Despite its legal obligation to report on U.S. foreign policy, U.S. taxpayer-supported Voice of America (VOA), had only one sentence on the VOA English website about the U.S. State Department press statement quoting Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction to the release from prison in Russia of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russia’s state-funded broadcaster, the Voice of Russia (VOR), on the other hand, quoted Kerry’s statement almost in full and posted a separate news report on it on its English website.
Online searches of the VOA English website and websites of many of VOA’s other language services have not produced any results showing any additional substantive mention or reporting on the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s statement to the press, dated, Friday, December 20, 2013. As of late Sunday afternoon, a link to Secretary Kerry’s full statement was still posted on the State Department’s homepage. We could not check every website, but it appears that among VOA’s 45 language services, probably only the VOA Russian Service website had more than one sentence on Kerry’s statement.
VOA English website posted its one sentence on Kerry’s reaction in a news report filed the day after the release of the State Department statement.
Voice of America English News
“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement welcoming the release and urging Russia to establish a transparent, independent and reliable judicial system.” — Khodorkovsky in Germany Following Release From Russian Prison, VOA English website, December 21, 2013.
It’s a very short summary of a far more substantive statement. It does not mention Secretary Kerry’s expression of concern for the fate of Khodorkovsky’s business partner Platon Lebedev, who remains in prison.
In any case, the short reference to Kerry’s statement appeared on the VOA English website many hours after media in Russia reported on it in much greater detail than the Voice of America.
Voice of Russia English News
The Voice of Russia (VOR) English website had a separate, 365-word news report, which quoted almost the entire statement from Secretary Kerry on Khodorkovsky’s release: US State Secretary Kerry welcomes Russia’s release of Khodorkovsky, Voice of Russia, 21 December, 13:45.
VOICE OF AMERICA ENGLISH: “U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement welcoming the release and urging Russia to establish a transparent, independent and reliable judicial system.” — Voice of America
VOICE OF RUSSIA ENGLISH: “We welcome the pardon and release from prison of Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” Kerry said in a statement Friday.
“We have repeatedly expressed our concerns about due process violations and selective prosecution in Russia, including against Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev, who remains in prison.”
“The United States supports the rights of all Russians to exercise their freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and belief, regardless of their political views. These rights are enshrined in the Russian Constitution as well as in international agreements to which Russia has committed itself,” Kerry said.
“The United States strongly encourages Russia to pursue reforms that establish a transparent, independent, and reliable judicial system that upholds its commitments to human rights, the rule of law, and non-discrimination,” Kerry said. — Voice of Russia
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which like the Voice of America is also supervised by the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), but unlike VOA does not specialize in American news, offered more extensive coverage of Secretary Kerry’s statement on Khodorkovsky on its foreign language websites, and even on its English website.
RFE/RL ENGLISH: “A written statement from Kerry noted that Washington has repeatedly expressed concerns about what it described as ‘due process violations and selective prosecution in Russia, including against Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev, who remains in prison.’
The statement said Washington strongly encourages Russia to pursue judicial reforms.” RFE/RL English website.
Unlike VOA English News, which only had one sentence on Kerry’s statement in one report, RFE/RL repeated Kerry’s statement in several reports on Khodorkovsky on its English and foreign language news website.
That has not been the case among Voice of America’s 44 languages other than English. A search of several VOA foreign language websites showed that many of them did not do any reporting on Kerry’s statement on Khodorkovsky. They would have relied for such reporting on the VOA Central English Newsroom, which did not offer its one sentence until the next day. By then, many VOA language services used earlier versions of VOA English News reports, which had no reference to Secretary Kerry’s statement.
The State Department’s Twitter account shows a link to Secretary Kerry’s statement on Khodorkovsky with Dec. 20 date.
— Department of State (@StateDept) December 21, 2013
The Voice of America Russian Service had a much longer report on its website on Secretary Kerry’s statement on Khodorkovsky’s release. The Russian Service also reported on the statement on Khodorkovsky from Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman of the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House. In fact, the VOA Russian Service called the NSC and requested a comment, as did Russia’s news agency RIA Novosti.
But the VOA English website did not report on the NSC spokeswoman’s comment until many hours later and also hours behind reports on it on such Russian media outlets as RT (formerly Russia Today, the Voice of Russia, and RIA Novosti.
Other then the VOA Russian Service, most of VOA’s foreign language services had nothing on Secretary Kerry’s statement on Khodorkovsky’s release, or just one sentence.
The VOA Charter, which is public law in the United States, 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).”
We are not legal experts, but it seems to us that this VOA Charter requirement obligates the Voice of America to have more than just one sentence on Secretary Kerry’s statement on a news development, which on that day was a lead news item for many international media outlets, including BBC and RT (formerly Russia Today).
At the very least, this Voice of America Charter requirement should convince Voice of America executives, including VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch, to offer at least as much reporting on Secretary Kerry’s statement as the Voice of Russia.
It’s possible that Director Ensor is so concerned that the Voice of America under his directorship not be associated by foreign audiences with the United States government or the United States in general for fear of being accused of government propaganda that he and his deputy would rather allow posting five reports on the recent royal christening in Great Britain than more than one sentence on a statement by U.S. Secretary of State on a major international and U.S. foreign policy-related breaking news development.
