BBG Commentary

Several Federal Government employee reporters working for U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA), a component of the dysfunctional Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) agency known for its low employee morale, were pushing hard the narrative that Russian President Putin and Syrian President Assad might have conspired together to use chemical weapons in Syria while failing to report statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that the United States does not have evidence indicating the Russians were actively engaged in the military chemical weapons use in Syria.

Secretary Tillerson accused the Russians of having “played now for some time the role of providing cover for Bashar al-Assad’s behavior” and putting out false narratives to deflect blame for the attack from the Syrian regime and to confuse international public opinion. But in answering a question on CBS News “Face the Nation” on Sunday, April 9, Tillerson said: “Well, to our knowledge, we do not– we do not have any information that suggests that Russia was part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons.” VOA News did not report his comment.

Interview With John Dickerson of CBS Face the Nation

Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
West Palm Beach, Florida
April 9, 2017
JOHN DICKERSON: Given how strongly the President acted with respect to Syria using this chemical weapons, though, isn’t it a rather important point whether the Russians were actively engaged in the military chemical weapons use that the U.S. Government just launched a military strike over? Isn’t that a crucial question?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, to our knowledge, we do not– we do not have any information that suggests that Russia was part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons.

A search of the VOA English news website showed that the Voice of America never reported on this statement by the U.S. Secretary of State. Voice of America newsroom staffed by federal employees of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency once described by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “practically defunct,” is frequently nearly empty on weekends when the interview with Secretary Tillerson was conducted. The interview contradicted an earlier VOA narrative of direct Russian culpability in the gas attack, but it is not clear whether VOA editors and/or managers decided to ignore it because of that or whether this was yet another symptom of a federal agency in the midst of a long-lasting managerial meltdown.

VOA had posted two days earlier a report from the Pentagon by VOA correspondents Carla Babb and Jeff Seldin, “US Looks at Russia’s Role in Syria’s Nerve-Gas Attack,” which said: “The United States appears to be raising the stakes in Syria, suggesting Russia may have helped the Assad regime carry out a deadly chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people in Idlib province.”

The VOA report quoted a “senior [U.S.] military official who was not named. The report further stated: “’We think we have a good picture of who supported them,’ a senior military official told Pentagon reporters, adding officials were ‘carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians’ — confirming they either knew of Tuesday’s sarin gas attack in advance or assisted Syrian government forces.”

We now know that this VOA report and others failed to meet the VOA Charter requirements because some of information did not reflect accurately the official view of the Trump administration. Even if the administration was not yet certain of its final position, VOA was under the obligation to check with the State Department and the White House before reporting on a statement by an unnamed Pentagon official on such a sensitive foreign policy matter.

Screenshot of VOA April 7, 2017 News Report

The VOA Russian Service carried essentially the same VOA News report a day late, on April 8, with the sensational headline: Пентагон проверяет возможную причастность России к химической атаке в Сирии (“Pentagon checks possible involvement of Russia in chemical attack in Syria”) It was presented as a joint VOA English News and VOA Russian Service report.

Screenshot of VOA Russian April 8, 2017 Report

VOA reporters and editors pushed with their initial sensational reporting even though they knew or should have known that Secretary Tillerson already on April 7 had cautioned about jumping into any premature conclusions when in response to a question whether the United States is investigating Russia’s role in the gas attacks themselves, he responded that he did not have any particular information that would be appropriate to share and refused to comment further. VOA never reported on its news website about this particular exchange and showed a remarkable lack of journalistic curiosity in pushing its own narrative.

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
April 07, 2017

Briefing by Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mnuchin, and Secretary Ross on President Trump’s Meetings with President Xi of China

Tideline Resort and Spa
Palm Beach, Florida
3:58 P.M. EDT
Q Can I also ask you a follow-up on reports that the United States is investigating Russia’s role in the gas attacks themselves? How far are you in this investigation, and what’s your confidence level and the direction on that, please?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I don’t have any particular information I think that it would be appropriate to share with you at this point. Obviously we continue to gather the information that we can through our intelligence sources, as well as shared sources from other countries as well. And so I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on that at this time.

