“If you look at what they’re doing and what they’re saying about our country, it’s a disgrace — the people that are running that,” President Trump said last Wednesday about Voice of America, a publication funded by the U.S. government but technically independent. The White House has recently been stepping up its efforts to confirm Michael Pack, a conservative documentarian, to head up the board of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which controls Voice of America, along with other state-funded journalism enterprises like Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and Alhurra, and his latest salvo is thought to be part of that.
The USAGM used to be called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and was created in 1999 out of the U.S. Information Agency to give it the appearance of independence. Since the end of the Cold War, with no Warsaw Pact to beam subversive broadcasts into, the agency has struggled with a lack of purpose, and President Clinton even unsuccessfully tried to cut it back. Since then it has more or less been a place for patronage appointments. Pack, if confirmed, would replace Kenneth Weinstein, who once contributed an article to Irwin Stelzer’s Neocon Reader entitled, “Philosophic Roots, the Role of Leo Strauss, and the War in Iraq,” and who Trump has nominated as his ambassador to Japan. When Obama reorganized the BBG to create a new CEO position toward the end of his term, he gave the job to NBC chairman Andy Lack, since he had a lot to thank them for. (You may recognize Lack’s name from the heavy criticism pointed his way by Ronan Farrow over his handling of Matt Lauer’s behavior and the Farrow’s story on Harvey Weinstein, and also his 2015 visit to Ukraine on behalf of the BBG.)
Since the patronage goes to regime loyalists, to borrow a phrase from our interventionist friends, the coverage tends to support the regime. Instead of giving comfort to dissidents under authoritarian governments, as it used to, VOA now enforces compliance with an authoritarian EU, treating every populist in Europe as a threat to the European project and democracy itself. Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban are regularly described as “far-right” in RFE news reports, and they recently reopened a bureau in Hungary in an implicit rebuke of the government (their president, as of 2019, is Jamie Fly, a Never Trumper and neocon of long standing who used to head the Foreign Policy Initiative). Five out of the seven stories RFE has run mentioning Salvini in the last year link him to Russia. Sound familiar?
To those in Washington, however, this means any attempt to rein in an operation that clearly isn’t operating in a way that has anything to do with the interests of the United States, is both an attack on democracy and an attack on their social circle. For example, the latest column by Colbert King, a former editorial page editor for the Washington Post, is an extended defense of Voice of America director Amanda Bennett. Bennett, who he says he has “gotten to know,” is described as a “woman of heart, intellect and substance,” victimized by “McCarthyism” from President Trump. What he doesn’t mention is that Bennett is married to Don Graham, longtime publisher and owner of the Washington Post before it was sold to Jeff Bezos — Graham calls him “Jeff” — several years ago. And Bennett’s deputy is also a former Post editor.
It calls to mind how the godmother of Hollywood gossip, Louella Parsons, got her plum gig writing about the movies. Parsons regularly dropped flattering portrayals of William Randolph Hearst’s mistress into her column, then was hired by a Hearst paper, in the process turning “Marion never looked lovelier!” into a popular joke.
Bennett is in a tough spot, having had to push back against claims by Rachel Maddow and others that they had been co-opted by the Trump administration already. “If people continue to believe that VOA is already just spouting propaganda, then no one will be there to care if some day it is forced to do so,” she said in October at a National Press Club event.
With all due respect to Bennett, who has a realist’s sense about media partisanship among other virtues, it seems to me that being a propaganda organ is sort of the point of the USAGM, however useful it may be to conceal that fact. It’s certainly what FDR had in mind when VOA was created, and it appears to be a propaganda organ now, only its propaganda is opposed to people like Trump. And therein lies the real problem.
The White House’s attack on Voice of America centers around the claim that they are broadcasting Chinese propaganda instead of American propaganda, though the evidence they cited in their newsletter is rather thin. They might have added that, according to the Hoover Institution, A VOA TV editor once pledged allegiance to China at an event at the Chinese Embassy in DC. According to VOA staffers cited in the Hoover report, a regular meeting with embassy officials has helped shift their coverage in a more soft-focus direction, toward documentaries about fried chicken instead of samizdat. Part of that must be related to the inevitable access issues involved in trying to cover the communist country. But one might hope for at least some reciprocity for letting Chinese propagandists into the Rose Garden.
To be fair, Radio Free Asia has had some tough stories recently. The big one that comes to mind is from Radio Free Asia on April 6 that cited a source alleging that people were being packed into bodybags and cremated alive in Chinese facilities. While this writer is not one to overestimate the Chinese Communist Party’s concern for human life, this certainly looks like the stuff of atrocity propaganda. Setting aside the question of whether it’s true, a government publisher allowing an anonymous person “close to the funeral industry” to talk about a viral video she saw (which doesn’t show anything, it’s just a masked woman talking about having seen it), is not exactly groundbreaking journalism.
PolitiFact rated a post about the same viral video “false,” which as a Facebook partner means that the post will be seen by fewer people. What they really mean is unproven. The headline, “Wuhan woman says coronavirus patients cremated alive,” is indisputably correct, the question is whether the woman is telling the truth. An outlet purporting to be doing independent journalism rather than propaganda making reference to unproven claims via an anonymous source is questionable, but the standard is not the same for social media platforms, where censoring people who spread unproven accounts of atrocities by authoritarian governments is probably not ideal. At the very least it seems at odds with the Arab Spring-era line that social media was going to be the thing that topples dictators.
Propaganda directed against the Chinese government is probably among the more useful things the various USAGM publishers could be doing in the world at the moment. It’s certainly more useful than most things that Radio Free Europe does today. But if the White House is going to criticize VOA for publishing unverified Chinese death statistics, it’s fair to note that they have also published unverified material that is unflattering to China, too.
Voice of America and its sister publications are part of the American soft power apparatus, their essential function is as propaganda. That’s what it was founded to do during the Roosevelt Administration, and we shouldn’t pretend it’s anything other than that. So long as it exists, the only question is whose propaganda it’s going to put out. Today it’s material that suits the foreign policy preferences of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. We should not be so optimistic as to assume that a new chairman is going to change that, but one still hopes Trump gets his way.