BBG Watch Commentary
Lacking experienced leadership, U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) has fallen into the trap of talking to acquaintances or relatives of Islamist terrorists in the United States who inevitably describe these suspects as “friendly” and seemingly incapable of committing terrorist acts. In many reports, VOA has failed to seek countervailing facts and views to present a fuller picture, as required by the VOA Charter, or made only a minimal effort in that regard. VOA rarely talks to victims of terrorist acts or their families in the United States. VOA focus on only certain ethnic and religious groups to the exclusion of others and the society as a whole when reporting on these issues presents a highly distorted picture of the United States to audiences abroad who, unlike most Americans, lack broader knowledge and point of reference.
Simplistic, one-sided and misleading reporting is not worthy of the Voice of America. Talking to only one ethnic and religious group on issues affecting the entire country is a violation of the VOA Charter, but the current leadership of VOA’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and VOA’s new top leaders, are too inexperienced in such areas as U.S. ethnic and religious groups, intercultural communications, government operations and public diplomacy to see the problem.
VOA is also misleading foreign audiences about how most Americans of different ethnic and religious backgrounds relate to each other by painting a simplistic picture of certain ethnic groups while presenting vastly exaggerating claims of fear of violent retributions against some of these groups from the rest of the American society and the U.S. government, for which there is no evidence to back it up, and which do not even come close to the kind of violence some of VOA’s audiences abroad are accustomed to see in their own countries and may therefore take these unchallenged claims at face value.
This kind of unprofessional VOA reporting is truly harmful and dangerous. Even Nigeria’s government minister warned of accusations that unprofessional Voice of America reports tend to encourage rather than undermine the Boko Haram terrorists in his own country. A high level BBG executive reporting to BBG CEO John Lansing dismissed the Nigerian government warning as “pretty absurd.”
Nigerian government: accusations Voice of America skewed in favor of Boko Haram, BBG Watch, March 10, 2016
VOA even produced a special video for Facebook showing captured and enslaved Nigerian girls being forced to deliver a message from Boko Haram terrorists. Unlike other mainstream media, VOA did not obscure the girls’ faces (some of them are still minors) and not only showed a large portion of the terrorist message with English subtitles but for all practical purposes urged the Nigerian government to accept the terrorists’ demands.
Voice of America
READ: BBG, VOA, RFE/RL blow off Biden’s Hitler-Stalin Pact remarks in Latvia, post funny videos and a VOA message from terrorists, BBG Watch, August 27, 2016
But while the Nigerian government is directly involved in this issue, the difference between VOA and New York Times and other mainstream U.S. media reports on some of these topics is also striking in terms of professionalism, balance and quality. The New York Times can hardly be accused of being right-wing or Islamiphobic, but its reports paint a far more fuller picture of American life and events abroad than some of the recent VOA reports in English and in other languages. As New York Times, CNN and other U.S. media reports reveal, there are people in NYC and Minnesota, including those who knew the suspects, who do not think they were “friendly,” “smart” and “reliable.” The Voice of America seems to have a problem finding such people.
The quality of VOA news reports has declined tremendously over the last two decades, but VOA reporters still seem to be encouraged to pursue this line of reporting by new Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing and new Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett. These two executives have launched and praised a series of one-sided panels with members of only one single American ethnic or religious group. These one group panels reinforce existing ethnic biases and are in a direct violation of the VOA Charter’s 2nd point, which says that “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
Since these executive express their strong support for the VOA Charter, it is obvious that they don’t understand the Charter, its history, VOA’s history, VOA’s mission and ethnic politics in the United States. Participants in some of these one-ethnic group panels already conducted have made various outlandish or untrue claims, which were then reported without challenge in VOA and BBG press releases and news stories.
