BBG Watch Guest Commentary
BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from former VOA Chief White House Correspondent Dan Robinson.
Views expressed here are only those of the authors and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.
We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.
We thought that a guest commentary by former Voice of America (VOA) Senior White House correspondent Dan Robinson on VOA English news coverage of U.S. election results Tuesday night would benefit from some additional material from us to make sure that all essential facts are known and all sides are being heard. Look for it after Robinson’s op-ed. It is not that we don’t believe what Dan Robinson wrote, but the manner in which VOA English performed on the U.S. election night, or more accurately failed to perform, is so shocking, that some people may find it hard to believe.
Voice of America shows its dysfunctional side on U.S. election night 2014
By Dan Robinson
There is an exchange in The Thin Red Line, the brilliant, gritty, philosophical World War II movie directed by Terrence Malick, in which a captain attempts to praise his sergeant (played by Sean Penn) for an act of heroism in helping a wounded soldier.
“Sergeant, I saw the whole thing through the glasses. I’m gonna mention you in orders tomorrow and recommend you for the Silver Star. It’s the most courageous thing…
Captain, you say one more word to thank me, I’ll knock you right in the teeth. You mention me in your fuckin’ orders, and I’ll resign so fast and leave you here to run this busted-up outfit by yourself. You understand?”
I often recall this when I think of Voice of America, which can surely be described as a “busted-up outfit” (though if you listen to VOA Director David Ensor, not “hobbled”) based on a mountain of evidence documenting monumental foul-ups in news coverage and execution.
The latest example, as many former and current employees of VOA have observed, was the organization’s attempt at covering the U.S. mid-term elections, the outcome of which was the return of the U.S. Senate to Republican control with enormous ramifications for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Unsuccessfully, I tried to resist the temptation to conduct a comparison of VOA coverage to the BBC. As most everyone, except perhaps the most die-hard flacks for VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) knows, BBC is the gold standard for global news coverage.
At about 8:00 PM Eastern time, I checked the BBC World site to see how our friends and VOA’s major competition were handling the story.
Based on the experience of listening to BBC’s superb and respected programs such as Newshour and World Have Your Say, I suspected the coverage to be comprehensive and hard-hitting. I was not disappointed.
Extending for hours through the evening, what a viewer of BBC saw was another example of BBC’s absolute mastery of covering U.S. domestic politics.
Using a U.S. baseball analogy, this was Major League, not Minor League, treatment of a major U.S. political story.
Complete with American Democratic and Republican analysts and strategists, political figures (Bill Richardson, Ed Rendell, Tim Pawlenty), correspondents live from BBC bureaus in the United States, live shots from reporters in places like Pennsylvania and Iowa, Go Pro footage from a BBC bus traveling across America, combined with energetic and engaging anchors — this was BBC at its best.
Indeed, the unscripted remarks of BBC hosts at one point said it all: “We’re going to work through the night if we have to” said the female anchor as she drove home the commitment the BBC had to thoroughly cover the story.
At about the same time, and with a familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I checked VOA’s English website. There was no live programming seen, or mentioned or promoted. Indeed, the site appeared much as it did on any given evening.
Surely there had to be some plan for an English language program, of the kind I participated in when I was White House correspondent and before that from Capitol Hill as VOA Congressional Correspondent?
Yet — hour after hour, as the BBC fired away through the entire evening with multiple live segments separated by a few minutes, there was . . . NOTHING . . . from the Voice of America, in live radio or TV programming reflected on the main website.
One can only surmise this was another example of some VOA and IBB management decision to go all-in with its so-called “Digital First” approach.
This is the management team coming from CNN-level television that apparently didn’t realize for the longest time that VOA was being out-competed at a basic level of failing to carry major presidential statements live.
Without live English radio/TV simulcast coverage . . . this was the Harvard team versus kindergarten. . . good enough for government work versus Oscar-worthy.
The thought that came to mind, and one that individuals such as Andy Lack in his upcoming role as CEO of U.S. international broadcasting will grapple with, is that VOA is clearly incapable of competing on such a lofty plain.
A question that has to be asked, for the umpteenth time, is why — and why the management team that allowed this state of affairs to develop to this point remains in place?
