Originally posted on June 29, 2020 and last edited for formatting changes on February 19, 2021.
USAGM Deep State Goes Full Tilt Targeting Pack, Trump
by Dan Robinson
Part Two: Full Tilt
It’s just a fact – not a fake fact, if you observe the full breadth of recent coverage – that mainstream media launched and maintained a fusillade of attacks against Donald Trump regarding USAGM just after he was elected in 2016.
These all had a common theme – that Donald Trump, known for his intensive use of Twitter but not necessarily for any deep knowledge about VOA or USAGM (then the Broadcasting Board of Governors) was supposedly obsessed, even at that early date, with turning the agency into his personal TV network.
In 2017, The Rachel Maddow Show aired a segment that coincided with this first wave of reports in what Trump supporters would call liberal-dominated media, predicting that Trump would move immediately to “take over” VOA.
Maddow breathlessly portrayed the arrival of two Trump administration representatives as some unique event, even though this is what happens in every presidential transition: “landing teams” arrive to pave the way for agencies to be overseen by the new administration.
In a note to TRMS, and to Media Matters which picked up the story, I pointed out inaccuracies. At least one key USAGM/VOA official did the same, noting that there had been no takeover of the front office. But the damage was done – misinformation spread by that report. It’s still up there, in fact – video remains on YouTube.
Such past inaccurate reporting is easy to forget, indeed probably went un-noticed by most Americans who know little about VOA and USAGM. But it needs to be mentioned again because that program is now being cited by various tweeters as the “only one covering” the USAGM/VOA story.
Keep in mind too – many of the stories after Trump’s 2016 victory were prompted by VOA and USAGM officials themselves leaking out to major media.
One memorable quote referred to “senior staffers…already express[ing] reservations about the backgrounds of Trump’s political operatives” (yet another emotion-charged description) as if employees actually have veto powers over the personnel choices of a new agency head, or indeed of a president.
Similar quotes can be found in more recent articles, such as employees are “worried” and “nervous” about the impact on USAGM journalism, or headlines such as “Trump appointee shakes up US broadcasting, raising fears”. Use of the term “purge” has been especially frequent.
REALITY CHECK: government journalists at USAGM (all of whom accept government paychecks every two weeks) are always “worried” by change and “nervous”, as is true in every federal agency, for reasons that have to do with budgets, policy and other issues.
It was that way at VOA when Ronald Reagan appointed his old friend Charles Wick to head the former USIA, that way when George W. Bush was elected, and obviously that way now, with Donald Trump.
Some other recent attacks on Pack: • The Washington Post tacked a headline on a letter to the editor by two retired VOA correspondents that read: “Trumps Lackey at Voice of America Will Turn It Into State Propaganda.” The two authors, who I consider friends, protested to The Post, noting that this headline was not theirs. The Post was forced to change the headline.• Politico published an attack piece on Pack in April 2020 that heaped praise on Amanda Bennett for resisting Donald Trump. It quoted the head of the National Press Club supporting Bennett – it failed to mention that the NPC had feted and presented an award to Bennett at a gala dinner in 2019. A co-author I contacted claimed ignorance of this and dismissed it as “not particularly surprising or noteworthy.”• A piece on VOX, by Alex Ward, contained the headline: “The head of US broadcasting is leaning toward pro-Trump propaganda. Biden would fire him.” A sub-headline: “Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign exclusively told Vox he plans to fire. . . . Michael Pack if Biden becomes president.” The numerous deceptive parts of this piece are enough for a separate article. Did the author ask Biden if as president he would eliminate VOA editorials? This is not mentioned. Would Biden NOT want the “views” of his potential future government given the prominence on VOA that Michael Pack decided to give Trump administration policies? What about Biden’s long history as one of the backers of USAGM (Biden former chief of staff Ted Kaufman got a position on the former Broadcasting Board of Governors)? What is Biden’s record on the numerous examples of mismanagement at the agency? Important questions readers deserve to have asked, and discussed.
Among anti-Pack mainstream media reports, and those seeking to portray Bennett and her deputy as some resistance team (keep in mind, both were drawing significant salaries from the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT) only Politico disclosed that Bennett is married to Donald Graham. So, Politico gets some credit for that.
NPR deserves credit for disclosing, in its coverage of Trump/White House criticism of VOA, that NPR is now headed by the former USAGM CEO, John Lansing who gave up his relatively paltry USAGM salary for a high six-figure salary at NPR.