Lansing and Bennett are well-meaning individuals, but they lack critical experience. Lansing, a former successful private entertainment TV executive, has had no prior experience in international news reporting, U.S. government operations, foreign affairs, foreign policy or U.S. public diplomacy. In the annual 2016 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), BBG employees have given John Lansing a strong vote of non-confidence after he has been several months on the job. As reported by The Washington Post,
“The Broadcasting Board of Governors, another regular bottom-feeder that oversees the Voice of America and other government broadcasters, also scored 56 [in EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT Category; in Engagement Index Trends – Leaders Lead Category, BBG went down from 43 in 2015 to 42 in 2016 ]. But unlike DHS, BBG is going backward. It scored two points better last year [in Engagement Index Trends]” READ MORE: Homeland Security finally shows employee morale improvement, though still rates low, Joe Davidson | Columnist, The Washington Post, September 20, 2016.
A veteran reporter in the VOA Newsroom made the following comment to BBG Watch:
VOA NEWSROOM REPORTER:
“Apparently, Bennett does not understand international broadcasting. She keeps getting more and more amazed by all those nationalities around her, instead of providing journalistic guidance and instructs accordingly on various topics to be covered. I guess, a Pulitzer Prize does not mean much anymore. She as caused much resentment in the VOA Newsroom.”
The source asked BBG Watch not to be identified by name.
This is what VOA News has said in one of its reports, “Suspected New York Bomber Wounded in Shootout with Police” | VOA News:
Suspect called friendly
“Suspected bomber Rahami was born in Afghanistan and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He and his family run a fried-chicken restaurant in Linden that has a steady number of loyal customers. But it also had trouble with the city of Linden for what neighbors said was round-the-clock noise and crowds at the eatery.
Some of the restaurant’s customers say they are shocked that Rahami is a suspect, calling him friendly. They say he let local bands practice in the back of the restaurant, and gave them free food.”
The New York Times presented a much more nuanced, fuller and considerably different story, “Ahmad Rahami: Fixture in Family’s Business and, Lately, a ‘Completely Different Person’” | THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Back in New Jersey, he and his relatives had a fractious relationship with neighbors and the police in Elizabeth, N.J., because of the always-open hours of their restaurant and the rackety customers it attracted. The longstanding friction led to the Rahami family’s filing a lawsuit in 2011 against the city and its Police Department in which they alleged that they were harassed and intimidated because of their religion. They accused a local businessman of complaining to them, “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”
The events on Monday were not Mr. Rahami’s first encounter with law enforcement. He was arrested in 2014 on weapons and aggravated assault charges for allegedly stabbing a relative in the leg in a domestic incident, according to court documents. He spent over three months in jail on the charges, according to a high-ranking law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation. A grand jury, however, declined to indict Mr. Rahami. He also spent a day in jail in February 2012 for allegedly violating a restraining order, the official said.”
This is what VOA News said in a report about the suspect in the Minnesota terror stabbings, “Minnesota Mall Attacker Identified as Somali-American” | VOA. It is difficult to determine when these VOA reports were posted because under the new leadership of Lansing and Bennett, dates, time stamps, and numbers of Facebook “Likes” have been eliminated to obscure the fact of stories being posted late and not generating any audience engagement.
“The man who stabbed nine people at a mall in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota has been identified as a 22-year-old Somali-American.
The leader of the Somali community in the state told VOA Somali service that the suspect, who was shot and killed by police during the attack Saturday, was Dahir Adan.
Abdul Kulane said Adan was known to the community, was working as a part-time security officer, and was a ‘smart and reliable person.’
Kulane said he did not know the motives or the full picture behind the attack. He said he thought the stabbings had no links with terrorism, despite a claim by an Islamic-run news agency that the attack was carried out by a ‘soldier of the Islamic State’.”
Here is another VOA News report, “Somali-Americans Anxious After Minnesota Mall Stabbing” | VOA News
Alimad knew the suspect, Adan, from an early age. He says that as an elder and a parent, he used to see Adan in various places, including schools and in boys and girls clubs.
‘He was a young man who came here when he was about three or four months old. He finished his elementary education here and he was in his third year in [St. Cloud State] university,’ he said. ‘He was a calm person, level headed, we have never heard complaints or problems about him in school.’
Alimad also says he knows the family of the suspect very well.
‘His father is a nice man, he is one of the town’s community elders who believes in unity, he is someone who did a lot of good things that community needs. They are a good family who have lots of children, good children.’
