Digital Journal Op-Ed: VOA and U.S. public diplomacy failed on Obama-Malala meeting

By Ted Lipien

Published October 14, 2013 by Digital Journal

Washington – Voice of America (VOA) and U.S. public diplomacy failed to take full advantage of President Obama’s meeting Friday with teenage Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education Malala Yousafzai. But Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) did a good job.

If web users around the world went to the Voice of America (VOA) English website Friday, Saturday and until 9 p.m. ET Sunday (when this op-ed was being written), they would not find a photo of President Obama meeting with young Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.

Even worse, they would not have learned from a very short VOA English-language news report that during the Friday’s meeting at the White House, Malala confronted President Obama on the issue of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. 

Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan on October 9, 2012 for her efforts to promote education for girls, but she survived the assassination attempt and now lives in the UK. She is a winner of the the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Anna Politkovskaya Award, and was a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which she did not win. (It went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.)

U.S. media (APCNN – Malala confronts ObamaMSNThe Washington Post , The Huffington Post) and international media, widely reported Malala’s remarks to President Obama critical of the U.S. drone attacks. 

“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees,” she said in the statement. “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.” 

Why didn’t VOA have Malala’s statement on her meeting with Obama?

The VOA English-language website no longer shows on its homepage its news report, which lacks both substance and balance, but it is still available from the VOA website online to the whole world without any corrections or updates (as of 10 p.m. ET Sunday). 

The VOA news report not only did not include Malala’s comments on the meeting, it did not even cover most of what President Obama had said to her, as reported in a statement released by the White House. The VOA news report also did not mention that Malia, one of the Obamas’ daughters, participated in the Oval Office meeting with Malala.

Ironically, international audiences could have learned much more about what President Obama had to say about Malala from Russia’s state-funded broadcaster Voice of Russia in its report than from the Voice of America News.

In reference to President Obama, VOA News only reported:

 “The White House says the president wanted to thank Malala for her work on behalf of girls’ education in Pakistan.”

The Voice of Russia reported: 

“On the day she was passed over for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Obamas hailed Malala, 16, for her ‘inspiring and passionate’ work on behalf of girls in Pakistan. ‘The United States joins with the Pakistani people and so many around the world to celebrate Malala’s courage and her determination to promote the right of all girls to attend school and realize their dreams,’ a White House statement said. ‘We salute Malala’s efforts to help make these dreams come true.’” 

It is truly disturbing that the Voice of Russia did a better job of reporting on what the White House had to say about Malala than America’s leading taxpayer-supported international broadcaster.

The White House statement on the meeting was apparently available a few minutes after 7 p.m. ET Friday. According to my sources, the White House did not let VOA, BBC, CNN and other media know about the meeting in advance. One wonders, considering international impact of Malala’s visit, who is in charge of public diplomacy for the Obama administration?

But this should not have prevented VOA from doing its journalistic job. My former VOA colleagues told me that the VOA Urdu Service informed the VOA Newsroom that a Pakistani news website had reported on the meeting some hours earlier. The VOA Newsroom also had the White House statement a few minutes after 7 p.m. ET, but the VOA English website did not post its short, incomplete and unbalanced news report until about two hours later, after 9 p.m. ET. Sadly, this VOA News report is still online after two days without any updates or corrections. 

Where were VOA executives and editors on Friday, and where are they now?

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughter Malia meet with Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban. Malala told Obama: “Drone attacks are fueling terrorism…they lead to resentment among Pakistani peoplePete Souza / White House

I could not find out when exactly the White House released its photo from the Obama-Malala meeting. I saw it first on the White House website Saturday morning. The Washington Post, BBC and countless other major media outlets had already used it, stating clearly that it was a White House-released photo. The Voice of America did not use it.

VOA has largely failed to do its job of informing international audiences about Malala’s visit to the country where VOA is based and funded by American taxpayers to communicate America’s story abroad. 

Why have the Voice of America English news if CNN, The Washington Post, BBC, even Russia Today often provide faster and more comprehensive news in English from Washington? 

U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA should be better than any of them in reporting American news in English to international audiences, offering more comprehensive coverage than U.S. domestic and foreign press, especially to countries without free media, but it is not. 

Unfortunately, when the VOA English Newsroom fails to cover a news story, or covers it badly or superficially, most of VOA’s 40-plus foreign language services will also fail in their coverage. There are exceptions, but the VOA English website and most if not all VOA foreign language websites had nothing about Malala’s amazing interview with Jon Stewart Tuesday on The Daily Show. 

The VOA English website  also did not report, on Malala’s  interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC

The VOA English website also had nothing about Christiane Amanpour’s interview with Malala Yousafzai, “The Bravest Girl in the World,” that was to air Sunday, October 13 at 7PM, but had been already summarized on the CNN website and reported on by other media.

One could ask why the Voice of America, which has a Congressionally-approved Charter that says VOA “will represent America,” “will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively” and “will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news,” did not conduct its own interview with Malala during her visit to the United States? 

Did anyone at VOA even try to arrange an interview with her?

These failures are not limited to the VOA English-language service. Looking at the homepage of the VOA Urdu website Sunday (9PM ET), I did not see any reports about Malala’s U.S. visit. I did find the RFE/RL video interview with Malala on the VOA Urdu website. Urdu is the national language and lingua franca of Pakistan. Most of the other VOA foreign-language websites had almost nothing on Malala’s meeting with President Obama and her numerous U.S. media interviews and appearances. 

What a wasted opportunity to communicate to the world America’s admiration for this brave young woman and her activism on behalf of girls and women, not only in the Muslim world but everywhere where human rights and human dignity are threatened.

