Mission confusion starts at the top at BBG — yet another misstep

My911 webpage created by Radio Free Europe Radio LibertyNow, as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears, it may be time for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to consider its mission and how it achieves it, wrote Michael Rubin in Commentary magazine post Why Would U.S. Taxpayers Publish a Celebration of the 9/11 Attack?

This is about yet another example of how BBG’s directives to use a wrong marketing approach to international broadcasting confuse inexperienced web content producers into thinking that their mission is not to provide hard news and expose human rights violations but to make their audiences feel good. Remember that the BBG fired dozens of experienced reporters both at RFE/RL and VOA and now has plans to fire 45 more journalists at the VOA China Branch — a move roundly condemned by members of Congress, Chinese human rights activists, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights organizations.

This is what happened. RFE/RL asked web users to submit their views about 9/11 and published them on a special page.

One of the entries came from Pakistan. Here is what it said:

On that day my father and I were going from Peshawar to Charsadda to attend my cousin’s marriage… While on the way one of my friends called me on my cell phone, the use of which was still rare in those days, and he told me to switch on my television. However, I told him, “I am on the road and not able to get to a television now.” At the same time he told me that someone had attacked America. It was unbelievable for me but when I turned and told this to my father, a big smile appeared on his face. He replied that it had happened because of what America is doing with the international community. After that, when I reached Charsadda, I came to know that everyone was happy about the attack.

The comment may have been later removed since we could not find it.

This is how Michael Rubin assessed the whole thing:

There’s a tendency among many U.S.-government funded broadcasters to believe broadcasting criticism bolsters credibility. In reality, many foreigners just find the self-flagellation pathetic. They tune into VOA and RFE/RL to hear news which their own governments censor, or which their own journalists could never tackle. Expressions of glee at the murder of nearly 3,000 people are not something RFE/RL should tolerate, whether on the RFE/RL website directly, or in a separate project among the “highlights.”

Michael Rubin is absolutely right. But private contractors at RFE/RL are not the ones to be blamed for this. At least they did not post sexy images on their website to increase page views, as the VOA Russian Service did after most of its experienced journalists were dismissed. BBG executives should not be surprised that web content producers are confused about the mission, because BBG members who get their advice from their executive staff are themselves confused.

At least some BBG members seem to think that programs about health for Africa are more important than exposing human rights violations and other crimes of dictatorial regimes. In fact, they negotiated with the repressive regime in Ethiopia to get local placement for their health programming project.

Afterwards, the VOA Horn of Africa Service was told to limit political reporting, their reports were censored, and the service chief was dismissed, reportedly at the insistence of Michael Meehan after the Ethiopian regime complained to the BBG. All of this was done to achieve greater local exposure for VOA programs. Ethiopian Americans and media freedom activists organized an anti-censorship demonstration in front of the BBG building, the largest ever in VOA’s history.

No doubt that audience surveys indicate that health issues are important to radio listeners in Ethiopia and anti-American sentiments are widespread in Pakistan. But VOA was not created to focus on health programming, and RFE/RL’s job is not to make their audiences feel good about themselves. Community service programming is important and can play a part in VOA broadcasts, but programs about health can be produced by others: local radio, Doctors Without Borders, the UN. There is nothing controversial about health.

As for RFE/RL and their My 9/11 project — if you ask stupid questions, you get stupid answers.

It’s possible that the idea for these projects of questionable taste came from within the BBG or from one of their private contractors and consultants, since VOA had a very similar survey: VOA Social Media Project Asks: What’s your 9/11?

Let us know if you know how this idea originated.