BBG Watch Commentary

After trying to convince the world last week that Americans were in a “State of Fear” in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack in California, the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) committed another journalistic and public diplomacy blunder by falsely suggesting to its international audiences that Republican presidential contender Donald Trump surged in polls because of his call to bar Muslims from entering the United States.

Inaccurate, careless, “good-enough-for-government-work” reporting by the Voice of America can be dangerous for Americans abroad and in the United States. It can cause a backlash against America based on nothing but rumors, speculations and suggestions that may very well turn out to be false. Voice of America is practicing U.S. public diplomacy in reverse.

We are certain that individual VOA reporters would never do anything to intentionally endanger Americans. Some VOA reporters are still capable of excellent work. Some VOA foreign language services deliver accurate and detailed news about the United States and the world that is not available from any other source. But they now work in an organization that has allowed funding and support for news reporting and news analysis to deteriorate to a dangerously low level, weakened its editorial controls so they are practically non-existent, and has leaders who are uncertain about VOA’s mission and ignore its Charter.

A senior congressional staffer told BBG Watch in response to Voice of America’s earlier “State of Fear” article that the quality of VOA journalism is “poor” because of “failures in leadership.”

Voice of America report titled, “Trump Continues Poll Surge Despite Backlash Over Muslims,” which makes a careless and factually unsupported suggestion, is prominently displayed today, December 10, 2015, as a featured multimedia news story on the Voice of America’s main English-language news homepage. It may be soon translated into other languages and posted on other VOA news websites.

Voice of America English  News Homepage Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 5:31 PM EST
Voice of America English News Homepage Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 5:31 PM EST

The report has a written introduction which we believe falsely implies a link between Mr. Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigrants and his recent surge in polls and does not explain how the poll was conducted, who supports Mr. Trump’s call and who does not, or that nearly six-in-10 Americans oppose his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States (NBC/WSJ Poll). The VOA report suggests that any “furious backlash against his plan,” which VOA noted, is ineffective in changing public opinion. This suggestion is not supported. It may very well be false, and in our opinion, most likely is. VOA’s foreign audiences, particularly in the Muslim world, should be told of these facts. They were not by VOA.


VOICE OF AMERICA: “Republican presidential contender Donald Trump continues to surge in public opinion polls despite a furious backlash against his plan to bar Muslims from entering the United States. The latest New York Times-CBS News poll shows Trump leading the Republican presidential field with 35 percent support.”


The problem with the Voice of America headline, the introduction to the VOA report and the VOA video itself is that the key message they offer unsuspecting international audiences is not supported by the latest New York Times-CBS News poll, which VOA cites. This VOA video report was prepared without much care and was not properly edited.

Considering the backlash against Mr. Trump’s demagogic comment on Muslim immigration, including strong condemnation by leaders of the Republican Party (their statements were reflected later in the VOA report), it is possible, perhaps even very likely, that his support among Republicans and Americans in general will decline rather than grow as a result of his blanket anti-Muslim statement which the majority of Americans see as violating basic American values.

At the very least, we do not know whether support for Mr. Trump’s will or will not increase among Republicans and among all voters following his racist comment, but the Voice of America falsely suggested to the world, without offering any evidence, that Mr. Trump’s support had already grown because of his incendiary remark. VOA would have done better if it explained that Mr. Trump is a businessman first, a showman second, a buffoon, a demagogue, and an opportunistic politician last.

Barring such explanations, VOA should have at least gotten its facts about any link between the polls and his anti-Muslims statement right.

According to the New York Times:


NEW YORK TIMES: “The poll was taken largely before [Emphasis added.] his statement on Monday afternoon proposing to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the United States.”


According to CBSNews:


CBSNews: “Most of the interviews for this poll were conducted before [Emphasis added.] Trump made statements concerning a ban on Muslims entering the United States.”


Careless, false and misleading reporting by the Voice of America on international terrorism can endanger American lives abroad and in the United States

The VOA report strongly suggests that all Americans, not just some Republicans, increased their support for Mr. Trump after his comment against Muslims, when in fact at the very least we do not know for sure whether they did or not. Mr. Trump may very well lose support judging by a strong negative reaction in the U.S. to his anti-Muslims remark.

VOA would have been better off if it reported on the poll as the New York Times and CBSNews did or perhaps even better than they did. VOA did much worse.

This latest blunder should be a good lesson for Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Republican member Matt Armstrong and a few others who deny that there is anything seriously wrong anymore with the BBG and VOA and who even suggest that VOA can be a model of news reporting for U.S. domestic media and that VOA news reports should be used by American media. U.S. domestic media are not great by any means, but they are still far superior to what VOA English news reporting has become in recent years as a result of diminished resources, mismanagement and lack of leadership.

Unlike VOA, both the New York Times and CBSNews pointed out, although perhaps not as emphatically as they should have, that the poll was taken largely before Mr. Trump made his comment — the fact not reflected at all in the Voice of America report. If the Voice of America conducted its own poll (we are quite sure it did not) and knows something that nobody else knows, international audiences should have been told about it.

We have pointed out many times before that the job of U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA is to do even better than the domestic U.S. media in explaining the American political process to the world. The world knows far less about the United States than Americans do. Foreign audiences are bombarded with false information about America and anti-American propaganda. Precise reporting and good background information from VOA are needed to keep Americans safe. At the very least, the Voice of America should not endanger Americans with careless news reporting and commentary.

VOICE OF AMERICA: “Trump continues to lead in national and key state polls even after [Emphasis added.] he set off a firestorm with his proposal to ban Muslims coming to the U.S.”

This statement in the Voice of America report is not supported by any evidence. VOA did not bother to check whether the poll it cited was taken after Mr. Trump made his comment about Muslim immigration. VOA does not even differentiate clearly for foreign audiences in the headline and the introduction between support for Mr. Trump among Republicans and among all Americans. According to various polls, Mr. Trump does not lead in nationwide polls among all likely American voters. Former First Lady and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that “Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, have a favorable opinion of Muslims — 59 percent positive to 29 percent negative – which is relatively stable on a question dating back to 2002.”

The New York Times article offered a different and much more nuanced perspective than the Voice of America on any links between Mr. Trump’s recent anti-Muslims controversial remark and possible future support for his candidacy.

The lead paragraph of the New York Times report, titled: “Donald Trump Solidifies His Lead, but Leaves Many Nervous,” said:


NEW YORK TIMES: “Donald J. Trump occupies his strongest position yet in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, yet nearly two-thirds of American voters say they are concerned or frightened about the prospect of a Trump presidency, [Emphasis added.] according to the latest New York Times/CBS News nationwide poll.”


The New York Times and CBSNews made sure to point out that their poll largely does not reflect any reaction to Mr. Trump’s anti-Muslims comment — something the Voice of America failed to point out. VOA misled international audiences and possibly endangered American lives.

Shame on VOA, particularly VOA management and executives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) who continue to fail to provide proper leadership, guidance, oversight and editorial control for the Voice of America. They should pay attention to bipartisan criticism coming from the Capitol Hill, former BBG members, former Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executives and journalists, and former U.S. diplomats.


SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL STAFFER: “I would say that the biggest problem with the VOA article [“State of Fear“] is the poor quality of the journalism – an appreciable decline from an organization that once was the standard bearer. The article is one-sided and it is odd that there is no identified author. However, it does appear in the section of the website that I assume is for editorials. As we’ve seen before, poor journalistic quality inside the VOA can be attributed to failures in leadership. When an organization is confused about its mission and purpose, it’s not surprising that its product is sub-par.”