Yet, while it disclosed Lansing’s connections with USAGM, another NPR report included this: “Lansing . . . took over a troubled organization beset by infighting and bureaucratic inefficiency. He is credited with restoring morale, in part by naming a noted journalist as head of the Voice of America: Amanda Bennett . . .”
No mention was made of the numerous scandals that played out under their watch – among them the discovery of anti-semitic content (targeting George Soros) at Radio/TV Marti for Cuba, VOA Nigeria language reporters accepting bribes, and repeated instances of political bias and partisanship.
Full disclosure should be standard practice for any media reporting about VOA and USAGM. Sadly this has not been the case.
Major media also prefer to portray VOA and USAGM as taxpayer versions of CNN and MSNBC, carrying out God’s work in promoting the 1st Amendment with major “bang for the buck” for taxpayers.
What they ignore is that VOA is now more enmeshed more than ever with, and is a tool of, U.S. national security policy. In one of the sharpest ironies, this is another outcome of the very defense bill signed by Barack Obama that allowed Michael Pack to make the changes in USAGM management that he made in his first days with the agency.
This deserves to be repeated: the realities of the government-run and funded war against foreign disinformation – that includes such entities as the Global Engagement Center at State Department – are a main reason USAGM still exists (though, in my view, not sufficient to retain the agency at its current size, or perhaps at all).
As the USAGM/BBG Watch columnist observed recently:
“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.”
Increasing Taxpayer Skepticism About USAGM
Taxpayers are increasingly questioning the expense, especially given the scandals and examples of mismanagement that have played out at USAGM (too numerous to list here but again available at USAGM/BBG Watch).
Predictably, most of the public comments that appear on major media articles take an anti-Pack and anti-Trump line. Which is why it’s always useful to search through the fog to locate what the “other” side thinks about the agency. Here’s a sampling:
“These agencies are useless anyway. Close them and put the 637 million
dollars into something else.” [NOTE: actual USAGM annual spending has been much higher over the years, near and over $800 million]
“How about we stop calling the VOA and RFE “independent” of the
government? If there ever existed an American version of Pravda Radio
before Fox News, it’s those two. They have been, at various times,
controlled by the CIA and by the State Department, spewing American
propaganda at Cuba, Central and South America, Eastern Europe, Russia,
and pretty much anywhere their signal reaches. The notion that they have
EVER been “independent” is utterly absurd.”
“The fact that a government appointed official can make such sweeping
personnel changes in multiple organizations kind of belies the notion
that they’re independent, doesn’t it?”
New guy creates or brings in his own team. Were it not for the TDS, this
story would be on the same place as ‘dog bites man.’ If a Biden
administration comes in, will we be seeing stories of Republican
legislators’ criticisms of agency reshuffling? Answer: not a chance.
“Mr. President. Thank you for Michael Pack. He has removed the biased
political element of the DNC talking points from @USAGMgov. It’s time to
show the real voices of AMERICA and regain the confidence lost during
the dominant Democratic-controlled bias regime.”
“VOA became irrelevant two generations ago with the end of the Cold War,
and obsolete with the Internet. It is a revolving door bloated with
media industry second raters and contractors supplied by beltway
bandits. First Amendment? It’s part of the Executive Branch, kids. Or
did you believe that the official U.S. Government news outlet was some
sort of Frank Capra beacon of light in 2020?”
“If you [VOA] want autonomy, then give up all the government money you
are taking. You have to choose which master to serve.”
“What has happened to non-partisanship, one of the fundamental tenets of true journalism? I can’t believe how some posing as journalists have tarnished our legacy. Truly disgusting. Strong, no-nonsense, leadership would preclude this sort of travesty from occurring. That sort of thing would never have happened in our day.”
Wow, think of that! There are actually people with other viewpoints. My apologies to those who will accuse me of cherry-picking – it was deliberate because there are plenty of vicious tweets and posts out there calling Pack, and Trump, Nazis and fascists who allegedly aim to bring about a return of the Third Reich or usher in a fourth.
Those hundreds (it’s probably thousands by now) of such comments reflect the toxicity of the current political climate in this country, and underscore again, the existence and dominance of the deep state that helps keep this agency alive, year after year.
A Few Media Pieces Reflect “Other” Side
A few articles deserve to be mentioned as examples of authors that attempted to present other views in this debate.
