BBG Watch Commentary
When it comes to almost any major international news story, even those originating in the United States or directly affecting Americans, what most foreigners watch on satellite television or watch and read in English on social media platforms comes largely from Al Jazeera and state-funded broadcasters in Russia and China, or from BBC.
U.S.-funded international broadcaster, the Voice of America (VOA), is no longer an international player of any major significance in English news coverage or social media outreach in English, except in some parts of Africa.
English is not the official language of Russia, China, and the Middle East. It is still the official language of the United States and it is spoken by more than a billion people worldwide, an enormous potential audience. Bureaucratic incompetence in Washington is blamed for VOA English being pushed aside by Al Jazeera, Russia, and China.
The U.S. Congress is investigating.
The problem is not just a shortage of money. Much of the problem, according to critics, is waste and mismanagement within the bureaucracy of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), particularly within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) which runs the agency. They have eliminated many VOA English news positions and plan to cut more while expanding their own ranks of highly-paid executives, contractors, and consultants.
Dismal social media results for VOA English news is not the fault of remaining Voice of America journalists, broadcasters, mid-level managers and other employees. Some VOA language services are still highly competitive. They still make Voice of America one of this country’s best national security investments in terms of how taxpayers’ money is being spent. But these services have also been weakened and marginalized by the agency’s non-programming managers who have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars over the years on themselves and their favorite contractors with very little to show for it.
Members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) are asking questions but seem unable to reform the bureaucracy that runs U.S.international broadcasting.
While Al Jazeera and Russia Today beat VOA English many times over in every measurable category of media outreach, managers of the International Broadcasting Bureau are unmovable and apparently cannot be fired, not even by BBG members. Those BBG members who ask questions and demand accountability find themselves being replaced.
The agency is rated in the Office of Personnel Management Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) as one of the worst-managed in the federal government. IBB executives give themselves $10,000 outstanding performance bonuses (BBG members stopped the latest round of unearned bonuses) and try to bribe employees to give them better FEVS scores by offering time off for participating in the survey. Millions of taxpayers money are being wasted as the agency becomes more and more defunct.
Compared to the phenomenal success of Al Jazeera and Russia Today, very few foreigners get America’s story in English from the Voice of America whose English news reporting capabilities have been almost completely destroyed by ineffective management. IBB executives promised to make VOA a leader in digital innovation but wasted money on themselves and contractors.
The Voice of America English Service is no longer able to cover adequately major international news stories, such as the anti-government protests in Turkey and Brazil, and its coverage of U.S. news stories is so limited that it barely attracts any attention on YouTube, Facebook and other digital platforms. Whether a major news story deals with the United States, or another country like Turkey or Brazil, Voice of America English website has almost no ability to engage foreign audiences in a discussion through Facebook or through comments posted on its website.
The latest spy scandal involving a former NSA employee Edward Snowden is the latest example where VOA English news coverage does not even come close in social media outreach to the coverage provided by Russia Today and Al Jazeera. VOA English did not have a video report on YouTube today on Snowden’s travels. Russia Today did. It already had 3,697 views, 374 “Votes Up,” 3 “Votes Down” and 554 Comments.
Al Jazeera also posted a YouTube video on the U.S. spy scandal. It had 301+ views.
Obama: US Using All Legal Channels to Capture Snowden – VOA News – Facebook Recommend 1, Tweets 4, Comments 0
US Accuses China of Letting Snowden Flee – VOA News – Facebook Likes 1, Tweets 8, Comments 0.
SCMP: Snowden Says He Took Job for Access to NSA Programs – Reuters – Facebook Likes 3, Tweets 8, Comments 0.
Alleged NSA Snooping Target is One of China’s Internet Hubs – Reuters – Facebook Likes 2, Tweets 4, Comments 0.
Compare VOA’s digital social media outreach on this story with Russia Today’s news coverage today.
Snowden’s plane leaves Moscow, NSA leaker not seen aboard – Russia Today with Video – Facebook Likes 2,600, Tweets 783, Comments 403.
‘Who betrayed whom?’ Ecuador considers Snowden’s asylum, dubs persecution ‘paradoxical’ – Russia Today with Video – Facebook Likes 3,000, Tweets 412, Comments 118.
White House: Snowden still in Russia – Russia Today – Facebook Likes 744, Tweets 258, Comments 242.
Assange reveals details of ‘Snowden Op’, slams US ‘war on whistleblowers’ – Russia Today – Facebook Likes 2,700, Tweets 298, Comments 84.
Snowden healthy and safe, says Assange – Al Jazeera – Facebook Likes 190, Tweets 171, Comments 40.
Edward Snowden ‘likely to have left Russia’ – Al Jazeera with Video – Facebook Likes 498, Tweets 228, Comments 78.
When numbers of Facebook Likes, Tweets and Comments are added, Social Media Scores are:
Voice of America English – 32
Al Jazeera English – 1,205
Russia Today English – 11,642
The ultimate irony is that Russia Today and Al Jazeera beat VOA English many times over in reporting on statements from President Obama and other U.S. Administration officials on the Snowden spy case.
