OPINION

By Dan Robinson

[EDITOR’S NOTE: As this story was going to press, The New York Post and Politico reported that USAGM CEO Pack made a number of staff changes in response to both the VOA Urdu incident and ongoing investigations into potential national security threats from years of violations in how employee background investigations were conducted for employees, many of them recruited from overseas.]

Revelation Follows Separate Controversy About Pro-Biden Video

Managers at the Voice of America allowed video content prematurely describing the wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as “the future first lady” to remain online for days despite complaints and warnings to employees about the need to exercise caution during the U.S. political campaign.

The video appeared in a program on July 29th on VOA’s French to Africa service.  The original report came from VOA’s central newsroom, where writers produce material that is sent throughout VOA for translation by numerous language services for their broadcasts and websites.

Viewers overseas and in the United States of VOA’s French to Africa programs — content that is available globally including to U.S. viewers though the agency by law cannot prepare or direct material for or to Americans — brought it to the attention of journalists.

It’s unclear whether the reference to Jill Biden was a mistake, an ambiguity, or deliberate.  A copy of the original script obtained from VOA’s central newsroom does not contain the reference to Biden’s wife as “future first lady”.   

As it appeared on July 29th, the French version of the report says:  “If he wins the election, Biden will have two women by his side – his vice President and of course his wife. We take an interest in Mrs. Biden tonight, Dr. Jill Biden. Who is the future First Lady? . . .” Even with the question mark, the writing is ambiguous and may convince some readers and viewers that VOA is not neutral on U.S. domestic politics.

In most situations involving live or recorded content, inaccuracies or ambiguities such as this would have been corrected immediately during a broadcast or afterwards, perhaps with a note to viewers about any original error. But this one has remained online on VOA’s French language website.  

Three days after the program first aired, an email (dated July 31st) from the head of VOA’s French to Africa service reminded staff to “be very careful [e]specially when covering elections in the USA or elsewhere.  Our charter and journalistic code don’t allow us to take sides…”

That caution came after the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, VOA’s parent agency, launched an investigation into a video aired on VOA’s Urdu language service that contained pro-Biden content and which could have been seen as election interference.

As the inaccurate introduction in the VOA program remained online day after day, viewers outside the agency raised questions.  Knowledge of the issue spread within VOA.

Sources say a meeting took place involving the chief of the Africa division and other managers in which one official cautioned participants to ensure that employees “ . . .translate Central News pieces word for word, especially when it comes to US politics.”

As of press time, a senior USAGM official said that the agency’s top managers had not been made aware of the problem. That would raise questions about whether lower-ranking officials viewed the error as something that didn’t rise to the level of the separate incident involving VOA’s Urdu service.

Observers say the Urdu incident was far more serious.  That involved Biden comments to Muslim Americans, that in the words of USAGM “[could] only be described as an apparent election advertisement for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden” and might have been aimed at affecting votes in the U.S. Urdu-speaking Muslim-American community.

CEO Michael Pack said he wanted to find out who was responsible for “this significant content and editorial breakdown” and determine if it violated the Hatch Act, which governs political activity of federal workers.

In an email to staff, the acting VOA director Elez Biberaj described the VOA Urdu incident as “a serious breach of our journalistic standards and a violation of the VOA Charter” saying the video and “editing with the candidate’s own sound cuts implied VOA’s endorsement of a partisan election message.”

Biberaj said an internal investigation focused on “what went wrong and why it was not caught in our editing process” adding that “appropriate corrective action is being taken and the editorial approval process in the Urdu Service” is being “reviewed and strengthened.”

“Any breach of our journalistic standards,” said Biberaj, “has a lasting adverse impact and it endangers the entire VOA and its mission. This incident has not only tarnished the work of VOA’s Urdu Service, but it has cast a shadow on the credibility of hundreds of dedicated journalists…”

It’s not known at press time whether Biberaj was aware of the VOA French content or whether he asked why the inaccuracy in describing Jill Biden was allowed to remain up and visible to VOA global audiences for more than two weeks.

BBG/USAGM Watch contacted Biberaj via his Facebook channel seeking to ask him questions about the new incident. He responded but said any questions should be directed to USAGM’s public relations office.

Some longtime observers of VOA – a group that includes former employees – tend to give the federal media outlet latitude in such situations. VOA’s language services, observers note, have often been over-worked and under-resourced making errors more likely.

This still does not explain why the inaccuracy was allowed to remain uncorrected since the end of July.

“The place is a media organization after all, though also a federal agency,” one observer noted. “These are the kind of mistakes that can come back to damage not only VOA, but the agency as a whole.”

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