BBG Watch Commentary
Not too long ago Voice of America (VOA) top executives would not think of carrying live online and in radio and TV programs foreign policy speeches by U.S. President. Criticism from BBG Watch and others forced them to carry some of President Obama’s major speeches live, at least online, but they are still unable to plan for uninterrupted transmissions even to regions and countries directly affected by what the U.S. President may be saying.
According to MC, our reporter and commentator based in the UK, President Obama’s speech at the summit of African leaders in Washington was interrupted and cut in a Voice of America radio transmission to of all places — Africa. Instead of being able to listen to the concluding remarks of President Obama’s speech about Africa, audiences in Africa were suddenly treated by VOA to a program of African music, which does not even start with a news summary. VOA made no attempt to continue its live transmission or to present the highlights of President Obama’s speech in the later part of its radio program to Africa. As our UK-based reporter and commentator observed, “That’s certainly what they would have done as a matter of course, until VOA’s quality decline over the past few years.”
There may be several explanations for this appalling lack of planning and judgment on the part of senior executives and managers of U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA. One explanation is that no one at the top is paying attention to VOA programs and making coverage and programming decisions when the U.S. President is making a foreign policy speech.
Another explanation may be that VOA is now committed to serving local affiliates who prefer Voice of America music programs to Voice of America news programs. VOA may have decided to cut President Obama’s speech about Africa because some local stations carrying VOA programs object to too much talk and too much news.
“For VOA English there’s no time for news nowadays, it’s music all the way, our UK-based observer noted.
Lack of leadership, lack of understanding of the VOA Charter with its focus on U.S. news and lack of sensitivity to foreign audiences on the part of senior VOA managers all appear to be major factors in the decline of Voice of America’s role as a reliable news provider. In anonymous posts on BBG Watch, some VOA journalists have called on VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor to resign.
MC’s suggestion that Voice of America executives should have “asked the White House to ensure that the President made sure he finished speaking before the all-important “The Africa Beat” was scheduled to start…” should not be taken seriously. The commentator was being humorous. VOA executives do not have this kind of clout in Washington.
It is also worth pointing out that despite the VOA Charter’s obligation to offer balanced reporting, the main VOA English news website had nothing about the criticism of President Obama’s Africa policy from Republican Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce who wrote an op-ed, “What’s missing from the Africa summit“:
REP. ED ROYCE: President Obama once pressed for good governance aggressively. In 2009, when he traveled to Ghana and addressed that country’s parliament, he took a “no excuses” approach toward African leaders.
In an interview just before landing on the continent, the President noted that, “I’m a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa … for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance; that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism. I’m not a believer in excuses. … I think that it’s very important for African leadership to take responsibility and be held accountable.”
Nice words, unfortunately undermined by a summit agenda that shorts good governance.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Royce served on the Africa Subcommittee for 16 years and was chairman of the Subcommittee from 1997-2004.
VOA English News also did not report online that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), and Senate Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee Chairman Chris Coons (D-DE) met with President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila and President of South Sudan Salva Kiir.
Rep. Royce is a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill, H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act, to reform the Voice of America together with the rest of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which was unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and passed by the House of Representatives. Senator Menendez is playing a key role in getting the bipartisan reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate.
In its radio coverage of the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, Voice of America was slighting President Obama and in its online coverage VOA English News ignoring both key Democrats and Republicans in Congress: Democratic Senators Menendez and Coons and Republican Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce.
While reporting online on President Obama’s speech at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, VOA English News failed to report on Rep. Royce’s criticism of President Obama’s Africa policy. Such balanced reporting is required by the VOA Charter. Its says that “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” The VOA Charter also says: “1.VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions. 2. 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)
— Foreign Affairs Cmte (@HouseForeign) August 5, 2014
— Foreign Affairs Cmte (@HouseForeign) August 5, 2014
— Foreign Affairs Cmte (@HouseForeign) August 6, 2014
White House video of President Obama addresses the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Business Forum on August 5, 2014.
From MC, a longtime listener to Voice of America programs who lives in the UK
Listening to VOA on the radio a few hours ago (August 5, 2014), I was pleasantly surprised to hear President Obama’s speech and subsequent Q&A session at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum was being carried live, replacing the scheduled 19.05 GMT repeat of “International Edition”, and Special English programming at 19.30 GMT. I can’t remember the last time I heard VOA English radio interrupt their normal programming to carry a presidential speech and Q&A live (except for the State of the Union each year) so this was a welcome change, and as most of VOA’s English language audience at this hour would be in sub-Saharan Africa, it made sense from a programming point of view.
But what was more surprising was what happened towards the end. President Obama was part way through his closing remarks – he certainly hadn’t finished them – when VOA suddenly ended its live coverage, and at exactly 20.00 GMT cut back to its regularly scheduled programme – “The Africa Beat,” a 60 minute programme of African music. I was surprised that VOA didn’t just stay with the President until he’d finished speaking. That’s certainly what they would have done as a matter of course, until VOA’s quality decline over the past few years.
I’m not convinced it was the right judgement by VOA (or consistent with the VOA Charter) that it was more important for its African audience to have a full 60 minutes of African music, than it was to give full and complete coverage of a Presidential address that would be of major interest to Africa – even if that had meant a shortened music programme.
It’s worth mentioning that VOA English to Africa now has music programming (but no significant news shows) during the last two hours of it’s evening line up, with “The Africa Beat” (which doesn’t even start with a news summary), then followed by an hour of American music (although that does at least start with 5 minutes of news). So VOA’s English language audience in Africa will have to wait until Wednesday morning for any analysis or reportage of the President’s address, as after 8pm in Liberia (9pm in Nigeria), for VOA English there’s no time for news nowadays, it’s music all the way.
All the more reason VOA should have stayed covering the President live until he had actually finished speaking. (Or alternatively, asked the White House to ensure that the President made sure he finished speaking before the all-important “The Africa Beat” was scheduled to start…..)