OPINION

Analyzing US Government International Media

United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM)

Arrivals and Departures

By The Federalist

After languishing in the nomination process equivalent of Purgatory for about three years, Michael Pack was confirmed by the Senate on June 4, 2020. It was a contentious process with Democrat Senator Robert Menendez doing everything he could to deny Pack approval and appointment. 

Largely by the Left-leaning press, much has been made of Pack’s nomination being part of an attempt by President Trump to recast the agency as a voice for administration propaganda. A good example of this narrative is an article by journalist and historian Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. She concluded without offering any proof that “The Voice of America Will Sound Like Trump,” while ignoring existing evidence that VOA during the Obama Administration and under his political appointees during more than three years of Trump’s presidency has been the voice of the extreme Left-wing of the Democratic Party largely through anti-Trump propagandists in the VOA English Newsroom, and among some journalists in a few but thankfully not all VOA foreign language services.

The fact that the political Left has had control over the Voice of America for about ten years and inserted its propaganda in violation of the VOA Charter seems to have totally escaped Anne Applebaum’s attention. We certainly hope that Trump will not try to do the same to benefit the political Right but will instead order improving the management of the dysfunctional agency and insist on the Voice of America’s adherence to the VOA Charter. That alone will bring balance to VOA programming, which is all that is needed. Trump does not need VOA for his political propaganda. He has his own much more effective channels to get out his message. VOA represents all of America, but Anne Applebaum did not notice that it has not done that under the just-replaced VOA’s leaders.

It is important to note that in addition to violations of the VOA Charter, the United States Agency for Global Media has long been described as dysfunctional and defunct. Anne Applebaum and other Left-leaning journalists and pundits studiously avoid any reference to this and the fact that it was so described by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat. The agency was bad then. It is worse now. 

Applebaum even implies that the Trump Administration and Michael Pack might be soft on China. It is a ludicrous, almost certainly false message. The truth is that the Obama Administration era appointees and USAGM and the Voice of America were exceedingly soft on China (Radio Free Asia was not and Applebaum gives RFA praise it deserves) and even fired some strongly anti-communist VOA Mandarin Service journalists under the pretext that they did not give Chinese communist officials a sufficient opportunity to respond to accusations from a Chinese anti-regime whistleblower. We fully expect Mr. Pack to undo this move against VOA Mandarin Service journalists by former VOA Director Amanda Bennett.

Anne Applebaum, in addition to getting some facts wrong, also failed to check whether VOA was following the VOA Charter under Obama era appointees in reporting on U.S. politics. The fact is that VOA was not following its Charter in a truly unprecedented way, as we can see in this infamous VOA-transformed and re-posted 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign video.

The agency has also acquired and maintained a reputation for being one of the worst agencies in the Federal Government through administrations Democrat and Republican alike. There have been periodic examinations of the agency and attempts at reform, but these have gone largely nowhere. Frankly, part of the reason has been that the agency was not worth the time or the expenditure of political capital. In today’s IT-saturated environment, there are many news and information alternatives, both inside and outside of government making it easy to ignore this wayward agency except when it suits a sometimes-hysterical narrative.

Surprisingly in our current overheated political atmosphere, the administration has managed to zero in on the agency and its (many) faults. Not the least of which is the administration’s highly critical view of the agency’s reporting  regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the view that the agency, particularly the Voice of America had become a blind recycler of propaganda coming from the People’s Republic of China regarding its experiences with the pandemic at the point of origin. Amanda Bennett said that there was no Chinese or other propaganda in VOA programs. Anne Applebaum believed her and failed to do her own checking.

The administration’s view, publicly articulated by Trump, seemed to force movement on the Pack nomination.

Left-leaning US media, private and the 100% taxpayer-funded VOA, with their profound anti-Trump partisan agenda, have been on the attack since Pack was first nominated. His initial moves to recast the agency’s cadre of appointed officials has enflamed the Left even further. They were joined in their outrage by Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who seemed to suggest that Pack was positioning for a wholesale house cleaning of agency officials, something we see as justified given the agency’s reputation.

