Is There a “Deep State” Supporting USAGM and VOA? PART ONE
by Dan Robinson
Part One: Answering the Question
I have been absent from these pages for just over a year. What a difference a year makes – or perhaps not when it comes to the never-ending drama playing out at 330 Independence Avenue, headquarters of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), and Voice of America (VOA).
In 2019, I wrote about “How one of the worst federal agencies perpetuates itself at the expense of an unknowing public, with the help of Congress and public diplomacy high society.”
That provides a good segue to the red hot headlines and social media battles occurring following the Senate confirmation of Michael Pack to head USAGM.
Not that this deserves to be simplified in this way, but for purposes of this commentary I am going to refer to Pack and anti-Pack forces. Because that is exactly what we see as the firestorm of controversy continues.
Some of the things I will say here will no doubt further piss off many of my former colleagues at VOA, where I worked from 1979 to 2014. So, allow me to convey this additional bit of information.
A lifelong Democrat, I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 (for Bernie Sanders in one Maryland primary, John Anderson way back in 1980). I will vote for Joe Biden in the November 2020 election, though I have my concerns.
In the very late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I spent time in Berkeley, California, and witnessed some of the upheaval and demonstrations against the Vietnam war. I didn’t take part, but do have vivid memories of seeing events at People’s Park, and driving through teargas clouds in Haight-Ashbury (some of you may need to look that up).
By the time I was in college (The American University 1975) things had died down. But media were experiencing the impact of the achievements of Woodward, Bernstein, and many others on the Watergate story. I listened to Richard Nixon’s resignation – on VOA no less – while living in Swaziland as an AFS student in 1974.
So, this may be where I am going to start to piss people off . . . hold on to the guard rails, because there is more to come after this headline:
There Really Is A Deep State When It Comes to USAGM and VOA
There, I said it – the dirty word used by Donald Trump, some members of his administration, and many of his supporters to describe . . . let’s go to the online definition: “a body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy.”
So – about that version of the deep state as the expression is applied by Trump and many of his supporters – it really is absurd. The federal government, U.S. military – have always been filled with dedicated employees whose work and careers bridge administrations of both major parties, as mine did at VOA between 1979 and 2014.
I didn’t have to pass any ideological test when I arrived at VOA in 1979. Over the years, I was generally able to do my job as a government-paid journalist in ways similar to my colleagues in commercial news agencies and other media.
But I was always conscious of what was happening around me, how events could – and did – result in pressure being passed down from higher levels of each administration to the news management and other levels of VOA. I was always aware who was paying my salary.
There was a period some decades ago when VOA journalists pushed for independence. That topic is covered in various history books about the former USIA, which under Jimmy Carter briefly became the USICA, in the 1990’s (under Bill Clinton) the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and in 2018 was re-named USAGM.
The Permanent Support Network in the USAGM Deep State
But back to the point of this piece – I really don’t like the expression because of the emotions it stirs . . .but where USAGM is concerned – and the battle between Pack and anti-Pack forces – there really is a deep state.
Another description would be permanent support network, that consists of (and this is not a complete list):
- public diplomacy organizations too often acting as unquestioning conduits for the agency’s flow of information to the public, including claims of efficiency and progress.
- major media that rush to defend USAGM “entities” on 1st Amendment grounds, but that usually do not demonstrate sustained interest in investigating the agency’s many problems.
- ex-agency employees populating PD organizations who extol alleged claimed agency accomplishments while keeping options open to return to the agency as it escapes the congressional budget axe year after year.
- major universities running public diplomacy programs that frequently employ former network journalists while inviting ex-VOA and other officials to give one-sided presentations about the agency.
- ex-officials from presidential administrations of both major parties who in the grand Washington tradition embed in think tanks but who also do not tell the full story regarding USAGM problems.
- certain members of Congress who year after year maintain and widen the money spigot for USAGM, but fail to exercise sufficient oversight.
In the current storm raging over USAGM, each of these play predictable roles. But for those of you who may not have dug as deeply as I and some others have, this has taken on truly ugly proportions in this era of toxicity in the nation.
