VOA English has a staff reporter in Istanbul, finally
BBG Watch Commentary
(Advisory: This commentary refers only to Voice of America (VOA) English-language coverage of the protests in Turkey. VOA Turkish Service has been providing comprehensive and balanced coverage despite having a very small staff and inadequate resources. One could argue that VOA English Service has even fewer and constantly shrinking resources to cover news worldwide and it is also a victim of more mismanagement from top officials.
Voice of America journalists and other rank and file employees are not at fault here. The fault lies entirely with the entrenched executive staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and several top-level Voice of America executives who have been eliminating journalistic positions (a cut of four positions for VOA Turkish proposed for FY 2013 and more than 20 positions for VOA English Newsroom to remain unfilled and eliminated in FY 2014). A decision not to send staff reporters to Turkey was made by top VOA executives. Rank and file VOA journalists did whatever they could to cover the story. The management set them up for failure, but tries to present it as a great achievement.)
After strong criticism from BBG Watch and others for inadequate and one-sided coverage of the Turkish anti-government protests, Voice of America English Service finally sent an experienced staff video-journalist to Istanbul.
In a well-done, comprehensive and balanced video report, VOA’s Scott Bob pointed out that “anti-government protests continue in Turkey, but the methods have changed.”
On the ground presence makes an enormous difference in how a news organization covers a news story. The only comment one could add to the VOA report is that even though it talks about the protest being directed against the Turkish government for restricting citizen’s rights, it does specifically mention Prime Minister Erdogan, against whom most of the anger of the protesters has been directed.
The name “Tyyip” spray painted all over the city refers to Erdogan. He is viewed as the chief enemy of democratic freedoms, which is what the protest is now all about. There are some other members of the current Turkish government who are not viewed by the protesters as being anti-democratic.
But keep in mind that Scott Bob has just arrived in Turkey. He needs a little time to get a feel for the place. Having failed to pay sufficient attention to the story when it blew up, you can’t make up for it in one day. It may be too late. VOA should have had Scott Bob or someone like him in Istanbul weeks ago.
But sending a staff reporter to Turkey even this late (better late than never – BBG Watch hopes it had something to do with it) is still a great improvement over VOA English Service coverage of the protests until now. Such VOA coverage was almost nonexistent in May and very limited in early June. In those early weeks, BBC, and even Al Jazeera, Russia Today and Chinese CCTV English News, each, despite their own biases, provided much better reporting and a far better presentation of the nature of the protests than VOA English. That is a sad fact.
CCTV, Al Jazeera, Russia TodayAl Jazeera reported extensively on the protests and media censorship in Turkey.
Was this Turkish game show censored?, Al Jazeera, June 6, 2013.
“Though Turkish news channels have mostly stayed silent about the country’s widespread protests, a game show broke that barrier not once, but 70 times. On Monday’s episode of “The Word Game”, every clue tied in to Turkey’s protests, seemingly touching on everyone from members of the media (“brown-nosers”, “false news”) to the prime minister (“despot”, “hubris”).”
Al Jazeera included a video from the Turkish TV show. This kind of reporting was simply not available on the VOA English website.
The failure of VOA’s English coverage of the Turkish protests was made even more objectionable by the fact that mainstream Turkish media, including local television partners of MSNBC and CNN, were not reporting on the story in the early days, as Al Jazeera report pointed out. Signs “Coward Media” and “Revolution Will Not Be Televised” were seen all around Taksim Square in Istanbul.
Self-censorship by local media was noticed by other international broadcasters, but not by VOA’s leadership.
You can judge for yourself whether this Russia Today report, dated June 5, “Turkish activists rail against media for ignoring protests, police brutality,” is not vastly better, more comprehensive and far more interesting than anything Voice of America English Service was providing in early June.
Voice of America Director David Ensor, his Executive Editor Steve Redisch and other top VOA executives need to wake up. As it pains us to say this, at least this Russia Today video report puts top VOA leadership to shame. Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should all watch it and start asking Mr. Ensor some questions. Members of Congress should watch this video as well.
Empty IBB and VOA Claims of Digital Prowess
The Russia Today video on media censorship in Turkey has 597 Facebook “Likes” and 355 “Tweets” as of today. Voice of America English reports and news items on the same date, June 5, had at most 25 Facebook “Likes.”
