BBG Watch Commentary

With the kind of news coverage the Voice of America provides these days, Lech Wałęsa might still be sitting in a communist prison. – A former VOA broadcaster.

Joe BidenThe New York Times had an nearly 1,500-word article by Mark Landler and David E. Sanger, “China Pressures U.S. Journalists, Prompting Warning From Biden.”

BBC posted an nearly 800-word article by Anthony Zurcher, “Biden decries China squeeze on US media.”

The Atlantic posted a 700-word article by Elizabeth Economy, “Biden’s Important Message for Human Rights in China.”

In Britain, The Guardian also had a substantive news report by Tania Branigan on media freedom issues in China: “Joe Biden challenges China over ‘curtailed’ freedom of press during visit.”

The Voice of America (VOA) English website had only one sentence on Biden’s remarks about the lack of media freedom in China. Five words: “the treatment of U.S. journalists,” and nothing more, appeared in this VOA report by William Ide, “Biden: Conflict With China Not Inevitable“:

“We’ve had many disagreements, and some profound disagreements on some of those issues right now, the treatment of U.S. journalists, but I believe China will be stronger and more stable and more innovative if it respects universal human rights,” he [Biden] said.

This was it. Five words on the VOA English website about Biden’s remarks specifically on media freedom issues in China.

This kind of superficial coverage by VOA English News means that the vast majority of VOA’s foreign language services also have not reported on Vice President Biden’s criticism of media censorship in China.

Even Al Jazeera America had more information about Vice President Biden’s meeting with U.S. journalists working in China and the problems they face.

The truth is that the Voice of America no longer has a functioning central newsroom that can quickly provide balanced and comprehensive news, not only for the VOA English-language website, but also for the websites of VOA’s 44 foreign language services. VOA executives claim that this is not a problem because VOA has multiple newsrooms, referring to the language services. But not reporting on major news events, reporting late and providing only superficial coverage had become a major problem that affects VOA’s credibility as a news organization and makes it ineffective in social media outreach.

Voice of America correspondents and news writers are not to blame here. They are dedicated and work very hard to try to cover as many news stories as they can. The problem rests with VOA’s top management.

VOA reporters can’t do it all operating under extremely difficult conditions: too many news stories to cover with not enough people, insufficient resources, but above all, bad management of staff and news assignments, lack of direction and general disarray, in addition to extremely poor website management. The ultimate cause of VOA’s numerous news failures are its top executives who have failed to provide leadership and are blamed for dismal employee morale.

VOA’s William Ide filed an excellent report on media freedom and other human rights issues in China prior to Biden’s visit: “Wife of Jailed Chinese Nobel Laureate Pleads for Freedom.”

A follow-up to this report during and after Biden’s trip to China was badly needed. VOA reporters were assigned to do other news stories. So while The New York Times, BBC and many other media outlets paid attention to the media freedom issue in China during Biden’s visit, the Voice of America English website did not.

The Voice of America Charter, which is a congressionally-passed law setting up VOA’s mission, says that “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350).” The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA and other U.S. government-funded media outlets serving audiences abroad, says that “the BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

But again and again, VOA executives fail to arrange for coverage of major human rights-oriented news stories — many of them involving U.S. foreign policy concerns — while other international media cover these stories in English and in other languages. VOA’s current director is David Ensor, who began in August 2011. He kept the management team that is viewed as inept and hostile by the vast majority of VOA rank and file reporters. During Biden’s visit to China, Ensor was attending an international broadcasting conference in Paris, France. His top deputy is VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch, whom rank and file employees blame for the state the Voice of America is in today.

They also blame top executives of the BBG’s management arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), as well as some of Ensor’s and Redisch’s top managers. They blame the BBG board, as well, particularly many of its former members, for allowing a major management crisis to continue and for not protecting them from bad managers. They are as yet undecided about the new Board under its new chairman Jeff Shell who has promised reforms. But while former IBB director Richard Lobo retired on November 30, other managers who in their view have done even more damage to their organization are still firmly in charge.

Walesa Man of Hope Movie PosterVOA executives’ most recent failure was to ignore a visit to the U.S. Congress by former Solidarity leader, Poland’s former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa, who was there for the screening of a new movie about him: “Wałęsa: Man of Hope.” Two days later, VOA reported a comment by Wałęsa about the movie, but failed to mention the Capitol Hill event — a return to the place where 24 years earlier he delivered his historic speech to the joint session of Congress after the fall of communism in Poland. The speech in 1989 was broadcast to Poland by VOA jointly with Polish National Radio.

But during Wałęsa’s visit to Washington last week, VOA failed to report any of his substantive statements on U.S. and international politics that other media outlets, including The Washington Post, reported on. VOA placed its short and superficial feature report in the arts and entertainment section of its English website.

Lech Wałęsa said last week in Washington that the U.S. must regain its moral and political leadership, which it lost toward the end of the 20th century. He added that President Barack Obama did not succeed in this task and warned that the world without such moral and political leadership is becoming more dangerous. Wałęsa also commented on Russia’s interference in Ukraine, saying “there is no Europe without Ukraine.”

The VOA English website did not have anything on these remarks, but a VOA correspondent did get Lech Walesa to say that he had listened to VOA a lot during the Cold War. “I would not be the man I am today without VOA.” “One-third of our victory was due to VOA,” VOA reported Walesa as saying.

Wałęsa was, of course, talking about VOA programs as they were in the 1980s, not as they are today.

Today, the Voice of America can’t even report on Vice President Biden’s human rights statements about China, much less on what substantive comments a human rights hero like Lech Wałęsa was making during his return visit to the U.S. Congress.

As one former VOA broadcaster observed, with the kind of news coverage the Voice of America provides these days, Lech Wałęsa might still be sitting in a communist prison.