VOA Should Quote Experts, Not Mix News With Commentary

By Ted Lipien


VOA Headline Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 5.08.09 PM ETVoice of America headline, Turkey Airport Attack Points to Spreading Regional War and some — not all — of what passes for a VOA “news” report but is largely a commentary by its own reporters, could have been easily written by RT or SPUTNIK. VOA (English) News is also at times repeating Chinese propaganda without any context or challenge. I plan to write about it separately.

The Kremlin’s media are more than eager to promote the “war and chaos” theme anywhere they can and with regard to almost anything. VOA should not join them. VOA has already presented in another recent news report the RT and SPUTNIK “chaos” narrative with regard to the aftermath of the EU referendum in Britain. The other VOA click-bait headline read: Leaderless, Rudderless, Britain Drifts.”

With the exception of RT and SPUTNIK, most professional news media — of which RT and SPUTNIK are not — have not been using the word “chaos” to describe Britain after the EU vote, nor have they suggested that the UK is “leaderless.” RT and SPUTNIK have used the term “chaos” multiple times in recent days in describing the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

Likewise, the latest terrorist attack in Turkey by itself should not be described as pointing to a spreading regional war in the country and the region where similar terrorist attacks have been common for quite some time. More terror attacks, a possibility of the Erdogan government overreacting — perhaps; a true regional war — no, at least not now. But “Spreading Regional War” sounds so much more exciting. It also happens not to be true.

What we have and will have is continued fighting fueled mostly by the Assad regime in Syria, ISIS, Iran, and Putin’s Russia. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants to remain in power. ISIS, Iran, a few other countries and Putin want to expand their power and influence in the region. ISIS and Putin want to destabilize the West. Iran would the same if it could without triggering a new round of sanctions. There may be a proxy war in the region and asymmetric warfare, but the regional war is not spreading after the Istanbul attack, as presented in a VOA “news” report.

The Kurdish PKT has been carrying out acts of terrorism in Turkey for years. ISIS is now doing the same. Neither is effectively occupying any of Turkey’s territory. A limited war by other means, perhaps; a future real war, may be — but that requires a different type of analysis, such as this BBC report, Syria crisis: Where key countries stand.” Although written several months ago, it is still accurate.

There is, however, a fierce propaganda war being waged by ISIS and Putin, with VOA falling for the Kremlin’s disinformation much too often. The terror attack in Istanbul and the EU vote in Britain call for a more sophisticated analysis than what VOA has been able to offer so far.

Ironically, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) must now serve as a counter to VOA. Both are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and funded by U.S. taxpayers, although under increasing mismanagement and interference from the BBG bureaucracy even some of RFE/RL’s recent reporting has been infected by Putin propaganda, fortunately not yet to the same degree as VOA’s. Since June 27, RFE/RL has new president, former veteran AP journalist and editor Thomas Kent.

Yesterday’s RFE/RL analysis by Brian Whitmore, The Daily Vertical: Using Democracy As A Weapon,” is an example of how VOA’s “Britain in chaos” theme could be refuted. The irony is that U.S. taxpayers must now pay RFE/RL to counter what VOA, also 100% taxpayer-funded, is putting out on the web while the BBG bureaucracy is pushing to make RFE/RL more like VOA by trying to merge their brands and missions to the detriment of both.

I found the “commentaries” in the VOA EU and Turkey “news” reports to be quite simplistic and quite wrong. They failed to analyze Putin’s motives and actions. One would almost never see on the BBC news website such unsupported headlines or text mixing news with unattributed personal opinions. Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) offers excellent reporting and sophisticated analysis. Some of RFE/RL reporting is still good, but not as good as it used to be. Even VOA is still capable of posting objective and informative reports from time to time, but much less often than a decade or two ago.

In analyzing international news, VOA should reach out to the best experts in the U.S. and some abroad — not mere media pundits but real experts with a long track record of being right. Instead, VOA is too often looking for flashy headlines, news entertainment to produce clicks, and inserting its own unattributed commentary, which — I must say — sometimes shows a remarkable resemblance to what is RT “news.”

Members of the BBG’s bipartisan board and VOA executives could also benefit from reading Paul Goble’s recent article, Putin Using Western Values to Destroy Those Values and the West, Moscow Analyst Says,” in which the former State Department, CIA and BBG advisor summarizes analyses by Moscow commentator Andrey Malgin and the political editor of Moscow’s “Novaya Gazeta” Krill Martynov.

Putin will step up his propaganda directed at Western countries, Malgin wrote, with the goal of achieving the most “destructive” outcome possible. Promoting the “war” and “chaos” narrative is part of the Kremlin’s propaganda war strategy to achieve the most “destructive” outcome. To be sure, Russia Today is “not taken seriously” by many, Malgin correctly observed. But, as Goble summarizes the Russian expert’s line of argument, RT “is useful for Putin because of the impact it has on Western journalists who cite it in the name of balance, the current standard of objectivity, and thus spread ‘Lubyanka fakes’ to their audiences.”

As Goble explains, another independent Russian analyst Kirill Martynov “offers an explanation for why Putin is being so successful in this effort because he appears to understand something that many in the West do not: the way in which the Internet revolution has spread contempt for all elites and expert opinion.”

The “liberating potential of new media” may turn out to be something entirely different in the hands of the Kremlin. “It is possible that the main thing that the Internet teaches people is distrust in their own elites,” Martynov argues.

“The collapse of old political alliances and the coming to power of populists” is what Putin wants. “Those who are banking on this like Putin may thus win particularly if those he wants to defeat do not recognize the challenge,” Paul Goble ends his summary of independent Russian journalists’ views in his Window on Eurasia blog.

VOA should not be helping Putin to achieve his goal of spreading chaos with RT-like “reporting” but should strive instead for more objectivity and sober analysis by the best experts it can find. New VOA director Amanda Bennett and relatively new BBG CEO John Lansing are aware of some these problems and are tying to correct them. While I applaud their efforts, I’m afraid they won’t succeed to any significant degree. It won’t be for want of trying. The Broadcasting Board of Governors agency and its bureaucracy are beyond repair and are not structurally capable of sustaining internal reforms. A bipartisan BBG reform legislation needs to pass Congress as soon as possible and be signed by the President to get rid of the entrenched bureaucracy and completely change how U.S. international media outreach is managed.

The part-time BBG board needs to go; VOA and surrogate broadcasters must be separated, with VOA remaining a federal entity; the federal BBG bureaucracy has to be disbanded and technical support can be contracted out by various media entities according to their needs. Only then, the U.S. might be able to face the challenge of ISIS and Putin propaganda with its own anti-propaganda news and opinion strategy that can have a real impact.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien, a former VOA journalist and acting associate director, is one of the founders and supporters of BBG Watch.