USAGM Watch Commentary
VOA’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, posted what critics described as an inaccurate tweet regarding a White House Halloween event, leading to a wave of online anti-Trump criticisms asserting that President Trump had endangered children’s lives, as well as criticism of the VOA reporter for what some critics described as “fake news.”
The Voice of America is a tax-funded international media outlet within the $800 million U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Herman is employed by the federal government as a journalist and is required to follow the VOA Charter, the 1976 U.S. law which mandates that “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”
His October 25th tweet stated that POTUS had handed out candy to schoolchildren in advance of Halloween. The post was later taken down after a press inquiry about it was sent by BBG-USAGM Watch to the acting director of Voice of America, Elez Biberaj, though it’s not known if Biberaj directly requested the deletion.
About 12 hours before the deletion, Real Clear Politics reporter, Susan Crabtree, who was on pool duty at the White House, responded in a separate tweet to Herman that Trump had not personally handed out candy to kids, something that would have been seen as highly-risky due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also noted that Herman’s tweet contained a Reuters news agency photo from the White House Halloween event in 2019 that “looks purposefully dark + foreboding…” and was not among photos from Sunday’s pool reporting about Halloween event.
For the many hours the original tweet was up, it sparked a wave of comments from anti-Trump Twitter users, including ones comparing Trump to Frankenstein, and asserting he was endangering children at the White House event.
Most of the comments appeared to be from the United States and were highly partisan. The U.S. Congress wants VOA to target only audiences abroad, but internet and social media make VOA programming available to Americans and it may influence their political choices. Noting the lead of Herman’s tweet, one commenter accused Trump of “child abuse.”
One Twitter user said: “Children shouldn’t be anywhere near Trump.”
Soon after the deletion, Herman issued an apology, directed to Crabtree and to @White House saying he had “screwed up” and while searching Reuters archives had chosen the year-old photo. Crabtree’s original criticism of the VOA reporter’s mistake had been re-tweeted, including by conservative radio talk show person personality Hugh Hewitt.
Shortly before it was deleted, Herman’s tweet was showing 423 “Likes, 247 “Quote Tweets” and 108 “Retweets.”
In his apology Herman made no reference to his description in the deleted tweet of Trump handing out candy to children. Deleting the original post also deleted the anti-Trump criticisms it generated, along with criticisms of Herman by pro-Trump Twitter users. Even though Herman is a U.S. federal government employee, U.S. taxpayers may no longer see his tweet and the comments it generated.
BBG-USAGM Watch provides a sampling of these comments below:
“He didn’t hand out candy though, and your details don’t state that he did – so why the
old picture and lie?”
“This is from 2019”
“They handed out candy this year. Not how I heard it. Do you stand by this statement?”
“He wasn’t handing out candy this year. Why must you lie and mislead. The candy was
pre-packaged and on tables for those who wanted to take it.”
“Outright liar. Were you there? If you were you would know POTUS did NOT “hand out candy” People like you is why we hate the media.”
“I watched it and he didn’t hand out candy. Just greeted people.”
“Steve Herman is promoting LIES….FAKE NEWS. No candy was handed out by POTUS or FLOTUS. Apologize.”
BBG-USAGM Watch also reached out to the White House press office seeking to determine if they were aware of the tweet and whether they had raised the issue with the VOA reporter, VOA management, or the White House Correspondents Association. No response was received.
In 2017, Steve Herman blocked American journalists working as volunteers for BBG – USAGM Watch from following his VOA work-related Twitter page after they criticized him for tweeting unconfirmed news claims, some of which turned out to be false.
An e-mail from Bridget Ann Serchak, Director of Public Relations, Voice of America, U.S. Agency for Global Media (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors), dated December 27, 2017, stated that the VOA management determined that Herman’s Twitter account is a personal account rather than an official VOA account. The e-mail said that after the issue was discussed with the reporter, he “has since lifted the blocks from his account.”
Thank you for your email regarding the VOA White House bureau chief’s Twitter account. We have determined that Twitter account is a personal account rather than an official VOA account. VOA journalists are currently permitted to use personal social media accounts to share their official work and content from other accounts when doing so benefits the agency’s mission. Such personal accounts, and the content they contain, are not directly subject to agency oversight or control since they are not government property. Nevertheless, employees are expected to manage any personal account associated with official agency business in a professional manner consistent with general standards and practices applicable to journalists and federal employees, including VOA’s best practices guide.
VOA was not aware that anyone had been blocked from any personal social media accounts. After you brought the issue to VOA management’s attention, it was discussed with the reporter who has since lifted the blocks from his account. We hope this resolves your concerns on this matter.
