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Foreign Policy

Author: Todd J. Broadman

Title: Recently Muzzled Voice Of America Fights to Renew its Voice

December 28, 2020

POLICY

Voice Of America (VOA) was established in 1942 to counter Nazi propaganda. The VOA is funded by the federal government and is overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). As a news broadcaster, the VOA’s mission is to provide “a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.” Since inception, the VOA has grown its weekly TV and radio programming to 1,800 hours in 40 languages with an audience of 236.6 million people worldwide. Its annual budget is $218.5 million and has about 1,050 employees.

In June of 2020, Trump appointed with US Senate confirmation, Michael Pack, as CEO of the USAGM. Pack is a conservative documentary filmmaker and close collaborator with Steve Bannon. Since his appointment, Pack has let go many senior VOA staff including its general counsel, dissolved its Board, begun an investigation of VOA’s chief White House reporter, and held up visas for many of VOA’s foreign journalists. His most flagrant move came recently when he lowered VOA journalist protections, limiting the independence of their reporting.

Significant among his replacements, Pack replaced VOA Director Amanda Bennett with conservative author and veteran broadcaster Robert Reilly as the VOA’s new director. According to Pack, “Bob’s inimitable experience and proven leadership as both a public servant and a private citizen will greatly benefit the entire agency.” Reilly, himself a former VOA director, authored “Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything,” in which he argues that widespread acceptance of gay culture harms society. For the past five years, Reilly has run the Westminster Institute, which focuses on anti-terrorism and the threat from Islamist extremism.

Because of its independent voice, the White House has termed the VOA a “disgrace.” In response, former Director, Amanda Bennet said that, “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.” In support of maintaining that charter and the integrity of the “firewall” between VOA journalists and political appointees, a federal judge has recently ruled that Pack’s decision to lower journalist protections was in breach of the VOA’s mission.

ANALYSIS

Pack’s appointment, and in turn, Reilly’s appointment, are in line with the Trump administration’s agenda and its “America First” policies. Due to their extreme views, VOA insiders have voiced the risk of reputational damage to the organization. What will listeners and readers overseas extrapolate from Reilly’s assertion that homosexual behavior is an “habitual moral failure?”

More damaging perhaps is abandoning balanced reporting altogether in favor of using this government media outlet to further an us versus them nationalistic stance. “VOA’s job should be to advance the justice of the American cause while simultaneously undermining our opponents,” wrote Reilly in a piece for the Wall Street Journal.

In stark contrast, VOA journalists who served overseas talk about their vital role in nourishing the many “information deserts” where the populace, particularly the poor, depend upon the VOA to deliver accurate information not only about the U. S., but more importantly, about their own country or area of the globe. Information blocked by governments that do not protect a free press.

In Chief US District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell’s 76-page ruling – originated from a VOA whistleblower lawsuit – he underscored the VOA’s charter to aim for objective journalism even as applied to the US government and the President. Trump’s lawyers argued the opposite: that as an arm of the government and as funded by US taxpayers, the VOA media outlets are not protected by the First Amendment. Objective journalism, in their view, is not to include the “propaganda” of other countries such as a recent VOA report comparing Chinese and American coronavirus deaths or the re-broadcasting of threats issued by the Iranian Foreign Minister.

The turmoil within the VOA has not gone unnoticed by President-elect Joe Biden. He has indicated that he’ll replace Pack and “clean house”; his choice may be Richard Stengel, former State Department official and Time magazine managing editor. Stengel is currently tasked with looking into the changes at USAGM wrought by the Trump administration. As with other agencies under this administration, roadblocks are feverishly being put in place to help extend holds on positions of power. One such roadblock is legislation now underway requiring a Senate-confirmed bipartisan board approve appointments to the position of VOA Director.

Resistance Resources:

  • https://www.voanews.com/
  • https://nieman.harvard.edu/  The Nieman Foundation houses a dynamic set of initiatives to promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate and support those poised to make important contributions to its future.
  • https://freedomhouse.org/  The Freedom House speaks out against the main threats to democracy and empower citizens to exercise their fundamental rights through a unique combination of analysis, advocacy, and direct support.
  • https://cpj.org/  The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide.
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