The performance brought into question the entire methodology of VOA newsroom management and its handling of national political coverage, as well as raised questions again about VOA’s web strategy.
In the “old days” (in recent years VOA/IBB management maligned those who recall this, labeling them as being locked in the past) VOA would at least have offered its global audiences live radio programs on major events, utilizing VOA domestic and foreign correspondents.
As is often the case after fumbles of VOA’s coverage of major breaking events were revealed by BBG Watch and sources within the agency, I was contacted by some current employees.
Many still chafe at what they consider to be incomprehensible decisions by Central News managers. One said this:
“I just looked at the USA page on the VOA web site. There are two election-related stories. There are also a few videos on there that are at least a week old, as well as stories that are really not domestic stories, like one about a Chinese newspaper criticizing Obama. Where are the reports from around the country about American voters and why they just handed power over both houses of Congress to the Republicans?”
The source continued:
“Listening to NPR tonight, I heard how an election should be covered, with reports from correspondents in Iowa, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, etc. They seemed to think the election was worth more than two stories.”
Keep in mind that VOA today still has only one reporter — ONE — carrying the title “National Political Correspondent”. Often this person constitutes the sum total of in depth analysis of the U.S. political scene.”
The extent to which VOA language services have their own staff designated as “political reporters”, or the quality of such reporting, is unclear.
Political reporter Jim Malone did produce several excellent video reports, with North Carolina and Washington datelines.
But here’s the thing — BBC had a team, on a bus, traveling the U.S. for months as in previous years covering U.S. politics. And on all-important game day — Election Day 2014 — VOA had no live programming from Washington to grab viewers and persuade them to remain glued to VOA.
By the way, why does the Voice of America have a single main political reporter, when BBC and other media from al-Jazeera to Russia Today and China’s CCTV are covering the U.S. and its people and politics, like a blanket?
Some other things to revisit. . .
As BBG Watch reporting earlier in 2014 documented, VOA and BBG officials made a point of essentially ceding the breaking news playing field to the BBC. Really — that’s what they said.
VOA should not worry about being first on breaking news stories, said one BBG member. It should concentrate on filling in the important context for its remaining audiences.
It’s instructive to recall these comments because they provide a glimpse into the confusion and contradictions at 330 Independence Avenue.
Speaking in VOA’s central newsroom in May, Matt Armstrong said if
“commercial media are reporting on a story in a way that you think is adequate, that it is 85 percent of what the audience needs…if [the] commercial product is doing that, my view is why spend your time when you can just take that commercial [content] and just push it out. . .”
Armstrong, whose philosophy was not disavowed by Director David Ensor when he spoke to VOA news employees, also said VOA’s main role should be “de-packing of the code” and “contextualizing” for VOA’s audiences.
This reflects an approach urged on VOA journalists by management, that would somehow have reporters spend time translating often complex language of American politics and society into simple terms, highly-questionable given that other news organizations like the BBC don’t feel a need to jump through this hoop.
As I watched BBC’s extraordinary coverage of the 2014 mid-term, another thing occurred to me, one I have recalled on several occasions since leaving VOA.
It’s the remark made to me while I was still at the White House by an official who had been closely involved in developing and implementing VOA’s news website.
VOA “long ago lost the opportunity to become a destination of choice” for global audiences” this person confided.
Judging from the poor social media performance of VOA over the past few years, that would appear to be the case.
Today, VOA is very much, to quote that sergeant in The Thin Red Line responding to his captain: “one “busted up outfit”. Perhaps a bit less so in certain language services, VOA is most certainly dysfunctional (though at a recent BBG public session, former VOA official Alan Heil embarrassingly attempted to challenge this reality).
For anyone comparing VOA, with BBC or other major media coverage of the U.S. mid-term election, a conclusion is simply inescapable that there are a lot of really dumb decisions being made at 330 Independence Avenue.
Revelatory and shocking, but only to those not following the sad decline of VOA in recent years, is this comment posted on the BBG Watch site.
The source is anonymous, as many comments from VOA and IBB reaching the outside are, but no less important:
“You can reorganize until the cows come home. In fact, that is what VOA central news does. To them it is all about meetings, endless meetings, chains of command and structure charts. Over and over. It makes not a bit of difference in the final product, however. What would make a difference is accountability and common sense by management, and the minor guts to use them. Not being able to fire people is the least of it. Management is too lazy to even monitor what is being written and produced.”
