Originally published on May 1, 2020 and last edited for formatting changes on February 19, 2021.
Geoffrey Cowan and James K. Glassman Are Wrong to Defend Mismanaged Voice of America. Their Misguided Defense Can Cost Lives in America and Abroad.
By Ted Lipien
Two former U.S. government’s international broadcasting officials, Geofferey Cowan and James K. Glassman, wrote an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times. It first appeared under the title: “Trump’s claim about Voice of America propaganda is absurd – Los Angeles Times.” It also now appears under a somewhat less sensational tile: “Op-Ed: Trump’s war on Voice of America is all about him — as usual.” Geoffrey Cowan was VOA director during the Clinton administration. James K. Glassman served as chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), then VOA’s parent federal agency, during the George W. Bush administration. They believe that President Trump’s severe criticism of the Voice of America, calling some of its programs “disgusting” and a “disgrace,” and accusing VOA of promoting foreign propaganda, has no merit.
I have to respectfully disagree with Messrs. Cowan and Glassman because they failed to do proper research and both are dangerously wrong in this case and President Trump happens to be right on this issue. Their misguided defense of the poorly led and badly managed Voice of America is dangerous because it can cost innocent lives in the United States and abroad. This can happen if China’s leaders think that prominent and influential Americans, who these two gentlemen certainly are, will for whatever reasons ignore mismanagement and foreign propaganda in Voice of America programs and will defend the dysfunctional organization no matter how badly it is doing its job.
I find it hard to understand that Mr. Cowan and Mr. Glassman want to protect the Voice of America from what they see as unwarranted scrutiny by Americans and American media, but at the same time expect VOA to provide such scrutiny of totalitarian, authoritarian or dysfunctional governments abroad. A VOA manager or journalist does not have to be disloyal or willingly pro-Russia or pro-China to do a lot of damage. It’s enough if editors and reporters are blinded by ideology, by domestic partisanship, or are simply uninformed and unwittingly allow VOA to repeat hostile foreign propaganda, which can be extremely dangerous in an international health emergency or in a military conflict.
I had worked in U.S. international broadcasting for over three decades as a journalist and media executive and have been studying Soviet and Russian propaganda and VOA’s history even longer. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, having reviewed and analyzed multiple VOA programs in various languages, that VOA has been fooled by Chinese propaganda in recent weeks and repeated it, often without any counter or balance, or with minimal and ineffective effort to question disinformation from China’s communist regime. I saw several examples in yesterday’s (April 21, 2020) VOA online program content.
Ann Noonan, executive director of the non-partisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) where I serve as a co-director, pointed it out these failures to the USAGM Board last December. She made her argument at an open government meeting even before the coronavirus outbreak.
In fact, this problem has been growing at the Voice of America for several years, and is not limited to influence and interference from China. Independent studies, even those commissioned by the agency itself, showed that some VOA broadcasts were “perpetuating to audiences the appearance of pro-regime propaganda rather than objective reporting.” This particular finding applied to propaganda from the Iranian regime.
In 2017, the Voice of America put online under a VOA logo several raw footage videos showing burnings of U.S. and Israeli flags. No balancing material or any analysis was attached to these VOA videos. There were some of the most popular VOA videos on the web, attracting millions of views. VOA might have promoted them with social media ads because most VOA videos do not get such large numbers of views. VOA, under its current management, was even caught targeting Americans with illegal Facebook ads. I am astounded that Mr. Cowan and Mr. Glassman believe that the management of the Voice of America is being unfairly criticized and does not require reform.
I also found last week another example of an uninterrupted and unchallenged anti-U.S. rant by a Chinese communist propagandist. The VOA Mandarin Service took the extra effort to put into a video with a VOA logo, provided a written summary and put it on the web. Communists in Beijing could not have asked for more.
A Twitter user provided links to more such Voice of America produced videos showing nothing but propaganda and disinformation statements from Chinese communist regime officials. All of these videos were uploaded online by VOA in recent weeks.
Mr.Cowan and Mr. Glassman make an argument that criticizing the Voice of America helps China. But a counter argument to this, which in my view is more persuasive, as well as backed up by multiple examples, was posted by the USAGM Watch government watch dog website, which I co-funded and which is run by independent volunteers, mostly former Voice of America journalists, in private political life both Democrats and Republicans.