The Voice of America also did not report on Obama’s Presidential Proclamation on the International Day of the Girl — yet another wasted chance to link it to Malala’s fight for education for girls in Pakistan and worldwide. The VOA English website also did not report on or mention Secretary of State John Kerry’s video remarks on the International Day of the Girl, which was observed last Friday.

There was also nothing on the Voice of America English website about Malala’s visit to the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC Friday. There is also no VOA report that along with her father, Zaiuddin Yousafzai, she spoke at Sidwell Friends School, where Obama’s daughters attend. 

As reported by USA Today, “in a Washington school room packed with people of all ages, Mr. Yousafzai quoted his daughter in response to a question about political culture, saying, ‘Send pens not guns, books not tanks, send teachers not soldiers.’

“Where was the Voice of America? 

Keep in mind that VOA has not ceased its news operations due to the government shutdown because they are considered essential for the United States. They are essential if VOA would fulfill its obligations under its Charter.

This is not an isolated news reporting lapse for VOA. Its English website had nothing about the Lech Walesa Human Rights Award for imprisoned Russian business and political leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky. (The VOA Russian website was late in posting its initial, short and very superficial story on the $100,000 award from Solidarity leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Poland’s former President for Vladimir Putin’s chief political prisoner.) The VOA English website also did not report on blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng getting an academic fellowship at the Catholic University of America after reported pressure from the Chinese government may have cost him his earlier fellowship at New York University. The university denies that it caved in to pressure from Beijing. (The VOA Chinese website provided extensive coverage, but most other VOA foreign language services had nothing.) 

VOA regularly misses major news stories of great interest to international audiences, is often late in posting its news reports, and offers only superficial coverage of many news developments. No wonder that for most of its top news stories, VOA gets barely a dozen or two Facebook “Likes,” while Al Jazeera, BBC, and Russia Today get thousands and even tens of thousands of “Likes.” 

The Voice of America still has outstanding journalists who tell me that a complete management meltdown that has taken place makes it almost impossible for them to do their job right. According to my sources, news coverage planning is in complete disarray, news reporting positions have been eliminated while the bureaucracy grew, VOA correspondents can’t get their reports posted on the website, and employee morale, as measured in federal agencies by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), has been at the bottom of the list for several years. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called the agency “dysfunctional” and “defunct.”

But top executives, VOA Director David Ensor and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard M. Lobo, deny that there are any problems with VOA news reporting or audience engagement and social media outreach. 

Mr. Lobo said recently that “Today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before.” Facebook “Likes” for VOA news reports and YouTube views for VOA news videos, when compared for example to those for Russia Today, tell a different story. 

Mr. Ensor tells employees that progress has been made and “the state of VOA is strong and is getting stronger all the time.” Most VOA journalists and IBB employees I talk to don’t see it that way and hope that someone will rescue U.S. international broadcasting, which has its own bipartisan oversight board, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). VOA correspondents have complained repeatedly to the management that their news tips and other suggestions are ignored, and their reports are shortened, posted late, or not posted at all on the VOA English website. They have told me that their complaints have produced no significant changes.

There is some hope that BBG’s new energetic chairman, president of Universal Filmed Entertainment Jeff Shell, and some of its new member together with reform-minded members who have served on the board for a while, will carry out management reforms at VOA and IBB. Jeff Shell had met with Advisory Boardmembers of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB –, an NGO which has been advocating for better oversight of VOA and IBB operations to improve media outreach to audiences suffering under censorship, political repression, and economic hardships.

While these BBG members have not been successful so far in reforming VOA and IBB due to strong bureaucratic resistance, they had initiated reforms at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Under its recently-appointed new president and CEO Kevin Klose, RFE/RL provided very good and balanced coverage of Malala’s interview with Jon Stewart and her White House meeting with President Obama. RFE/RL also had conducted earlier an exclusive video interview with Malala

Let’s hope that the BBG will be able to carry out similar management changes at VOA and IBB to make Voice of America news reporting from the United States and around the world more timely, accurate, balanced and comprehensive. RFE/RL, a surrogate broadcaster based in Prague, cannot provide U.S.-based coverage of American news stories on a regular basis. It did this time because it broadcasts to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Congress had decided in Public Law 94-350 that the job of U.S. news coverage and reporting on U.S. foreign policy belongs to VOA. The Congress had also assigned different missions to surrogate broadcasters and made them largely independent of the federal government bureaucracy.

The White House and the Congress must help the BBG to overcome bureaucratic resistance to reforms at IBB and VOA, the federal government components of U.S. international broadcasting. The administration and members of Congress should also reject any attempts by the IBB bureaucracy to gain central control over the surrogate broadcasters, like Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia (RFA), which are doing great specialized surrogate news coverage of countries without free media thanks to their administrative and editorial independence. 

As for U.S. public diplomacy, U.S. funded broadcasters: VOA, Radio and TV Marti, RFE/RL, RFA, Alhurra and Radio Sawa are primarily in the news business. When they do their journalistic job right, there are enormous short-term and long-term benefits for U.S. public diplomacy around the world. When they fail, as VOA did on the Obama-Malala meeting and on many other major news stories, U.S. public diplomacy abroad is diminished or even suffers real damage. 

But there is also a larger problem with U.S. public diplomacy as seen by how the White House handled the media angle of the Obama-Malala meeting or the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad website failed to post any information or a photo from this remarkable event. U.S. public diplomacy structure also needs a major reform.

These journalistic, management, and public diplomacy failures make America less understood abroad and less safe. If done right, however, the work of the Voice of America on the journalistic side, and the work of the White House and the State Department on the public diplomacy side, can not only help to make America more secure but also help those who struggle for freedom and democracy abroad. 

Ted Lipien is a former acting associate director of the Voice of America. He is a journalist and author now affiliated with media freedom advocacy NGOs, Free Media Online and the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB).

READ the Digital Journal op-ed in Internet Archive.