This is the organization that Andy Lack will inherit. It’s the one about which another VOA employee, submitting anonymously, wrote:
” . . .for VOA central news managers, who scarcely glance at their own website much less read and respond to it at least once a day (as should be a requirement for all Central news managers at a GS-13 and above level), real “news,” as opposed to the same-old, same-old, is just a by-product of the real mission: to keep those over-sized paychecks coming.”
It’s the organization about which another VOA journalist noted often puts out material filled with errors, with little accountability. And about which yet another current reporter said:
” . . .few people look for VOA stories because the brand no longer attracts much interest . . .this is largely the fault of managers who have reduced the Central News budget and done away with programs that had established audiences.”
And yet another reporter commented:
“The only term that comes to mind for current newsroom and agency management is “atrocious.”
For those who are trapped in the morass that is VOA, another quote from the movie The Thin Red Line applies:
“This war is not gonna be over by next Christmas. It’s gonna be a long time before we get home…They want you dead. Or in their lie. Only one thing a man can do. Find something that’s his. Make an island for himself.”
That is exactly what so many who left VOA in frustration tried to do, and what many who remain at VOA today are doing — making themselves islands to survive. A great shame for any government agency, any organization, to be in such a state.
BBG Watch Commentary
Not a single U.S. election news story in VOA radio newscasts.
VOA playing music all evening in its online radio program and offering no live coverage of U.S. elections.
VOA being late in posting the main U.S. election results news story.
VOA producing only one short news report all evening on the actual election results.
VOA not updating Facebook and Twitter for many hours.
But those calling Voice of America dysfunctional are perpetuating a myth, according to former VOA executive Alan Heil.
A Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) press release touted how well VOA performed on the election night. The BBG has oversight responsibilities for VOA and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets.
BBG press release, “Democracy In Action: BBG Networks Bring Midterm Elections To The World,” is — in our view — so indicative of the federal agency’s bureaucratic culture — as far as the BBG, the IBB (International Broadcasting Bureau) and Voice of America are concerned — that we have decided to post it in full after our guest commentary from a former VOA correspondent. He appears to allude to the double-speak, although much of the information in the press release is in fact accurate.
Other BBG entities and some individual VOA reporters and services performed well, apparently much better than VOA even though it is not their primary job to report on U.S. news.
The BBG press release says that “Radio Martí had live coverage Tuesday night from 9-11pm with analysis and commentary about the midterm elections, and covered key races online.” If Radio Marti could do provide live coverage, why couldn’t Voice of America English, which is required by its Charter to report U.S. news, do the same?
Someone who may be a senior BBG executive posted a comment on our BBG Watch site:
“The [Voice of America] web pages are being updated with the latest results and returns.“
Another individual apparently connected in some way with VOA posted a comment on our site chastising us at BBG Watch for comparing VOA with BBC:
“You guys are making a ridiculous comparison to try to equate the resources of BBC America’s TV network with the resources of VOA English. BBC America is targeting an American audience and it is trying to compete with CNN, FOX News, etc. VOA English is mainly targeting people who speak English as a second language, not American or Western audiences.
Can you really make a case that English speakers in developing countries are fixated on a running tally of US House and Senate election returns? The only news peg of interest in these elections to these audiences would be whether the Senate turns Republican. I doubt there is a great deal of interest in individual US state races to most overseas audiences that VOA targets.”
We never advocated running a tally of U.S. House and Senate returns, but we expected a decent election night news coverage and analysis of the American democratic experience. Even if true that the world couldn’t care much about U.S. elections, does that excuse VOA not having even a single item on this topic in its radio newscasts Tuesday night, VOA being late in posting online the key news about the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate, VOA playing music all night and not updating Twitter and Facebook for hours?
Other comments were more in agreement with the content and the tone of our BBG Watch reporting:
“I just don’t understand why VOA doesn’t try to address the problems that are so well-documented here on BBG Watch.
Don’t they believe they should be covering these important stories about the US and the democratic process?”
“and is anyone going to lose his job for this unbelievable lack of responsibility and common sense? Of course not.”
