BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of America (VOA) has been late in posting major news stories or altogether failed to report on its English website on several major news developments involving the United States and U.S. foreign policy, Egypt, Syria, Russia, and the Vatican:

1. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson’s letter to an Egyptian newspaper protesting against false anti-American reporting;

2. U.S. State Department’s reaction to President Putin calling Secretary of State John Kerry a liar;

3. Pope Francis’s strong statement against military intervention in Syria.


“It is disappointing CJR (Columbia Journalism Review) would publish this commentary (Gary Thomas’s article “Mission Impossible” in CJR), which contains multiple errors, and calls for changes that are either unrealistic or have already been proposed by the very organization Mr. Thomas (former VOA senior correspondent Gary Thomas) maligns.

A simple look at the Voice of America’s website demonstrates we are a hard-hitting and effective international multimedia news organization.

Our audience numbers have never been higher. They are based on VOA’s credibility as an independent news organization. In Africa, we are big on radio and mobile. In Iran, one in five adults watch us every week on TV.

There is nothing “schizophrenic” about what we do.

Times have changed from the days when newsroom journalists rewrote wire copy for shortwave radio. Today, VOA produces dozens of television programs, has nearly 50 separate websites and a wide range of mobile platforms, in addition to radio, podcasts and social media.

Audiences look to VOA for accurate and balanced news they cannot get on state controlled media in many countries, and we provide that in more than 40 languages.

Posted by Kyle King, Director, VOA Public Relations on Wed 3 Jul 2013 at 05:23 PM.”


In addition, VOA has been frequently posting on its website news items and news analyses from Reuters instead of providing original reporting and analysis by VOA correspondents.

Even the most popular VOA reports on Syria and Egypt get barely a few dozen Facebook “Likes” and at most one or two comments, while reports by BBC, Al Jazeera, and Russia Today get thousands Facebook “Likes.”

Critics say that the main VOA website is a disaster. VOA top managers have been ignoring reporters’ concerns for years and have engaged in a campaign of intimidation against their critics.

But according to top managers at VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau, Voice of America is providing comprehensive coverage of Syria news.

BBG Networks Bring Comprehensive Syria Coverage To The Region And Beyond, BBG Press Release

Sources told BBG Watch that except for a few minor improvements, none of correspondents’ main concerns with the VOA news operation and management culture have been addressed. They say that the failure of the VOA management to deal with these issues is negatively affecting Voice of America’s ability to report news on Syria, Egypt and other major news developments. They say that the management’s failure is affecting U.S. interests and security abroad and is costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars that could be spent more productively and efficiently to achieve VOA’s mission and to meet its obligations under the VOA Charter.

A large group of senior Voice of America correspondents sent a number of memos to former VOA Director Dan Austin, current VOA Director David Ensor, and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch. In desperation, they even contacted the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. None of their efforts have resulted in any significant changes. They were submitted by senior management to various forms of intimidation, retaliation and attacks.


Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member (now former) Ambassador Victor Ashe made it clear in a letter to Columbia Journalism Review that the VOA management behaved in a Soviet-like manner:

“It is unfortunate that VOA declined at the direction of David Ensor (VOA Director) and Steve Redisch (VOA Executive Editor) to answer questions submitted by Gary Thomas when they proclaim loudly that VOA prints both sides of a news story. VOA never consulted with the BBG Board at that time when they made the decision to stiff the Columbia Journalism Review which is a respected publication. Now a former Board member, I was embarrassed this happened. It reflects poorly on VOA and not on Gary Thomas.

Victor Ashe
former US Ambassador to Poland, 2004-2009
Mayor of Knoxville, 1988-2003
BBG Board member, 2010 to 2013

Posted by Victor Ashe on Sat 3 Aug 2013 at 12:44 PM.”


VOA reporters tell us that the VOA news website performs just as poorly now as it did when these complaints had been made originally a few years ago. There have been improvements in some areas, they say–not as many serious spelling and headline mistakes as there were before. But they do still occur.

BBG Watch expects the following might happen after the publication of this article:

(a). These issues were largely swept under the rug and will stay there unless the Broadcasting Board of Governors intervenes.

(b). Management’s response, particularly from Steve Redisch and David Ensor, will be to attempt to dismiss the effort by VOA correspondents under the guise that “things have greatly or significantly improved, etc.”

(c). Those who attempted to raise the issues were subjected to some sharp retorts and accused of “whining” about internal issues and the management’s response will continue to be the same.


