BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of America Director David Ensor. Critics say that VOA news reporting under him and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch has declined and nearly collapsed.
Voice of America Director David Ensor. Critics say that VOA news reporting under him and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch has declined and nearly collapsed.

Whether the news is good or bad for the United States or for President Putin, chances are good these days that the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) will not report it, while BBC and state-controlled media in Russia and Iran will, often to America’s detriment.

The latest examples are President Obama’s comments in his State of the Union speech about Ukraine and the reported threat against an American journalist Michael Scotto by U.S. Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY).

On the second story, BBC, Russia’s RT, and Iran’s Press TV reported that U.S. Representative Michael Grimm threatened to “break” a NY1 television reporter Michael Scotto and throw him off a balcony after President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. The incident happened after Scotto surprised Congressman Grimm with a question about allegations concerning a federal probe into his campaign finances.

BBC later reported that Congressman Grimm apologized to the reporter.

As reported by BBC, Grimm said afterwords in a statement that his behaviour toward NY1’s Michael Scotto was “wrong”. “I shouldn’t have allowed my emotions to get the better of me and lose my cool,” he said.

RT and Press TV reported on the incident but not on the apology as of this time (9:00 PM EST, Wednesday).

The Voice of America English news website and websites of the vast majority of its more than 40 foreign language services had nothing on this news story.

Credit is due to Russia’s RT for pointing out at the end of its report that the TV correspondent did not take the threat seriously.

It appears to us, however, that both RT and Press TV structured their reports to score propaganda points with them against the United States. Still, RT quoted the U.S. reporter as saying: “I don’t believe the substance of the threat at all.”

Iran’s Press TV did not point out that it may have not been a serious physical threat against the reporter.

BBC posted two reports with video on this story.

The main one, “NY congressman Michael Grimm apologises to reporter,” BBC, is showing 494 Facebook “Likes” as of 9:00 PM EST, Wednesday, January 29, 2014.

Iran’s Press TV report, “Rep. Michael Grimm threatens to throw reporter off balcony,” Press TV, is showing 2 Facebook “Likes” and 2 comments.

Russia’s RT report, “Lawmaker threatens to throw reporter off of Capitol balcony after State of the Union,” RT, is showing over 1,300 Facebook “Likes.”

It is not clear whether anyone at the Voice of America made a conscious decision not to cover this news story because it might make America look bad. It is more likely that no one at Voice of America covered it because of widespread mismanagement and lack of leadership and understanding of VOA’s unique mission abroad among senior VOA executives, especially VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch. Both had worked previously at CNN.

Many VOA journalists blame these two executives for effectively destroying the once proud journalistic organization’s news reporting capabilities.

Even more often than not reporting “bad” news, the VOA English news website does not cover news that may make the U.S. look good abroad, explain U.S. foreign policy, or annoy authoritarian leaders like President Vladimir Putin in Russia and Victor Yanukovych in Ukraine.

For example, Voice of America failed to highlight in English and most other languages President Obama’s State of the Union remarks on Ukraine when he said: “In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future.”

VOA’s competitors abroad, BBC and Russia’s RT English websites, both included references to Obama’s Ukraine remarks in their online news reports.

It really does not matter whether the news or good or bad for the United States or for anybody else. There is no guarantee that international audiences will find out about it from the Voice of America and get the U.S. political and cultural perspective that may challenge anti-American propaganda points found in many foreign media reports, especially state-run media in Russia, China, Iran or Ukraine.

Voice of America is especially bad in this respect online and in social media, as the dismally low number of Facebook “Likes” and Tweets for VOA clearly show. Poor news reporting does not attract online readers or Facebook and Twitter users.

This is due largely to exceptionally bad management at the highest level of the Voice of America. VOA Director David Ensor made recently some points in a media interview that are both naive and, as the above examples show, completely misleading in terms of what international audiences can actually find on VOA news websites.

Despite of what Voice of America director says, there are no guarantees that either important foreign policy pronouncements by the United States President or news about bad behavior of U.S. politicians will be reported by VOA.

Chairman Jeff Shell and other Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members should ask Director Ensor what he means when he says that VOA will not be a “mouthpiece” for the White House. The VOA Charter says after all 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)” Reporting on what the President says about a country being very much in the news hardly qualifies as becoming a “mouthpiece.”

Does Mr. Ensor’s warning mean that when President Obama says something about Ukraine, it will not be mentioned in any VOA English language news report, except for posting the full text of the speech in English? Apparently, it does.

No such report appeared in English. The only VOA language services that had reported on Obama’s remarks on Ukraine may have been VOA Ukrainian service and VOA Russian service. There may have been one or two others, but not many. There was no VOA news report in English that mentioned President Obama’s remarks on Ukraine.

Perhaps, BBC and RT have become a mouthpiece for President Obama because both quoted almost in full his remarks on Ukraine in their news reports, as did Voice of Russia in its report.

You can read VOA Director Ensor’s comments and compare them against examples listed in this commentary and in many other posts on the BBG Watch website.

How does Mr. Ensor’s comment, “some of the best impact and audience growth at Voice of America has occurred when we were telling it like it is, about stories that aren’t necessarily complimentary to the United States,” square with Voice of America not reporting about a U.S. Congressman’s threat against an American journalist when BBC, RT, Press TV and other foreign media are reporting on this story?

By the way, the Voice of Russia — not to be confused with the Voice of America — did report on the U.S. Congressman’s threat to journalist story and posted a video.

LINK to YouTube video posted in a Voice of Russia news report: US congressman threatens to break reporter in half, throw him off balcony,” Voice of Russia, January 29, 2014.

Voice of America Director David Ensor

ENSOR: Voice of America is not a propaganda organization and it is not a mouthpiece of the White House or of anybody else. It is a proud journalistic organization more than seventy years old.

Among the first words spoken on the air were, “The news may be good, the news may be bad, we shall tell you the truth.” That was in 1942, and for a couple of years the VOA was obliged to report the Germans were winning, and they did so. Some of the best impact and audience growth at Voice of America has occurred when we were telling it like it is, about stories that aren’t necessarily complimentary to the United States. The Abu Ghraib scandal was a stain on America’s honor and it was so reported by Voice of America. Our many audiences around the world, I think, find us a highly credible voice because we are honest about America’s failings as well as its strengths, and that gives us credibility, and credibility, as you know as a journalist, that’s the coin of the realm. So every day in 45 languages, Voice of America broadcasts on radio and television, on the Internet, on Facebook, on Twitter, on any platform human beings are using to communicate with each other, we’re on it.

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