VOA also did not report on Secretary Tillerson’s much more specific comments in a Sunday, April 9 interview with George Stephanopoulos of “ABC This Week.”

Interview With George Stephanopoulos of ABC This Week

Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
West Palm Beach, Florida
April 9, 2017
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier – you mentioned the Russian complicity perhaps with the chemical program in Syria. We now know, according to U.S. military officials, there were anywhere from 12 to a hundred Russians on that base when the chemical attack was launched. Does that suggest to you that the Russians knew or should have known what was going on, that they were complicit?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, George, I’m not seeing any hard evidence that connects the Russians directly to the planning or execution of this particular chemical weapons attack, and indeed, that’s why we’ve been trying to be very clear that the Russians were never targeted in this strike. This strike was to target the airbase from which these chemical weapons attacks were launched and to take – to render that airbase and certainly its infrastructure no longer usable. So I think the strike – it was well-planned, it was proportional, it was directly related to the chemical weapons attack, and no other parties were targeted.

After Secretary Tillerson said on Sunday that the U.S. does not have any information suggesting Russia planned and directly participated in the chemical weapons attack in Syria, VOA posted on Monday an AP report, “McCain: Russia Cooperated With Syria in Chemical Attack.” While VOA should have reported Senator John McCain’s comment to the press that he believes “the Russians knew about chemical weapons because they were operating exactly from the same base,” VOA had an obligation under the VOA Charter also “to present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” which would have been the statements made by Secretary Tillerson to media on Sunday. VOA failed to do this and chose instead to use an AP story which failed to meet the VOA Charter requirements. The VOA Journalistic Code includes equally strict requirements for accuracy and balance.

VOA Reporter William Gallo April 10, 2017 Retweet of AP – Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 8.31 PM

On Monday, April 10, VOA reporter William Gallo retweeted a tweet for an AP report, “BREAKING: Senior U.S. official says U.S. has concluded that Russia knew in advance of Syria’s chemical weapons attack last week,” without mentioning Secretary Tillerson’s comment from the day before. Again, while this was a retweet by a VOA reporter, he did not add anything to reflect the official position of the U.S. Secretary of State on this issue, which was already in the public domain a day earlier, just as VOA failed to do the same with the AP story about Senator McCain’s comment.

Another VOA Reporter Jeff Seldin also retweeted the AP report without mentioning Secretary Tillerson’s earlier statement.

VOA Reporter Jeff Seldin April 10 AP Retweet Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 10:32 PM

Seldin and VOA White House correspondent Steve Herman, however, may have known or suspected that the U.S. State Department and possibly the White House were not fully behind the Pentagon’s speculations about the Russian involvement in the gas attack. On April 7, Seldin retweeted Steve Herman’s tweet, which said: “‘Don’t have any information “appropriate to share with you at this point,’ says Tillerson of report Russians involved in the gas attack.” Even after that, VOA continued its reporting without mentioning that there are any doubts within the Trump administration as to the accuracy of the charges of the Putin-Assad conspiracy.

Steve Herman’s Twitter account includes at the top a tweet which says “Under our charter (Public Laws 94-350/103-415) we ‘do not speak for the U.S. government’,” which is somewhat misleading because while VOA does not serve as a spokesperson for the U.S. Government, by law it must clearly reflect official U.S. policies and therefore must present them quickly and accurately.

In one of his earlier reports, Herman compared White House information given to the press to “manure.” VOA has a two-source rule which should apply whenever there are any doubts as to who speaks for the administration and whether information being presented as official is indeed the official policy of the U.S. government. VOA reporters apparently liked their sensational narrative so much, they forgot about these precautions or perhaps it did not even occur to them or their editors and VOA executives that they were doing anything wrong. If they are eager to apply the smell test to statements from the White House Press Office, they should have been just as eager to apply the smell test to statements from the Pentagon. They should have known that Secretary Tillerson was planning a trip to Moscow. It should have occurred to them that his statements to the media were worth reporting, and they should have wondered why the U.S. Secretary of State would be going to Moscow if the Trump administration was really convinced that President Putin ordered or agreed to the gas attack in Syria.