At Real Clear Politics, Susan Crabtree produced an excellent piece about the other controversy inside the bigger USAGM story, involving the Open Technology Fund.
Byron York of The Washington Examiner (who disclosed his personal friendship with Pack) provided the new agency CEO with his first interview. York also took note of the vicious innuendo slung at Pack, suggesting that some of it bordered on slander (I agree).
Perhaps the best points were in The American Conservative. There, Arthur Bloom said: “By any objective measure a shake-up at USAGM is fully justified, for years it has lingered at the bottom of the lists of federal agencies in terms of employee satisfaction. VOA had to fire half the staff of one of its Africa broadcasters for accepting bribes two years ago.”
And this: “Even if you believe that a government-funded broadcaster could, through the magic of some bureaucratic or legal fiction, exercise meaningful editorial independence, the lack thereof is a fact: VOA’s editorials are cleared by the State Department. If this shake-up portends an end to that fiction, that is a good thing.”
Noting that one of Amanda Bennett’s parting statements emphasized the importance of the “firewall” supposedly shielding USAGM journalists from political interference, Bloom said: “Woe betide Pack if after being confirmed by the Senate he dares to exercise control over an institution chartered and funded by Congress.”
All of these authors immediately became targets of a hailstorm of condemnation on social media, with critics questioning their motives and reporting skills. The ratio of major media hit pieces compared with the few reflecting this “other” side, no less important in the debate, was lopsided to say the least.
Returning to Politico, there was one bright spot in what was generally another anti-Pack piece. Jack Shafer, Politico‘s senior media writer had the audacity to go where few others have gone before, saying:
“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. . .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 requires 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 the only news alternative in so many authoritarian countries. After all, the BBC World Service still broadcasts in 40 languages around the world. Trump’s takeover only makes overt what has been covert for so long. Let’s pull the plug on VOA.”
USAGM Deep State Part Of Atmosphere of Media Polarization
There’s a lot not to like, to say the least, about Donald Trump’s attitudes toward what he and others in his administration consider to be opposition media. As I said, I won’t be voting for him.
But any news organization/media outlet that fails to report the full story, especially with important disclosures about conflicts, is not doing its job and deserves the same level of scrutiny they, or those they allow to use their platforms, seek to apply to Donald Trump and Michael Pack.
This country is, to use the over-used term, highly “polarized” regarding Donald Trump. We have a similarly polarized media atmosphere in which “resistance journalism” has been on the rise for years.
Major blame for this must be laid at the door of FOX. But one could also observe it in how networks (other than FOX and C-SPAN) began cutting away from White House COVID-19 briefings because they didn’t have confidence that Americans had the intelligence to assess on their own what they were seeing and hearing from Trump and others.
We may never know if Trump, before he was elected or just after, really thought he needed USAGM/VOA as his personal network. Perhaps some new book by Woodward or Anonymous will reveal that Steve Bannon stood over Trump’s bed chanting “take over VOA, take over VOA . . .”
But one thing is clear – the examples of bias in story after story by major media, beginning
in 2016 and continuing now, show that on the subject of USAGM/VOA most if not all have pursued an anti-Trump agenda. On this topic, below their slogans like “Democracy Dies in Darkness” they should put “Subsidiary of the USAGM Deep State.”
There really was little chance that a Michael Pack, or any Trump nominee short of a reincarnation of Edward Murrow, would ever be given benefit of the doubt, as say a Charles Wick was for President Reagan.
So, thanks for sticking with me . . .and back to the situation at 330 Independence Avenue, S.W. where amid the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 crisis, from all reports there is now a new level of fear-and-loathing.
That’s where something else is playing out – there’s been an amazing sudden response by VOA managers after Michael Pack’s arrival, in reaction to the question of allegations of bias and lack of balance in VOA content.
Part Three of this commentary will deal with that complicated and difficult issue. Here’s a preview quote:
“[There were group meetings at VOA] in recent years [in which people were implored] not to show bias in their social media posts . . but the newsroom crowd was clearly hostile to that idea…[warnings] about avoiding bias and making sure stories are balanced are not [taken seriously] by newsroom staff because there is no enforcement by editors who basically are in cahoots with newsroom writers in promoting anti-Trump narratives.”
READ PART ONE
Wait and Check Our Homepage or Here for Part Three
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.
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