an independent Russian journalist,Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy, warned in 2011 about “pro-Putin” bias of the Voice of America Russian Service.
Dr. Rudenskiy was hired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in 2011 to evaluate the VOA Russian website. In a report, which was not shared at he time with presidentially-appointed BBG Board members, Dr. Rudenskiy concluded that the Russian Service had a “pro-Putin bias” and downplayed human rights reporting. The study was obtained and published in 2012 by independent journalists outside of the Voice of America.
Dr. Rudenskiy wrote in his report that “the site provides little if any unique information or bright and perceptive comment, it appears rather mediocre in terms of journalistic quality or design, and it lacks focus on the topics where it potentially could excel.”
“Pro-Putin bias” of VOA Russian Service in 2011
Dr. Rudenskiy’s main criticism, however, was directed at what he perceived as a bias in favor of the Kremlin. In his study, he gave several examples of VOA news reports based mostly on Russian official media that lacked an alternative American perspective.
Objectivity/Balance: Is reporting free of bias? Are opposing and/or alternative positions fairly represented and reported on controversial issues.
Before answering this one, I would like to present some general considerations. It seems pretty obvious that, to put it mildly, today’s Russia has big problems with freedom of the press. Even in the Russian segment of the Internet, which is not controlled by the authorities as closely as big TV channels and much of the printed media, objective information and free comment on politically sensitive issues are not readily available. Therefore, in my view, VOA should primarily concentrate on such information and comment which are relatively hard to come by elsewhere for political reasons. This applies to thematic balance (see below) and to representation of various positions as well. Of course I don’t mean to say that Russian official positions on controversial issues could be ignored or underreported; however, it would seem fair that in news coverage and comment on such issues as YUKOS affair or human rights violations in the North Caucasus some kind of special consideration be given to alternative facts and viewpoints.
Now, my impression is that VOA has been too careful in avoiding anything that might look like ‘anti-Russian’ bias. A telling example of this attitude can be found in the coverage of Vice President Biden’s visit to Moscow. The reporting focused on Biden voicing support for Medvedev’s ‘modernization,’ traveling to Skolkovo etc., all of which was amply covered by national TV channels. But Vice President’s speech in Moscow University, in which he criticized Russia’s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event was titled ‘Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours’; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia’s ‘legal nihilism’ – an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of ‘pro-Russian’ (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.
Dr. Rudenskiy was a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, which had this description of his work: “Trained as an ethnographer, he is the author of about 40 scholarly publications and more than 100 journalistic commentaries focusing mostly on public issues in today’s Russia, including defending freedom of the press, exposing persecution of the regime’s opponents and other human rights violations, and combating racism and other forms of bigotry.”