Part ONE: Voice of America Struggles to Detect Violations of Journalistic Standards, Enforce Guidelines
Voice of America Deletes Tweets By A Key Correspondent
USAGM Watch Commentary
We’re going to bury the lead a bit in this article, in the interest of providing some historical context.
Readers may recall extensive reporting by USAGM Watch on the problem of violations by federal Voice of America employees of VOA’s News Standards and Best Practices policies.
In a 2020 report based on months of investigation, we revealed an executive summary of a report by a three-member non-government journalist consultants team hired by former VOA director Amanda Bennett.
“It’s vital,” that summary stated, “that VOA leadership take visible steps to communicate that bias is unacceptable and that the integrity of VOA reporting is sacrosanct.”
We also published a report by a still current agency employee pointing to reasons why even that strong statement was insufficient because of baked in political bias in VOA’s central news division.
When USAGM was managed by Obama-era appointees – roughly from 2008 to mid-2020 – and very briefly by a USAGM Trump appointee with longtime VOA executives still in charge of VOA content – encompassing the Obama and Trump administrations – we broke stories on numerous examples of violations by VOA correspondents and prominent online and on-air personalities.
A LONG LIST
The list is long and includes social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, and both official and private channels.
When checked in November 2017, public social media posts of some VOA Newsroom reporters included such descriptions of President Trump as “f*uck cheeto with hair” and “three cheers for f*cking Trumpy and his neo-Nazi crew.” Another VOA reporter referred to Donald Trump on social media as “F*ckface Von Clownstick.”
A Voice of America former Press Freedom editor selected for the job by former VOA Director Amanda Bennett was removed from the position after a number of such social media posts were linked to him.
In 2019, this included a tweet by a VOA federal on-air personality that appeared to be an attempt to silence free speech by pro-Trump supporters.
In 2020, VOA’s acting director at the time recognized he needed to send out a warning about biased reporting amid controversy over a video produced for VOA’s Urdu service that was widely seen as helping Joe Biden.
Some of the agency’s own high-visibility correspondents waged what outside observers and staff regarded as a partisan opposition journalism campaign. Indeed, this activity was often celebrated – opposition to Trump was seen as a badge of honor.
Attitudes of many staff toward Trump could be seen in 2016 during an in-house series of satirical skits lampooning Trump and family members and incoming advisers, and these attitudes strengthened during his administration.
VOA’S TOOTHLESS ENFORCEMENT
Our reports in 2016 on standards violations prompted former VOA director Bennett to order “bias training” sessions for VOA staff. An outside contractor was hired, under the supervision of Steve Springer.
In recent weeks came word that Springer, whose title is News Standards and Best Practices Editor, has been joined temporarily by Steve Herman, ending Herman’s four-and-a-half year run as VOA White House bureau chief. At one point in 2018, VOA management ordered him to remove a block he had placed on his Twitter account that prevented USAGM Watch editors and reporters from viewing his posts.
In 2020, he was forced to delete, and apologize for, an inaccurate tweet that resulted in online criticisms of his own reporting.
But for some years, some tweets of another key Voice of America reporter have also attracted the attention of observers in and outside of VOA because they appeared to violate VOA’s News Standards and Best Practices Guide.
TWEETS BY ANOTHER KEY VOA REPORTER DID NOT ADHERE TO STANDARDS
USAGM Watch asked the Voice of America’s public relations office whether some of the tweets met the standards set forth in the VOA standards guide.
To summarize, the tweets or retweets: made fun of then Supreme Court nominee Brent Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing, of Senator Lindsey Graham, former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Donald Trump, former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, former Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, praised ex-Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein for criticizing Trump, commented on former vice president Mike Pence’s face mask and praised Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Jill Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris.
In a response on August 2nd, VOA PR chief Bridget Serchak stated:
“Following a review of the social media posts in question, it was determined that a number of them did not adhere to the guidance in the News Standards & Best Practices Guide. It is not our intention to single out any posts from any others; rather, our goal is to ensure that the individual has a greater understanding of the agency’s social media policy and will adhere to it going forward.“
Nine of the 26 tweets were seen to have been deleted from the VOA correspondent’s Twitter channel as of that date.
It is interesting to note which tweets, such as those in which the reporter appears to make fun of Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham, were left up while others were removed.
We also asked VOA whether any News Division management official, such as acting director Yolanda Lopez and others, were aware of the posts.
Serchak only said that:
“as soon as division management is made aware of any questionable posts, they are immediately assessed to determine if they comply with VOA’s News Standards and Best Practices Guide.”