Part THREE: Voice of America Struggles to Detect Violations of Journalistic Standards, Enforce Guidelines
AS VOICE OF AMERICA STRUGGLES, VIOLATORS OF STANDARDS SHOWERED WITH PRAISE, IN SOME CASES RE-HIRED, PROMOTED
USAGM Watch Commentary
Any actions that have been taken have not stopped the Voice of America management from heaping praise on staff members who authored questionable social media posts and had to admit mistakes, as in this 2020 tweet by ex-VOA director Amanda Bennett, who has continued to carry water for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and VOA and is mentioned as a possible Biden nominee to head USAGM.
In 2015, one of VOA’s high visibility language service reporters was placed on a pedestal by VOA and USAGM during a BBG board meeting, though the employee’s posts on Facebook violated VOA’s standards guidelines. Many questionable posts by several VOA journalists were removed in the wake of USAGM Watch reporting.
In an example brought to our attention by a source, in 2021 a former journalist for VOA’s Urdu language service, which was the subject of controversy in 2020 over pro-Biden video, was re-hired by VOA. The employee claimed wrongful termination.
A tweet by a VOA journalist was removed, presumably after VOA became aware of it. In an email, seen by USAGM Watch, the outside critic asserted that the journalist was basically a political activist, which the critic said “[would give] VOA Urdu a bad name in Pakistan… .”
The record is full of examples in which VOA’s own journalistic standards and the VOA Charter appear not to be understood by employees.
When it comes to penalties, some Voice of America violators of journalistic standards and the VOA Charter end up being promoted.
In 2020, after pro-Biden video content, which a VOA manager was quoted as having described as a “tolerable” error, appeared on VOA’s French language service, agency sources reported that a person involved was eventually promoted to a GS-14. The video spent two weeks online before being taken down and corrected.
AGENCY QUIETLY DELETES VIOLATIONS
VOA/USAGM deletes tweets when violations are discovered, so any media organization will find . . . nothing. They also quietly delete problematic video content. Only some a small fraction of violations has been screenshot or recorded, some of which are posted on our watchdog website.
In essence, if it weren’t for reporting by USAGM Watch since 2010, the agency would have zero accountability . . . except, that is, to Congress which mainly hears happy talk about how vital USAGM allegedly is for media-deprived areas of the world. It can be if it does its job following its own journalistic standards and the VOA Charter, but often it does not.
CONCERNS AT HIGHER LEVELS OVER VIOLATIONS
Why is all of this of ongoing importance? Because taxpayers who fund USAGM operations, and “mainstream” or “establishment” media outlets, lack sufficient knowledge of the agency and the instincts required to ferret out stories, and hold officials accountable.
Concerns about violations by a federal agency (as of 2018, USAGM had 288 employees making over $100,000 a year) have crossed the radar of Congress, and the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) which also covers the USAGM.
The defense policy bill Congress passed in 2020 sought to address violations of journalistic standards and political bias in broadcast and online content even as embedded management officials failed to adequately confront the problem.
Section 1299Q of the National Defense Authorization Act required that Congress be kept informed about “biased, unprofessional, or otherwise problematic content” in services of Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and other USAGM networks, and demanded yearly program reviews in all language services.
In December 2020, the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG), whose jurisdiction includes USAGM, stated that before March 2020 (well before Trump CEO Michael Pack was there) the agency “lacked uniform policies and procedures across its five networks on how to respond to violations of journalistic standards.”
The OIG found that “the lack of standardized procedures for the networks to communicate and coordinate with USAGM regarding violations of journalistic standards inhibited USAGM’s ability to ensure full compliance with the congressional notification requirements.”
REMEMBER – I’M NOT A COP
We would be shocked to suddenly see signs of more aggressive and effective enforcement of, and punishments for, standards violations at VOA, even now that the responsible office has one additional person attached to it – in the words of one agency employee – a fox-guarding-the-hen house situation.
And there have been other fires to put out. In 2021, VOA was faced with embarrassing revelations about plagiarism, and allegations by a former part-time employee that one of VOA’s services for Africa was essentially a mouthpiece for the leader of Ethiopia.
Employees have recently been required to attend online sessions on plagiarism – with Springer, the continuing one-man band.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
One thing is clear: when it comes to scandals, mismanagement, and lack of disclosure, VOA and USAGM continue to be the gift that keeps on giving, at least for media determined to dig deeply enough.
Establishment media for the most part avoid getting into any of the weeds, which is what is required to dig deeper rather than simply jump on the bandwagon to defend USAGM and VOA at every opportunity (as NPR did throughout 2020).
Back to something mentioned much earlier in this story. As of 2018, USAGM had 288 people drawing salaries of $100,000 and higher. That covers everything from high step GS-12s to SES positions held by the highest-ranking managers.
In March 2021 came the jaw dropper that USAGM, known for dysfunction and scandals, received renewed authorization to offer even higher pay to top SES executives, as an internal email proudly proclaimed, to attract “the highest levels of talent”.
We’re sure there are reasons, somewhere, to cheer this historic milestone. Perhaps this hoped for wave of higher level talent will be enlisted in addressing the issues contained in this, and so many previous, of our articles.