Adan had also worked as a security guard on a part-time basis. Alimad says he last saw the suspect recently and had a brief conversation.
‘The last time I saw him was recently, we greeted each other. I asked him are you doing ok? Are you going to university? He said yes. I asked him are you still working? He said he does.’
The latest VOA reports were slightly better than the ones VOA posted after the Orlando terrorist shooting massacre. Some of the latest VOA reports included a few cursory attempts at balance, but the overall effect of was still misleading, biased and generally one-sided.
A particularly appalling VOA video was posted shortly after the Orlando shootings. Former presidentially-appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors member, American broadcaster and journalist Blanquita Cullum, called the Voice of America video on Islamist terrorism “flawed, lazy, corrupted and wrong,” as well as dangerous for the United States and innocent civilians abroad. Nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate, she was BBG Governor from 2002 to 2010.
READ: Former BBG Governor calls Voice of America video on Islamist terrorism flawed and dangerous, BBG Watch, June 18, 2016
In another VOA News report, “In Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, a Search for Justice and Closure” | VOA News, the reporters went all out to present the suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as a confused but essentially a good young man whose Chechen family had a difficult time in the United States and feels threatened in America. Some of the reporting was good, but overall it was both one-sided, naive and misleading to foreign audiences who may not understand how most Americans view such terrorist acts and their perpetrators.
“A caring and loving person is what Tamerlan [Dzhokhar’s brother] seemed like less than four weeks before the bombs sent panic through runners and spectators lining the few hundred yards along Boston’s Boylston Street leading up to the finish line.”
“Unlike with Tamerlan – the trip to Russia, the mosque outburst, the initial FBI investigation – Dzhokhar’s involvement in the attack was even more baffling. According to friends and acquaintances, he never elicited attention or worry prior to April 15, 2013: not from neighbors or friends, not from school, not from law enforcement.
At Cambridge’s Rindge and Latin high school, Dzhokhar was known as low-key, laid-back and friendly. He was captain of the public school’s wrestling team, an honor student and the recipient of a small scholarship from the city of Cambridge.”
The same report also included unsupported and unchallenged claims that the Chechens are living in great fear in the United States.
“Upon reaching the United States, ‘for the first time in my life I felt that I, my kids, my family – that we are safe and happy here. I prayed for America every evening’, said Madina Khadzhimuradova, the Tsarnaev family friend.
‘Now it is all gone. I am living in fear again, just like in the old times in Chechnya. We spoke about moving somewhere else, but where can we go? There is no place for Chechens on this Earth’.”
The agency’s management, BBG CEO John Lansing and VOA Director Amanda Bennett, must think very highly of such reporting because they have praised the journalists who have produced some of these reports and allowed them to remain on VOA websites after problems have been reported.
In a recent press release, BBG and VOA included without any challenge claims that were either not true or at least highly questionable and controversial. It is not true that U.S. media pays less attention to mass shooting committed by non-Muslims, as the official U.S. government Broadcasting Board of Governors press release had said. It is also not true that “A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque,” as the VOA press release quoted one individual as saying without challenging his statement.
Other examples of chaos and poor management abound at the agency.
READ: Even with terror attacks on U.S. soil, Voice of America Extremism Watch Desk has zero social media traction, BBG Watch, September 19, 2016
Obama ignores BBG media in remarks on ISIL propaganda, Voice of America ignores his remarks, BBG Watch, August 9, 2016
John Lansing and Amanda Bennett could not ensure that VOA and RFE/RL covered an important foreign policy speech delivered recently by Vice President Joe Biden on a visit to Riga, Latvia, nor could they ensure at least minimal coverage of U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel’s visit to Moscow.
READ: Voice of America used Putin’s narrative in a Russian report, ignored Biden on WWII history, BBG Watch, September 6, 2016
Not by accident, Richard Stengel had a better trip to Russia than BBG Chair Jeff Shell, BBG Watch, September 18, 2016
In addition to missed opportunities for news coverage to countries lacking free media, both VOA and another BBG media entity, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have been caught posting reports, which instead of countering Russian and Chinese propaganda, repeat without questioning or challenge Russian or Chinese propaganda narratives and disinformation. While some of the better VOA and RFE/RL journalists still produce excellent news coverage, others at VOA and RFE/RL damage America’s image abroad. Poor leadership at the very top is to blame.
