Op-Ed: Putin’s Russian victimhood on Voice of America | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published October 20, 2014 by Digital Journal

Western media both expose, but often just report, Putin’s Russian victimhood propaganda claims, while poor management at Voice of America and insufficient funding from Congress prevent U.S. broadcaster from effectively countering Kremlin’s disinformation.

Two recent Washington Post op-eds did more to expose both the duplicity and the success of Putin’s disinformation and propaganda than most other Western media articles. One possible exception are Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) equally insightful analyses, which although they are available online, unfortunately are not widely distributed by U.S. media. The Voice of America(VOA) in Washington could have reported on these Post op-eds, as VOA had done during the Cold War, but the U.S. taxpayer-funded news organization has been poorly managed in recent years and lost many experienced journalists. VOA not only missed these two Post commentaries; VOA English news service had published before several online reports which highlighted classic Kremlin disinformation claims without any effective challenge within the same report. Many other Western media in the U.S. and Europe have done the same, but I expected better from publicly supported VOA, my former employer, where I had worked as a journalist and manager for more than 30 years.

Both superbly-written recent Post op-eds helped to destroy the myth of Putin’s Russia as a victim of NATO’s eastward expansion and U.S. threats — a concept of false victimhood that many Western reporters and commentators, including some at VOA, have been presenting recently without questioning as a logical justification for Putin’s annexation of Crimea. VOA and RFE/RL are both funded by Congress and overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in Washington, headed by a bipartisan board. 

The first Washington Post op-ed was penned by Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor, whose outstanding reportage from Poland as a young journalist during the Solidarity struggle for democracy period in the 1980s was frequently used in excerpts by the Voice of America Polish Service, at that time at the height of its popularity and effectiveness. We were all convinced then that Diehl was a veteran reporter because his news dispatches and news analyses were probably the best among all Western journalists in Poland. Only later we found out that he was very young.

The main premise of Diehl’s latest Post op-ed is that Central European leaders, including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, had warned President Obama in 2009 in an Open Letter of Putin’s expansionists ambitions only to be dismissed by some Obama administration officials as “Russophobes.” Diehl points out that due to the late change in the administration’s “Russia Reset” policy and weak response from President Obama to Putin’s aggression against his neighbors, “Eastern Europeans are bowing to Putin’s power.” 

JACKSON DIEHL: “Obama and his aides furiously dismissed those warnings, angrily telling the open letter’s authors they were suffering from ‘Russophobia.’ Five years later, Obama repeats their diagnosis of Putin as his own wisdom. But it may be too late: The ‘Russophobes’ of an expanded NATO have been replaced, in more than a few capitals, with Putin-appeasers.” 

The second Washington Post op-ed, “The myth of Russian humiliation,” is by an equally distinguished writer and journalist, Anne Applebaum. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a member of the editorial board of The Washington Post (2002–2006). She is married to Poland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski.In her article, Applebaum demolishes Russian victimhood arguments, which have appeared in Western media reports often without any effective rebuttal. They essentially state that in order to stop Ukraine from moving to join the European Union, and ensure it never joins NATO, Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine because otherwise Russia would not be secure. Many other op-eds and articles in Western media also included this theme: we should all feel sorry for Russia because the Soviet Union had collapsed and former Soviet satellites claimed their independence. After all, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “a major geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century.” It was a great humiliation and a threat to Russia’s security, quite a few U.S. and other Western experts and journalists have told us. Anne Applebaum disagreed.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: “Our mistake was not to humiliate Russia but to underrate Russia’s revanchist, revisionist, disruptive potential. If the only real Western achievement of the past quarter-century [NATO expansion] is now under threat, that’s because we have failed to ensure that NATO continues to do in Europe what it was always meant to do: deter. Deterrence is not an aggressive policy; it is a defensive policy.” 

Applebaum gave numerous examples of the West going out of its way to accommodate Russia and President Putin only to be met with more unwarranted complaints and more demands. “Countries once eager to contribute to the [NATO] alliance are now afraid,” Applebaum wrote, after seeing how the United States failed to stop Putin’s aggression. 

As a former director of the Voice of America Polish Service during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy, I appreciate the effectiveness of Applebaum’s and Diehl’s well-presented arguments. Such articles, however, are no substitute for effective U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy, which during the Reagan Administration also included well-funded media outreach by reinvigorated and well-managed Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and Voice of America. 