Much if not all of this has been reported by BBGWatch in great detail. Reading of these articles is helpful and instructive as to the campaign the political Left is waging against Pack as part of the larger Trump hate. We will not repeat what has already been written but to offer our own assessment of where things have been, where they are now and where they may likely go as things move forward.

On June 17, 2020 Mr. Pack released an email to the U-SAG-M (as we call USAGM) staff. The email provided a lengthy recitation of Mr. Pack’s resume. To some, it appeared that this was an effort to validate his credentials to lead the agency. What effect that will have on the workplace population remains to be seen, particularly with the agency’s own internal anti-Trump biases.

Pack moved expeditiously to make changes, particularly to the boards which are connected to the various entities under the USAGM umbrella. Not surprisingly, this stirred up a hornet’s nest. It is somewhat unclear what will follow these initial moves. However, what is very evident, is that change is clearly on Pack’s agenda.

And he has the legal authority to make these changes given to him in a bipartisan legislation signed by President Obama.

On Thursday, June 18 the U-SAG-M press office issued a press release. It represents a radical departure from the norm that has been part of the mantra we would call “the agency that can do no wrong.” In part, the press release says,

“In 2013, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed a House

Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the agency “is practically

defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the

world.” Following this and similar pleas, a bipartisan bill was proposed

and approved by Congress envisioning a completely new management

structure for the agency. Three years later, President Obama signed that

very bill that consolidated the board into a single chief executive, and

explained that the reform “streamlines… operations and reduces

inefficiencies.”

“Every action I carried out was – and every action I will carry out will

be – geared toward rebuilding the USAGM’s reputation, boosting morale,

and improving content,” said Pack. “I made a solemn promise to Congress,

to the President, and the American people to execute this plan. Indeed,

I am not doing it unilaterally. To the contrary, this plan is wholly

pursuant to the bipartisan language that was developed and approved by

Congress and the previous administration, both of which readily

recognized that the agency had grown obsolete and ineffective

implementing its statutory mission.”

Well, there you have it:

“…the agency had grown obsolete and ineffective in implementing its statutory mission.”

And that is where the agency has been for the better part of the 21st century, accelerating like a runaway train under successive administrations through the period.

Pack has made one important move: he has brought in his own select senior staff. It’s important because the embedded bureaucracy of this agency is not his friend. They have demonstrated a predilection for character assassination and innuendo directed against political appointees they don’t like. They are poised to undermine his management of the agency at every turn and opportunity.

One of the people Pack has brought in has had a prior tour through the agency. Some years ago, Andre Mendes was the agency’s Chief Information Officer.  At one time, Mendes was alleged to have attempted to orchestrate a one-man management “coup” at the agency. The idea was ludicrous on its face. Mendes also did not endear himself to the bureaucracy. He had enemies, some of whom are likely still inside the agency. No doubt they are sharpening their bureaucratic knives and waiting for the moment to go after him and probably in a very public way.

But now he’s back!

Departures

On Monday, June 15, 2020 Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara tendered their resignations as VOA director and deputy-director respectively.

There isn’t anything good we can say about their time in the agency. When talking with some of the current employees, the prevailing sentiment is they were not well-liked and that they made their own contribution to an already hostile work environment before their arrival.

When appointed as VOA director, Bennett wasted no time embarrassing herself by referencing the agency’s bureaucracy as “a fantastic management team.” Such a statement was outrageous when considering the agency’s reputation as one of if not the worst agency in the Federal Government.

It was all downhill from there. On steroids.

To all appearances Bennett fit neatly into the strategic view of the American political Left while the VOA Charter calls for balance.

Bennett was an Obama era appointment and maintained an Obama-era presence during much of the Trump presidency. Figuratively, she symbolized the so-called “resistance” to the Trump administration. It did not matter how badly the agency fared with scandal after scandal rolling through it. The priority was to keep that foothold.

And Bennett hung on tenaciously as a representative of the “Washington Insider Network” carrying its seal of approval. Derisively, some referred to her as the presumed “VOA director forever.” It was surprising that she left the post somewhat meekly, making the usual oversized claims of agency successes where none really existed.

