30 November 2010

Wikileaks and The Media

The release by the Wikileaks organization of tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, as expected, has created a media frenzy. But it has got me to thinking, what if these were Chinese cables, or Iranian cables or, for that matter, diplomatic communications from any other country than the United States? Wouldn’t we all like to see some of those?

And it has also got me to thinking, how are non-U.S. media reporting on the latest leaks? I noticed an item on the Columbia Journalism Review website on how Arab media are handling the story. It is tantalizingly titled, “Tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now.”

The title originates from a reference in the item to an article by Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy, who wrote: “I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints.”

I’d like to hear from readers on how you think your own domestic media are handling the story. Drop us an email.

23 November 2010

Resentment is What Generates Ratings?

It was a week ago that we proposed creation of a network of media watchers. We asked readers in the 15 countries which have sent the most visitors to the VOA Media Watch to sign up. To say the response has been under-whelming would be too generous. In fact, no one has stepped up. That’s right. No one. Not a single message. Nothing.

So maybe we are going about things the wrong way. Let’s try a different tactic. We’ll put up a statement and see if anyone wants to comment on it. Here goes.

Does the following statement describe the content of any of the news outlets you follow?

“…the news exists in order to generate controversy. And controversy exists in order to generate resentment. And the resentment is what generates ratings… Resentment of whom? Well, a cultural elite that is corrupt and maneuvering behind the scenes to exercise power.”

Send in your thoughts (and we’ll reveal the source of the statement). In the meantime, enjoy the video.

18 November 2010

We’ve Had Enough And We’re Not Going to Take It Anymore

Well, that was the title of a posting I wanted to put up this week lashing out at those individuals who make waves by telling lies about VOA, occasionally out of ignorance but usually with malicious intent, hoping that if people hear the lies often enough, they will be accepted as the truth.

But then two things happened. First, I was talked out of it by my editor. And second, I received the latest copy of the Columbia Journalism Review. It contains an editorial decrying a recent media trend in the U.S. “where we increasingly live in separate information silos.”

It laments what it terms “ideological fracturing” in which some news organizations “profit by preaching to their respective choirs.” It says this “massive retreat into ideological niches” isn’t helping the media or the nation address their challenges.

And then the editorial offered some suggestions:

• “Ignore the bias bullies. If you are intellectually honest in your reporting and in story choices, stop cringing every time somebody says you are not.

• “Stand up for facts…

• “Stop groveling…

• “Do what you do best—deep reporting…”

It’s good advice for journalists, wherever they are. So, instead of worrying about the “bias bullies,” I’ll choose to ignore them. And VOA will focus on what VOA does best: serving “as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”

17 November 2010

Notable Quotes: "...an antidote to malicious journalism…"

My thanks and compliments to columnist and author Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who provides today's notable quote in an item titled "Too Good to Check."

The piece discusses how Anderson Cooper of CNN exposed the falsehood that President Obama's recent trip to Asia cost $200 million a day. Friedman writes: "It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet, 'A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.' But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism — and that’s good journalism."

The key quote comes at the end:

"When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it."

15 November 2010

Building a Community of Media Observers

Since the VOANewsBlog began in January 2008, tens of thousands of people from around the world have visited. Excluding the United States, the top 15 countries with the most visitors have been:

1. Vietnam
2. Iran
3. Japan
4. South Korea
5. China
6. Canada
7. United Kingdom
8. Taiwan
9. Germany
10. Russia
11. Thailand
12. France
13. Turkey
14. India
15. Pakistan

As part of our redesign, I’d like to build a community of media observers, starting with these countries, who would comment on the information they receive from VOA and compare it to the quality of information they can obtain from their domestic media. What do they like about VOA news, or dislike? I might from time to time throw out a question to the community for responses and then collate and display the results here. (I won’t censor anyone’s comments, as long as they avoid hate speech, obscenity and the like.)

So how do we build this community? It’s really up to you. If you want to participate, send an email to VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

Please tell me a little about yourself, your background and any media experience you might have. Explain why you want to join up. Please add a comment or observation about VOA News.
So if you want to get involved, send an email to VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

As the new Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Walter Isaacson, said in a recent speech: “We have to be able to build online communities with our audience that actively engage them on issues of mutual concern and interest.”

That’s what we’re trying to do here.