One short VOA English video report on the protests in Turkey was filed from Washington on June 5. It had 18 Facebook “Likes.” Three other short VOA news items on Turkey on the same day had no more than eight (8) Facebook “Likes.”
Again, it’s time to wake up for VOA Director and for BBG members to ask questions. VOA can’t cover major news events in Turkey from Washington. Russia Today and Al Jazeera know this. David Ensor should know it as well.
He and IBB Director Richard Lobo claim that they are doing wonders in expanding digital and social media. But has the elimination of language services and VOA English reporting positions — which is what they have been doing — resulted in any significant achievements for VOA in new media, as they want BBG members and members of Congress to believe?
The answer is obvious. The money went to IBB bureaucracy and to their favorite contractors while VOA has lost its ability to report news and to be competitive. All one has to do is to look at these numbers:
Russia Today Video about Turkey from Istanbul – 597 Facebook “Likes”
Al Jazeera Report “Was this Turkish game show censored?” – 513 Facebook “Likes”
VOA Video about Turkey from Washington – 18 Facebook “Likes”
Need we say anything more.
Keep in mind that the VOA video with 18 Facebook “Likes” was one of the most popular reports on Turkey on the VOA English website.
Perhaps VOA Director Ensor and IBB Director Lobo should also look at these numbers and think about resigning. If they don’t, they should be barred for at least a year from using such words as “digital innovation,” “new media” and “engaging audiences.”
VOA TURKISH SERVICE
IBB managers have been trying for years to shut down various VOA language services, including the Turkish Service. Their FY 2013 proposal called for eliminating four journalistic positions in the Turkish Service, but this management initiative was not approved in Congress and the positions were kept for the time being.
While the VOA Turkish Service was forced to work with very limited resources, it managed to save Voice of America’s reputation in Turkey with its far more comprehensive reporting on the protests.
VOA Turkish delivers its programming through a TV affiliation, Internet and social media. The TV affiliate is TGRT Haber, one of the five major news networks in Turkey. Recently, the network went on cable, increasing its nationwide viewership.
VOA Turkish provides the TV affiliate with daily news bulletins through webcam, a live 15-minute news show (four days a week), and a weekly 30-minute feature and culture magazine. Special reporting is also done frequently as events in Washington warrant.
The Service also acts as a “Washington bureau” to other TV networks in Turkey whenever they request coverage of major developments in the United States. The other component of VOA Turkish programming includes web and mobile sites, a Facebook fan club, Twitter and YouTube accounts, five blogs and a daily newsletter emailed to hundreds of subscribers. Turkish domestic media often reprint VOA Turkish major stories.
Failure of Leadership
VOA English coverage in June, which consisted of very short, (under one minute) re-written and condensed wire service reports and a few reports from a local stringer. Most of this coverage leaned heavily toward reporting on statements from Prime Minister Erdogan. While these individual reports were each balanced with some mention of the protesters’ agenda, VOA English headlines and the majority of the text created an overall impression of a lack of balance and a pro-government bias. It could be a good topic for a any student of journalism to explore.
We want to point out again that those at fault were not VOA English news writers, who added whatever balance they could find and could include in short news items. The fault lies entirely with top VOA executives who have failed to plan for proper coverage. They are at fault for not sending experienced staff reporters to report on such a major news story, or at least for not compensating for the lack of on the scene presence.
As one veteran international journalist pointed out to us, “unless a news organization has someone on the scene to cover a diverse group of protesters without single leadership and with different agenda, government officials will always have an advantage in getting their point of view across because of their easy access to the media. An executive of a news organization must be aware of it and plan for it.”
VOA executives failed to learn this lesson, and the end result was inadequate coverage by VOA English Service and an overall lack of balance — a bad thing for long-term U.S. public diplomacy interests in Turkey.
Failure to Counter Anti-American Propaganda
While VOA is not in the public diplomacy business, bad journalism associated with VOA equals bad public relations, i.e. public diplomacy, for the United States.
An uninformed observer or a protester in Turkey might conclude that until now VOA English website coverage was under the control of the U.S. State Department, which was definitely NOT the case. For many years now, VOA has enjoyed editorial independence under its VOA Charter. In this case, only VOA and IBB executives can be blamed for inadequate coverage and for any mistakes that were made.
