John Kerry is wrong and what Hillary Clinton had said three years ago about U.S. government media outreach abroad is still true. She called the effort “practically defunct.”
According to Secretary Kerry when he spoke on April 19, 2016, “Today’s Broadcasting Board of Governors is not the BBG of a few years ago.” The BBG is VOA’s federal oversight agency.
The very next day VOA reported that “In a rare public speech Tuesday, former Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro told a crowd of party loyalists that while he is close to the end of his life, ‘the ideas of Cuban Communists will remain’ long after he is gone.” There was not one word of challenge or balance in the entire VOA News 290-word report on Castro’s musings on communism and his legacy. The voice of tens of thousands of Cubans murdered by the Castro regime, drowned at sea while trying to escape the island, victims of human rights abuses, even U.S. foreign policy goals for Cuba were ignored in the VOA report. Moreover, this was not an isolated journalistic failure by the U.S. broadcaster which also does some excellent work and is needed more than ever in many free media deprived countries around the world.
When looking at the entire effort, I strongly disagree with John Kerry’s latest comment and agree with his predecessor at the State Department and former ex officio BBG member Hillary Clinton. When testifying on January 23, 2013 before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Secretary Clinton stated, “Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and we need to get back into it.”
Mr. Kerry got it right in February 2015 when he told House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) “All I can say, Mr. Chairman, I’m with you 100% on this [BBG reform]. I look forward to working with you further. I appreciate your leadership.”
Yesterday, Mr. Kerry said, “I applaud the reforms that BBG’s new leadership has already taken, and I congratulate CEO John Lansing for the energy and enthusiasm he has brought to the organization.” Although some improvements have been made at the agency by Mr. Lansing and BBG Chair Jeff Shell, the praise from Mr. Kerry was premature and unjustified as serious management problems remain unresolved and the failed bureaucracy is still very much in control of the agency.
In terms of addressing Voice of America’s many major and minor failures, I’m not suggesting that VOA should not have reported on Castro’s speech or devoted most of its news report to a rebuttal, but VOA’s international audiences and U.S. taxpayers deserved much more than VOA giving the Cuban dictator a platform to distort history without any challenge. The VOA Charter, which is U.S. law, says that “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” Castro’s comments were controversial. VOA Journalistic Code requires balance, context, fairness and comprehensiveness in news reporting.
Denial can be an insurmountable obstacle to reform. Like many others before him, Secretary Kerry has become yet another victim of the BBG bureaucracy’s misleading propaganda of success.
It is also quite true that not all of VOA is dysfunctional. Individual VOA reporters are still capable of doing outstanding work. One of them is VOA’s Myroslava Gongadze whose television program to Ukraine I started during the Orange Revolution in 2004. She was profiled in a recent National Review article.
Overall, however, John Kerry is wrong and critics of the BBG are still right. Mr. Kerry was fed misleading information. As one of of my former VOA colleagues, a senior foreign and domestic correspondent, rightly concluded, “What’s Kerry been smoking. The BBG is not the BBG of a few years ago? Right. It’s worse than ever.”
My former VOA colleagues don’t mince words. May be the BBG is not quite worse than ever, but it is not much better, and it could easily become much worse if there are no further reforms. So far, reforms have been feeble and have had little impact on programming.
These problems are not limited to VOA alone. Recently, an anti-Israel message which could easily inspire terrorist attacks on innocent civilians was posted on Facebook by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), another U.S. taxpayer-funded media entity overseen by the BBG.
In an introduction to its post on new airport security measures being considered after the deadly terrorist attacks in Brussels, RFE/RL wrote quoting an unnamed critic of Israel, “I fear that by Europe instituting the same rules that Israel is instituting, it’s going to lead down the same path that Israel has led down to, which is wholesale racism…”
It is not enough for RFE/RL or VOA to claim that their other reports provide balance. That’s not how social media works either in support of propaganda or against disinformation. RFE/RL also posted a report that was nothing but a completely one-sided presentation of the Kremlin’s point of view and Putin’s key disinformation and propaganda theme on the alleged NATO threat to Russia. Both RFE/RL and VOA unwittingly post on social media unbalanced reports and videos which tend to promote Putin’s personality cult and Kremlin’s propaganda themes.
