BBG Watch Commentary

Someone worked at the White House this Saturday, November 7, but not at the U.S. taxpayer-funded media organizations serving foreign audiences: Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). At least there was no one working at either VOA or RFE/RL — both of which are managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — to report on the Statement by the White House Press Secretary on the Holodomor — the starving to death of the millions of innocent Ukrainians “as a result of the brutal policies of Joseph Stalin’s regime,” as the White House put it.

The White House issued its Holodomor statement to the press at 2:00 PM EST on Saturday. If no one else, the Voice of America should have reported on it, and RFE/RL should have as well. But a search of their websites and social media pages showed that by midnight on Saturday there was nothing on the White House Holodomor statement from VOA or RFE/RL in English, Ukrainian or Russian.

VOA and RFE/RL Ukrainian and Russian services did have reports on the unveiling in Washington, D.C. on Saturday of the memorial to the victims of Holodomor in Ukraine in 1932-1933. But after that, nothing. There was no mention of the White House statement that we could find.

We have known for some time that the Voice of America English newsroom is practically empty on weekends. VOA language services do not have staff nor resources to cover news online and on social media 24/7. These resources have been diverted over the years to the BBG enormous bureaucracy which predictably does not work on weekends. Neither VOA nor RFE/RL have permanent executives in charge. BBG has new CEO, John Lansing, but he has been on the job only a few weeks. RFE/RL management is more absorbed attacking its former Russian human rights reporter suing RFE/RL in a Moscow court for unfair termination than paying attention to discontent of its Russian staff with hostile management style at RFE/RL. Radio Liberty human rights reporter was fired by the Russian Service as she was being vilified by a Russian ultra-nationalist website which called her a “traitor” and a “Jew.” Believe it or not, RFE/RL managers had testified against this poor journalist in a Putin court in Moscow.

But according to one Republican member of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, taxpayer-funded BBG media outlets are doing great. Matt Armstrong assured U.S. lawmakers in a congressional testimony on October 22, presumably under oath, that “BBG serves as a key explainer of U.S. policy.” “VOA’s Charter mandates that our programs ‘present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and…also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies’,” Armstrong said.

Mr. Armstrong should call Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication for U.S. President Barack Obama, and explain why VOA and RFE/RL did not report on Saturday on the White House Press Secretary Statement on the Holodomor. He should also call Richard Stengel, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs who often represents Secretary Kerry at BBG board meetings. Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, concluded at a congressional hearing in 2013, when she was still Secretary of State and an ex officio BBG member, that the Broadcasting Board of Governors was “practically defunct.” and that the U.S. was losing an “information war.”

Other former BBG members agree with her. “RFE/RL is in deep crisis,” a former BBG Governor who requested anonymity, recently told BBG Watch. “It can’t get powerful programming on the air in a timely fashion or of the quantity needed, due in no small part to having no senior leadership for more than a year in a half,” this former presidential appointee to the BBG stated. “One hopes that new CEO John Lansing will come up to speed on international broadcasting,” the former BBG Governor added. This former BBG member said that Mr. Armstrong is ignoring these problems and “drowning criticism in a torrent of over-inflated bombast trumpeting invisible successes.”

One could ask where was the VOA White House correspondent or correspondents on Saturday. Don’t they get White House emails? Doesn’t the VOA newsroom get White House emails? Couldn’t someone forward the White House statement to VOA and RFE/RL newsrooms and VOA and RFE/RL Ukrainian and Russian Services? May be someone did, or may be VOA White House correspondent or correspondents do not work on weekends. Perhaps VOA and RFE/RL languages services have no staff to do an extra news report on a Saturday. Or perhaps both VOA and RFE/RL are experiencing a management meltdown similar to the management meltdown at the BBG and its bureaucratic arm — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which new BBG CEO John Lansing is supposed to fix. If he relies on the managers now in charge, he is bound to fail.