Rather than being subjected to outside political pressure from anyone else, one can argue that at least in this one instance, the U.S. State Department, specifically the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, did a better journalistic job than Voice of America. What it means is that some VOA and IBB executives are a greater danger to the organization’s reputation than any State Department or White House officials who generally ignore VOA and do not interfere with its editorial decisions. It would be against the law.
Here is an example where State Department did something right, and VOA didn’t.
American taxpayers, who pay for VOA, expect that at the very least Voice of America would set the record straight when anti-American propaganda is being spread abroad. In his “Postcard From Turkey,” op-ed columnist Tom Friedman wrote for The New York Times:
In today’s flat world, nobody gets to have one-way conversations anymore. Leaders are now in a two-way conversation with their citizens. Erdogan, who is surrounded by yes-men, got this lesson the hard way. On June 7, he declared that those who try to “lecture us” about the Taksim crackdown, “what did they do about the Wall Street incidents? Tear gas, the death of 17 people happened there. What was the reaction?” In an hour, the American Embassy in Turkey issued a statement in English and Turkish via Twitter rebutting Erdogan: “No U.S. deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS,” a reference to Occupy Wall Street. No wonder Erdogan denounced Twitter as society’s “worst menace.”
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara reacted immediately to Erdogan’s outrageous propaganda claim. Later, the Embassy deleted the tweet, although Embassy officials still insisted that they stand by their initial response.
But did Voice of America English website include a news report on this flagrant example of cheep anti-American rhetoric?
We did various searches of the VOA English website and could not find anything on this story. (We could not check the VOA Turkish website, but Erdogan’s false claim should have been countered in English since it was reported internationally.) Perhaps VOA should put Tom Friedman on its payroll. Normally, U.S. diplomats are extremely cautious in these kinds of situation, but they reacted far quicker and far better than VOA English Service.
Lack of On The Ground Presence Equals Poor Coverage and Poor Balance
A quick look at a long list of short VOA news reports in early June shows that many of them led with statements from Prime Minister Erdogan. These were mostly re-written, short wire service reports. Voice of America English Service should have done much better. Its experienced reporters like Scott Bob were nowhere near Turkey.
There was, however, at least one early example of in-depth, excellent original VOA reporting on the Turkish protest. It came from another experienced VOA correspondent Al Pessin. But he was analyzing the protests not from Istanbul or Ankara, but from London. Nevertheless, his reporting and the analysis he provided were right on the mark.
Sources tell BBG Watch that Voice of America Director David Ensor is telling has told various people in Washington that there was absolutely nothing wrong with VOA coverage of the Turkish protests and the decision not to send a staff correspondent to Turkey. Various sources quoted him as saying that VOA coverage was: “objective,” “responsible” and “balanced.” He was also telling people that Erdogan is not some kind of dictator but a democratically elected leader who enjoys substantial support in Turkey, a country which remains a close U.S. ally.
But, of course, that was not at all the point of criticism, not just from BBG Watch but from many others. Erdogan is not at issue here, although his statements did receive a lot of play on VOA’s English website. The issue is whether David Ensor and his top deputies arranged for proper and objective coverage of the Turkish protests worthy of a serious news organization, this one funded by U.S. taxpayers. The answer is, in our view, they did not.
If there was no need for sending a VOA English Service correspondent to Turkey when pro-democracy protesters were being gassed by the police and people were dying and when Al Jazeera and Russia Today were providing on the ground coverage and Voice of America was not, why send a VOA correspondent now?
Perhaps it is an admission from Mr. Ensor that the critics were right, and he and his top deputies were wrong. Let’s hope they will change their ways, but we are not holding our breath.
By the way, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a surrogate broadcaster also funded by U.S. taxpayers through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but specializing in reporting on mostly local developments and human rights issues in several countries without free media, did report on Prime Minister Erdogan’s bogus claim about 17 people dying in the occupy Wall Street protests and the U.S. Embassy’s rebuttal of his claim. It was an international news story of some importance, and RFE/RL also reports such news, as any international news organization in that category would. But RFE/RL is not charged with “represent(ing) America” and “present(ing) the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.” The Voice of America has that obligation, which is spelled out in the VOA Charter.
We also could not find on the VOA English news website any substantive reporting on solidarity protests by Turkish Americans and others in the United States. Isn’t it Voice of America’s job to report in English on such actions by Americans?
Dismal performance of VOA leadership vis a vis Turkey also brings us at last to some broader issues in U.S. international broadcasting. We hear that Mr. Ensor together with top IBB officials is a strong advocate of merging BBG’s surrogate broadcasters, such as RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA), into one large bureaucracy.
