BBG Watch Commentary
What Else Voice of America Employees Want Amanda Bennett To Know?
Current and Former VOA Reporters Share Their Views
If a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and author Amanda Bennett, who was recently chosen as the new director of the Voice of America, wants to help Voice of America become relevant again, it will take more than after-hours visits by members of the National Press Club or other clumsy PR operations.
VOA and some of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) other media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are bleeding audiences for mission-oriented news content, bleeding original content, and gasping for air. Parading outside journalists in VOA headquarters will do nothing to restore the network’s reputation.
There are several priorities for Ms. Bennett, notably reinforcing coverage, hiring competent journalists, trimming the bureaucracy and streamlining what VOA will and will not cover, and through which medium. Spelling mistakes, missing words, or dated content are common in reports produced by the English-language newsroom and posted VOA’s main English-language news website. Bennett will also have to scramble to make sure VOA’s language services do not stray.
A few recently attracted unfavorable publicity: VOA’s Hausa Service was accused of bias by Nigerian Minister of Information Alhaji Mohammed. He noted “there had been allegation that the Hausa Service of the VOA’s reporting of the war against [Boko Haram terrorists] is being skewed in favour of the insurgents, and urged the international broadcaster to correct the perception,” according to a Nigerian Ministry of Information and Culture statement posted online.
In a display of typical supreme bureaucratic self-confidence, a U.S. official of the BBG pointed her finger at the minister of a recently democratically-elected elected Nigerian government and accused him of being “pretty absurd.” Perhaps a representative of the government which is fighting Boko Haram terrorists knows more about what kind of biased news coverage could harm Nigeria in its war against terrorism effort than a BBG official. Ms. Bennett needs to take a close look at some of the VOA language divisions and services and the managers in charge of these operations.
It seems that one of the the highlights of VOA’s European Division and its Russian Service coverage of President Obama’s visit to Havana was not an interview with a dissident or a former political prisoner but a clip of a Cuban man with a Russian first name who seemed to have been loitering near the area where Western journalists were staying. He volunteered to the VOA team a comment that the Cubans really like Russian President Vladimir Putin (they also like President Obama). Putin is a friend in Cuba, the man told VOA. The man looked well-fed and more prosperous than most Cubans.
VOA Russian Service did not interview with any former political prisoners in Cuba who are victims of the Cuban secret police. Perhaps such interviews might have revealed that the Cuban secret police interrogators and prison guards were trained with the assistance of Vladimir Putin’s former employer, the KGB, and his former empire, the Soviet Union. Here is an idea for new investigative reporting by VOA unless it’s easier just to promote Putin’s personality cult or Fidel Castro’s personality cult and communism, as in this latest VOA report without one word of balance.
VOA’s French to Africa service has also raised eyebrows these past six months, first by posting salacious stories, in order, say service insiders, to increase the number of “hits” on its web site. Then by posting almost exclusively Agence France Presse (AFP) stories, becoming de facto an affiliate of that French agency said to maintain close ties to the French government.
All is not lost if Bennett moves swiftly: the Voice of America Zimbabwe Service distinguished itself recently, being listed as a reporting partner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in the Panama Papers investigation.
But looking at the VOA French web site is a sobering reminder of the uphill battle confronting the new VOA director. Of the four most widely read stories posted on the site, none is recent. No 1 (Kagame) dates back to January 4th, 2016. No. 2 (Issoufou), dates back to Feb. 22nd 2016, No 4 (Burkina Faso) was posted on January 22nd 2016 and only No. 3 (Chad) dates back “only” to April 8th, 2016.
If Ms. Bennett can’t find ways for VOA and its language services to be more timely, why should U.S. taxpayers continue to finance an agency that has become more of an embarrassment than an asset, for all the world to see?
I am still really PO’ed at that ‘fantastic leadership team’ comment the new VOA director made during her speech this week. Maybe BBGW could post some of the rankings from the OPM/PPS on what the rank and file think of the agency’s senior leaders. I know any incoming leader has to heap praise on the team, including its leaders (even if she plans to fire them), but in this case, knowing (as surely she must) what the team thinks of its leaders, why couldn’t she have just remained silent? Or why couldn’t she have said she has read the OPM/PPS and intends to evaluate everyone?
Believe me when I tell you when she uttered the words ‘fantastic leadership team’ you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. I hope she heard the silence.”
ALSO READ: Employees don’t want new VOA director Amanda Bennett co-opted by dysfunctional management, BBG Watch, April 18, 2016