Mr. Armstrong is wrong, and the critics are right. VOA and it appears that leaderless RFE/RL are in a deep crisis. If the Malaysian Insider could report on the White House Holodomor statement, why couldn’t the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty which get about $200 million and $100 million respectively of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars each year? The Times of India also reported on the White House statement. Both used an AFP report. Where was VOA? A Russian news website,, had a report in English on the White House statement. Where was RFE/RL?

As former Voice of America director David Jackson noted recently: “Like most government-funded broadcasters, VOA is facing an uncertain future because of factors that are outside its control, such as budget constraints and censorship by anti-democratic leaders in countries like Russia and China. But VOA’s future is also uncertain because of its own shortcomings.”

“Both secretaries of State in the Obama administration have been critical of the BBG, and members of Congress from both parties have made it clear they expect the BBG and its multimedia broadcasters to play a constructive role in the nation’s public diplomacy efforts,” former Voice of America David Jackson wrote. “VOA can still do that, but only if it fulfills all elements of its Charter, a document that clearly lays out the broad range of coverage that Congress expects,” he added. “Just as importantly, VOA’s journalists need to understand that while the Charter gave them the editorial freedom they need to do their job, it did not give them the freedom to ignore their Charter,” Jackson observed.

As long as BBG members deny that the agency, the Voice of America, and RFE/RL are in a serious crisis and try to deceive members of Congress and the public that nothing is wrong, there is no chance that the U.S. can even begin to counter Putin’s propaganda and violent extremism.

While both VOA and RFE/RL ignored the White House statement in their online content, Washington Examiner did not. Less than an hour after the White House released its Holodomor statement, Washington Examiner posted online at 2:52 PM an article by Curt Mills titled “White House subtly links Putin and Stalin.”

“A statement from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest honoring victims of the Holodomor, a mass starvation in the 1930’s Soviet Union, made subtle comparisons between Soviet premier Josef Stalin and current Russian leadership,” Washington Examiner reported.

Perhaps the job of the Voice of America should be turned over to the Washington Examiner — “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and…also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”

But according to BBG’s Matt Armstrong, it is U.S. private media that can learn lessons from the Voice of America.

BBG GOVERNOR MATT ARMSTRONG: “Beyond the highlighting of the professional journalism produced by VOA (especially in light of continuing criticism that intentionally focuses on the past rather than present, or dismisses structural and cultural friction some of the same critics helped ossify), it utilizes a disused avenue for Americans to access foreign affairs. As U.S. commercial media has retreated from abroad, parachuting in when desired, VOA etc are on the ground, living and working in the places that are important to U.S. international relations. Beyond ISIS and Russia, there is China and SE Asia, Africa, and South America that our people have deep knowledge of and access to. It is possible the commercial media will use the free resource of VOA as the stigma goes away. If they do, that’s great. If that causes U.S. commercial media to step up and redevelop their capacity, that’s even better.”

So where is the White House statement on the Holodomor on VOA or RFE/RL?

Reality check, Mr. Armstrong.


On Nov 7, 2015, at 2:00 PM, White House Press Office wrote:
Office of the Press Secretary
November 7, 2015

Statement by the Press Secretary on the Holodomor

Today we join Ukrainians here in America and around the world to remember the catastrophe of the Holodomor, and the millions of innocent Ukrainians who starved to death more than eight decades ago as a result of the brutal policies of Joseph Stalin’s regime. It was the Soviet regime’s deliberate seizure of Ukrainian crops and refusal to provide food relief that turned Europe’s breadbasket into a land of immeasurable human suffering.
Despite decades of totalitarian rule, Ukrainians refused to abandon their drive for freedom and independence. And as the Ukrainian people face new threats to their territory and well-being, they have once again demonstrated their resolute commitment to human dignity. Ukraine’s modern struggle for freedom and democracy is a testament to the unbreakable spirit of its people and honors the memory of the many who perished under Stalin’s brutal rule.
It is incumbent upon us to remember the horrors of the past as we renew our commitment to the prevention of future atrocities. Through the tireless efforts of the Ukrainian-American community and friends of the Ukrainian people, a memorial now stands in the heart of our nation’s capital, allowing Americans to share in the somber memory of the Holodomor and reflect upon our shared determination to build a better world.