All we can say to that is “God Save Them” if they should ever fall under the control of central bureaucracy run by IBB executives. And “God Save VOA” if it should be merged with the surrogate broadcasters under the central control of the current IBB management.
Voice of America has its own very important mission. It needs new leadership, while IBB should be completely dismantled and its resources put to a better use in the hands of program producers. Surrogate broadcasters can do very well on their own, as can Voice of America. That is our final word.
List of Recent Voice of America English News Reports on Turkey Compiled by VOA Management
Much of VOA English coverage consisted of short news times, condensed wire service reports, some Reuters video, and a few short reports from a stringer. Headlines and overall coverage gave a lot of play to Erdogan’s statements. VOA English Service had no staff reporters in Turkey during that time.
Turkey Warns It May Use Army to Quell Protests
Turkish Protesters March Ahead of Planned Strike
Erdogan Says It Was His ‘Duty’ to Evict Protesters
Turkey Cracks Down on Istanbul Protesters – CN Feed
Turkish Riot Police Storm Istanbul Park in Bid to End Protests – Reuters
Turkish Riot Police Move to Quash Protests – CN Feed
Turkish Protesters Vow to Continue Park Sit-In
Turkish Protesters Vow to Continue Park Sit-In – CN Feed
Dozens Detained in Turkey Despite Negotiations – CN Feed
Turkish PM Agrees to Postpone Park Redevelopment
Turkish PM Appeals to Protesters to Evacuate Park – CN Feed
Protesters say Turkish PM Pledges to Hold Off on Park Project – CN Feed
Erdogan to Meet With Second Group of Protesters – CN Feed
Turkish PM Issues Final Warning to Protesters
Officials: Turkey Protests Will Not Affect 2020 Olympic Bid – Reuters
Erdogan: From ‘Rock Star’ to Mixed Reviews From Arabs – Reuters
Turkey Offers Possible Referendum on Public Park
Turkey Protests Symptomatic of Deeper Problems
Lawyers Protest Government Crackdown in Turkey
Turkish Prime Minister Meets Park Protesters
Turkish Police Clear Taksim Square
Turkish Riot Police, Protesters Clash – CN Feed
Turkish Riot Police Overrun Taksim Square
Turkish Riot Police Overrun Taksim Square – CN Feed
Protesters are Part of Conspiracy Against Government – CN Feed
Turkish Police Enter Taksim Square – CN Feed
Erdogan Agrees to Meet with Turkish Protesters
Erdogan Agrees to Meet with Turkish Protesters – CN Feed
Erdogan’s Rule at Center of Turkey’s Mounting Protests
Turkish Troubles Highlight Cultural Divide – Reuters
Turkish Opposition Calls on PM to End Tensions
Turkish Opposition Calls on Erdogan to End Tension – CN Feed
Erdogan ‘Losing Patience’ With Protests
Erdogan ‘Losing Patience’ With Protests – CN Feed
Erdogan Defiant as Protesters Rally – CN Feed
Turkish Demonstrations Enter 10th Day
Turkey Protesters Clash with Police as Demonstrations Enter 10th Day – CN Feed
Thousands Hold Anti-Government Protests in Turkey – CN Feed
Turkey’s Erdogan Rejects EU Criticism – CN Feed
Turkish PM Demands End to Protests
EU: Turkish Police Should Avoid Excessive Force
Thousands Welcome Back Turkish PM, Protests Continue – CN Feed
Turkish PM Says Re-Development Plans Will Continue
Turkey Unrest May Impact Syria Peace Talks
Turks Skip Suspected Censorship With Internet Lifelines – Reuters
Protesters Give Turkish Government List of Demands
Protesters Give Turkish Government List of Demands – CN Feed
Turkey Seeks to Reassure Investors Over Protests – Reuters
Police, Protesters Clash as Turkey Protests Continue
Property Investors Wary of Turkey Before Riots
Turkish Deputy PM Apologizes to Protesters
Turkey’s Deputy PM Apologizes for Police Crackdown – CN Feed
Woman in Red Becomes Leitmotif for Istanbul’s Female Protesters – Reuters
Turkey Protests Reveal Wider Political Struggle
Turkey’s Deputy PM Apologizes for Police Crackdown – CN Feed
Turkey’s Deputy PM Apologizes for Police Crackdown – CN Feed
Turkish PM Blames Protests on Extremists
Turkish PM Blames Protests on Extremists – CN Feed
Turkish PM Blames Protests on Extremists – CN Feed
Turkish Anti-Government Activists Protest for 3rd Day
Anti-Government Protests Subside in Turkey
Turkish Anti-Government Activists Protest for 3rd Day – CN Feed
Turkish Police Begin Withdrawal After Clashes With Protesters
Turkish Police Tear Gas Anti-Government Protesters – Reuters
It occurred to some of us that such past Voice of America program directors as Alan Heil or Sid Davis would have had VOA reporters (English and Turkish) on the ground in Turkey, if not on the first day the police attacked peaceful protesters in Gezi Park, than for sure on the third day.
