Social Media Violations Continue, With Anti-Trump Narratives PART FOUR
Originally posted on July 18, 2020 and last edited for formatting changes on February 18, 2021.
by Dan Robinson
Since 2016, agency sources have been directing the attention of BBG/USAGM Watch to stories produced by VOA correspondents including those at major bureaus, and to examples of social media still being used by reporters and managers at all levels to express personal political and other opinions or show their links to American and foreign politicians.
In one tweet from 2018, a reporter (who has since left VOA) voiced criticism of a Trump administration announcement on new criteria for limits on immigration (we have a screenshot of the tweet but will not post it here).
The reporter had been heard to remark during a news division meeting about a need to counter the Trump administration’s agenda. While the reporter had a right to voice an opinion, using a social media platform to express it was a violation of VOA social media guidelines.
In another immigration-related example, a VOA story in 2019 entitled “Trump’s Big Beautiful Shrinking Wall” contained the following:
“A wall at the U.S.-Mexico border became Trump’s signature promise — a call and response at all of his campaign and post-campaign rallies, a symbol of his contempt for illegal immigrants and the centerpiece of his draconian immigration policies.”
About that report, a source wondered appropriately if this was a VOA news story or an Op-Ed.
Yet another immigration-related story seemed to be a hit piece with “no attempt to obtain the Trump administration’s perspective or position on the merits of diverting funds to the wall or on the concerns expressed by others about military projects that could lose funding.”
A number of VOA stories and headlines about immigration appeared to reflect sympathetic narratives about undocumented migrants and illegal immigrants and Americans helping them – there were far fewer about problems illegal immigration causes for the United States and Americans impacted by it.
Full adherence to the VOA Charter would see both narratives reflected to present the fullest picture for audiences that USAGM and VOA still claim to have.
Headlines are often a dead giveaway to what one can expect – a recent VOA story carried the headline “Trump Addresses Mount Rushmore Crowd Without a Mask” and seemed indistinguishable from what one would find on CNN or MSNBC in extreme negative framing of the event.
Regarding VOA reporting on COVID-19, while some stories appeared to include both sides of the issue, a number also lacked the kind of balance that would show sufficient efforts were made to reflect conservative viewpoints.
This pattern reflects what critics call extremely problematic coverage of Trump and, in the view of outside observers, raises a prospect that VOA coverage of the upcoming November election will have a similar partisan slant.
On foreign issues, outside observers identified what they call a tendency in VOA reports to not go the extra mile to include views of independent groups, such as Jewish conservative organizations that supported Trump Mideast policy.
(NOTE: Even before Donald Trump was elected, BBG/USAGM Watch had been tracking stories on VOA regarding U.S. Middle East policy and Iran that seemed unbalanced, including opinion columns by an independent contractor that appeared to raise questions about adherence to the VOA Charter.)
Resistance Journalism and Grandstanding
Another ongoing concern involves what critics inside VOA and observers outside have described as a pattern of resistance journalism by some of VOA’s main beat reporters, along with some staff in language services routinely injecting anti-Trump bias into reports and social media comments.
One example cited by observers was a report by VOA in 2019 in which the reporter (in this case VOA’s Justice Department correspondent) flatly accused Trump of engaging in “naked racism” with no attribution. Here’s a paragraph from the first version of the story:
“Even for a president known for making all manner of racially insensitive and other offensive remarks, Trump’s comments stood out for their naked racism and xenophobia, recalling some of the darker chapters of American history during which immigrants were subjected to similar ‘go back to your country’ slurs.“
Anyone reading the version of that story remaining online will note that a change was made to the assertion made by the correspondent to what it is today: “Critics say Trump’s comments stood out. . . etc”
This kind of an issue in which personal opinions end up being injected into VOA main reportage has been hiding in plain sight for years and has never been completely stamped out by a succession of VOA news managers.
BBG/USAGM Watch reporting revealed instances where VOA staff members used social media channels (in some cases a mixture of official and personal) to express their own political views.
One VOA employee who works for a VOA regional English language service maintains a Twitter channel filled with personal posts and retweets that make it quite clear where the reporter stands on a range of issues, from Trump, masks and the BLM protests to immigration and other issues, domestic and foreign.
The reporter states clearly his affiliation with VOA, and includes RT≠endorse (“Retweets do not equal endorsements”). But it seems VOA employees believe that merely including this disclaimer relieves them of responsibility for material they pass on. At this point, this practice appears to be out of control.
BBG/USAGM Watch reported in 2017 on the story (first reported by The Washington Free Beacon) of a well-known Washington reporter and Middle East expert (who also worked for VOA) who gave the finger to anti-Iran regime protesters in New York City.
She apologized, saying she had lost her temper, but not before issuing another tweet saying the dissidents “represented a terrorist organization.” The incident sparked an avalanche of negative comments about VOA which were retweeted across the globe.
An important note: the contract employee at the time – according to VOA’s website — was not just a commentator for VOA but a sometimes host/moderator for a key VOA discussion program, while simultaneously working for The Atlantic Council, which also promoted her VOA pieces.
In an article earlier that year, she had described President Trump (who had not yet been inaugurated) as “a neophyte populist politician. . . with a limited capacity to evolve.”
This underscores another issue reported on by BBG/USAGM Watch – questions about conflicts of interest at VOA.
Michael Pack needs to take a hard, cold look at this – people hired by the agency in the guise of providing supposedly “independent” commentary while living double and triple lives working and writing for think tanks running their own media operations.
VOA’s White House reporters do some very good work, but since 2016 have also been seen by observers inside and outside of USAGM as having taken on the role of resistance journalists.
In this, they mirror in a way what has occurred with some major media such as MSNBC, and CNN who adopted a generally oppositional approach toward President Trump.
Both are often quick to tweet out comments and photos that frequently portray President Trump in a negative light. They also appear to do a lot of self-promotion on Facebook and Twitter. One has become a target for individuals on Twitter objecting to his posts.
One White House reporter became a story himself and a target of White House criticism after he questioned a claim by Vice President Pence’s office that Pence was unaware of guidance when he chose not to wear a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic.
President Trump’s direct criticism – unprecedented for any president – of VOA handling of reports about China and COVID-19 sparked numerous statements by journalistic and other organizations defending VOA.
But the reporter had also drawn the attention, and possibly the ire, of the Trump White House when he included language in a report that appeared to imply that President Trump had some kind of personal link to One America News Network (OANN) White House reporter, Chanel Rion (see BBG/USAGM Watch reporting on this).
And as BBG/USAGM Watch reported in 2019, the same VOA reporter – who VOA’s public relations office had called “Twitter King” – had at one point blocked BBG/USAGM Watch from following his Twitter feed (he was later asked by management to remove the block).
Meanwhile, amid recent reporting and intense Twitter reaction about the book by John Bolton, Trump’s one-time national security adviser, one outside observer noted a tweet by one of the VOA White House team that seemed to be merely parroting Bolton while failing to provide context.
READ PART ONE
READ PART TWO
READ PART THREE
Wait and Check Our Homepage or Here for Part Five
Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his assignment as senior White House correspondent from 2010 to 2014, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent. Views expressed here are his own.