National Public Radio reported that an extensive report, compiled by officials under USAGM CEO Michael Pack, alleged that Herman had violated VOA’s best practices guidelines with posts that were unfair to Trump.
Steve Herman was then mentioned by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who announced legislation to protect journalists from political targeting. A press release on Senator Murphy’s website said that “This legislation comes after reports that President Trump’s political appointees at the United States Global Agency for Media (USAGM) launched a politically-motivated investigation into Voice of America’s White House Reporter Steve Herman.”
After it was revealed that he was being investigated by two political appointees of VOA’s parent agency, Herman was added to a whistleblower complaint by the Government Accountability Project. Journalistic organizations have issued statements supporting him.
Herman was among signatories of a letter initially signed by 14 of the broadcaster’s journalists, most of them in the VOA central English newsroom and a few correspondents, protesting actions taken by Michael Pack that Pack said were necessary to address potential national security threats from years of violations allowed by the agency regarding background investigations for employees.
Pack’s decision to not renew J-1 visas for dozens of VOA foreign staff members, which is related to his statements about security issues, has drawn intense criticism. But supporters of Pack assert he has valid concerns about security issues which were the subject of Office of Personnel Management (OPM and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) investigations over a period of 10 years, and about political bias appearing in reporting and social media posts by VOA staff.
Since Pack arrived at USAGM, investigations were launched into a video used by VOA’s Urdu Service (for Pakistan but also viewable online by Urdu speakers in the United States who may be U.S. citizens and voters) that was seen to be favorable to former Vice President Joe Biden, and another incident in which a TV segment about Jill Biden was reportedly introduced describing her as “future first lady” and which remained online for more than two weeks on VOA’s French to Africa language service. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, the VOA Ukrainian Service added Ukrainian subtitles and VOA logo to a video, in which Hollywood actor Robert De Niro called Trump “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid” and condoned physical violence against him. After outside protests to USAGM and VOA management, the 2016 anti-Trump video and the 2020 pro-Biden video were removed. Critics said that both videos violated the VOA Charter and that the unchallenged and unbalanced condoning of physical violence against a U.S. politician contained in the video posted online in 2016 by the Ukrainian Service under the previous agency and Voice of America senior management was unprecedented in VOA’s history. The video incidents in the VOA Ukrainian and Urdu services were not related to any activities by the VOA chief White House correspondent who files reports and posts on social media in English.
On October 6, the U.S. Agency for Global Media released a statement from an agency spokesman denouncing “substandard journalism within federal news networks.” At the same time, the agency’s management reposted policies governing journalists’ conflicts of interest and use of social media.
On October 26, USAGM CEO Michael Pack announced that he was “rescinding a so-called ‘firewall rule'” issued by the former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in its final hours of existence. According to Pack, the BBG firewall rule would prevent him from enforcing “consequences for violations of the agency’s legally binding charter, which, for instance, prohibits biased reporting.”
The Firewall Repeal Notice also published on October 26 by USAGM says that “some argue that the Regulation bars the CEO from promulgating policies governing employee conduct, such as the existing USAGM Social Media Policy, USAGM, V-A BAM 530-Social Media Policy (July 8, 2019). See, e.g., Elliot Engel, Engel Statement on USAGM Officials Breaching the “Firewall” and Targeting VOA Journalist (Oct. 5, 2020).” See: Engel Statement on USAGM Officials Breaching the “Firewall” and Targeting VOA Journalist.
The Firewall Repeal Notice was not related to the Halloween tweet by the VOA chief White House correspondent and was drafted earlier, but the agency argued that the “firewall rule” would prevent regulating all VOA reporters’ use of social media.
But this creates an unworkable situation because the CEO is required to “ensure” adherence to broadcasting standards and to “direct” and “supervise” all broadcasting activities. 22 U.S.C.
§ 6204(a)(1), (3). Personal social media posts by journalists can affect their “[f]airness, objectivity & balance” (VOA Best Practices Guide, at 8–9 (June 2020)) which in turn are components of “the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.” 22 U.S.C. § 6202(a)(5); see also The New York Times, Social Media Policy (Oct. 13, 2017). Such posts can undermine all USAGM Networks and accordingly justify heightened governmental restrictions on reporters’ conduct. See Navab- Safvavi v. Glassman, 637 F.3d 311, 317 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (regulating private speech of VOA journalists necessary to achieve particularly strong governmental interest in presenting a clear message on United States foreign policy).