Pack, A Target of Worst Media Attacks Against Any New Agency Head in Decades
Since Michael Pack arrived at the agency, anti-Pack elements of the USAGM/VOA deep state have intensified attacks, particularly after his initial personnel changes (which by the way were within his authority to make):
- Twitter hashtags hurling verbal abuse at Pack and labeling him and President Trump as Nazis
- Twitter, Facebook and other social media users circulating memes and other images, including one pairing a photo of Pack with one of Peter Sellers from Dr. Strangelove
- Comments have questioned the veracity of Pack’s congressional testimony and initial statements to agency staff pledging to uphold journalistic independence, acting as judge, jury and executioner
- And – this is important – tweets by some VOA reporters that bring into question their ability to remain neutral – or as neutral as VOA’s own “Best Practices” guidelines say they should be.
Twitter users have trafficked in some vicious innuendo against Pack. Some of these channels include as followers major correspondents and program hosts for MSNBC, CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, all of which aired what amount to hit pieces on Pack since he was confirmed and arrived at USAGM.
VOA’s chief White House correspondent, who was a target of White House criticism at one point and has attracted other criticism for what some observers see as grand-standing social media activities, is a follower of one particular channel that sprang up amid the Pack transition.
USAGM’s new management monitors this feed. Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), responsible for finally pushing the Pack nomination through committee to the Republican-controlled Senate floor – is also a follower.
The Washington Post: A Key Part of USAGM Media Deep State
It has to be noted that the now former director of VOA, Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara had close ties with The Washington Post. Under their watch, VOA began using the slogan “A Free Press Matters”, mirroring The Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness”.
Philosophically, I have no problem with these slogans and like to believe that most Americans believe in the importance of a free press. But this has to be mentioned in a discussion about management of VOA over the past four years to illustrate that close connection.
The Post reported on some major scandals and the endless morale problems at VOA and USAGM, including one memorable article describing the agency as a “perennial bottom feeder” – a reference to USAGM’s ranking at or near the bottom in successive Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS).
But the Post rarely, if ever, runs any commentary or letters to the editor critical of the agency or VOA. The fact that it was general knowledge among Post reporters that someone with Graham family connections was heading VOA can’t but have had a chilling effect on a willingness to dive too deeply into VOA and USAGM affairs.
As for CNN, it (specifically its Reliable Sources program) has generally ignored important finer detail about the longstanding problems at USAGM/VOA that would further educate viewers about an agency they provide their dollars to.
Sure, there were bigger stories to chew on, but CNN never hesitated to provide a platform for various “experts” to rage at Pack and Trump, while ignoring anyone with an alternative view from appearing.
An alternative view would have to acknowledge the avalanche of attacks by anti-Pack forces and media, and at least give Pack a chance – but that was a bridge too far for CNN as well as MSNBC and most other “mainstream” media.
Re-posts Spread Vicious Innuendo, Inaccuracies
There has been significant trickle down of many hysterical headlines that have used words, in describing the management change at USAGM and VOA, such as “purge”, and in one case equating Pack to a “circling” shark preying on independent U.S. government-funded media.
On the Facebook page of PEN-America (which works “to protect free expression in the United States ) could be found a re-post of a Deadline Hollywood story.
The headline: “Michael Pack Says Voice Of America Will Boost Visibility Of Editorials That Reflect Trump Administration Views.”
I will thank PEN-America for supporting my right to observe this: The headline they helped propagate implied that there was something insidious about the fact that VOA editorials – which for decades have reflected “the views of the United States government” (actually exactly what a disclaimer says before and after each editorial) – and overseen by various Republican and Democratic administrations – will now reflect views of the Trump administration. Some may argue that the United States government also includes the U.S. Congress and the Judiciary, but these editorials under all previous administrations covered only the views of whatever administration was in control of the White House.
Editorials are prepared by a policy office within VOA, with links to the State Department (so much for “independence” of the agency). So, under any administration, they reflect the views of that government, including the State Department under that administration.
The decision, under Pack, to place editorials at the top of the VOA home page could well have been something done by previous administrations. It wasn’t, but is now, and like him or not this is the Trump administration — at least until there is a change via the ballot box.
Wait and Check Our Homepage or Here for Part Two
Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his assignment as senior White House correspondent from 2010 to 2014, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent. Views expressed here are his own.