If you listened to a VOA English radio newscast at midnight on U.S. election night, you would not hear a single mention of any voting taking place in the United States. If you cared to listen to the rest of the VOA radio program, you would hear non-stop music.
VOA English central news operation managed to post online one short report on the Republicans taking over control of the U.S. Senate, but VOA did it long after BBC and other media outlets had already posted this news plus their own extensive analysis of the election results.
VOA had posted some analytical material in the days before the U.S. mid-term elections, but on the election night almost everybody at VOA went home, starting with senior management.
For an organization whose management claims to be “Digital First,” VOA English News Facebook and Twitter pages were not updated for many hours on the election night. There were only a few dozen Tweets and Facebook “Shares” on the single VOA English election results online news story. Russia’s RT report had several thousand, plus hundreds of readers’ comments for its U.S. election results online report to VOA’s three readers’ comments, one of which said:
Ed from: Virginia
November 04, 2014 11:03 PM
“Sorry VOA — but I and others are watching TV, and the BBC. Where is your live coverage? What a shame that this country can’t get more than a few stories on the Voice of America’s front page.”
Before you read BBG Watch guest commentary, you may want to listen to VOA English midnight radio newscast on U.S. election night and a portion of the VOA program afterwards. We also encourage you to take a look at screenshots of VOA English News Facebook and Twitter pages.
As of 3:20 AM ET, Wednesday morning, November 5, 2014, VOA’s online “NOW PLAYING: Live audio” of VOA radio was playing non-stop music instead of providing news reports or analysis of U.S. elections results. The same was true during Tuesday evening. VOA radio newscasts available online Tuesday evening did not even mention U.S. elections and did not have any U.S. domestic news.
Continuous music on the main VOA English online radio channel on the morning after the U.S. elections.
Voice of America midnight (12:00AM ET 11-5-2014) radio newscast – not a word about U.S. elections
Voice of America Radio On Demand-Online World News 12 Midnight 11-5-14 Downloaded 12:40 AM
BBG NEWS RELEASE
Democracy In Action: BBG Networks Bring Midterm Elections To The World
NOVEMBER 5, 2014
WASHINGTON – As voters went to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 4, the media networks within the Broadcasting Board of Governors showcased democracy in action and engaged global audiences with the democratic process. The Voice of America, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia connected audiences in 61 languages in over 100 countries to the electoral process with live coverage, analysis, and inter actives.
The Voice of America teamed up with radio and TV affiliate stations around the world to provide enhanced coverage of this year’s midterm elections in each of its 45 languages, producing multiple TV packages on the elections and special coverage targeted to specific audiences. VOA journalists explained to global audiences the gravity of the elections, and brought them up-to-date news and analysis throughout the election process.
Prior to the elections, VOA National Editor Jim Malone penned the All About Americablog explaining the midterm elections. Election-day coverage included online updates on results and breaking news, with posts on social media in English and across VOA language services. VOA covered the broad span of midterm election news, including ballot initiatives, foreign policy implications of the results, and other aspects of the race.
VOA invited expert analysts on multiple shows to answer these questions of interest to overseas audiences. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns provided analysis of what the GOP victories mean for U.S. foreign policy.
In addition, VOA coordinated with partners and affiliates to bring live footage of the democratic process to the world. VOA broadcast live interactives before, during, and after election day with its partners across the globe, including RTHK and D100 in Hong Kong; 938LIVE in Singapore; Panamericana in Bolivia; Dozhd and Russian Business Channel (RBC) in Russia; and many others. In Nigeria, in addition to using VOA commentary, Channels TV highlighted a VOA story on Ebola’s impact on the midterm elections to connect the crisis in West Africa with the U.S. vote. Numerous TV affiliates carried VOA programming across Eurasia, Africa, Asia and Latin America, where VOA’s Spanish Service covered the midterm elections with its Washington Bureau Strategy for partner stations in the Americas.
VOA also went out into the field, to give audiences a closer look at the voting process. In one case, VOA Somali went into the polling stations in Minnesota and did a live program with Somalia, including Q&A with voter at the polls. Election day reporting in the field also included original video of voters and politicians in Iowa and Texas to provide a closer look at the issues and show democracy in action.
The Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa) brought audiences across the Middle East and North Africa news, analysis, and reactions before, during, and after the elections. The networks explained the importance of the elections, delved into the historical context, examined the role of foreign policy and security concerns, and described Arab-American participation as well as issues of importance to voters.
Special programming on Alhurra included a daily, hour-long program, U.S. Midterm Elections 2014 leading up to Election Day, featuring Republican and Democratic analysts in each episode. Alhurra’s live coverage began at 13:00 GMT Tuesday with a special 2-hour edition of U.S Midterm Elections 2014. Correspondents tackled the topic of the elections’ potential impact on U.S. relations with the region and included a global perspective. Special guests included major policymakers from the region such as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hoshyar Zebari; the former advisor to the Egyptian President Ayman Iman Saydah; Saudi Shoura Council member Abadulla Zalfah and Raanan Gissin, former Senior Advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister.
Alhurra’s Al Youm engaged college students in Egypt, UAE, Lebanon, Morocco, Mauritania, Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Jordan and Iraq. Reporters asked students what they thought President Obama’s priorities should be and invited them to say what question they would ask the President if they had the chance. Radio Sawa’s unique coverage included the role of advertising and featured political experts from the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. As the results rolled in,Sawa Magazine examined the main issues for voters and what is next for the U.S. Congress.
On Election Day, Alhurra and Radio Sawa reported on-the-scene from polling stations, interviewing voters about the issues. Alhurra also followed two Arab-Americans as they set out to vote, to allow viewers to share in the experience.
On Nov. 5, Alhurra hosted an hour-long election recap with Michael O’Hanlon from Brookings Institution and Thomas Donnelly from American Enterprise Institute. The political analysts and Alhurra’s congressional correspondent Rana Abtar discussed the changes in the congressional makeup and how that could impact U.S. foreign policy.
Alhurra.com continues to post updates on the results on its website, and has showcased reporting online, including features on how candidates are reaching out to Arab voters and how changes in the Senate could impact U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East.
Radio and Television Martí coverage explained the importance of the electoral process and the foundational value of a multiparty system as part of a democratic society.
TV Martí produced ELECCIONES 2014: RUMBO AL CONGRESO, a special half-hour show on the race for Florida’s 26th District in which incumbent Democrat Joe Garcia faced Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo. In a campaign where Cuba played heavily, these Cuban-American candidates sat down for one-on-one interviews to discuss their positions on the trade embargo against Cuba and the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Radio Martí had live coverage Tuesday night from 9-11pm with analysis and commentary about the midterm elections, and covered key races online.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has recently reported on elections in Ukraine andother countries in its target region, and the midterm elections gave RFE/RL an opportunity to show audiences how the U.S. conducts its own voting and analysis.
In its “Persian Letters” blog, RFE/RL offered insight into the reaction in Iran to the Republican victory in the elections and how the results may affect the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S. and other major world powers. RFE/RL also analyzed the potential impact of the election on the main U.S. Senate committees that deal with U.S. foreign policy and national security: foreign relations, armed services and intelligence.
RFE/RL also tapped VOA and other reporting for election coverage that was translated and used by many of its broadcast services, including those serving audiences in Russia,Iran, Moldova, Ukraine, and the countries of the Balkan region.
As Radio Free Asia reports on democratic movements in Hong Kong, mainland China and Vietnam as well as the progress of democracy in Cambodia and Burma, the U.S. midterm elections provided an opportunity to showcase credible, fair elections.
RFA’s Khmer Service, which broadcasts to Cambodia, interviewed Koul Panha, the director of The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL). Panha visited D.C. to observe the U.S. mid-term elections and plans to share his observations with his fellow citizens in Cambodia. Since the controversial Cambodian general election in July 2013, calls have grown for an independent panel to probe charges of electoral fraud and irregularities and implementation of voting reforms. For much of 2013 and the early months of 2014, this included large-scale pro-opposition party demonstrations throughout Cambodia over contested election results.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is the independent federal agency that oversees all government-supported U.S. civilian international media. The mission of the BBG is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. Networks within the BBG include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti). BBG programming reaches an audience of 206 million in more than 100 countries and in 61 languages.
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