And as you have probably noticed, we have renamed the NewsBlog and now call it the VOA Media Watch. And we’ve changed the template. New look. New start. Join us.

09 November 2010

Knee-Jerk Critics and Others

A recent post discussed the question of whether our editorial content is automatically suspect because VOA is financed by the U.S. government.

We know the answer is yes, for some people. But additional data, obtained from recent audience research conducted for VOA, suggests at least some of the suspicion is simply “knee-jerk” suspicion, not based on fact.

Take for example the following excerpt from a recent report on a monitoring panel asked to evaluate one of VOA’s language services:

“…despite the respondents’ high ratings for accuracy and objectivity, a minority of panelists expressed some concern about the possible influence of the U.S. Government in the broadcasts. For instance, one panelist opined that VOA tried to hide the drawbacks of American policy in its coverage of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, this same panelist went on to note that VOA’s unbiased look at the challenges faced by a Muslim–American soldier in the U.S. military made up for the shortcomings she perceived in the coverage of U.S. actions in Afghanistan and showed VOA’s concern for Muslims.”

Another audience panel was critical of a perceived bias in the way VOA reported on this year’s devastating floods in Pakistan:

“Some panelists even felt that [VOA] was using the flood as a propaganda tool to make Pakistanis -- who, according to the panelists, view the United States with anger and distrust --better like and appreciate the country.”

One of the panelists in this group admitted he would never view any VOA news item with an open mind, stating “Americans are treated with scorn and derision and we give them no moral weight.”

There is yet another group of audience members -- again, I suspect a minority -- who do not expect VOA to be objective and balanced and indicate they want it to be pro-U.S. all the time. While such comments, in my experience, usually emanate from people here in the United States, this comment came from abroad:

“It is unrealistic for VOA to be a government-owned body and claim to offer ‘balanced’ and ‘unbiased’ news coverage. VOA’s mission is to present the U.S. policies and not the opposition to these policies. Objectivity should not really be a part of the assumption or equation.”

Frankly, I don’t see how we can ever satisfy any of these critics. To those who want “gung-ho, pro-America, slam-our-adversaries all-the-time” programming, I can only say: “Forget about it. We have a Charter and we’re sticking to it. (And besides, we don’t have to bash our adversaries. They do a pretty good job of bashing themselves and all we have to do it report it.)

For those who don’t believe we can be accurate, objective and balanced, I would only ask: “Please don’t make any assumptions. Take some time to actually watch, listen to or read our content.”

04 November 2010

Isaacson: Credibility is the Key

(This is the fourth excerpt from my remarks to John Brown’s Georgetown University class.)

Walter Isaacson says the fundamental BBG mission, despite all the changes in the global media marketplace, will remain exactly the same: “It’s fostering freedom through credible journalism. It’s just that simple.”

The new Chairman, speaking recently at the Newseum, acknowledged that U.S. international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it’s tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America’s public diplomacy by accurately conveying U.S. policies and values to the world.

“Let me say to you,” said Isaacson, “we will stress the primacy of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because it is the best – in fact, it’s the only way to carry out the second mission. You can’t do it unless you’re credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side. Credibility is the key to all that we do.”

So, to go back to where we began these remarks and the original question posed, the biggest challenge to U.S. international broadcasting in the 21st century is the same one that it has faced since it began in 1942 – credibility.

(My thanks to John Brown and his Georgetown students for having me as a guest and for providing an engaging Q and A session.)

03 November 2010

Firewall or Political Football?

(This is the third excerpt from my remarks to John Brown’s Georgetown University class.)

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is supposed to protect journalists at VOA from being buffeted by political interference by acting as a “firewall.” As a BBG factsheet states, “The firewall safeguards the ability of BBG entities to develop programming that reflects the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism, free of political interference.”

But what if a member of Congress, exercising legislative prerogatives, holds up the confirmation of the entire slate of nominees for a new Board? This actually happened – and the legislator in question was dissatisfied with the tenor of some VOA broadcasts.

Now this legislator would probably argue that his interest was motivated by the need for “Congressional oversight” of a government agency receiving government funding.
But it was viewed in some quarters as political interference. Here is some language supporting that perspective from a Congressional Report on U.S. International Broadcasting issued earlier this year:

“Congress originally established the Board (BBG) in the mid-1990’s to ensure our broadcasting operations were free from political pressures from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. After 15 years, however, it has become clear that the BBG, rather than functioning as a political “firewall,” has become a political “football” as Board membership nominations have become enmeshed and blocked due to partisan politics.”