But the real objective here was holding onto political power. That was the top priority. If anything, the agency’s mission was subordinate to the political ends. Should Pack have failed Senate confirmation, Bennett would still be up on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building perhaps holding out until the results of the November general election were known and extending her “VOA director forever” tour.

But now Bennett, Sugawara and a few others are out. What comes next remains the big question and no doubt all the while under a steady, withering attack from The Washington Post, The New York Times and similarly politically disposed media assets.

And speaking of The Washington Post

On June 18, readers of the Post’s Letters to the Editor were treated to a letter penned by two former VOA English journalists: David Borgida and Jim Malone. Initially, Washington Post editors conveniently gave the letter the heading “Trump’s Lackey at Voice of America Will Turn it into State Propaganda.” The Post later changed the heading.

Here, Borgida and Malone took the oft-repeated theme of doom and gloom for the agency, particularly as connected to Trump’s very harsh and public criticism of VOA related to its reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Borgida and Malone found the criticism disturbing and troubling. The question for them is why would criticism of Chinese propaganda in VOA programs be disturbing and troubling if it is true. They obviously don’t think it’s true. They obviously have not looked lately at VOA programs very carefully.

Some things to consider:

The agency has never had an effective oversight and review process regarding its news content. At best, it is hit and miss. Indeed, some would argue that the agency pays lip service to the process, but not the substance.

The agency has gotten sloppy with content it posts to its English website. In this instance, the trigger was a reposting of a story from a third-party news service but the VOA Mandarin Service also posted several lengthy videos of Chinese regime propagandists without any attached rebuttals. The days when the agency paid more attention to sourcing have been weakened over the years.

To an overarching point:

Over its history, and particularly in the 21st century, an attitude has seeped into the VOA newsroom that the agency can do no wrong.

This is coupled with an even more insidious element. The VOA claims that it is an “independent news organization.” That is a bald-faced lie. The agency is part of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government which means it falls under office of the President of the United States. It is funded through the appropriation and authorization process in Congress. In the double-speak of the agency, “independent” equates with zero accountability. That contributes to the creeping arrogance of VOA newsroom staff. Even before Trump came to the presidency, agency employees balked at any oversight of its performance and operations. In one instance, a former colleague of Borgida and Malone penned an editorial in The Los Angeles Times titled “Back Off Congress,” a clear display of the arrogance and defiance within the VOA newsroom in the face of necessary reforms being attempted in the Congress.

With the arrival of Trump, the arrogance and defiance went into overdrive. Thus, one would see depictions of Trump as the male genitals or with the Nazi swastika superimposed on his image. Worse, newsroom staff brutally lampooned Trump and his family in what used to be its annual “VOA Follies” holiday party. This may have been a first with these employees going after wives and children of president-elect or as president. And it certainly would have been looked upon in horror if similar treatment had been afforded to Barack Obama.

Under Amanda Bennett’s watch, things devolved further as the newsroom readily embraced the idea of “resistance.” It had ready support from the so-called mainstream media ready to raise the specter of the agency as Trump propaganda when in fact the agency’s program and online content might be argued were a platform for anti-Trump propaganda.

Borgida and Malone also raise the VOA Charter to bolster their concerns.

In truth, the VOA newsroom has long regarded the Charter as one-dimensional: namely, Part 1 which deals with news programming. The newsroom has long chafed at Part 3 of the Charter which requires, “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”

In our view, the newsroom has sought supremacy over the other parts of the Charter when in fact the components are all equal requirements of the agency’s mission.

In short, Michael Pack has his work cut out for him. He has to move the agency from 20 years of hard Leftward drift and back toward the center and balance. Any effort in that direction will be viewed as extreme by the hardcore anti-Trump propagandists in the VOA newsroom, the Left-leaning media and the agency bureaucracy who want to see Pack gone as soon as possible in order to resume business as usual.

By the way…

When the agency throws around the sentiment that it is an “independent news organization,” the counter argument would be that if it wants true independence, it should be cut loose of its government funding completely and cast adrift among the myriad other news organizations competing for audience and revenue.

Question: How long do you think VOA as an “independent news organization” would last?

Answer: Gone in a heartbeat.

The Federalist

June 2020

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