READ: Mao’s Influence Lingers in China, 40 Years After His Death, Voice of America, September 10, 2016
READ: Voice of America rewrites history on Mao’s murderous rule, BBG Watch, September 16, 2016
READ: Enjoy ‘Pravda-style’ reports from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) at US taxpayers’ expense, BBG Watch, September 14, 2016.
VOA/BBG PRESS RELEASE
June 29, 2016
What is it like to be a young Muslim in America?
“It definitely is a struggle — not only being a Muslim, not only being a Muslim American — being Somali, being black, being young — there’re a lot of identities that you have to reconcile,” said Mohamed Hussein of the Somali American Youth Foundation in Virginia, one of the panelists in a discussion broadcast by the Voice of America on Tuesday from the Newseum in Washington.
“Being Young and Muslim in America” was moderated by the VOA Afghanistan Service’s digital managing editor, Akmal Dawi in the wake of the carnage in Orlando that has left lingering questions about how young Muslims are assimilating into the American mainstream. “We’ve heard from pundits, we’ve heard from experts, we’ve heard from political figures about what Muslim Millennials feel, think, need and want,” said VOA Director Amanda Bennett. “Through this panel discussion with these Muslim Millennials themselves, we were able to understand the tensions they feel and the hopes they have.”
“When a Muslim does something like that [i.e., carryout a mass shooting like the recent attack in Orlando], it’s all over the media. But when a Westerner does the same thing, it doesn’t have the same impact,” said Morsal Mohamad, president of the Afghan Students Association at The George Washington University.
“A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque,” said Mohamed Hussein, executive director of the Somali American Youth Foundation, who also appeared on the panel.
“I think that oftentimes people try to split it [i.e., the Muslim community] into moderate Muslims and conservative Muslims, but there is a lot of diversity past that. And I think that that’s one of the nuances that gets lost in discussions about Islam in the U.S.,” said Oya Rose Aktas, a research assistant at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and another panelist on the program.
“I also think that focusing on cyber radicalization kind of loses sight of the bigger picture,” Aktas added. “You have to focus more on community groups; you need to focus more on human interactions; you need to focus more on making sure that people are living fulfilling, satisfying lives outside of the Internet.”
Othman Altalib, a board member at the ADAMS Center, one of the largest Muslim organizations in the United States, said that most U.S. Muslim groups have not been able to effectively counter the Islamic State’s appeal to disaffected youth. “Let’s get our youth involved in the community,” he said. “We should lead by example,” added Mohamad, citing the need for Millennial Muslims and Muslim leaders in the United States to serve as “examples to follow.”
Hussein noted that the U.S. Muslim community is diverse and that each person brings a different experience based on his or her country of origin. He said mosques and Muslim community centers engage worshipers in conversations about democracy in America, and added that they approach voting as the best way to express free will and preserve freedoms. “We don’t tell them who to vote for,” he said.
“Our common American experience is what unites all of us living in this country,” said Akbar Ayazi, director of VOA’s South and Central Asia Division. “No matter what god we believe, what faith we follow; no matter what background we have, no matter where we come from — we have one thing in common and that’s our humanity. We all pursue the same ideal, which is the American dream.”
The event was streamed live on multiple VOA language platforms, reaching audiences around the world. More than 67,000 people watched on the VOA Central News Facebook page alone. In addition, #YoungMuslimVOA trended on Twitter throughout the broadcast.
Voice of America reaches a global weekly audience of more than 187 million people in more than 40 languages. VOA programs are delivered on satellite, cable, shortwave, FM, medium wave, streaming audio and video and more than 2,350 media outlets worldwide. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the BBG.
