WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump' has had many targets in his war against the media, but perhaps none is more surprising than the Voice of America, the venerable U.S.-funded institution created during World War II to broadcast independent news and promote American values to the world.
Trump and his supporters have accused the outlet of “disgraceful” reporting and are now pushing hard to install their choice to run the government agency that oversees VOA and its affiliates. That battle is about to hit Congress, where partisan lines have been drawn amid a debate that could have a significant impact on the future of the global broadcaster.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been scheduled to vote Thursday on Trump's nominee to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which runs VOA and its sister outlets Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Cuba-focused Radio Marti. That vote was postponed, however, late Wednesday due to Democrats' objections, a sign of the rancor hanging over it. The Republican-controlled committee is still expected to advance the nomination when it is able to take it up.
Democrats fear that candidate, conservative filmmaker and former educator Michael Pack, could turn the organization into a Trump propaganda machine funded with more than $200 million a year in taxpayer money. Trump has mused about his desire to control a media outlet. Pack has dismissed concerns he would allow that to happen, but the recent furor has reignited those concerns.
The spat has dismayed many who watch the issue closely, including some who believe USAGM and VOA need reform, particularly as changes to the agency’s governing rules mean its next chief will be able to bypass its board in making personnel and policy decisions.
“All of this is a distraction from what I think is a legitimate debate about what its role should be,” said Tom Kent, a former Associated Press editor who went on to head Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “It needs to be clear whether VOA’s role is to advocate for democracy and American values in general or whether it is supposed to be a PR agent for the president and the State Department on current issues.”
The White House did not respond to inquiries about Pack’s nomination or the VOA controversy.
The Democrats' stated objections to Pack, a one-time associate of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, center in part on his refusal to answer questions about his previous business dealings.
Yet, the uproar over Voice of America and its recent coverage of China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to feature prominently. It has become a touchstone in the Trump administration's efforts to criticize Chinese authorities for the outbreak and deflect criticism of the U.S. response as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up.
Trump and his allies have long viewed VOA with suspicion, regarding it as an element of a “deep state” trying to thwart their policies. But that hostility burst open on April 9 when Trump communications adviser Dan Scavino posted a VOA story about China to his official Twitter account with the comment “American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”
The story that VOA posted — about the lifting of the lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus first emerged, was actually an Associated Press report — but the following day, an official White House publication accused VOA of using taxpayer money “to speak for authoritarian regimes.” Trump weighed in several days later, calling VOA's coverage “disgusting” and demanding that the Senate confirm Pack.
VOA director Amanda Bennett fired back. "One of the big differences between publicly funded independent media, like the Voice of America, and state-controlled media is that we are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter,” she said in an April 10 statement.
But VOA's overseers stayed silent.
A representative of the State Department, which holds a seat on the USAGM board, advised the agency to avoid doing anything to endorse Bennett's response, which it did, according to three people familiar with the matter. And, an April 14 virtual meeting of the USAGM board came to no conclusion about how, or if, to respond, according to those people who were not authorized to discuss the meeting publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“All USAGM networks, including VOA, know they have the full support of the agency," the agency's current CEO Grant Turner said in an email statement provided to AP. "We have, and will continue to serve the American public by staying true to our mission — informing, engaging and connecting our audiences in support of freedom and democracy.
Bennett, meanwhile, sent a note of encouragement to VOA staffers on Monday, urging them to remain professional amidst what she termed “uncomfortable” scrutiny.
“This kind of scrutiny, however uncomfortable it may be, is also a great opportunity for us,” she wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the AP. “Difficult times call for us to be our best selves — to redouble our commitment to be the ethical, professional journalists that we know we all are.”
On Wednesday, Turner issued a similar pep talk, lamenting that attacks on journalists have increased and are more dangerous than ever. “Personal attacks ... and the subsequent oppressive media environment they create, are just two strategies for silencing the truth that is now amplified by the pandemic,” he said.
Watching from the wings, former officials who follow the matter are concerned.
Matt Armstrong, a former Republican appointee to the board of the USAGM's predecessor, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said the Trump administration had shown a "gross misunderstanding the agency’s mission” in attacking VOA. He also questioned why the administration was using the controversy to push for Pack's nomination when it could have made personnel changes already.
“I think they’re snowflakes, pretending to be upset about something that they shouldn’t be,” he said. “The Trump administration’s tantrum over VOA is huffing and puffing over something they could have done years ago. This episode further reveals their inability to manage the government they are in charge of."
Follow Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee at http://twitter.com/apdiplowriter