It is rather obvious that IBB Director Richard Lobo’s famous claim that “Today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before” seems rather empty, to say the least. He has protected his discredited managers and approved their $10,000 bonuses. IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble was reported to be in frequent contact with former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executives as they fired last September dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists in Putin’s Russia, bringing condemnations from Mikhail Gorbachev and other democratic leaders and human rights activists.
Neither Lobo nor Trimble warned BBG members about the growing crisis with Radio Liberty in Russia.
BBG Watch is reporting in a series of articles this week that in their professed attempt at innovation, top managers in charge of U.S. international broadcasting have largely failed to engage audiences on digital platforms and failed to achieve effective use of social media. Instead, they undermined the ability of Voice of America and some of the other U.S.-funded broadcasting entities to generate original news coverage.
Despite the change of management at RFE/RL initiated by BBG members, Radio Liberty still has not recovered its popularity on Facebook, although it is now doing much better after the previous management team was replaced on orders of BBG members. The Voice of America, being closer to the IBB management team in Washington still in charge and more dependent on it for technical support, has suffered most damage and is still in great danger from incompetent bureaucrats.
When it comes to covering international news and even telling America’s story to the world, Al Jazeera and Russia Today lead Voice of America by enormous margins on Facebook and YouTube. Voice of America English is far behind in the number of readers’ comments, numbers of Facebook subscriptions and “Likes,” as well as in ratings for satellite and cable television viewing. Unlike Al Jazeera and Russia Today, VOA does not even have a 24/7 English news television program. VOA’s famous radio news programs have been almost completely eliminated, supposedly to pay for digital and social media expansion.
The money went to IBB and its contractors, but the statistics showing how much Voice of America is behind Al Jazeera and Russia Today in social media outreach are staggering.
Total Facebook “Likes” – Voice of America English
Total Facebook “Likes” – Al Jazeera English
Total Facebook “Likes” – Russia Today English
As managers in the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau took resources from news gathering and reporting to fund their wasteful and largely unsuccessful digital innovation projects, the Voice of America English Service is no longer able to cover international news stories.
VOA English News Division did not send a staff correspondent to cover the recent anti-government protests in Turkey and relied instead on re-writing wire service stories and posting occasional video reports originated in Washington. Voice of America Director David Ensor defended this decision and said that VOA’s coverage of Turkey was balanced and responsible.
Both Russia Today and Al Jazeera had reporters on the ground in Turkey. As a result, international English-speaking audiences turned to these two broadcasters for news coverage. While one of VOA’s video news reports on Turkey, posted in early June, got 293 YouTube views and another 1,166, a Russia Today report got 156,683 views.
Russia Today English has a vast number of YouTube subscribers and views compared to VOA English. RT was the first news channel to break the 1 billion YouTube views benchmark.
The tragic truth is that when it comes to telling America’s story, to reporting news about America, Voice of America English no longer has even minimal resources to compete with Al Jazeera or Russia Today.
In a Radio World article, BBG: Consider the Changing Landscape, Michael Meehan, one of the three remaining Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members, analyzes major issues facing U.S. international broadcasting.
Meehan is one of the few current and former BBG members who have been trying to reform IBB bureaucracy. But while he and two other Governors, Victor Ashe and Susan McCue, were able to save Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty from following in the footsteps of Voice of American English into irrelevancy, they have reached a brick wall in dealing with IBB Director Richard Lobo and Deputy Director Jeff Trimble.
Meehan article appeared two days before U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will hold a hearing, Wednesday, June 26, on reforming the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to as “defunct.”
It is well known in Washington that some of the former BBG members were doing business deals in Russia and China, and even in Saudi Arabia, while they served on the U.S. broadcasting board charged with supporting media freedom and countering media censorship in these countries. Most would agree that one cannot do business and make money in Putin’s Russia while annoying him with calls for media freedom. In the last few years, the BBG made several successful and unsuccessful attempts to eliminate or reduce U.S. broadcasts to Russia, China, and Tibet. Some former BBG members and IBB executives were also pushing for replacing hard news coverage with softer news features and entertainment. A coincidence?
Hearing: Broadcasting Board of Governors: An Agency “Defunct” 2172 House Rayburn Office Building Washington, DC 20515 | Jun 26, 2013 10:00am.
In commenting on the hearing, Rep. Royce noted that “‘tinkering’ and ‘band-aid’ solutions are not an option, because the stakes are too great” in how America’s story is told to the world and how news is delivered to societies living under press censorship.
“International broadcasting is a key tool of U.S. diplomacy. Unfortunately, it’s broken. As Secretary Clinton rightly pointed out earlier this year, ‘the BBG is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.’ It is time to take a hard look at the BBG and ask if our resources, nearly $750 million annually, are being spent wisely – are we getting what we need from these broadcasting efforts? We aren’t, and it is time for broad reforms; ‘tinkering’ and ‘band-aid’ solutions are not an option, because the stakes are too great.”