Through its eight services on radio, television and the Internet, VOA’s South and Central Asia Division broadcasts news and information about America and the world to regions that are vulnerable to extremism and terrorism. The division’s Afghanistan Service reaches roughly 40 percent of the country’s adult population with programming in Dari and Pashto. The Azerbaijani Service reaches audiences in Azerbaijan and neighboring provinces in Iran. The Bangla Service serves Bangladesh and the Bangla-speaking Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura as well as several Arab and Muslim countries. VOA Deewa broadcasts to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, where more than 50 million Pashtuns live. The Urdu Service serves Pakistan and diaspora communities. The Kurdish Service reaches more than 30 million Kurds living in the Middle East and Eurasia. Turkish Service programming is vital to a nation where press freedom increasingly is restricted. The Uzbek Service reaches audiences in Uzbekistan, Central Asia and Afghanistan. And the newly established Extremism Watch Desk also supports VOA’s mission by enhancing the agency’s in-depth coverage of extremism around the world.
BBG CEO John Lansing’s Perspective
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Wednesday, September 14, 2016 2:12:22 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Year in Review & Looking Forward
Today marks my one year of service at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and I continue to be impressed by the dedicated group of people who work here in the Cohen Building, across our five BBG brands, and around the world.
Over the past year I have watched this exceptional team achieve strong audience growth, give life to exciting new content opportunities, particularly in digital and mobile media, push for industry-leading ways to achieve impact in our programming, as we collectively work to inform, engage and connect with people in support of freedom and democracy.
Together, we have achieved a lot.
The ICC – Strategic Coordination
One of the most impactful things we did last year was form the U.S. international media Coordinating Committee (ICC) to facilitate strategic coordination across the BBG’s five networks and the IBB. There have been substantive improvements in favor of our key audiences based on this coordinated and strategic approach from Russia to China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and covering CVE. The ICC now meets twice a month with me to discuss further collaboration and jointly worked with the IBB to develop and submit our FY 2017 and FY 2018 budgets.
Measuring BBG’s Impact on Key Audiences
Equally important, together we are growing our focus on achieving impact through our journalism. BBG reaches an audience of 226 million weekly, which only goes to show the hunger for our accurate and reliable content around the world. But it is also clear that reach is not enough – we need our journalism and programming to impact the lives of our audiences and their communities as well. That is why I was so pleased when, in February of this year, we hosted an Impact Summit where research directors of each BBG network came together and agreed upon an enhanced Impact Model to evaluate all BBG content.
Aggressive Push into Digital / Mobile / Social
We also made several advancements to increase access and engagement on social/mobile platforms to reach younger, more urban audiences, future leaders and influencers. There already was a lot of work being done in this area before I arrived, but I am proud to say that we are pushing the envelope significantly further. In just a few weeks, we will convene a Social Media Summit to look at best practices across BBG, establish baseline expectations, and promote future growth in mobile / social media across our networks.
Putting Our Audiences First – On Their Terms
And we continue to create and scale up innovative and compelling new content and reporting that is making a difference around the world. For instance:
— MBN’s multi-platform Raise Your Voice initiative is connecting audiences in the Middle East as they fight back against ISIS recruitment
— OCB’s aggressive push to open up Cuba to Internet freedom
— RFA’s powerful investigative stories halting the construction of faulty health clinics by North Korea in Africa
— RFE/RL’s collaborative success story with an expanded Current Time on all platforms and aggressive DIGIM strategy
— VOA’s collaboration on Current Time, and its successful launch of the Global Town Hall in Somalia
And there is so much more being done across our networks, and at the IBB, that I simply do not have space to list them all here.
None of these advancements would be possible without your tireless support, commitment, and mission-driven energy – whether you are contributing to the team at IBB or serving in any of the many responsibilities at our networks. It is YOUR work that earns our audiences’ respect as a trusted source of news and safe access to a free Internet.
Yet, while this has been a remarkable year and we made many strides, there is still more we need to do to continue to transform our global operations to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving media environment. I look forward to working alongside you for the next year to do just that.
But, for the moment, I only wish to say this: I am proud to come to work every day and work alongside all of you to achieve our important mission. The BBG team is an extraordinary one, and I thank you for welcoming me.
With sincere gratitude,
John F. Lansing
CEO and Director
Broadcasting Board of Governors