The following statements and comments were drafted by more than a dozen of Voice of America journalists and submitted at various times to the senior management. They were ignored.


A growing number of VOA correspondents, overseas and domestic, feel a growing disconnect with the English Web operation.   There is a long list of reasons why correspondents feel this way.  But we believe the time has come for management to realize that this situation needs to change so that the full talents of the correspondents can be properly and effectively displayed across the VOA News web site.


VOICE OF AMERICA MANAGEMENT’s COMMENT: “I do not know what the Board thinks about Gary Thomas, but VOA management believe he was a valued employee and respected correspondent.”

GARY THOMAS: “Yet VOA, and specifically Kyle King, tried to get Columbia Journalism Review to quash my piece prior to publication by calling the magazine’s editors to trash me. According to one of the CJR editors, King told CJR that I was a ‘problematic employee’. As for the questions that I posed that management describes as ‘inflammatory and biased’, VOA management seems to forget that it is a journalist’s job to ask tough questions. That’s in a journalist’s DNA. Refusing to answer questions because you don’t like them is what politicians do. VOA management should know better.”


More than a dozen correspondents, based in the U.S. and around the world, ranging from three and four decade veterans to newer staff, have contributed to an informal effort aimed at identifying the range of problems and issues, and to consider how Central News might work with the Web desk to improve our product.

This is not an exercise in ego-gratification, or because our stories are often buried or appear without audio, or are not updated as frequently as we’d like (though as the summary of concerns shows, these are critical issues to be discussed and addressed).

Indeed, we all recognize the stresses on the existing Web operation and its staff, and join in praising the excellent work that is often seen, particularly at times of major crises in countries and regions, such as the current troubles in Japan, North Africa, and the Middle East.

We remain committed to improving this most important platform of our multimedia offerings.  However, any commitment to move forward and improve the site must begin with an acknowledgment of problems, and concerns that have been voiced for a long time now.


We believe that some of the main issues that came to the fore deserve attention, including:   concerns that some of the best material produced by VOA correspondents is given short-shrift on the VOA web site.  These include in-depth analysis pieces, backgrounders intended for television and radio, and the more comprehensive correspondent reports that are filed each day but that are often given uneven treatment by the web site.   This seems a terribly inefficient use and distribution of some of the most important and unique material VOA News produces, which should be a matter of great concern to upper management, focused as it always is on maximizing the impact of our journalism.

We are fully cognizant of the push to build audience through the web site, and the need to record and report to the BBG and to Congress, an ever-growing number of audience clicks.  We hear so often from middle and upper management about the need to emphasize so-called ‘value-added’ material, analysis and in-depth contextual reporting, that is supposed to be the hallmark of a serious news organization like VOA.   This is certainly something our correspondents strive for every day.  Why then is this material not featured in a more consistent, highlighted way on our own web site?

There are a wide variety of concerns in many areas, though contributors often qualified this by acknowledging the resource limitations on the Web desk,  software limitations that we labor under, and the fact that the web operation is managed separately from Central News.  So, correspondents are well aware of the limitations of a set-up in which the key suppliers of material have no control or say in how that material will be used, presented or featured.  But serious concerns have been raised about the news judgment behind placement of material on the web site, and perhaps News Division needs to place itself in a position to offer some help in this area.

The summary of concerns covers the gamut from the failure to timely post stories and update stories on the site, misspelling of correspondent names and inaccurate bylines, defective captions, to under-utilization of photos provided by correspondents.   Colleagues also expressed strong concern about the lack of audio on many of their stories, though they are well aware that management has declared this a low priority issue, citing usage statistics, that should be dropped.  Nevertheless, this issue is mentioned in the input from correspondents, who also remarked on the need to improve site search functions and make it more user-friendly.

Another concern, voiced by veteran and newer correspondents, is that they are becoming discouraged to the point of giving up on the VOA web site altogether.   The word ‘dysfunction’ is often used to describe the current state of affairs.


Again, these concerns and the desire to improve reflect the views of a significant portion of top journalists at VOA, and have also been the subject of significant debate in several meetings over the past year discussing the reorganization of Central News.

In working together and moving forward, everyone should have a responsibility to acknowledge the scope and magnitude of the problem, and recognize that attention to these issues through the pursuit of greater quality control and exercise of news judgment can only benefit the organization in the long-run, and have a positive impact on the morale of those who labor for us each day to report the news and produce quality product across the triad of Radio, TV and Internet.