Source: Audience and Public Opinion Research Department (APOR) of Radio Free Europe and East European Audience and Opinion Research (EEAOR) of RFE/RL. Surveys were conducted among travelers from Eastern Europe by independent market research firms in Western Europe. They were presented at the Conference on Cold War Broadcasting Impact, Stanford University, October 2004.

Program delivery channels have expanded and media use habits changed significantly since then. 1980s large audience numbers cannot be easily replicated in today’s Russia, but both VOA and RFE/RL can achieve a strong impact with more resources, and in the case of VOA, better management. Privately-run RFE/RL still has excellent Russia experts and journalists capable of exposing Putin’s lies and disinformation, but not as many as it used to have and should have. What it lacks now is sufficient funding from Congress and more independence from Washington bureaucrats. Neither VOA nor RFE/RL have nearly enough money to launch 24/7 satellite TV channels similar to Russia’s RT. Both suffer from interference from the federal IBB bureaucracy. 

But in its pursuit of hard-hitting journalism, RFE/RL still does a good job. It reported recently that the vast majority of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians are, in fact, loyal Ukrainian citizens, countering the Kremlin’s claims repeated by Russian RT TV and website and other state media that they are not.

See:”RFE/RL Podcast: Ukraine’s Loyalist Russians.” 

VOA’s reporting on Ukraine and Russia has been uneven. It’s not as bad as when an independent Russian media scholar and journalist said in 2011 in a study ordered by the BBG that the VOA Russian website had a “pro-Putin bias.” VOA Russian Service reporting has improved to some degree since then because of outside scrutiny, and VOA Ukrainian Service reporting has always been excellent despite limited resources. Individual VOA journalists and services are capable of great reporting. But, on the whole, international audiences can no longer rely on VOA to provide consistent, high-quality news and news analysis from Washington.

Sophisticated news analysis is especially lacking. Even as late as 2006, VOA had a multilingual and multimedia online journal, “New Europe Review,” in which top American and international experts, politicians and religious leaders discussed U.S. foreign policy and commented on such issues as the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the Balkans. I recruited Vaclav Havel to serve on its Advisory Board. Shortly after I left VOA, the multimedia journal was discontinued together with VOA Russian satellite television and radio broadcasts. These VOA broadcasts to Russia were cut in 2008, two weeks before Putin attacked Georgia and grabbed part of its territory, as he did this year with Crimea. Last week, the BBG announced the launch of a new satellite 30-minute daily satellite and online TV news program in Russian targeting Russian-speaking audiences in countries bordering on Russia. The show is produced jointly by RFE/RL and VOA, with RFE/RL appearing to have a leading role. Hopefully, its experts will ensure that the program does not fall for Putin’s propaganda, but the show seems to lack a clear brand identity.

With many of its Russia experts gone, Voice of America reported last June that the survey of Crimeans after the Russian takeover had shown that they are “overwhelmingly happy” to be part of Russia, with nearly three-quarters of those surveyed saying their life will improve as part of Russia rather than Ukraine. “You saw that the support is huge for Russian government” readers of the VOA website were told. The VOA report failed to even mention the Crimean Tatars who are a large minority especially repressed by the Russian authorities and strongly opposed to Russia’s rule. At about the same time, VOA English website had failed to report on a meeting President Obama had in Warsaw, Poland with a leader of Crimean Tatars Mustafa Dzhemilev. 

Other than missing important news stories, the problem with some VOA reporting is that it takes Putin’s propaganda about Russia being a victim of militaristic America seriously and offers it for balance, but often without exposing its duplicity and ridiculousness. You won’t find on the VOA English news website comments such as this one from P.J. O’Rourke on The Daily Beast: “Russia is the only major power since WWII to have snatched a chunk of another country’s territory just for kicks. As for militarism, check Russia’s bristle-of-missiles annual Victory Day Parade through Red Square and compare against home video of American Veteran’s Day parades with the Boy Scout band and old fogey vets waving from the back of convertibles lent by local car dealerships.” See: “Up To a Point: Binge Watching Putin’s Propaganda Network.”

Prof. Paul Goble, one of America’s top experts on Russian disinformation, observed recently that many Western journalists confuse balance with objectivity. “That means if anyone is in a position to put out a version of the story, however outrageous, journalists will often report it as one of the points of view out there, especially if the situation is confused or uncertain,” Prof. Goble said. “And they may do so in ways that work particularly to Moscow’s advantage.”