The report specifically responded to one criticism made of certain U.S. international broadcast programs:

“Critics note that some BBG entities have allowed individuals opposed to U.S. policy to air their views without any rebuttal or balanced context. While allowing such vitriol to go uncontested is clearly poor journalism, such occurrences have been the rare exception, not the norm. Nonetheless, in order for the BBG to be credible to its audience and draw in not just those who already agree with U.S. policy, its networks must be permitted to present both sides of an argument.”

Fortunately, we have a new BBG Chairman, Walter Isaacson, who I believe, based on his early comments, is a staunch advocate of solid journalism and keeping VOA at arm’s length from politics.

(Next: the new BBG Chairman speaks out)

02 November 2010

The Credibility Question

(This is the second excerpt from my remarks to John Brown’s Georgetown University class.)

“Credibility trumps everything else when it comes our role as a government funded international broadcaster.” – Danforth Austin, VOA Director

But here is the follow-up question I put to the Director: “Is it possible to convince audiences of our credibility when many people believe it is automatically undermined by virtue of us being part of the U.S. government? How can we surmount that?”

Here’s what Director Austin replied:

“As a [foreign] newspaper editor…put it to me on a visit last year: ‘VOA, CIA, what's the difference?’ So yes, while in the dark days of WWII the name ‘Voice of America’ may have resonated with much of the rest of the world as the voice of freedom and hope, the moniker can carry a very different connotation in today's world.”

He went on:

“Of course, private-sector American media often get tarred with the same brush, especially in the foreign press which tends to see all of us as agents of Uncle Sam. More difficult to address is the perception among the chattering classes here that being funded by the USG means, ipso facto, that our reporting on the US will be less than objective, that we may even be obligated to shill for the government and its policies. Indeed, there are people on the Hill who believe that's exactly what we should be doing.”

Director Austin’s conclusion about how we contend with the doubts about our credibility:

“The only way I know to combat that perception is to continue to do our jobs as professionally as we know how, and to make sure that the public understands when and why we do this…”

(Next: Firewall or Political Football)

01 November 2010

The Challenges to US International Broadcasting in the 21st Century

(Note: I was invited by John Brown to speak to students in his graduate class at Georgetown University recently on “The Challenges to U.S. International Broadcasting in the 21st Century.” Here is a first excerpt from my remarks. Unless otherwise specified, the views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of VOA.)

Things are no longer as simple as when international broadcasters just did shortwave transmissions to the world. Now we have to adapt to a world where more people want TV than radio – and where the Internet is expanding its reach daily. We have to have a presence on the net and on the various social media sites. And we have to have a mobile phone presence. This has meant staffers need to develop new skills. And it has increased our overall costs, especially to do television.

So when I told senior managers at VOA and the BBG about this event, and solicited their views on the greatest challenges, invariably some of them first mentioned budget. Although our funding has generally been increasing, it’s never enough to do all that we’d like to do.

Another challenge is increased competition – and not just from traditional competitors like the BBC, Deutsche Welle and the like. China, Russia, Iran – they are all pouring tens of millions of dollars into global broadcasting efforts. And that’s not all. With the Internet, everyone is potentially an international broadcaster. That means we've got to be creative about how attract audiences. No longer can we just roll out "the news" and expect people to watch, listen or read.

Yet another possible challenge is posed by those who question why U.S. International Broadcasting needs several entities versus one comprehensive one. The stock answer is that VOA emphasizes international and regional news and in-depth coverage of the United States while entities like Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and TV Marti emphasize domestic news of the countries they broadcast to. That distinction has been blurred over time and can be debated.

But the biggest challenge is one we've faced since we started broadcasting in 1942: maintaining credibility and trust with our audiences.

This is not only my view, it’s the view of VOA Director Danforth Austin. In a message to me, he said:

“The way people consume media, including news media, is changing rapidly around the globe, and keeping up with those changing habits is critical for a news organization like VOA. But if the content we deliver, whether via shortwave radio or mobile device, can't be believed or trusted, we've accomplished nothing. Credibility trumps everything else when it comes our role as a government funded international broadcaster.”

(In the next excerpt, I will raise the question of whether the credibility of a U.S. government financed news organization is automatically suspect by virtue of its funding source.)