  • Begin in the 24 hour Central News schedule a mandatory process of mandatory increased communication and consultation, with a Central News  »  Web Desk flow, in which existing site ordering is assessed, and necessary changes are made.
  • Empower Central News personnel as part of this new cooperative and constructive process to seek and achieve greater levels of quality control, and ensure follow through.
  • Create a liaison team to work with the web team with the objective of undertaking frequent assessments over the course of the 24 hour programming clock to ensure that reports receive appropriate play both in the main section and regional topical categories, and that errors when detected are quickly corrected.
  • Seek a more organic process of soliciting ideas from editors, writers and correspondents as to how some material could be featured on the web site, and build this into advance discussion of story pitches.
  • Discuss criteria to be considered such as  (1) importance/significance of the story based on sound news judgment (2) effort and level of resources put into individual reports such as intensive audio and video gathering, etc


Compiled from overseas and domestic correspondent input and a review of email traffic 2008 to 2011

  • Generally, need for greater oversight, application of news judgment on leads, story placement, etc

  • Slow updating of main story leads (often multiple hours)

  • Overall graphic inferiority of VOA site, compared to other major news sites

  • Material from Capitol Hill, White House, other DC bureaus often underplayed on web site

  • Domestic and national stories, and intensive audio effort reports, repeatedly buried, or failing to appear at all

  • Audio of DC senior analysts, correspondents, bureaus not being included in contrast to rapid Q&A material from English hub operation

  • Some DC bureaus (White House, State Department) can go days, or weeks, without audio being included

  • Generally inconsistent policy on inclusion of “straight read” audio versus “value added” audio

  • Audio (sometimes video) not appearing for hours Inappropriate file photos used with stories Inaccurate photo captions

  • Stories appearing on VOA front page missing text
  • Occasionally, reports appear with wrong audio track (switched with another correspondent)
  • Occasionally, stories appear with ///OPT/// and similar markings from raw script

  • Audio links occasionally appearing as downloadable only, and not playable
  • Stories appearing in strange categories, and in multiple categories when they should be limited to one or two, which makes us look a bit ridiculous
  • Photos submitted by correspondents not being used User unfriendliness of site, search functions Poor story linking strategy 
  • FONT inconsistencies in body of stories Miniature fonts used for correspondent bylines Incorrect bylines dropping correspondent names Correspondent names misspelled Correspondent names switched in bylines

Correspondents views

“It does not appear to be a useful place to land and check out the latest news and maybe browse through some other interesting material, then people will not visit.”

“Much of the organization of the page looks like something that would have been put together by a government operation.”

“Oftentimes there is not even a link to another VOA story that is directly related to the story being posted.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“. . .if someone coming to our web site cannot find a story and does not have the option of calling the web desk, they are just going to move on to some other site and not bother with us. Someday, in this budget-cutting environment, someone may wander over to VOA and start asking questions about our efficacy and cost effectiveness. Or worse, they may try to browse our web site.”

“. . .hopeless. You can add spelling correspondents names wrong in bylines to [the] list. I caught my last name mis-spelled on two occasions a few months ago. But certainly could be more, but I loooong ago gave up checking the VOA website….hopeless.”

“. . . the web desk is indeed “dismissive” of significant U.S. news events and major U.S. political developments and that we need to have a substantive discussion on what our mission is and how it is reflected on our web site.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“… I pointed out that, several hours after the signing, it was the lead story for the BBC and most major news organizations’ websites. Our VOA website had nada, zippo on DADT but exhaustive headlines detailing everything taking place in Ivory Coast.”

“ . . .news judgment is dictated by desired audience outcomes, not news.”

“The web desk seems only concerned with whatever drives Internet traffic, and is dismissive of major US stories and developments. As a result, much of what we generate domestically gets buried, if it appears at all.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“Often times I will take pictures and send them independently for inclusion on the web, only to have an AP or other photo used instead of the original content.”

“In neither case did the VOA website at any time play these stories on the site main page. In both cases, when they did appear on the site, they were item 5 or 6 inside on the US domestic story or South Asia category respectively. This is pretty surprising, especially in the case of the Clinton Internet policy speech, since our website arguably has to do with the Internet. As a consequence of being so egregiously-underplayed, neither Clinton story made the most-viewed lists.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“ . . .periods of up to 10 hours when most of our target audience is awake (Asia) can pass without a single item being posted on the web site.”

“A few correspondents . . . are so frustrated with audio rarely being posted on the web or 12 hours after we’ve filed when it does get on the web that we post our own pieces to the web via tools such as Soundcloud.”