Central news reporting at VOA is irrevocably broken, partly because of staff shortages and lack of regional experts knowledgeable about Russia, but mostly due to lack of leadership and poor management. The highly questionable poll in Russian occupied Crimea was in fact ordered by International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials in charge of managing VOA on behalf of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It was conducted in Crimea apparently without seeking approval from the State Department or the Ukrainian government and without consideration for the impact of fear, intimidation and Russian propaganda on the population and the polling results. The fact that the U.S. government does not recognize the annexation of Crimea was ignored by the agency’s government bureaucrats. Independent experts in Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. questioned the advisability and validity of the IBB poll, describing it as faulty, but VOA English news website failed to report these warnings and presented the results as perfectly valid. 

There are, however, many well-informed and dedicated VOA journalists, especially in the language services, including the Ukrainian Service, who still do outstanding reporting. They would have prevented such mistakes if the organization were better run. In the Polish Service in the 1980s, we often caught glaring news errors and got VOA central newsroom to correct them, but employees now complain that they lack resources and suffer from neglect, poor internal communications and gross mismanagement by senior executives. Management at VOA and other federal parts of the BBG are endemic and have persisted for years. A recent Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey of BBG federal workers showed that barely 45.75% have a positive view of the organization’s senior leaders, a dramatic decline of 6.22% from the previous year. VOA has been consistently rated in these OPM surveys for many years as having the worst employee morale and being the worst government workplace without any management reforms being ordered by the BBG at VOA (BBG did change IBB’s management team in early 2014). This year’s OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results for the BBG are some of the worst ever.

Even well-managed VOA alone cannot fix overseas perceptions of a weak U.S. foreign policy, but it could communicate to the world that Obama’s late and weak response to Putin’s aggressive moves is being criticized by prominent American journalists. Such balanced reporting could have long-term positive impact for the U.S. and its public image abroad. For this too happen, VOA needs better management and more money.

VOA’s strength is that it should not only report on official U.S. policies but also on any significant debates about these policies. VOA English news service did post recently some articles quoting U.S. and European experts criticizing President Obama’s approach to Russia and other international crises, but such reporting has been both scarce and late. Even reporting on White House, State Department and congressional statements exposing Russian disinformation has been weak on the VOA English website and websites of most of VOA’s language services. 

When I was in charge of VOA’s Polish Service in the 1980s, media comments, both positive and critical of the Reagan administration, were always highlighted, when for example Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” He was being criticized by some Americans–not for being too weak, but too aggressive, while many others praised him for standing up to Moscow and calling a spade a spade. The congressional VOA Charter requires balance, and we reported on both arguments. Diehl and Applebaum provided such balance to generally weak Western media reports on the current conflict in Ukraine. VOA ignored these excellent op-eds while it did not fail to report earlier without much challenge on the Kremlin’s questionable claims of Russia’s victimhood as a justification for annexing Crimea and attacking eastern Ukraine. If VOA reports on official Russian statements, which it should do, it must attribute them properly and always challenge any obvious lies and inconsistencies. VOA must do better.

In an earlier Washington Post op-ed, “A fearful new world, imperiled by Russia’s subterfuge,” Anne Applebaum suggested that Europe and the United States can better counter the Kremlin’s propaganda and attempts to destabilize Ukraine by increasing funding for their international broadcasting programs and improving their performance.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: “Americans and Europeans should begin to rethink the funding and governance of our international broadcasters in order to counter the new war of words.” 

At least the reform part may be the job of respected journalist and media executive Andrew Lack, whom the Broadcasting Board of Governors had selected to be Chief Executive Officer of the federal agency. He has not yet taken up his position. Once he does and any management reforms he makes are successful, Congress, which has its own still pending bipartisan bill (H.R. 4490) to reform the BBG, should provide more funding to fight Putin’s propaganda with accurate, balanced and comprehensive news and analysis by VOA and RFE/RL. More funding is also needed for Radio and TV Martí (Office of Cuba Broadcasting – OCB), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). They also could hire more experts and journalists to counter assaults on freedom, democracy and human rights by authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations. 

It’s important for American people and their long-term security that the job of providing news and opinions to people without unrestricted access to free media and exposed to anti-democratic propaganda and distortions of history be done effectively and without waste of taxpayers’ money. Instead of supporting a growing BBG/IBB federal bureaucracy in Washington, resources should go to hiring more journalists and regional experts for the Voice of America and for the BBG’s surrogate media outlets and getting them more effective program platforms and delivery channels. 

Ted Lipien was acting associate director of the Voice of America before leaving VOA in 2006. He now runs the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), which supports U.S. taxpayer-funded news outreach to countries with restricted media.

READ the Digital Journal op-ed on Internet Archive.