Voice of America English programs go the way of Voice of Russia, says former VOA journalist

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FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org Truckee, CA, USA, December 19, 2010 — In their eagerness to promote the Obama Administration policies to overseas audiences, the Voice of America (VOA) English Service reporters and editors have been toeing the White House line on the proposed START arms reductions treaty with Russia and failing to report in a balanced way on the substantial Republican opposition to the treaty, as they are required to do by U.S. law which governs their journalistic work.

Free Media Online, a California-based media freedom NGO, reported that VOA’s English-language news service’s bias against Republican positions on foreign and domestic policy issues, which has been known for years by VOA insiders and does not extend to most VOA foreign language services, has become much more blatant during the current administration, with the reporting on the START treaty being just the latest example of biased VOA English news coverage in violation of the Voice of America Charter. Free Media Online President Ted Lipien said that while some of the blame falls on VOA English Service reporters and editors, the responsibility for unbalanced reporting ultimately rests with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent Federal agency which oversees the Voice of America. On the START Treaty and many other news, the Voice of America English Service reporting went the way of the Voice of Russia and misleads important foreign audiences about America, its institutions and political debates, said Lipien.

BBG Organizational Chart

A review of recent VOA English Service news reports on the proposed START treaty, conducted by Free Media Online, shows that statements and arguments in favor of the Obama Administration position on the arms control agreement with Moscow have received an overwhelming amount (more than 90 percent) of VOA Internet coverage. The Republican objections to the treaty, if they are even mentioned in VOA English-language reports, usually got no more than one or two sentences.

Some of the significant statements and interviews by former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, in which he has raised objections to the current wording of the treaty and President Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia, have not been reported at all by the Voice of America, except for a few sentences in a heavily pro-START treaty VOA English service report.

It took the Voice of America Russian Service two days to post a report on the major foreign policy speech by Senator McCain at the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, in which he criticized President Obama’s approach to Russia.

Senator McCain’s speech had been posted earlier in English by GovoritAmerika.US, a largely Russian-language website sponsored by Free Media Online. Senator McCain’s Senate floor speech on the trial of the Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky and U.S.-Russia relations and his speech on the missile defense and START Treaty were not reported by the VOA English Service.

GovoritAmerika.US

Vice President Biden’s comments in support of the treaty were, on the other hand, promptly posted Sunday on the VOA English website with no references to Republican lawmakers who made television comments against the treaty at about the same time. Links to related VOA stories on the Biden report all take readers to VOA English reports indicating widespread support for the treaty:

Obama Urges Swift Approval of START Treaty

Momentum Builds to Ratify New START

Clinton Says START Treaty is ‘Beyond Politics’

The only substantive report on the VOA English website, which includes Republican objections to the proposed START treaty, appeared Sunday evening, December 19, many hours after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, spoke against the agreement in television interviews. After months of seeing on the VOA English Service website numerous reports on the support for the proposed START treaty, VOA audiences were finally told Sunday night about “doubts that the accord might not be ratified during the final days of the current Congress.”

In addition to those already listed, all other substantive recent VOA reports on the proposed START Treaty, which have strongly supported the White House position, can be seen in “Related Links” attached to the Voice of America English report

Clinton Says START Treaty is ‘Beyond Politics’” :

Europeans, Russia Urge US Senate to Ratify START Treaty

President Obama Challenges Republicans to Approve START Treaty

Democrats Push For Approval of Arms Control Treaty This Year

European Support for New Nuclear Treaty More Certain than Senate Ratification

Obama, Colin Powell Urge New START Approval

Biden: US Senators Will Pass START Treaty

The only VOA report with substantive statements from Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham is not listed among the related links for the Clinton/START report.

Some of the Voice of America English service reports with one-sided view of the U.S. debate on the proposed START treaty with Russia.

VOA language services, which employ journalists from former and current communist states and other nations ruled by dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, are generally more balanced in their original reporting. The only possible exception may be the VOA Persian Service, which has been accused by Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, and by Iranian human rights activists of being biased in favor of the Tehran regime.

Many VOA language radio services, however, have been eliminated and those still broadcasting have fewer resources, which forces some to rely on translating VOA English Service reports and multiplies the unbalanced coverage.

Due to a combination of uncritical and uncontroversial reporting and mismanagement at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the VOA English Service, with the exception of the VOA English to Africa Division which creates its own highly-targeted programs, has been losing overseas listeners at a rapid rate and in most countries its audience, often measured at a fraction of one percent, falls well below the statistical margin of error. Perhaps in response to such dismal performance, some current and former VOA English Service executives have been recently promoting the idea of combining the Voice of America with the National Public Radio (NPR).

