Donald Trump, as seen in a VOA-produced video below with BBG Watch added commentary about the VOA Charter, some of VOA program managers, editors and reporters have also included in taxpayer-funded VOA programs what critics describe as one-sided and unproven smears aimed at Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Harry Reid, both Democrats. But Donald Trump has been by far the main target of biased political reporting on the official VOA English news and commentary websites.

Outside of their U.S. government work, a few VOA reporters also had posted memes showing Donald Trump with a Nazi swastika and a GIF depicting Donald Trump as a penis. These were uploaded to their personal but publicly accessible Facebook pages, where they self-identify as Voice of America reporters. One of them, a federal employee, called Donald Trump “F*ckface Von Clownstick.” The phrase was borrowed from U.S. comedian Jon Stewart’s description of Trump.

In the official VOA-produced video based on a third-party video, which was posted for several days on the Facebook page for one of VOA’s foreign language services, Donald Trump was called by a Hollywood actor “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid”. No rebuttal, response or context of any kind were added by VOA to the video, for which VOA provided foreign language subtitles for the name-calling. The video showed a Voice of America logo in the right top corner. (The entire video was eventually removed from a VOA Facebook page after much criticism for its one-sided, unanswered attack.)

Shortly before the U.S. presidential election, one VOA reporter wrote on a personal Facebook page: “if F*ckface Von Clownstick gets elected on Nov 8, I will not be able to say anything on Facebook against him anymore, as dictatorship will have descended on this land.”

While this particular VOA reporter may have stopped posting such anti-Trump comments, a few other VOA journalists continued to write one-sided reports on Trump and his cabinet nominees. They have been posting poorly balanced reports on official VOA websites and social media pages while at the same time continuing their not-so-private mocking of the next U.S. President.

For many years, just before the end of year holidays, some Voice of America employees there have put on a satirical show called the “VOA Follies.” It is vaguely similar to a show done by the well-known but far more professional group called the Capitol Steps.

But things are not the same now at VOA, which is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors headed by CEO John F. Lansing, as they were decades ago under the BBG’s predecessor, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and its high-profile directors. They, unlike Mr. Lansing, were nominated by the President and vetted and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. (New reform legislation, passed by Congress but not yet signed by President Obama, will require future BBG CEOs to be vetted and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.)

Under its current leadership, BBG has just notched another year being rated with some of the lowest morale among federal agencies, called one of the worst places to work in government. Much of this is driven by ongoing disaffection and dissatisfaction with management.

So, it’s no wonder many employees may look forward to the “VOA Follies” as a pressure release, to have a few laughs, poking fun at some of their own, and at the politics of the day.

But two years ago, things took an ugly turn. VOA and the BBG had been under what is arguably the most scrutiny in decades from the U.S. Congress.

A group of managers and employees planning the 2014 “Follies” decided to go for the jugular. They recruited the then VOA director who participated in a “Top 10 List” comedy routine.

As reported at the time by the independent watchdog website BBG Watch, in the 2014 “Follies” the now former VOA director made fun of VOA’s former intelligence and foreign correspondent who retired in 2012, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and member of the BBG board, VOA’s former Chief White House Correspondent, compared one of the BBG Watch founders with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and compared BBG Watch to publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shopper Food Warehouse.

Not exactly the kind of thing about private U.S. citizens, taxpayers and a watch dog media blog one expected to hear from the occupant of a U.S. federal government position that for decades was determined by the president of the United States, but no longer is under the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

You would think that having learned a lesson from the 2014 debacle, VOA management and staff would seek to avoid anything that might stir public controversy. You would be wrong.

On December 14th, a little over a month away from the inauguration of Donald Trump, a the 2016 “Follies” took place in an area behind VOA’s newsroom usually used to address visiting tourists.

A VOA editor who helped to organize the event, said that all of the material was “meant to be in good fun…..” and did not necessarily reflect the views of organizers, performers, “and certainly not of VOA management.” Another organizer said “we wouldn’t want to offend anyone at BBG Watch.”

With that, they were off to the races. Skits made fun of President-elect Trump (including the bankruptcy of his Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City), Ivanka Trump (who was called “First Daughter, lady, whatever….”) and future First Lady Melania Trump.

An employee playing a parrot screeched “You’re a joke, you’re a joke,” while the make believe VOA Trump said “I intend to have some Mexican types in my cabinet.”

At one point, the fake Trump pointed to an employee playing a Mexican and said “This is one of the best boys on my staff right now….a certified Mexican.”

The fake Mexican read a list of Canadians in the U.S. who would be allowed to stay under a Trump administration, including Michael J. Fox, about whom the fake VOA Trump said “No, not him, he’s a cripple, he can stay. . . .”

There were additional mentions of BBG Watch, some of which appeared to fall flat.

Among jokes in the 2016 version of the Top Ten List, No. 5 was a reference to former President Bill Clinton: “Your president can have sex in the Oval Office with someone who is not his wife and still serve the remainder of his term.”

But “VOA Follies” humor was far from being “bipartisan.” It was almost all about Donald Trump, his wife, his daughter, and his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway whose accent was lampooned in the VOA skit.

If there was any doubt that this VOA satirical performance was almost exclusively about Donald Trump, the male VOA announcer shouted:

“And the No. 1 top reason to love America: It’s where a woman who posed naked for a men’s magazine can be First Lady!”