“This is a task we should be doing in Washington quickly for all correspondent CR’s. Many of us take great pride in our radio/audio work. Isn’t this VOA’s DNA after all? Doesn’t NPR put all of their pieces on the web? Why shouldn’t VOA?”
“Our leaders, such as the BBG governors, talk the talk on the future of VOA being online but we don’t walk the walk. Our web site is unattractive, hard to use, hard to Google and our content only gets posted many hours after it’s produced.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“I did a backgrounder on Libyan politics and its future – original reporting and interviews, and a pretty new take, too, I might add. It was edited and issued at 1:36 PM Friday. As of 12:30 AM SATURDAY – 11 hours later – the piece was still nowhere to be found anywhere on the web site.”

“What, pray tell, is the use of busting our asses to do such pieces when they don’t even make it to the web site – much less get played or bundled as part of the news package of breaking pieces – while unbalanced sole-source interviews and widely available material from think tank events get play?”

“Call it whining if you will. I call it professional criticism of unprofessional handling and treatment of our journalistic product. From where I sit it seems that repeated concerns voiced by other correspondents as well as me about the web desk’s handling of News Division stories have not resulted in any meaningful improvement.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“….the issue cannot be continually kicked down the road. Sooner or later it will have to be confronted head on if we are to have a truly meaningful and respected presence on the web characterized by coherent packages of news and analysis, and not just a slipshod and haphazard amalgamation of pieces.”

“This has nothing to with ego. It has to do with having our website deal with stories in a coherent way and a journalistically sound manner. What’s the use of trying to do real reporting if our primary mass platform is simply going treat it as so much digital waste paper?”

“ . . .correspondents and writers are forced to undertake personal interventions to ensure that their material appears correctly
without errors, or that reports appear at all.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“ . . .where audio is concerned, this is a combination of news judgment, staffing issues, an Internet/WEB policy that disrespects the hard work many still do to produce quality reportage WITH audio, an approach that often results in our lacking content that our competitors routinely decide is important to have.”

“It’s an approach that management has simply turned a blind eye to, and/or avoided honest discussions about (see my memo from 2010 on inconsistency regarding audio), preferring to alienate those in central news who have sought to shine light on it.”

“. . .delays as long as 23 to 26 hours in having audio posted on stories — including MAJOR stories. . .either have a consistent and efficient policy regarding audio, or don’t have

at all. There’s no reason why, for example, the White House should go weeks with having no or minimal audio posted when we see reports from stringers and others, many of whom have inferior voicing, are routinely processed and posted on the web page.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“BBC routinely leaves VOA in the dust when it comes to web page updating . . . I’ve seen it time and time again. This is a combination of a number of things, including human resource/staffing issues, turnaround times by certain people on certain desks, communication between desks, etc”

“The file is full of examples like this, where hours upon hours of audio work
on specific occasions as well as over time, go un-reflected on web stories. . .many of us have had our audio work stripped from the web site. . . while some people in the organization were enabled/empowered to continue having their audio work reflected on web stories. . .”

“I have never had as many quality stories appear without audio. . . it seems there is no logic guiding decisions about which reports are deemed worthy of an over- worked web operation processing audio.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“(Audio is) the issue that unfortunately has led some in management to label as complainers those raising it. . . some of us have had to develop our own personal connections with specific web staff who will then do us the “favor” of posting audio. (On President Obama’s) Tucson speech audio was posted after a 15+ hour delay as a “favor” by someone on the desk who sympathizes with correspondents on the audio issue. . . why isn’t the decision-making process in the web operation able to make consistently sound decisions as to which pieces really should have audio posted, particularly when a report is the product of many hours of effort?”

“One has to wonder, with what arguably was one of the most pivotal moments for an American president, and one on which I’m sure many of our competitors on the Internet posted some if not all of the video, why VOA’s web page (which was text of my story) contained no audio OR video for hours after the event.”

Correspondents views (continued)

“There is no conceivable reason that correspondents on the Hill, at the White House, at State and Pentagon, and those in the senior writer’s group should have to battle to have their audio included on web stories . . . we’re talking about how decisions are made and whether there has been consistency in policy regarding audio processing for reports on the VOA site.”

“BBC USA page had the U.S. Troops/Afghanistan story, and Daley/Chief of Staff both played prominently at 1221 EST. VOA had neither until much later. . .BBC continues to routinely clean our clock. They are quick at the game, and they know hot to place stories prominently on their pages, in contrast with the VOA site, which often leaves one with the impression that we are asleep at the switch.”

Comments are closed.