Danforth W. Austin, the 27th Director to lead Voice of America.The current Director of the Voice of America is Danforth W. Austin, but his control over the VOA English Service programs and its staff of reporters and editors appears minimal. He was hired in 2006 during the George W. Bush Administration by the previous members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which manages all U.S.-funded civilian international broadcasts. VOA insiders know that all the important decisions, which determine the journalistic culture at the Voice of America, are set by the BBG, which by law must be bipartisan, and particularly by its executive staff. All of the current BBG members, both Democrats and Republicans, have been nominated by President Obama.

Public Law 94-350 signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, which governs VOA journalistic activities, says:

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.

It also mandates:

VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.[emphasis added]

The VOA Charter

To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford.

The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:

1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

2. 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.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
(Public Law 94-350)

Walter Isaacson, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors

The Voice of America is funded by U.S. taxpayers and required by its Congressional Charter to provide accurate and objective news to radio, TV, and Internet audiences overseas. Furthermore, in addition to reporting on U.S. foreign policy, the Congress specifically demands that VOA provides news about any significant discussion of the Administration’s policies, including any responsible opposition to to such policies. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Federal agency in charge of VOA, is chaired by President Obama’s appointee Walter Isaacson, a Democrat, the former Chairman and CEO of CNN and former editor of Time Magazine. The BBG employs 3,791 people at the agency and all its entities and has a budget of $757.7 million in FY 2010 (estimated). According to its own questionable ratings data, as its budgets have been increasing, its weekly unduplicated audience has been declining since 2008 (175 million in 2008; 165 million in 2010). Other members of the BBG are:

Victor H. Ashe
Hillary Rodham Clinton (ex officio)
Michael Lynton
Susan McCue
Michael P. Meehan
Dennis Mulhaupt
Dana Perino
S. Enders Wimbush

The BBG has been criticized for promoting poor journalism and mismanagement by the public interest journalism website ProPublica and by the Heritage Foundation scholar Helle Dale.

Never during my more than 30 years with the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have I seen such blatant disregard for journalistic standards and VOA Charter. During the Nixon Administration, we reported extensively on the Watergate scandals and, when I was acting associate VOA director during the George W. Bush Administration, we reported at length about Democratic objections to the Iraq war and other criticism of the Bush White House. I have never seen such unbalanced and servile reporting by the Voice of America English service correspondents. The Voice of America coverage the U.S. debate about the proposed START treaty would make the Voice of Russia radio and Russia Today television proud.

Ted Lipien, former Voice of America acting associate director and VOA journalist during several Democratic and Republican administration, said that the Voice of America has violated this mandate in reporting on the ongoing debate in Congress about the new START treaty with Russia on arms reductions by heavily promoting the pro-treaty statements by the Obama Administration officials and almost completely ignoring serious objections to the proposed treaty raised by Republican lawmakers.

The Voice of America reporting on the U.S. debate about the proposed START treaty would make the Voice of Russia radio and Russia Today television proud, said Ted Lipien who now heads Free Media Online, a California-based NGO which supports free and independent media and reporting worldwide.

In 2008, Free Media Online launched GovoritAmerika.US, a Russian-language website which aggregates U.S. government and non-government media reports. The website was created in response to the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decision to cancel VOA Russian radio broadcasts, an action taken just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia. Free Media Online has been highly critical of the BBG’s management of  U.S. international broadcasting.

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Lipien’s comments about VOA coverage of the START treaty are not accurate. On the first full day of Senate debate on the treaty (Dec 16), a VOA news report led with quotes from Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), a strong opponent of the proposed pact, who called it “misguided.” The report, like many others on this subject, provided a balanced look at the Obama Administration’s ratification efforts and Republican opposition. Just yesterday (Dec 19), VOA issued a report titled, “Leading Republican Senators Voice Opposition to START Treaty.” It focused on the “rising doubts” that the treaty will be approved by the current congress. The report quotes Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Kentucky). Accuracy and balance are the highest priority for VOA journalists, managers of our language services, and senior management. We will continue to provide our audience with views from both sides of this critical issue.

  2. Free Media Online says:

    If an organization can’t admit it has a problem, it can’t solve it. That’s the unfortunate part of the Voice of America spokesperson’s response. Having spent decades successfuly using balanced news and information to counter one-sided state propaganda in communist-ruled Poland, and later in state media dominated Russia and Ukraine, I think I can recognize one-sided state propaganda and unbalanced reporting when I see it. But rather than taking my word for it, I invite readers of the Free Media Online article to read the titles of VOA reports, visit the links, and count the number of pro-START and anti-START VOA English stories. We did note that a single report on television interviews by Republican lawmakers posted Sunday hours after they spoke. The VOA spokesperson implies that reports of similar nature were as common as pro-START VOA English reports, which were numerous. That is simply not true. We stand by our research. VOA should examine its definition of balanced reporting. Ted Lipien

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