There were a number of other jokes, some funny, others not so much. BBG Watch continued to be ridiculed, visually and verbally, throughout the event.

The fact (many actually view it not as funny but tragic) that VOA’s news division has been through repeated reorganizations was noted — definitely not a matter of pride for an organization struggling with seemingly endless management changes, morale, and effectiveness issues.

There was also recall of the fact that some years ago, under an ex-BBG chairman, there was an effort to turn VOA and possibly other BBG entities into a government-funded media organization similar to CNN.

One of the organizers of this year’s “Follies,” a VOA editor, said that the last time we did this two years ago, it almost got the former VOA director “sued for slander by those knuckleheads at BBG Watch. . .”

A bit of embellishment and satirical fake news there: VOA/BBG responded to the FOIA request in 2014, but was never threatened with a lawsuit, certainly not by BBG Watch journalists, some of whom are former VOA reporters, or anybody else that came to our attention. However, as BBG Watch reported, emails produced by the agency showed that the former VOA director used government email to plan with a few subordinates his involvement in the 2014 event.

An organizer of “VOA Follies” on December 14, 2016 said “this year we decided to spare Amanda Bennett [current VOA director] any embarrassment. . .” that might be connected with her participating in the event.

However, embarrassment there appears to have been. Sources report that at least one person may have live streamed the “VOA Follies” event, particularly the portion where Trump was being lampooned a la Saturday Night Live.

Whether by coincidence or not, Bennett sent this note to all employees the same day:

“I would like to remind everyone of VOA’s policies regarding use of social media. As both government employees and journalists, it is critically important that you adhere to these standards to make sure that neither your credibility, nor that of the agency, is tarnished in any way.   These policies address both personal use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as professional use of social media as a reporting tool.”

Bennett directed employees to an internal web link containing VOA’s Editorial Best Practices Guide, and urged all employees to “read these segments carefully.”

Earlier, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Bennett promised to offer employees training aimed at helping them avoid political bias in their reporting after many instances reported by BBG Watch, as well as other media. Biased, one-sided reporting by some VOA journalists continued, however, throughout the campaign, as well as after the November 8th vote. To the horror and embarrassment of Voice of America’s more seasoned journalists, some of the one-sided VOA U.S. election campaign and other news reports and interviews received high praise from senior VOA and BBG executives and managers.

So, at the 2016 VOA “Follies” a few had a grand time, judging by their loud laughter. . . and some did not. One longtime VOA journalist, who over the years has done radio, television and Internet reporting on major U.S. and world events, sent us a comment for posting. Fearing retaliation, the VOA reporter did not want to be identified by name, but the comment captures well what many other VOA journalists and support employees feel about what the Voice of America has become under the current and previous BBG/VOA management teams.

“Too bad that organizers and performers of the ‘VOA Follies’ have resorted to such a skit. To me, it shows one more time that several people there do not understand international broadcasting. The ‘Follies’ only tarnish VOA reputation in the United States and in the world.”

Another highly respected and experienced VOA journalist, who also does not want to be identified, said:

“Persuaded by some mainstream media, the group thinkers have discarded all pretense of objectivity and are openly derisive of anything Trump. A train wreck is coming. It’s inevitable…”

After hearing some of the material presented. . . in that building just a few steps from the Capitol . . . at least one question should be asked.

Should employees of a federal communications agency, or for that matter any journalists, be organizing and engaging in public and semi-public activities that come anywhere near lampooning an incoming president-elect, his family members or any public figure they cover (unless it is specifically designed as a satirical event to which public figures of all parties, who could be targets of these jokes, and journalists from many media outlets of various political persuasions are all invited)?

Another: can you name any other department or agency in the federal government where employees would be doing the same. . . a little over a month from the inauguration of a new president?

At VOA, some employees clearly feel it’s their right to do so, on taxpayer-funded time. . . because, of course, they are journalists. . . government-paid, but still journalists.

Yet it is well known that in the United States some journalists working for already highly politicized commercial media still got themselves fired or were severely reprimanded by their editors and private media company executives for publicly showing extreme political bias and making offensive comments on their personal Twitter or Facebook accounts. Journalists blatantly advertising their personal bias undermine their audience’s confidence in their news organization.

Should VOA journalists enjoy greater license than their private media colleagues because they are U.S. government employees, or should they be held to an even higher VOA Charter standard because their salaries are paid by all U.S. taxpayers?

It’s the same license, which a few VOA reporters claim for themselves, used two years ago when they faced off with members of Congress over legislation aimed at cleaning up the mess at 330 Independence Avenue. (A new version of the old reform bill, minus the controversial privatization of VOA proposal, may soon be signed into law by President Obama.)

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump, or his family members, get wind of any of “VOA Follies” content, or whether they would care.

But they just might . . . in which case, the VOA director and others might just be getting phone calls from lawmakers and others . . .

. . . wondering why political biases are being put on such audacious display on official VOA websites and in ostensibly off-the-record holiday skits, which are nevertheless sanctioned by highly-paid government managers who make anywhere from $100,000 to $160,000 in annual salaries, not counting other federal employment benefits;

. . . wondering why some of these tasteless and partisan jokes are performed by civil servants, and apparently streamed live on social media on government time . . .

. . . from that government building just a few steps from the Capitol, and a mile or two from the White House.