Op-Ed: Voice of America disappoints | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published May 12, 2015 by Digital Journal

To no great surprise, I did not find any Voice of America English News (VOA News – voanews.com) reports posted Monday on President Putin defending the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. The secret protocol to the non-aggression pact between the two dictators led to the outbreak of World War II and the attack on Poland and its occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The pact also allowed for Soviet aggression against Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Putin tried to justify the Nazi-Soviet agreement, also referred to as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in his comments during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday in Moscow.

I was more surprised that Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) English language news website (rferl.org) also had nothing Monday on Putin’s defense of the division of Poland by the two totalitarian regimes and Chancellor Merkel’s challenge to Putin on his self-serving interpretation of history clearly designed to also justify his annexation of Crimea. Both VOA and RFE/RL are U.S. funded media operations overseen by the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). If U.S. taxpayers are to get something for millions of dollars spent each year on VOA and RFE/RL, it should be fact-based, objective news reporting and news analysis, which includes exposing and explaining lies, distortions, disinformation and propaganda. News must also be timely.

Fortunately, RFE/RL’s Russian-language Radio Svoboda did have a program discussing in depth Putin’s controversial comments about the Hitler-Stalin Pact. RFE/RL posted a Russian language transcript online. RFE/RL’s English language news operation is a minor part of RFE/RL’s overall mission as a surrogate (local) media entity focused on news reporting in foreign languages, and not nearly as significant for global English-speaking audiences as VOA English News. VOA is the official news outlet of the United States. Both, however, should have analyzed Putin’s comments in English language news reports, with VOA providing an additional U.S. perspective. Putin’s unrepentant defense of both the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the annexation of Crimea should have been at least mentioned in a VOA News report about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s expected but not yet officially confirmed meeting with Putin in Russia on Tuesday.

VOA Russian Service simply reported briefly from Moscow on Putin’s stunning remarks about the Hitler-Stalin Pact. But no U.S. reactions or analysis by American historians or other experts of Putin’s most recent defense of the Soviet 1939 invasion of eastern Poland were offered by Voice of America, neither in English nor in Russian. Even The Moscow Times had a report describing various attempts by Putin and other Russian officials to defend the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland.

I searched online for English language news reports about the Putin-Merkel news conference and found several U.S. and foreign media accounts, including an excellent analysis on bloombergview.com by Berlin-based Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky titled “Why Putin Treats Fantasy as History.” If Bloomberg, a private U.S. media company, can respond quickly to Putin propaganda with an excellent analysis by one of its regular columnists, why can’t the Voice of America which gets about $200 million annually from U.S. taxpayers do the same? Do executives in charge of VOA think that any attempt to expose propaganda automatically also qualifies as propaganda? I noticed that VOA News is excellent in pointing out each time that Moscow denies the presence of any Russian Army troops and equipment in eastern Ukraine, but when it comes to balancing such Russian government lies, disinformation and propaganda with facts and objective analysis, VOA sometimes comes short, and sometimes doesn’t do anything at all. 

Something is definitely not right at the Voice of America at present, well beyond just Russia-related news reporting. A few days ago, VOA News speculated in a headline and in an actual news report about a likely “ouster” of David Cameron as British prime minister. It did not happen as VOA suggested it could, and almost none of the other predictions in the VOA report came true. BBC and other major international news organizations did not engage in this kind of speculation; not even Russia’s RT. 

Poor management at the Voice of America is visible to all, including its overseas audiences. Some news reports featured on the voanews.com homepage have not been updated for several months. Even the VOA Ebola news page was not being updated regularly in recent weeks. Over the weekend, VOA posted online a video which was presented as a reaction to U.S. observances of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. A current BBG member, a former member and several former VOA journalists who have seen the video said privately they were stunned it was posted online as a VOA production.

At least on this story, there were examples of fine reporting by VOA staffers, including a short interview with former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, a WWII veteran. VOA still has some outstanding reporters filing news reports in English and in many foreign languages. But VOA English News and voanews.com website operations have been mismanaged and cut to the bone. The overall picture that emerges is a taxpayer-funded media organization in a state of mission confusion and a managerial meltdown. At the same time, Voice of America is needed more than ever to respond quickly and effectively as a news organization with its own Charter to anti-American propaganda from Russia, China, and other countries, as well as from groups such as ISIS which advocate violent extremism and pose a threat to U.S. security.

Ted Lipien is an independent journalist and former Voice of America acting associate director.

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