As of this morning, April 21, 2020, the taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) managed by the $800 million (annual) U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is still promoting without any disclaimers Chinese government’s COVID-19 data, a dangerous journalistic malpractice which if not immediately addressed may encourage China to continue lying and convince its officials that their propaganda is having a desired effect. Anybody with any journalistic sense knows that these Chinese statistics are wrong and almost certainly falsified at some level in China to avoid responsibility for the outbreak and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. The China COVID-19 numbers are being used by Beijing officials for propaganda and disinformation purposes.
Both Mr. Cowan and Mr. Glassman also seem not to know enough about VOA’s checkered history, which is understandable because a number of former and current VOA officials and amateur historians have hidden the ugly parts—those where early VOA officials and journalists had served Soviet interests, were rebuked publicly by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat, and fired by his otherwise pro-Soviet administration long before the futile and deplorable searches of Senator Joseph McCarthy for non-existing communists in the 1950s.
There was a period in VOA’s early history when the organization was run and staffed fellow travelers and mostly unwitting Soviet agents of influence. One of them was American writer, journalist and communist activist Howard Fast who in 1943 held the important position as VOA’s chief news writer and editor. Mr. Geoffrey Cowan’s father, Louis G. Cowan, who was VOA’s second director, even wrote a glowing review Howard Fast’s at VOA when Fast resigned under pressure in 1944. Fast reprinted Cowan’s recommendation letter in his memoir Being Red (Houghton Mifflin, 1990, pp. 25-26).
Other communists were recruited in 1943 by first VOA director John Houseman. Later Fast became a member of the Communist Party USA and editor of its newspaper. In 1953, he received the Stalin Peace Prize. In 1956, Fast cried when Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes for being deceived. Propaganda is a powerful weapon and requires top-notch reporters, editors and a VOA who can understand how it works, can make sure that it is not repeated and knows how to manage U.S. federal employees.
Some journalists and other Americans knew already in 1943 and even much earlier that Stalin was a mass murderer, but not VOA’s chief news writer, other fellow travelers or VOA directors who praised them. Both Houseman and Fast were quietly forced by the FDR Administration to resign.
I mention this history to show that there is nothing unusual or unprecedented about mismanagement and foreign influence at the Voice of America. It happened before. Those responsible do not have to be actual foreign agents. It is enough that their judgment is impaired or that they are simply poor journalists or bad managers.
Not every criticism of VOA is wrong. Mr. Cowan and Mr. Glassman may not know that starting in 1942 and well into the Cold War, the Voice of America came under repeated and strong criticism from many members of Congress from both parties. Much of it was more than justified and produced much needed reforms. In 1948, Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate charged that Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts contained “baloney,” “lies,” “insults,” “drivel,” “nonsense and falsehoods,” amounting to “useless expenditures” and “a downright tragedy.” Voice of America listeners in communist ruled Poland, in letters smuggled to the United States described VOA programs as “uninteresting, drab, bureaucratic in tone, unconvincing.” They were read in 1951 in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Richard B. Wigglesworth (R-MA) who later became U.S. Ambassador to Canada. Pro-Soviet propaganda was eliminated from VOA broadcasts in the late 1940s and countering of Soviet and other communist propaganda was greatly expanded in the early 1950s.
In recent years, former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (R-CA), who resigned from Congress in 2019, has been repeatedly criticizing the Voice of America and its agency, as has to a lesser but still significant degree current House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).
Effective oversight and constructive criticism are absolutely necessary to protect the Voice of America and to protect Americans. Just because President Trump said something critical does not mean that he has to be always wrong. This is not a partisan commentary on President Trump’s competency although he or someone in his administration should have dealt with this problem much earlier. The well-being and effectiveness of the Voice of America should not be a partisan issue. Those who absolutely hate Donald Trump should at least keep in mind, especially with regard to criticism of VOA’s management, that even a broken clock is right twice a day. To quote USAGM Watch again:
…perhaps the Voice of America had the power back in January 2020 to save lives by stopping China from lying, but VOA not only failed to use that power; it helped the Chinese communist regime spread its disinformation, which in turn may have contributed to unnecessary deaths in the United States and in other countries, including China.
READ LOS ANGELES TIMES OP-ED by Geofferey Cowan and James K. Glassman : “Trump’s claim about Voice of America propaganda is absurd – Los Angeles Times.”
READ: Voice of America Continues to Spread China COVID Disinformation, Makes It Respectable, USAGM Watch.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a former VOA acting associate director, former VOA Eurasia Division director, former BBG regional marketing director, and former VOA Polish Service chief during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland.