USAGM Watch Commentary
Originally published on May 14, 2020 and last edited on February 19, 2021.
When it comes to history, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is easily winning the propaganda war with the Voice of America (VOA) English news service, as are China’s communist leaders who have pressured VOA into broadcasting propaganda statements of their officials in VOA Mandarin programs. All Voice of America services are still using China’s falsified COVID-19 data without any disclaimers.
Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett and her supporters, including her husband Don Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post and millionaire whose company is reported to be doing business in China, say she is a fine journalist. The Washington Post under Jeff Bezos’ ownership, The New York Times, and PEN America, where someone named Amanda Bennett is listed as a patron, also say that recent White House accusations against VOA are not true. But evidence of foreign propaganda from Russia, Iran and China infecting VOA programs, going back to 2016 when Bennett was appointed to her position during the Obama administration, has been presented repeatedly on our watchdog website run by volunteers recruited from among former VOA journalists and who know what propaganda is and what isn’t.
Not too long ago, PEN America was asking in 2017 for a “thorough, independent investigation” into suspension of VOA Mandarin Service journalists who had a dispute with Bennett over her decision to cut short a live interview with a Chinese whistleblower shortly after communist officials in Beijing made threats against VOA.
At the time Bennett claimed that she was not acting under any pressure and that her only concern was the quality of VOA journalism. However, Chinese and Iranian immigrants and political refugees have posted thousands of comments on social media highly critical of Bennett’s decisions and her management of the Voice of America.
Such criticism from immigrant communities has not been widely reported and Bennett appears to have many friends in Washington. Instead of defending Chinese dissident writers and journalists, including a former political prisoner in China and political refugees disciplined and in some cases fired following their dispute with the VOA director, PEN America is now defending Amanda Bennett. PEN America says that “White House Denigration of VOA [Is] Unfounded” and is raising concerns over nomination of Michael Pack to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
The agency oversees all the U.S. government’s international media entities, including the Voice of America. Pack denies that he would allow pro-administration propaganda into VOA programs if his nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
PEN America, The Washington Post and The New York Times are making a big deal out of these concerns, but are not reporting that under Bennett’s watch the Voice of America has already become, in a violation of the VOA Charter, a highly partisan and biased state-funded media outlet that may be already influencing U.S. voters. Pack’s job would be to restore the VOA Charter, to protect VOA from Chinese, Iranian and Russian propaganda, and to keep it out of domestic politics.
Bennett insists, despite evidence to the contrary, that there is no Chinese regime propaganda or any anti-conservative partisan bias in VOA programs. American reporter Susan Crabtree wrote in a May 13 article for RealClearPolitics.com that new leadership at the USAGM is long overdue and required to protect the tax-funded media organization from Chinese, Russian and Iranian propaganda.
With Chinese media censorship and misinformation on stark display during the coronavirus pandemic, key lawmakers and administration officials say new leadership at the USAGM is long overdue. Michael Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker and former head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, they argue, has the background and commitment to break through the agency’s bureaucratic gridlock and shift resources to confront the media manipulation coming out of China, Russia, Iran and other authoritarian regimes.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch scheduled a Thursday vote by his panel on Pack’s confirmation. [The committee meeting was postponed.] If approved by the committee, Pack’s nomination will go for a vote to the full Senate.
SEE: WH to Senate: Act on Trump’s Choice for Global Media Agency. By Susan Crabtree, RealClearPolitics.com, May13, 2020.
It is not just Chinese propaganda which gets picked up and repeated often without any challenge by VOA. Under powerful influence of constantly reinforced Russian narratives, VOA reporters and editors also often focus on topics Putin wants to promote while ignoring those he wants ignored. Russia’s ex-KGB leader has been in control of the World War II history propaganda narrative for years, and this year’s 75th anniversary of the end of the last century’s global war in Europe was no exception in VOA’s English-language programs.
By setting the World War II historical narrative with their aggressive influencing campaign through social media, Russian propagandists once again have managed to dupe the unsuspecting Voice of America English news service into limiting the range of its reporting and even ignoring official U.S. government statements that could help to counter Putin’s historical lies. Instead of pointing out similarities between Soviet and Russian disinformation, VOA reporters were asking questions that Putin would want them to ask, such as “Which Country Was Instrumental in Winning World War II?.”
In other reports, such as “75 Years After Allied Victory, Nations’ Priorities Change,” they were making simplistic comparisons between some past and current events but not the most relevant ones.
Another VOA News report, “At UN, Reflections on World War II, COVID Challenge,” omitted criticism of President Putin, including comparisons between World War II and Russia’s aggressive actions against Georgia and Ukraine, while highlighting criticism of the United States and criticism of some of America’s NATO allies.
President Putin, however, scored the greatest propaganda victory when the Voice of America English news service failed to report last week on two important official statements released by the U.S. State Department in connection with the end of World War II anniversary.
No matter what the answer is to the question who contributed more to the defeat of Nazi Germany–if VOA said it was not Russia or even if VOA said it was Russia–just asking this now historically mostly irrelevant question worked in Putin’s favor. In fact, if VOA tired to suggest that Russia may not have been most instrumental in winning World War II, such an argument coming from the United States is exactly what Putin’s propagandists hope for to boost their propaganda lie that Americans have been ungrateful.
Putin wants international public debate to focus on minor issues with little current significance rather than the big issues, such as the Soviet responsibility for the outbreak of World War II through Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, the imposition of pro-Moscow communist dictatorships on countries of East-Central Europe after the war, and ongoing Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine which closely follows the pattern of past Soviet behavior.
We could not find a single VOA English news report last week that made a connection between what Stalin did to Russia’s neighbors during and after World War II and what Putin is doing in Ukraine and Georgia right now.
Such comparisons were made last week by some NATO diplomats, but VOA English newsroom failed to report on them. This must have made Russian propagandists extremely happy.
Putin also likes nothing better than when American journalists start to interpret history through U.S. partisan politics of today. If VOA suggests that the United States is now less interested in working through some international institutions than before Donald Trump’s presidency, which happens to be true–but if at the same time VOA fails to point out current weaknesses of these institutions and the growth of China’s influence within them, which was not the case when the U.S. government helped to establish them right after World War II–again such simplistic comparisons, mixing history with current politics, work to the advantage of both Russian and Chinese propaganda.
The questions that the Voice of America in the $800 million (annual) U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) should have been asking last week in connection with the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II were the ones Putin absolutely does not want to be raised. The most important question that VOA could have asked was “When Did the World War II End?” Did it end in 1945, or in 1990 when most of East-Central Europe was freed from communism and Soviet domination and oppression?
While VOA English news service failed to ask this key question or even to hint at it in any significant way, it was clearly answered in two separate statements issued by the U.S. State Department last week. It is somewhat ironic that U.S. diplomats have shown better knowledge and appreciation of history and better news judgement in issuing their official statements than some of the Voice of America journalists have shown in their recent news reports.
One of the statements was from the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the other a multilateral statement by Pompeo and Foreign Ministers of several East-Central European NATO allies: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
Western experts who study Russian propaganda know that Russian President Vladimir Putin has weaponized history, especially World War II history, to confuse, divide and influence public opinion in Russia and abroad. The U.S. State Department and Secretary Mike Pompeo deserve praise for their recent public diplomacy efforts to counter such misinterpretations of history. Unfortunately, VOA’s worldwide English news service, and some of VOA’s foreign language services, kept repeating last week Russian and also Chinese propaganda narratives while ignoring or minimizing coverage of such U.S. policy statements.
What we see at the Voice of America are not only violations of the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law, but a much more serious national security problem. Several VOA News (VOA English news service) reports last week had almost nothing but the Russian take on WWII history. Some of their news reports on the WWII anniversary also included on the sidebar the VOA tables of COVID-19 data with official Chinese government figures without any disclaimers or warnings that China’s coronavirus statistics are believed to be falsified.
In a propaganda victory for Putin, a Voice of America news report on the U.N. Security Council videoconference meeting to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, which was attended by over 40 foreign ministers and moderated by the Foreign Minister of Estonia Urmas Reinsalu, failed to mention any of several statements noting that because of Soviet actions, the end of the war did not bring freedom to Eastern and Central Europe.
A Voice of America news report mentioned that the U.N. Security Council videoconference on the anniversary of the end of World war II was organized as a virtual meeting of more than 80 nations, including nearly 50 foreign ministers, but VOA did not report anything about what the meeting’s moderator, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, said to the panel of foreign ministers.
In his statement, Reinsalu, in a clear reference to Russia, condemned attempts at manipulating history.
We appreciate the historic role of the allied forces and their sacrifices in defeating Nazism and putting an end to the Holocaust. At the same time, we reject recent attempts to manipulate historical events and justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as we have seen made by the Russian Federation.
Estonia’s Foreign Minister pointed out that for Eastern Europe, the end of the Second World War did not mean the end of dictatorship, and said it was necessary to carry out moral assessments and conduct legal inquiries into the crimes of totalitarian Soviet communism and other dictatorships that prevailed in Europe.
According to the foreign minister, unfortunately not everyone has learnt from the experience of the Second World War and given up the brutal use of military force in international relations.
We condemn the ongoing violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity in Europe – the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine in Donbass, the illegal annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the territories of Georgia.
VOA also did not report on a speech by Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz who pointed out that in 1939 Poland was the first victim of not only German but also Soviet aggression. At the end of the war, unlike the United States, Great Britain and Western Europe, Poland could not enjoy liberty since it was made forcefully dependent on the USSR, as did the whole Central and Eastern Europe. “It was only after the victory of Solidarity and the velvet revolutions in the 1989 that the Central and Eastern European countries could fully regain their sovereignty,” said Czaputowicz. Other foreign ministers from the region made similar statements.
While referring to the present times, Minister Czaputowicz focused on Russia’s actions that undermine Ukraine’s and Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and called on the international community to oppose those actions.
In addition to honoring the sacrifices of Soviet, American and other allied soldiers in World War II, the statements issued by the U.S. State Department last week pointed out the important fact of Soviet post-war oppression in East-Central Europe. VOA English news service reports last week ignored these two statements.
“We remember today, too, that for many people living in countries that were behind the Iron Curtain after the war, the end of the war marked the start, or continuation, of a different kind of oppression.”Message on the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day), michael R. pompeo, secretary of state, may 8, 2020
“While May 1945 brought the end of the Second World War in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. The central and eastern part of the continent remained under the rule of communist regimes for almost 50 years. The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed and the iron grip over the other captive nations was enforced by the Soviet Union using overwhelming military force, repression, and ideological control.”Message on the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day), media note, office of the spokesperson, may 7, 2020
The Voice of America VOANews.com English website had nothing on these two statements last week while quoting in VOA news reports Vladimir Putin and UN leaders talking about the end of WWII anniversary, some of them in selective and misleading ways. The Voice of America did report last week on president Trump’s statement on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, but his statement lacked historical and foreign policy analysis found in the two statements issued by the State Department.
However, we do want to praise the VOA Russian Service and the VOA Ukrainian Service for originating their own reports on the State Department’s and Central European leaders’ statements on the end of WWII anniversary. It shows that some VOA foreign language services still have reporters who abide by the VOA Charter and understand the importance of correcting Russian misinterpretations of history under Vladimir Putin.
However, because VOA English News had nothing to report on this topic, most among 40-plus VOA language services also had nothing on the statements from the State Department and the Central European leaders.
In fact, no VOANews.com English report last week that mentioned the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII had any significant reference to what the Soviet Union did in East-Central Europe after the war.
We found one VOA English video which toward the end mentions the Cold War in passing without any attempt to analyze this part of history. There was no mention in VOA English news reports last week of the crimes committed by the Soviets in East-Central Europe during the Cold War: massive thefts of public and personal property, rapes by Red Army soldiers of hundreds of thousands of German women and women of other nationalities, the violent Soviet suppression of the 1953 East German Uprising, the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The VOA video report on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II was not so much about history as it was about criticism of current U.S. foreign policy.
The Voice of America should have focused instead on those parts of history which President Putin and his propagandists want to hide or distort. One VOA report last week noted U.S. military aid to the Soviet Union during the war, which is something that first the Soviets and now Putin’s propagandists are trying to hide or minimize, but the VOA report failed to raise the most relevant topic of Stalin’s betrayal of promises of free elections and democracy made to American and British leaders at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences and the tragic aftermath of the war in East-Central Europe under forcefully-imposed Soviet domination. The VOA report raised and dwelled at length on a minor historical issue which in any case works to the advantage of Putin’s core historical narrative while ignoring the most relevant argument of the brutal Soviet treatment of East-Central Europe after the war.
All VOA News English text reports on the VOA news website last week basically gave only what is the preferred Putin’s view of World War II history by presenting it as almost completely free of any post-war Soviet malfeasance as if the end of the war in Europe had nothing to do with what happened in East-Central Europe after the war. The VOA report said that “Subsequent politics and propaganda, reassessments and the emergence of new wartime facts, as well as changing cultural tastes and the immediate needs of political leaders and peoples of the day, have altered memory.” Such meaningless vagueness on the part of the Voice of America can only help Putin by suggesting that the current Russian history narrative is no different from any other or at least part of any normal debate in which historical facts can change with the passage of time.
The same VOA report at least noted the 1939 Soviet-Nazi Pact, while the others did not, but the reporter called it a “nonaggression pact” and failed to explain its devastating results. A “nonaggression pact” is indeed how the Nazis and the Soviets officially described their alliance document when it was signed in August 1939. That is how Putin’s propagandists also like to refer to it today when in fact it was, in its initially secret provisions for many decades denied by the Soviets, also a pact for Soviet aggression against Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania. The VOA report said that the Stalin’s “nonaggression pact” with Hitler “was instrumental in allowing the Nazi leader to unleash a world war.”
That statement is only partially true because Hitler and Stalin both unleashed World War II with separate but coordinated attacks on Poland in September 1939. The August 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was by no means at the time it was signed a nonaggression pact for countries other than Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were discussing and planning immediate aggression against their neighbors as they were signing their “nonaggression pact” in late August 1939, just a few days before the German attack on Poland from the West on September 1 and a few weeks before the Soviet attack on Poland from the East on September 17. Soviet aggression and annexations against Finland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia followed within a few months.
The VOA report also said that “Under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin…Stalin has been lauded in a recasting of patriotism.” “Recasting of patriotism” is a very generous description by a VOA reporter of what Putin has done to rehabilitate Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century. VOA could have pointed out that this non-Russian figure of “Russian patriotism” was responsible for the murder of millions of Russians and millions of people of many other nationalities.
All other recent VOA reports failed to bring up the origins of WWII in the Hitler-Stalin alliance, which is a historical event Putin has tried also to distort and misuse to his own advantage for propaganda purposes. All VOA English newsroom correspondents who talked about the anniversary of the end of World War II in reports posted last week somehow completely forgot to describe what happened to East-Central Europe and what it took to restore freedom and democracy in the region. It did not occur to them to mention that East-Central Europe would not have become free when it did in about 1990 without decades-long U.S. efforts, including a contribution made by U.S.-funded media outlets such as Radio Free Europe and, after a certain point, also the Voice of America. During the war and immediately afterwards, pro-Soviet Voice of America officials and journalists repeated Soviet propaganda and strongly supported the establishment of pro-Moscow governments in East-Central Europe. This changed after Stalin’s betrayal of promises of democracy ratio elections became too obvious to ignore.
All of these lapses of memory and omissions on the part of VOA journalists today are highly ironic because an important part of VOA’s history during the Cold War was indeed to help undo the results of post WWII subjugation of East-Central Europe. Some of us had the privilege of being part of the U.S. effort to bring freedom and democracy back to the region and its 80 million people who at the end of World War II found themselves under Soviet domination. We are both saddened and insulted to see how VOA English news service accepts many of Putin’s misinterpretations of history at face value but fails to quote from U.S. government statements that provide an important explanation of what actually happened or even to report that such U.S. and multilateral statements from the U.S. and NATO allies were made. This, unfortunately, happens quite often.
Some VOA leaders, editors, and reporters do not know enough about world and American history to be able to recognize and resist Russian propaganda. They also do not know VOA’s own history of being fooled by Soviet propaganda during WWII when the State Department actually tried to protect VOA from its pro-Soviet propagandists, including VOA’s first director John Houseman who was forced to resign in 1943 thanks to the intervention with the FDR White House by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles. Very few Voice of America journalists today know about VOA’s wartime chief news writer and editor Howard Fast, an American communist who was forced to resign from VOA in 1944 and who in 1953 received the Stalin Peace Prize. They also may not know that a few wartime VOA journalists went to work after the war for communist regimes.
Many current VOA editors and reporters also do not know enough about more recent history, including the 1976 VOA Charter.
It is a failure of leadership and a failure of senior management for not ensuring that the VOA Charter is consistently observed. Part three of the VOA Charter requires VOA not to ignore U.S. policy statements and part one requires VOA not to present Russian and Chinese propaganda as news without providing balance.
The VOA mission is drawn from the VOA Charter. It was signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford in July 12, 1976 and it protects the editorial independence and integrity of VOA programming.
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350), July 12, 1976.
Again, the State Department, Secretary Pompeo and in particular public diplomacy specialists who were responsible for initiating , drafting and posting the statements on the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII deserve thanks for their efforts to correct Russia’s distortions of history
Unfortunately, in the case of VOA English News coverage of this historic event, in the words of China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei:
“Once again, THE FACTS have been erased.”Ai weiwei
Or at least some facts have been erased or forgotten by the Voice of America, giving Vladimir Putin yet another advantage in his propaganda war with the free world.
VOICE OF AMERICA VOA NEWS REPORT
U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT STATEMENTS
Today we mark 75 years since the end of hostilities in Europe in the Second World War. We pay tribute today to all those who stood up for humanity and freedom in the face of tyranny, and we honor the sacrifices of all service members involved in ridding the world of Nazi, fascist, and other aggression.
We remember with sorrow the unique suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust and the merciless slaughter of so many other innocent civilians. As we honor their memory, we renew our vow to never allow such atrocities to take place again.
We remember today, too, that for many people living in countries that were behind the Iron Curtain after the war, the end of the war marked the start, or continuation, of a different kind of oppression.
Since 1945, Transatlantic cooperation has been vital in promoting peace, democracy, and tolerance, and in upholding our shared values of freedom and the rule of law. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, more people were free to live under these common democratic values. We have a shared history. And in the spirit of collaboration, we look forward to a shared future.
The following is a joint statement by the U. S. Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, we pay tribute to the victims and to all soldiers who fought to defeat Nazi Germany and put an end to the Holocaust.
While May 1945 brought the end of the Second World War in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. The central and eastern part of the continent remained under the rule of communist regimes for almost 50 years. The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed and the iron grip over the other captive nations was enforced by the Soviet Union using overwhelming military force, repression, and ideological control.
For many decades, numerous Europeans from the central and eastern part of the continent sacrificed their lives striving for freedom, as millions were deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms, subjected to torture and forced displacement. Societies behind the Iron Curtain desperately sought a path to democracy and independence.
The events of 1956, creation and activities of the Charter 77, the Solidarity movement, the Baltic Way, the Autumn of Nations of 1989, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall were important milestones which contributed decisively to the recreation of freedom and democracy in Europe.
Today, we are working together toward a strong and free Europe, where human rights, democracy and the rule of law prevail. The future should be based on the facts of history and justice for the victims of totalitarian regimes. We are ready for dialogue with all those interested in pursuing these principles. Manipulating the historical events that led to the Second World War and to the division of Europe in the aftermath of the war constitutes a regrettable effort to falsify history.
We would like to remind all members of the international community that lasting international security, stability and peace requires genuine and continuous adherence to international law and norms, including the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. By learning the cruel lessons of the Second World War, we call on the international community to join us in firmly rejecting the concept of spheres of influence and insisting on equality of all sovereign nations.
END OF STATE DEPARTMENT STATEMENTS