BBG Responds to Ted Lipien’s Washington Times commentary

The following from Lynne Weil, Director of Communications and External Affairs at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was sent to The Washington Times in response to Ted Lipien’s opinion piece that appeared there February 8, 2012.

To the Editor:

The op-ed you published on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“VOA harms Putin opposition in Russia,” Commentary, Ted Lipien, Feb. 8) cynically attempts to exploit a real, but quickly addressed, journalistic error by the Voice of America’s Russian Service in order to deliver an inaccurate, exaggerated and distorted attack on the BBG.

The Russian Service published an online interview with someone purported to be Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.  It then reported Mr. Navalny’s message denying having done the interview, removed the interview, and issued a prompt apology.

VOA is taking steps to better vet its sources in today’s changing, fast-paced digital media environment.  Publication of the interview was regrettable, but hardly a reasonable basis for a broad challenge to the utility and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasting and the BBG’s oversight of it.

The commentary overlooks compelling data on our impact.  In 2011 the BBG reached record audiences: 187 million people worldwide weekly, 22 million more than the year before.  To continue to thrive within federal budgetary constraints, the agency has embarked on an ambitious, well-researched plan to make U.S. international broadcasting more effective and efficient.  Our broadcasts are and will continue to be one of the best values for the dollar in U.S. foreign policy.

The suggestion that the Board failed to recognize VOA’s 70th anniversary is false: The Board adopted and published a resolution noting the milestone at its January 13 meeting, and has been involved in plans for a major commemoration in the coming weeks.  News of the resignation of BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson was immediately shared with the staff and then posted on the agency’s website.  It is true that agency managers at VOA, IBB and BBG received bonuses, but the amounts were below government average.

The Feb. 8 commentary contained similar misstatements concerning the BBG’s restructuring plan, the leadership of its management team, a desire to emulate National Public Radio, the reasoning behind changes in the way the BBG engages with people in Russia and China, and the significance of a review of VOA Russian news.

We recommend that The Washington Times fact-check this commentary and consider issuing a correction.

Sincerely,

Lynne Weil
Director of Communications and External Affairs
Broadcasting Board of Governors

 

One Reply to “BBG Responds to Ted Lipien’s Washington Times commentary”

  1. Ms. Weil’s response to my Washington Times op-ed misses the point. I did not initiate “cynical” criticism of Voice of America Russian programs. That was done by others and their criticism, just as mine, was not cynical. As America citizens, we all want US taxpayers’ money to be used to a good purpose. Members of the pro-democracy movement in Russia, like the anti-corruption lawyer and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, want VOA programs to help them, not to harm them. We tried to warn the Broadcasting Board of Governors numerous times but were ignored by their executive staff.
    An independent Russian journalist who wrote about a “pro-Putin” bias of the Voice of America Russian Service was new media scholar Dr. Nikolay  Rudenskiy. I quote here from the independent website BBGWatch.com. http://www.usgbroadcasts.com/bbgwatch/2012/02/11/new-media-scholar-nikolay-rudenskiy-is-author-of-pro-putin-bias-in-voa-study/

    “Dr. Rudenskiy was hired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in 2011 to evaluate the VOA Russian website. In a report, which was not shared with BBG members, Dr. Rudenskiy concluded that the Russian Service had a “pro-Putin bias” and downplayed human rights reporting.

    He wrote in his report that “the site provides little if any unique information or bright and perceptive comment, it appears rather mediocre in terms of journalistic quality or design, and it lacks focus on the topics where it potentially could excel.”

    Dr. Rudenskiy’s main criticism, however, was directed at what he perceived as a bias in favor of the Kremlin. In his study, he gave several examples of VOA news reports based mostly on Russian official media that lacked an alternative American perspective.”

    Dr. Rudenskiy wrote:

    “Vice President’s [Biden] speech in Moscow University , in which he criticized Russia ‘s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event was titled ‘Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours’; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia ‘s ‘legal nihilism’ – an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of ‘pro-Russian’ (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.”

    Dr. Rudenskiy was a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. The NED identified him as “the deputy editor of Grani.Ru (www.grani.ru), an independent online media outlet. Trained as an ethnographer, he is the author of about 40 scholarly publications and more than 100 journalistic commentaries focusing mostly on public issues in today’s Russia, including defending freedom of the press, exposing persecution of the regime’s opponents and other human rights violations, and combating racism and other forms of bigotry. During his fellowship, Rudenskiy plans to compare and contrast various approaches to the issue of hate speech in Russia and the United States.”

    BBG executives suppressed Dr. Rudenskiy’s study, as they had tried to suppress a similar study critical of Alhurra TV until they were forced by pressure from Congress to make it public.

    I mentioned Dr. Rudenskiy’s study in my  op-ed “VOA Harms Putin Opposition in Russia” in The Washington Times. The article focused on a fake interview with a Russian anti-corruption lawyer and opposition leader Alexei Navalny published by the VOA Russian website. The Russian Service removed the interview and apologized to Navalny who wrote in his Twitter account that the alleged interview was “100 percent fake, “Voice of America has gone nuts” and that all those working there “should be let go.” I did not invent these quotes.