While some of the later tweets by VOA reporters reflected the apparent confusion and the initial lack of coordination within the Trump administration on this issue, they never made it into actual VOA reports. VOA reporter William Gallo retweeted portions from Secretary Tillerson’s “Face the Nation” Sunday interview but not the one in which Tillerson says that the U.S. does not have any information that suggests that Russia was part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons. Even if by any chance, the administration wanted to send two different signals to Moscow, one from the Pentagon and another from the State Department, journalists who are not blinded by ideology or hatred of any particular leader or country, should have reported on both. On Tuesday, Steve Herman had more than ten tweets and retweets on what he described “Another @PressSec gaffe during his impromptu apology tour, saying doesn’t want to distract from @POTUS ‘trying to destabilize the region.'”

But the Voice of America reporting on and using Secretary Tillerson’s comments on substantive foreign policy issues would have undermined the legitimacy of an earlier VOA report”US Attacks Syrian Airbase in Retaliation for Chemical Weapons Attack” by VOA reporters Steve Herman, Jeff Seldin, Carla Babb, last updated by VOA on April 06, 2017 at 11:18 PM, which quoted Dr. Annie Sparrow, a public health specialist and a critical-care pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, as saying that “a ‘chemical cocktail’ was used on the town.” The VOA report said that Dr. Annie Sparrow “has carried out many studies on Syria” but did not elaborate what kind of studies or how she could possibly know what Putin and Assad may have agreed to about any use of chemical weapons.

The VOA report continued next with a highly provocative and completely unsupported statement that could have had serious or even deadly consequences for Americans and Russians, considering the extremely sensitive moment in U.S.-Russia relations after the U.S. missile attack in Syria and a real possibility of misunderstanding that could get out of control.

Screen Shot of VOA Report US Attacks Syrian Airbase in Retaliation for Chemical Weapons Attack 2017-04-07 at 1:33 AM EDT

VOA:She gave this chilling assessment to the VOA Turkish service: ‘It’s quite possible that Assad and Putin are using this … as a kind of experiment to test out new combinations of lethal chemical weapons.’

For the Voice of America at such a critical moment to imply even with a quote that Russia was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Syria without VOA being able to provide any evidence or proof that President Putin indeed had conspired with President Assad to use chemical weapons against civilians is utterly irresponsible and would have been unthinkable in the past when the Voice of America used to observe closely the strict requirements of its VOA Charter to present accurate news and to reflect clearly U.S. policies. Under the current leadership of the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, international audiences, including foreign governments, can no longer rely on VOA to present accurate news which clearly reflect U.S. policies in times of crisis.

The careless nature of VOA’s earlier reporting was confirmed Tuesday at the White House background press briefing on Syria. A senior administration official blasted the Russians and their narrative for trying to cover up the Syrian regime’s culpability in a chemical weapons attack. The senior administration official also stressed that both “the Russians and the Syrians have a very clear campaign to try to obfuscate the nature of attacks, the attackers, and what has happened in any particular incident.” But in responses to questions whether the U.S. has any evidence of Russian foreknowledge or direct participation in the chemical weapons attack in Syria, the senior administration official said that the U.S. does not have such information at this time.

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
April 11, 2017

Background Press Briefing on Syria, 4/11/2017

James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:10 P.M. EDT
Q How do you explain the Russian drone at the hospital?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I don’t think we have information for you today to talk about the Russian drone or any other information on the Russians, per se. We just want to walk right through the narrative here. We’re still looking into what we think the intelligence community assessment or other is about Russian knowledge of involvement, et cetera. And I’m sure we’ll come forward with more information on that, if we have it.
Q (Inaudible) on the question foreknowledge of Russia.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don’t have information on that, per se. I think it’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened there.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll say we’re still looking into that, into the particulars of that question. And there’s not a consensus on our side about the extent or how to interpret the information that we have and continue to get.
However, what we do know from looking at a history of the Russian military and the Syrian military operating together for the better part of two years now closely, since the Russian advisory mission and assistance mission began in earnest in 2015. And in addition, two militaries that have a decades-long support relationship. Based on that historical pattern, we’ve seen that these two militaries operate very closely, even down to an operational and tactical level.
And so considering the fact that there were Russian forces co-located with Syrian forces at the Shayrat airfield, in addition to many other installations — many other Syrian regime installations around the country — we do think that it is a question worth asking the Russians about how is it possible that their forces were co-located with the Syrian forces that planned, prepared, and carried out this chemical weapons attack at the same installation, and did not have foreknowledge.
Q So just to be clear, the attack that you mentioned against the hospital, which you said was aimed at covering up the initial chemical weapons attack, was that carried out by munitions that are linked to Russia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we don’t have information on that today.
Q Is it the assessment at this point, though — can you say the least that — and you spoke to this a little, and, [senior administration official], I want to get your take — that the Russians tried to cover up the chemical weapons attack? Do you believe that that is the case?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we don’t know the tactical intentions of the Russians on that day on any operations that they may have been involved in.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeated today on the record that “there is no consensus in the [U.S.] intelligence community” as to whether Russia had any advance knowledge of the chemical attack in Syria.

