After more than three years of talking about it, the Trump administration finally trundled over to the Voice of America—and its sister institutions that also operate under the U.S. Agency for Global Media umbrella: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting—and took possession of the properties. The chiefs of each organization were fired and replaced by Trump’s newly confirmed chief executive of USAGM, Michael Pack. VOA’s two top journalists, Amanda Bennett and Sandra Sugawara, quit in protest, leaving Pack entirely in charge of these international media outlets whose purported mission is to tell America’s story to the world.
If the idea of Trump and Pack, a documentary filmmaker and comrade of Steve Bannon, running the U.S. government’s news and propaganda operations alarms you, you’ve got company. In the Atlantic, journalist/historian Anne Applebaum calls the moves a “coup d’état” by the “extremist and most ideological wing of a single political party.” A recent New York Times editorial fears that Pack will turn “VOA into a propaganda tool of the White House.” A Washington Post editorial concurs, fretting that the worst is yet to come as the new USAGM overlords complete their purge of longtime employees and convert the VOA “into another vehicle for promoting Mr. Trump.”
The critics are dead right about the direction Trump’s very legal encroachment on the broadcasters might take. Bannon preposterously regards VOA as filled with agents of the “deep state.” The president himself has attacked VOA’s Covid-19 coverage from China, and before installing Pack, a White House press release absurdly accused VOA of promoting Chinese and Russian propaganda. And Bannon has been transparent about his designs for VOA. In a 2018 Los Angeles Times article, he said he tried to talk Trump out of establishing his own media operation, something the president actively daydreams about. “You got one,” Bannon told Trump. “It’s called Voice of America.”
As disturbing as the Trump-Bannon-Pack disruption is, it allows us to reassess the U.S. government propaganda machine that has been running non-stop for almost eight decades. If we can agree that we don’t want Donald Trump and Steve Bannon dictating what’s news to a world audience of 350 million, perhaps we can also reconsider the wisdom of maintaining such a world-spanning information infrastructure in the first place. Maybe the lesson of the Trump “coup d’état” should be to abolish VOA and its sisters and salt the earth that nurtured them into existence to prevent Trump and the U.S. government from engaging in the propaganda business.
I already anticipate your complaints. You believe that the VOA does great work, and deserves something better than the dustbin for its accomplishments. While it’s true the VOA sometimes does great work—its coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations are often cited—it sure as hell better given that it employs 1,100 journalists, is budgeted at $250 million annually, and broadcasts in more than 40 languages. (USAGM spends a total of about $800 million.) The relevant question is whether the U.S. government should be in the worldwide propaganda business. I also anticipate objections from those who might cringe at the VOA and its sister institutions being called purveyors of propaganda. The people will bend over backwards as they explain how the VOA “firewall” and charter preserve the service’s independence and journalistic credibility. This, of course, is a crock. With one swift swing of his leather-soled shoe, Trump has breached the firewall and smashed its alleged independence, although a lawsuit to block Pack is in the works. As Ralph A. Uttaro wrote in a law journal in 1982, “The Voice of America, no less than Radio Moscow or Radio Prague, endeavors to change the attitudes of its listeners.” [Emphasis added.] Yes, it informs, but the main idea is frame the news to the U.S. government’s benefit. If the only goal was to inform, the government could save everybody a lot of money and bother by rebroadcasting the Associated Press.
The VOA mission statement speaks of a commitment to “providing comprehensive coverage of the news and telling audiences the truth.” But even some of its stalwart supporters will concede that its first and most important audience is the U.S. government and whoever occupies the White House at the time. The pretense that VOA’s primary mission is to spread the truth and not advance the U.S. government’s goals is further hobbled by the fact that it still publishes editorials published under the standing rubric, “Reflecting the Views of the U.S. Government as Broadcast on Voice of America.” They accurately track the government’s positions. Recent editorial headlines include “No Arms for Iran,” “Continuing Maximum Pressure on Iran,” and “USAID Response to Religious Freedom Challenges.” On Wednesday, Pack announced that VOA was restoring editorials to their former prominence.
This tension between the presidents who control VOA and the journalists who are supposed to report VOA news fairly, has plagued the agency since its beginnings. “Every administration has, at one time or another, peered over the shoulder of the VOA newswriter,” Uttaro wrote in that same law journal article. In the 1950s, during the early years of the Cold War, Uttaro writes, books by leftist authors were ordered removed from VOA libraries. VOA is among the first to admit that it didn’t come close to playing the news fairly in its early decades. Every radio script about the Cuban Missile Crisis was approved by officers from the U.S. Information Agency(VOA’s then-parent agency), a VOA webpage attests. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sought to counter the commercial press he thought was undermining his Vienam War policy by using VOA as “my own radio.”
“During the final collapse of Vietnam and Cambodia, VOA reporters were told to tone down their accounts of the war to avoid panic in Southeast Asian countries,” the Associated Press reported in 1977. During the Watergate scandal, USIA officials pushed VOA reporters for more positive coverage of Nixon. In 1988, columnist Jack Anderson caught VOA violating the firewall that should have separated church and state; he reported that a Russian Orthodox priest on the VOA payroll was broadcasting prayers and liturgy on the agency’s Russian language service. In 2005, Sanford J. Unger, a former director of the Voice of America and a journalist himself, wrote of how President George W. Bush’s political appointees tried to bend VOA’s coverage of the Iraq War and Middle East news in the president’s direction. Political jawboning of the VOA became scarcer in recent years until, of course, the arrival of the Trump administration, which has given every indication that it hopes to switch the propaganda apparatus from serving the state to serving the single person.
Perhaps we needed a propaganda apparatus in the 1940s to combat Nazi lies, and throughout the Cold War to battle Soviet disinformation around the world. But who can argue that today’s geopolitics require the same tactics we thought we needed in our twilight struggles against Nazi and Communist propaganda? You can’t really say that VOA and its sisters should continue to broadcast because they’re they only news alternative in so many authoritarian countries. After all, the BBC World Service still broadcasts in 40 languages around the world.
The VOA has been running on the fumes of its legacy for the past 30 years, combing the globe in search of places to plead Uncle Sam’s case. At some point, can’t we call an end to the mission creep, declare some kind of victory in the information war, and bring VOA’s troops home?
Trump’s takeover only makes overt what has been covert for so long. Let’s pull the plug on VOA.