    In an separate attack on me, “VOA Public Relations” posted a comment which questioned the accuracy of his description of Dr. Rudenskiy’s study in his Washington Times op-ed:

    “Mr. Lipien misleads his audience when he alleges a ‘pro-Putin’ bias, something which could not be farther from the truth. Mr. Lipien should know well, the agency he so sharply attacks is the one that every year hires dozens of independent analysts to conduct rigorous ‘program reviews’ of every VOA language service. Mr. Lipien both misquotes and takes out of context a single remark by one of those analysts about one particular story.”

    I told BBG Watch that American taxpayers and members of Congress should read Dr. Rudenskiy’s entire study of the Voice of America Russian Service and decide for themselves whether their money is spent well and whether it favors more the Kremlin or the pro-democratic and anti-Putin opposition.” 

    Here are some additional quotes from Dr. Rudenskiy’s evaluation:

    “There are numerous if minor errors in spelling and punctuation, which cannot possibly be listed.”

    “it would seem fair that in news coverage and comment on such issues as YUKOS affair or human rights violations in the North Caucasus some kind of special consideration be given to alternative facts and viewpoints.” [rather than only the Kremlin’s viewpoint]

    “Now, my impression is that VOA has been too careful in avoiding anything that might look like ‘anti-Russian’ bias.”

    “Perhaps additional background info, such as Russia’ place in Freedom House international rankings, would have been relevant, too.”

    Is the journalistic quality of the website at a high professional and informational level?, Dr. Rudenskiy was asked:

    “My answer is ‘sorry but no’. The site provides information of satisfactory quality, but it is mostly derived from other sources. Even the report about American Vice President’s meeting with Russian opposition figures was based on Ekho Moskvy and Gazeta.Ru information (VOA’s own interview with Leonid Gozman was added later.) The selection of topics and timeliness leave much to be desired (see below.) The language, if mostly grammatical, tends to be bland and colorless, which reduces the appeal very much. This applies especially to headlines: new Russian journalism has developed a special culture of catchy and witty headlines, and an advanced user expects to find them. Many photos lack expression and appeal.”

    “Much of the content doesn’t seem of interest to the Russian Internet audience.”

    “Many ‘political’ pieces are less than inspiring, too. A brief account of the presentation of a new book on Cold War lacks substance.”

    “Regrettably, some interesting topics were underreported.”

    “A brief news item based entirely on Russian sources; an American perspective one could have expected from VOA was lacking completely. The same can be said of the scandal involving Vladimir Putin, Western stars and charity money: VOA’s website failed to provide any information or comment from the American side, missing a good opportunity to raise its profile.”

    “As for the ‘market niche’ mentioned in the question, I’m afraid it can hardly be located at the moment.”

    “Timeliness … is probably one of the website’s weakest points. As far as I could monitor, all big ongoing stories (Biden’s visit, Japan ‘s disaster) were reported with long delays compared to Russian online media. The piece on Biden’s planned meeting with human rights activists on March 10 was among top news a few hours after the meeting actually took place.”

    “On March 12, information on the explosion at a nuclear power plant in Japan , which was distributed in the morning Moscow time, did not appear on the site till evening.”

    “On the homepage one can see many headlines of news stories dating from a day or even two days before.”

    Responding to a question whether the VOA Russian website is useful, increases understanding of topics or events, and provides a basis for forming opinions, making decisions and rendering judgments, Dr. Rudenskiy responded:

    ”My general answer to this one would rather be negative. The site provides quite an amount of diverse information, but not all of it seems relevant to the interests of the audience. A clearer focus on specific issues linked to VOA’s mission is needed. Independent forming of opinions by users could also be encouraged by more perceptive comments by high-level contributors – this is where VOA’s competitive position is rather weak. There are few if any bright columns by good authors; the Poedinok (Single Combat) section is entirely about international politics, doesn’t seem appealing to users and is updated at a slow rate. The Editorial section appears somewhat more useful; I wish it carried more on human rights and democracy in Russia.”

    “In my view, the site doesn’t look attractive or contemporary.”

    Does this site fill a clear niche that positively distinguishes it from others in the target area? Here is his response:

    ”Based on what I said before, my answer to this question is definitely negative. The site provides little if any unique information or bright and perceptive comment, it appears rather mediocre in terms of journalistic quality or design, and it lacks focus on the topics where it potentially could excel. Reaching somewhat beyond the scope of this evaluation, I talked to several people I know in Moscow ; some of them are professionally involved with online media, others are not, but all are avid Internet users. The result of this informal poll was about as I had anticipated: nearly half of the respondents never heard of the VOA website, others just knew about its existence, and only a couple of media professionals had a more or less clear idea about it. I don’t recall VOA being quoted or referred to in the Russian segment of the Internet including social networks or in offline media. On March 18, I found VOA ranking 219th in the Rambler.ru list of online news sources while, for example, Radio Liberty (not exactly the most popular website) ranked 43d.”

    A “100 percent fake interview,” “going nuts,” “they should all be let go,” “pro-Putin bias,” “219th ranking”  — these comments about VOA in Russia are from two of the most prominent members of the anti-Putin Russian opposition and independent media scholars and journalists. BBG executives can dismiss them, as well as my comments, all they want. But Huston, we have a problem. It’s not just a problem of editorial controls. It’s a problem of programming philosophy, staffing, management, programming platforms, program delivery, and the lack of value for American taxpayers and the pro-democratic opposition and the entire potential audience in Russia.

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