President Trump startled Washington last week by launching an attack on Voice of America, which for 80 years has been charged with presenting and explaining American values and policy abroad. Trump called it a “disgrace” that the current VOA leadership was allowing its service to repeat Chinese talking points on the COVID-19 virus. A White House statement also took issue with the news agency that called Chinese efforts in Wuhan to contain the virus a “model” for other nations. The statement also noted that VOA relied on unverified (and subsequently proven false) Chinese-government statistics in some reporting.
Official Washington liberals swung into action to denounce Trump. Colbert King, a columnist for the Washington Post, accused Trump of “employing a tactic straight out of the Joe McCarthy playbook: smear and persecute with demagogic attacks on patriotism, while offering no proof whatsoever.” “It’s called McCarthyism,” he added. Others accused Trump of an “unprecedented” attack on his own executive branch.
Please, it’s far from it. In 1943, VOA’s first director was forced to resign by FDR’s White House after the administration learned that some of the director’s key hires hewed too closely to a pro-Soviet line. Later that same year, Roosevelt himself said that a VOA broadcast with a slur on Italy’s king “should never have been made” and that his appointee was “taking vigorous steps by way of reprimand.”
In his memoirs, former president Eisenhower recounted that “in a state of some pique” he informed his State Department that VOA was attempting to undermine his administration’s foreign policy by trying to create false news.
From the early 1950s through the collapse of the Soviet Union, VOA sharpened its mission. It remained objective, but it, and especially allied services such as Radio Free Europe, also had the strategic objective of countering propaganda and disinformation in a positive way. Those broadcasts paid a big dividend, as numerous dissidents, including Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, have testified.
But since the end of the Cold War, VOA has retrenched and seen its budget cut to $200 million a year. It still runs an extensive news operation, but the part of its original mandate that aimed to present America’s story in a persuasive way has withered.
Look no further than Hillary Clinton for that view. On leaving office as secretary of state in 2013, she lamented, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, “Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back into it.”
Her view was widely shared, which is why, in 2016, President Obama signed into law a reorganization, of VOA and related broadcasters, that took authority over them away from the board of governors and put it more directly under the control of the executive branch. Presidents now have the ability to appoint, with Senate confirmation, a full-time CEO who will report to the president, just as cabinet secretaries do.
President Trump’s anger stems in part from the fact that his nominee for CEO of the Agency for Global Media (which runs VOA) has been in limbo for 22 months.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Pack has seen more than 15 of his films broadcast on PBS, which has exacting professional standards. He has pledged that if confirmed as CEO, he will insist on the independence of VOA. But he’s been denied a confirmation vote because of foot-dragging and spurious conflict-of-interest allegations by Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Its chairman, Idaho GOP senator James Risch, has so far been unwilling to call time and hold a vote.
The charter of VOA declares that it “will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” Some of its programming must by that standard take the form of a broadcast “editorial page” that lets America’s friends and foes know what Washington is doing and why. Yet staff of VOA’s policy office, which produces editorials, has been cut by some 50 percent. In 2008, Jeffrey Trimble, the staff director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversaw VOA at the time, actually claimed, “It is not in our mandate to influence.” If that’s true, why are the taxpayers shelling out $200 million a year for VOA in an Internet age saturated with media sources?
As it is, VOA reminds observers of a media playground where there’s too little supervision. That lack of structure often leads to serious management snafus, such as when Sasha Gong, the head of VOA’s Mandarin service, and two of her colleagues were fired for broadcasting a live interview with a Chinese whistleblower who was making charges of corruption against Chinese-government officials. VOA officials defend the firings, saying they resulted from “failures to follow explicit instructions from management and good journalistic practices.”
A current VOA employee contacted me to point to other management lapses, including the 2018 firing of 15 of its employees in Africa after they accepted bribes from a foreign official. On April 9, the very day the White House first attacked VOA, it broadcast a two-minute video in Mandarin that amounted to a propaganda commercial from Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, the originator of the discredited theory that the novel coronavirus originated in a U.S. military laboratory.
VOA’s own introduction to the video read:
Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press conference on April 9 that the China epidemic-concealment theory and opacity theory “are groundless.” He emphasized: “We have introduced it many times using the timeline. . . . After the outbreak, China reported the outbreak to the World Health Organization for the first time, shared the new coronavirus gene sequence with the countries of the world at the first time, and launched international cooperation on the prevention and control of the disease for the first time. The general positive evaluation of the United States — the United States has smooth access to the epidemic information and data from China.
Given what we now know about China’s complicity in delaying news of the dangers of the virus, it is bizarre to give Zhao a U.S.-government platform. Even China’s ambassador to the U.S. has labelled Zhao’s theory “crazy.” So isn’t it also crazy for VOA to remain silent as he absurdly defends Chinese-government transparency?
Amanda Bennett, Voice of America’s head, has defended her agency’s reporting on China by citing other reports that have been more critical. She has also noted that most of VOA’s journalists, like those of other U.S. media outlets, have been “effectively barred” from reporting on the virus from inside China. My VOA source responds that many individual VOA reporters covering China do good work. “But the final decisions as to what goes on the air are made by editors and bureaucrats in Washington,” he says. “They often go a different way. It’s they who must have their judgment calls evaluated — and soon.”
There was a time when VOA was led by officials who understood the full scope of its mission and how it had to pursue impartial news reporting while also explaining the views of the U.S. government.
“News is something commercial broadcasters can do well. Government broadcasting is needed when the U.S. wants to communicate a message to a key audience that would otherwise not hear it,” Robert Reilly, who served as the Voice of America director from 2001 to 2002, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2017: “This is why the Voice of America was never envisaged in its charter as simply a news organization. Its duty was always to reveal the character of the American people and thereby the underlying principles of American life.”
We need an honest appraisal of just how much bang for the buck the American taxpayer is getting from VOA and its allied broadcasters in this era of Chinese aggression, Russian propaganda, and Islamic terrorism. Pursuing that goal isn’t McCarthyism. It’s called accountability.