We do not know in fact whether this is due to such concerns or simple incompetence, but we note that Director Ensor recently insisted that the Voice of America is not a mouthpiece of the White House. The headline in the Huffington Post was: “VOA is ‘Not a Mouthpiece of the White House,’ Director Says.” A post in his own blog was titled: “VOA is Nobody’s Mouthpiece.”
Being a mouthpiece of any government is not something we support either, but not reporting at all on significant U.S. foreign policy statements, being a day or two late, or dismissing them with just one sentence while Russian media outlets quote them almost in full, strikes us as a sign of remarkable incompetence on the part of senior management and a violation of the VOA Charter itself.
What we have is a general failure of the Voice of America central news operation, which also affects the vast majority of VOA’s 45 language services. It also appears to us that David Ensor has not paid sufficient attention to the VOA Charter with its paragraph one emphasis on news reporting and paragraph three requirement of reporting on U.S. policies and and discussions of these policies.
BBG Watch has been reporting extensively for quite some time on complaints of serious problems with the functioning of the VOA English Newsroom and VOA English website. Insiders and outside observers attribute these problems to incompetent and employee-unfriendly senior executives who have ignored warnings and advice from their own rank and file employees.
James Warren, wrote in an op-ed for New York Daily News, “The uncertain Voice of America,” New York Daily News December 22, 2013 that “instant disclosure of screw-ups” is provided “via an influential independent website (BBG Watch).”
James Warren also wrote that VOA Director “David Ensor may be at once on the side of the angels and the wrong side of history.”
New York Daily News columnist reported that at “an unusual session last week, a revamped and seemingly improved board [Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)] “held the first in a series of ‘deep dives’ to better understand what each big entity actually does.”
James Warren wrote that “The earnest and capable Ensor justified the VOA’s existence in a scripted 45-minute presentation with video — and then was left a bit defensive and plaintive amid fair and predictable questions.”
One of the questions posed to David Ensor came from BBG member Matt Armstrong:
“Every time there is a breaking news event — I’m not talking about a car chase or a white Bronco on a freeway — I go to VOA websites, not just English, but the other websites, those that I can sort of ascertain, realize … I’ve actually studied three other languages … not that I can speak any of them, and I also use Google translate to try to help me, and then I get the pictures and look at the general layout, and what I find surprising is what appears to be the lack on the website of any event and that we lag significantly behind other media outlets whether they would be our direct tier-one competitors, whether it it is CCTV, Russia Today, CNNI, BBC, whatever it’s going to be. And then when we do file a story, it seems it’s thin at the least, especially when I compare it to these other offerings.” — BBG Governor Matt Armstrong
BBG Governor Ambassador Ryan Crocker also suggested to Director Ensor that VOA should pay attention to the third requirement of its Charter. (“3. 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)”
Ensor blamed any shortcomings in news reporting on insufficient resources and did not acknowledge any problems with his own leadership or that of his senior managers. He has inherited these managers, but instead of replacing them because of numerous reports of incompetence and dismal employee morale going back several years, he gave them full support, approved their outstanding performance bonuses, and allowed them to continue in their ways.
Since BBG Watch has been reporting on serious problems with these executives, VOA English newsroom, and VOA English website for the entire time David Ensor has been with VOA, as much as we appreciate James Warren’s reference to us in New York Daily News as “influential,” we must conclude that while the Broadcasting Board of Governors members have paid attention and sometimes VOA News responded to our criticisms by posting a short sentence or a news item a day later, David Ensor has not addressed any of the underlying management issues that his deputies have created. They refuse to change and cannot be trusted with solving any of these problems.
There is, however, some hope that the new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will intervene. Richard Lobo, former director of the BBG’s management arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), also had refused to make any substantive personnel or management changes. He retired at the end of November. Lobo likewise gave his senior associates, whom he had also inherited, his full support, approved their outstanding performance bonuses, and allowed them to continue in their ways.
Last week, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell announced that Lobo’s deputy, Jeff Trimble, would be leaving his managerial post for an unspecified journalistic assignment. He will be replaced at IBB by an interim three-person management team while the BBG is looking for a permanent CEO. It appears that Shell and the new BBG board are serious about changing management culture at IBB, and by extension also at VOA.
There may still be hope for reforms at VOA.
U.S. State Department Press Statement
Secretary of State
December 20, 2013
We welcome the pardon and release from prison of Mikhail Khodorkovskiy. We have repeatedly expressed our concerns about due process violations and selective prosecution in Russia, including against Khodorkovskiy and his business partner Platon Lebedev, who remains in prison.
The United States strongly encourages Russia to pursue reforms that establish a transparent, independent, and reliable judicial system that upholds its commitments to human rights, the rule of law, and non-discrimination.
We welcome the amnesty approved on the 20th anniversary of Russia’s constitution. The United States supports the rights of all Russians to exercise their freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and belief, regardless of their political views. These rights are enshrined in the Russian Constitution as well as in international agreements to which Russia has committed itself. They are universal values, and their protection is a fundamental responsibility of all governments.