Those who legally have ownership over U.S. tax-funded media outlets–i.e. American taxpayers, members of Congress and presidentially-appointed BBG members–have been separated from their control by the more or less permanent and constantly growing government bureaucracy. BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and new BBG CEO John Lansing are both good men, but for whatever reason they both chose to accept the false narrative of success and continue to rely on failed BBG executives instead of carrying out major structural reforms. These reforms were proposed in the bipartisan bill H.R. 2323 which still awaits further action in Congress.
It would be too soon to blame the latest one-sided pro-Castro news report on new VOA director, Pulitzer Prize journalist Amanda Bennett. She was sworn in only yesterday.
Ms. Bennett has impressive credentials and she gave an excellent speech with one exception. She tried to minimize evidence of low employee morale by stressing the passion and competence of individual VOA reporters. She should not allow herself to be mislead. While she rightly praised VOA acting director Kelu Chao who has had an enormously difficult job while being bullied by those who object to countering violent extremism, Ms. Bennett apparently surprised many VOA journalists when she appeared to suggest that passion of individual VOA reporters is somehow incompatible with being part of an organization that is broken because of poor management. The best employees are the ones who are often the most dispirited because they see better than others that their hard work is being stymied.
“I am still really PO’ed at that ‘fantastic leadership team’ comment the new VOA director made during her speech this week,” one of them wrote in a private email to his current and former colleagues.
“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?, a VOA reporter asked. Or why couldn’t she have said she has read the Office of Personnel Management and the Partnership for Public Service government employee surveys and intends to evaluate everyone?, ” a VOA reporter added. “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.”
While I don’t disagree with my former colleague, who does not want to be named because he still works at VOA, from my own perspective as a former VOA broadcaster and manager, Ms. Bennett’s speech and her answers to questions from employees and CEO John Lansing showed that she is a thoughtful and impressive media professional. This inspires some confidence in me after a string of mediocre leaders at VOA and the BBG in recent years. Some former and current VOA foreign language broadcasters were particularly pleased with her comment to one reporter that while VOA should reject pressure to support government policies, it should not be afraid to listen to good ideas from whatever source.
Many of VOA’s permanent employees are federal government workers while a very large percentage are much exploited and disenfranchised contract employees. Some of the contractors have filed a $400 million class action anti-discrimination lawsuit against the agency. Because this is a U.S. government operation, much of VOA program content is in the public domain. The one-sided VOA News Castro report re-posted below was designed for worldwide audiences. The Voice of America can do better than that and, hopefully, Ms. Bennett can soon make sure that it does.
Ted Lipien is a writer, journalist, former VOA acting associate director and former chief of VOA radio to Poland during the Cold War.
April 20, 2016 1:40 AM
[The original VOA News report includes an AP FILE photo – Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba.]
In a rare public speech Tuesday, former Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro told a crowd of party loyalists that while he is close to the end of his life, “the ideas of Cuban Communists will remain” long after he is gone.
Castro was speaking during the closing of the Cuban Communist Party congress in Havana, which had just re-appointed his brother, Raul, as head of the party for another five years. Raul is six years younger than Fidel.
“I’ll be 90 years old soon,” Fidel said to the crowd of about 1,300. “Soon I’ll be like all the others. The time will come for all of us.”
While the elder Castro brother looked frail, but healthy in one of his most extensive public appearances since a serious illness ten years ago forced him to relinquish control of the communist government he helped form.
“Perhaps this will be one of the last times I speak in this room,” he said. “But the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without a truce to obtain them.”
Fidel’s comments came at the end of the four-day secret party congress, which coincided with the 55th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by U. S. supported counterrevolutionaries. The twice-a-decade congress ended a month after U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana, the first visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years.
Prior to Tuesday’s appearance, Fidel had been living in relative seclusion, writing an occasional newspaper column and appearing with visiting world leaders.