And what about the even bigger story in Brazil? I see a lot of AP and Reuters feeds but no original content. Does VOA not cover Brazil?
In response to David Ensor’s reported comment: the question is not whether Erdogan is or is not a dictator and that Turkey is a close U.S. ally — he is a small dictator with a small “d” as nearly half of the Turkish electorate and even his supporters will attest — the question is whether the Turkish protests should have been properly covered as a news event with on the ground VOA presence. They were not, at least not on the VOA English news website.
This article documents so well how reportage of world events by VOA English has declined in recent years. I started listening to VOA English in the 1980s which in retrospect seems like a golden era – and can’t imagine that VOA back then would have covered this story so late in the day, and with such a lack of direct reportage.
VOA had a series of print adverts in the 1980s published in its ‘Voice’ magazine and elsewhere, showcasing its global network of correspondents with the strapline “To report accurately, it helps to be there”. That slogan should be repeated to current IBB/VOA management until the message sinks in – you can’t cover major news events from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. I can remember Al Pessin’s extraordinary updates from Tiananmen Square in 1989, Gill Butler’s reports from a Kuwait just liberated from Saddam Hussein, Jolyon Negele’s expert analysis from various Eastern European capitals during the fall of Communism – what gave these reports their impact was the expertise of the correspondents, but also the fact that they were reporting from the scene. Cobbled together wire service copy is no substitute.
One major problem today compared with the 1980s is that back then VOA had three live hour long news analysis programs, “Asia Report”, “World Report” and “Report to the Americas”, which provided a platform for correspondents to report and analyse the news in significant depth including live two-way interviews between the anchor and correspondents in the bureaus. Today, VOA English has no equivalent of these three news analysis programs, with the longest news analysis shows being half an hour at most, and live two-way interviews with correspondents very rare (Reporters’ Notebook on Fridays being a once-a-week exception). I always felt that the quality of correspondents’ analysis on the “Report” programs had much in common with in-depth newspaper reports – so the irony is, the reports on these programs would have been, in text form, excellent analysis & background pieces for the VOA website today, if the radio shows were still on air.
VOA English also had its 20 minute “Newsline” and “Morning Newsline” live programs throughout the day – 14 live editions I think – which meant that listeners were never far away from a constantly updated stream of correspondent reports from the worldwide bureaus. Again, this constant flow of reports throughout the day would today be a great driver for the internet site today, and I can’t help thinking that one reason the English news website is so poor, and over-reliant on re-written Reuters & AP copy, is because VOA no longer has the radio news shows to bring in a constant stream of updated correspondent reports throughout the day, which could then go on the website.
Today’s news analysis programs such as “International Edition” and “Crossroads Asia” usually sound pre-recorded – as a result VOA English has lost its feeling of immediacy, and is no longer a radio station I go to for live coverage of breaking news. I tried VOA during the Boston bombings and their aftermath, but VOA’s coverage of that news story was also, in my view, poor, again mainly through a lack of on the scene reporting, and a lack of immediacy. (Sorry to hark on about the 1980s golden era again, but back then, VOA had a news bureau in Boston providing an interesting window on New England for international listeners. VOA English news coverage really was of extraordinary high quality in those days, and it saddens me to read & hear what a pale shadow today’s VOA is in comparison).
Sorry for the long comment – your article really got me thinking it doesn’t have to be this way, VOA can do so much better, it just has to be allowed to connect back with itself, its own history, and its own Charter. Maybe Richard W. Carlson should be made BBG Chairman, with re-building VOA news & English broadcasts a top priority.
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