The White House website, www.whitehouse.gov, featured an odd article last Friday. Its headline: “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda.”
The VOA “often speaks for America’s adversaries — not its citizens,” the article charged, noting that it has “amplified Beijing’s propaganda” about the coronavirus by calling China’s “lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world,” and tweeting “video of the Communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s end.”
The article added: “Last year, VOA helped highlight the Twitter feed of Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif while he was issuing threats against the U.S. and sharing Russian anti-U.S. propaganda videos.”
You get what’s odd about this, right? Whitehouse.gov expresses the opinions of the White House or, more precisely, of the U.S. commander-in-chief who resides in the White House.
At the moment, that would be Donald Trump who, in theory, should have someone he trusts heading the VOA and other taxpayer-funded, U.S. overseas broadcasting services, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
In practice, however, President Trump has been deprived of that prerogative, with much of the media cheering. I’ll elaborate in a moment but first a little context.
The Declaration of Independence notes the importance of demonstrating “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” This phrase “might be viewed as a kind of an international public opinion test,” Randy Barnett, a professor of legal theory at Georgetown, has observed; recognition that Americans have an obligation to explain their conduct and policies so that people overseas “can evaluate for themselves.”
This goal was most effectively achieved during the Cold War, in particular after 1961, when President John F. Kennedy appointed the eminent journalist Edward R. Murrow to head the United States Information Agency, then the parent of the VOA.
In 1999, the USIA was dissolved and authority for the VOA transferred to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a less-than-successful experiment in management by committee. In 2017, the BBG was restructured as the $800-million-a-year U.S. Agency for Global Media, which was to be run by a chief executive officer.
In June 2018, President Trump nominated Michael Pack as that agency’s CEO. A distinguished documentarian, Mr. Pack has produced more than 15 films nationally broadcast on PBS. He also served as a senior vice president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and president and CEO of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.
Over the two years since, however, Senate Democrats have blocked a confirmation vote on Mr. Pack’s nomination.
Meanwhile, things have not gone well at the USAGM. For example, in October 2018, several VOA journalists were fired for accepting bribes from a Nigerian official. The following month, the Hoover Institution cited concerns about Chinese officials’ influence on VOA employees working in China. Summing up the finding of a three-month congressional investigation in December, then-Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce called the USAGM “broken.”
In September 2019, John Lansing, installed as CEO under President Obama, resigned to head National Public Radio. Two months later, a staffer Mr. Lansing had named his chief strategy officer pleaded guilty to stealing more than $40,000 from the USAGM. Other examples of corruption have come to light. Does this lead you to conclude that the USAGM needs a strong CEO with White House backing to clean up this mess?
Not if you’re an editorial writer for The Washington Post. The newspaper fumed that the whitehouse.gov criticism of the VOA “would be outrageous if it were not simply ridiculous.”
It enthusiastically endorsed VOA director Amanda Bennett — neglecting to mention that she was appointed to that position in 2016 by Mr. Lansing with the approval of Mr. Obama. Nor did The Washington Post disclose that she is married to Donald E. Graham, former owner of The Washington Post.
The editorial did note that, “according to a recent report in The Washington Times, Mr. Pack is planning a ‘major housecleaning’ in U.S. broadcasting, including the removal of Ms. Bennett.”
The Post opposes such hygiene: “If this coup succeeds, VOA will no longer differ substantially from other state-run broadcasters — and it very likely will earn that ‘propaganda’ label.”
Post editorialists might at least have reported some of what Mr. Pack had to say about news vs. propaganda during his hearing last September before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In particular, he stressed that “the whole agency rests on the belief that the reporters are independent,” and he promised to “try to strengthen that independence.”
Here’s what I think should be obvious by now: Those who regard themselves not as a loyal opposition but rather the “resistance” are determined to block both President Trump’s policies and personnel, leaving as much power as possible in the hands of Obama holdovers and ideologically aligned career bureaucrats.
This seems to me patently undemocratic — an assault on executive authority and the office of the presidency; in effect, an attempt to establish one-party rule. It’s also unfair to voters, and those who (like Mr. Pack) volunteer to be public servants, not public masters, and it does a disservice to audiences abroad interested in the perspectives of the current administration — along with straight news, America’s story of freedom and democracy, and, yes, criticism of the president, too.
One more thing: If you were looking for a way to increase and radicalize the already growing number of Americans who fear they are being ruled by an unelected, unaccountable and partisan bureaucracy — sometimes called the “deep state” — you couldn’t come up with a better strategy.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.