The Voice of America is morphing into the Voice of Trump. That is what the president obviously wants, but the wave of firings he triggered at the government’s radio and TV station now threatens the independence that made VOA a key part of building respect for our nation as a model of trustworthiness and freedom.
President Donald Trump has other priorities for what he considers his administration’s official outreach to the world. He has put a conservative activist, Michael Pack, in charge of the agency that runs VOA and Radio Free Europe, as well as other outlets established to pierce the borders of dictatorships with truthful news and information. Pack has made documentaries celebrating conservative causes, while blasting the "politically correct stranglehold" of liberal film schools.
On his first day at the U.S. Agency for Government Media (USAGM) last week, Pack welcomed the resignations of VOA’s top executives — editors with impeccable records for independent news coverage — and fired the chiefs of all the other stations in his purview. Pack ominously warned that he was on “a mission that unfortunately some have forgotten in recent and past years, to the disgrace of all.”
He was not specific, but many journalists who have proudly devoted their careers to the 61-language VOA recognize the word “disgrace” as one of Trump’s favorites — and it is the president’s term for anything that doesn’t make him look good. The staff knows that America-first guru Steve Bannon lobbied hard for Pack to get the job, so the new boss’ claim that he intends “to get rid of any bias and partisanship” was met by off-the-record cynicism and even despair.
Bannon declared in April that VOA was broadcasting “Chinese Communist” propaganda, by reporting Beijing’s claims that COVID-19 had been quashed at the pandemic source in Wuhan. Trump was just starting to adopt his current line of strongly blaming China for the virus that has shattered the U.S. economy, and in a Rose Garden speech on April 15 he sneered: “If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting.”
He mentioned that Pack’s nomination had been delayed for almost two years in the U.S. Senate, and the president then mounted a major push for it. Early this month, the new USAGM boss was confirmed by a party-line vote. Cue the purge.
In November 2018, Trump had seemed unaware of VOA’s existence, when he tweeted that to counter CNN’s international reach, America needs “our own worldwide network” to show global viewers “the way we really are — great!”
He soon learned of USAGM, its annual budget of more than $630 million, and the fact that it was not led by one of his loyalists. As a self-anointed expert on the power of flashy TV, how could he not see an opportunity to glorify the Trump brand in a global marketplace? That could apply to both real estate and his claims of presidential success.
I have seen while traveling abroad that VOA programs (including some on which I have appeared as a paid panelist) add to the luster of our country’s reputation. VOA, since its establishment during World War II to combat Nazi propaganda, has been right up there with the BBC.
Now, America’s official broadcast voice may sink to the credibility level of Radio Beijing. That would be ironic, because don’t be surprised if VOA becomes part of Trump’s mud-slinging war of words with China: each side blaming the other for trade turmoil, commodity and stock-market nervousness, and the deaths by virus of 120,000 Americans so far.
Dan Raviv of i24News is author of “Spies Against Armageddon.”