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
April 11, 2017
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 4/11/2017, #36
James Brady S. Briefing Room
1:42 P.M. EDT
Q Sean, on Russia to start. Does the administration believe that Russia had any advance knowledge of this chemical attack in Syria? And does the administration believe that Russia may have been complicit in this attack?
MR. SPICER: I believe there was a background briefing earlier today where that was discussed. At this time, there is no consensus in the intelligence community that that’s the case.
Q Is there any thought within the intelligence community, or are there some strands of the international community that —
MR. SPICER: Again, at this point, the only thing I’m going to say is that there’s no consensus within the intelligence community that there was involvement.

Having been posting for days sensational reports with unsupported charges, VOA News only managed to report on Tuesday in two short sentence that the U.S. official position may be different from VOA had reported earlier:

VOA News: Despite the growing agreement about Syria’s tactics, there was no clarity on the question of whether, or to what extent, Russia colluded with Syria in carrying out the attack. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said U.S. intelligence officials have not been able to come up with a “consensus” on that issue.

Even the Pentagon backed away on Tuesday from some of the earlier assertions to reporters by one of its briefers, which VOA eagerly reported without bothering to check with other elements of the Trump administration.

This is what Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had to say on Tuesday, April 11.

News Transcript
Press Conference by Secretary Mattis and Gen. Votel in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; General Joseph L. Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command

April 11, 2017
[Excerpt] Q: I’d like to ask both of you if you believe that Russia had advanced knowledge of this strike and if Russia should be considered as complicit in this strike, the chemical weapons attack?
SEC. MATTIS: David, I can speak for both of us on that one. It was very clear that the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it, and executed it. And beyond that, we can’t say right now. We know what I just told you. We don’t know anything beyond that.
Q: In this room on Friday, a briefer said that at the time of the attack, a drone was sighted over that building and we weren’t sure whether it was a Russian or a Syrian drone. Has it been determined yet whether that drone was Russian or Syrian?
SEC. MATTIS: I don’t know. I — I will tell you that we have gone back through and — and looked at all the evidence we can and it is very clear who planned this attack, who authorized this attack and who conducted this attack itself, that we do know, with no — no doubt whatsoever.

VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb did not report on this part of Secretary Mattis’ comments to the media even though earlier she had reported at length on what the Pentagon briefer said about the alleged Russia-Syria chemical weapons use conspiracy.

The Voice of America has been lucky that this was not the Cuban missile crisis and that VOA’s careless reporting did not cause Americans to lose lives, but if nothing is done to correct the problem, it can happen the next time. If the Voice of America cannot be seen as a reliable source of accurate and balanced news about official U.S. policies, especially in at the time of international crises when American soldiers are called into military action, then considering VOA’s dismal digital ranking among many other news outlets, U.S. taxpayers’ support for it becomes questionable. This would be highly unfortunate since VOA is still badly needed in some languages at least in some countries and regions ruled by oppressive regimes and terrorist groups. VOA director Amanda Bennett and BBG CEO John Lansing have a lot to answer to President Trump and Secretary Tillerson, to the U.S. Congress and to American taxpayers.

1 comment
  1. Rogue agency + no oversight + recycled failed managers + ad hoc + sloppy editorial processes + bias = VOA News

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