USAGM Watch Commentary
Liberal U.S. media outlets, or if one prefers to call them left-leaning, were reluctant to investigate and expose journalistic abuses and violations of government laws and regulations at the $800 million U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which had occurred under the previous Obama era leadership, because such investigations and reporting might have helped Trump and harm Biden prior to this year’s presidential election. If Trump had won, there would have been continued silence and distortions of facts on this topic. Ironically, Biden’s victory may now help to encourage at least some liberal media editors, reporters and commentators to take a closer and more objective look at how former USAGM officials had allowed major problems to continue at the agency for many years without much outside journalistic scrutiny.
Until now, liberal media generally avoided reporting on these abuses because they had happened under officials who were strongly and openly opposed to President Trump. Conservative media in general did not pay much attention to USAGM in recent years because the agency has largely lost the relevance and the impact it once had abroad during the Cold War. Most failed to notice that USAGM’s star broadcaster, the Voice of America (VOA), may have acquired, against U.S. law, a domestic partisan mission of opposing not just President Trump but all Republican politicians and mainstream conservative ideas.
When the Voice of America Urdu Service posted a pro-Biden campaign ad that could have helped him win more Muslim votes in states such as Michigan, there were surprisingly only very few media reports on this blatant violation of the VOA Charter. The 1976 Charter is U.S. law. It mandates that “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
Journalistic laziness and malpractice went even further when The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Hill, NPR, CNN and MSNBC seriously misled Americans that Trump-appointed USAGM CEO Michael Pack, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate only last June, was responsible for turning the Voice of America (VOA) into a pro-Trump mouthpiece. Their reporters and editors did not bother to check facts or VOA’s actual program output. Had they done their journalistic homework, they would have discovered that almost none of these claims against Pack were even remotely true. Pack did not change VOA programs although his presence may have prevented some but not all violations of the VOA Charter. The pro-Biden campaign ad was produced and posted by the VOA Urdu Service when Pack was already at the agency. VOA does not have and never had a right-wing or conservative bias. Soon after he arrived at USAGM, Pack chose a longtime Voice of America manager with links to former senior agency leaders and family links to Democratic Party politicians to be acting VOA director.
Those making accusations against Pack may have been trying to divert attention from their own shortcomings to avoid accountability for allowing violations of the VOA Charter under their own watch. In some cases under the former management, VOA was also spreading propaganda and disinformation from Russia, China, and Iran without the required challenges, balance and context. To accuse Pack of trying to create a pro-Trump network was not only unsupported by any evidence, it was pure hypocrisy.
One good result of President Donald Trump being on his way out of the White House and President-Elect Joe Biden being on his way in is that at least some of mainstream liberal media may now start to look at what this watchdog website has been exposing for many years as unprecedented failures of the pre-Pack management teams at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors) and the Voice of America led most recently by former agency CEO John F. Lansing (now running NPR since his resignation from USAGM in September 2019) and former VOA director Amanda Bennett who resigned just before Pack took over in June. Most of what Pack has done at USAGM was trying to repair some of the damage done to the agency over many years. He decided to rehire three brave VOA Mandarin Service journalists fired by former senior USAGM executives.
One of the most dangerous failures of the former USAGM management was inadequate security of agency personnel and its technological infrastructure as a result of poor pre-employment vetting of federal employees and federal contractors, as described in a July 2020 report by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which Pack has made public to the discomfort of former agency officials. The Hill has now published an op-ed on this issue by James S. Robbins, a senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. Hopefully, more such analyses will start to appear in mainstream liberal media outlets now that Trump is on his way out and Biden is on his way in.
More of such reporting and commentary by mainstream media may encourage the next administration to continue management reforms started by Pack even when he is eventually replaced. He has a three-year term under a bipartisan law signed in December 2016 by President Obama, but it is not known whether he will chose to stay or whether President Biden may try to get him fired as already threatened by one of Biden’s staffers.
Regardless of what will happen to Michael Pack after President Biden is sworn-in, it is in the interest of both Democrats and Republicans to keep the Voice of America free of partisanship. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, in additional to multiple and sometimes obscene attacks on Trump on social media by individual Voice of America reporters, most of them in the VOA central English newsroom, VOA editors allowed one-sided attacks on Senator Bernie Sanders in an attempt to help Hillary Clinton during Democratic Party primaries.
One American journalist friendly toward Sanders wrote at the time that “VOA does not have the right to advocate for a particular candidate or even to attack one. That is not within its charter, nor should any US citizen have to subsidize their own defamation.” [Emphasis added] The title of his commentary was “US State Media Runs Hit Piece on Bernie Sanders.”
But perhaps the most blatant violation of the VOA Charter in 2016 was a video produced by the VOA Ukrainian Service in which Hollywood actor Robert De Niro, without any balance or context provided by VOA, called Trump “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid” [Emphasis added] and condoned physical violence against him.
In 2020, VOA editors ignored a foreign attempt to interfere in U.S. elections to help protect Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) running in a Democratic Party primary in New York against progressive Democrat Jamaal Bowman.
In light of these unprecedented violations of the VOA Charter during last several years, more objective and factual reporting by liberal media about taxpayer-funded U.S. international broadcasting may help to prevent former failed officials from having much say in how the agency is run in the future and may save the Voice of America from threats to its employees’ security and from illegal partisan advocacy of any kind. The op-ed in The Hill is a good start.