by Ted Lipien in The Washington Examiner
November 30, 2020
There are two Americas, one left-leaning liberal America and one right-leaning conservative America. But the taxpayer-funded Voice of America, VOA, in the $800 million U.S. Agency for Global Media not only reflects but also represents just one of them — illegally.
Americans whose information comes only from the Voice of America itself, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, or NPR have no idea what really goes on in the VOA newsroom. They may have been convinced by now that VOA is VOT (Voice of Trump) because his appointee, Michael Pack, has been in charge of USAGM for several months. The truth is that VOA has been consistently VOB (Voice of Biden), but liberal media outlets failed to notice and report these violations of U.S. law.
While I hope that Joe Biden’s win will be good for America and the world, and I have no problem whatsoever with Voice of America reporting accurately on criticism of President Trump’s policies and his often controversial statements and actions, I am absolutely against VOA’s federal government employees interfering in U.S. elections with partisan propaganda at my expense as a taxpayer.
VOA’s domestic impact needs to be studied and measured because any intentional interference in U.S. elections by VOA officials and journalists is illegal. I do not want a pro-Biden VOA Urdu Service 2020 campaign ad costing Trump and Republicans support among U.S. ethnic voters in Michigan and elsewhere, just as I do not want VOA to help Trump and Republicans win in any elections. As an immigrant, a refugee from communism, and a former VOA journalist and manager during the Cold War, I know very well how much good VOA can do if it can focus on its essential mission abroad and not waste energy and money on electioneering in the United States — an illegal activity which both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and all honest journalists should strongly condemn.
Amid VOA’s persistent violations of U.S. law, Democrats in the Senate blocked Pack’s confirmation vote for three years and allowed these violations to continue. The agency was still run until June 2020 mostly by holdover Obama officials. Americans might have gotten the impression from media reports that these officials heroically protected VOA’s independence and were unjustly put by Pack on a punitive administrative leave. They might have learned also that U.S. Federal District Judge Beryl A. Howell ruled recently that Michael Pack had tried to interfere with VOA content and told him to stop it. This is not quite true.
It is in my view a good thing that the judge had made an initial attempt to define the still-unclear boundaries of the so-called editorial “firewall” between VOA and the head of its federal agency, but she also said that Pack probably had the right to replace USAGM administrators and to take other measures as the principle manager of U.S. international broadcasting. This was mentioned only in passing, if at all, in most media reports, which also failed to explore what may have been behind Pack’s actions. Liberal journalists who know almost nothing about VOA automatically attributed his motives to malice and loyalty to President Trump.
I suspect most of them could not even imagine that a Trump-appointed official could have been trying to protect the VOA Charter. Although the so-called “firewall” prevents direct contacts between USAGM managers and journalists under most circumstances, interference in U.S. elections at U.S. taxpayers’ expense definitely violates VOA’s basic law — the 1976 VOA Charter — in a much more profound way.
Pack maintains that he has done nothing wrong in addressing the reported violations of the VOA Charter. He only revoked the firewall regulations that the old Broadcasting Board of Governors put in place hours before his swearing-in. VOA had functioned without these additional regulations for many years. Pack told reporters he was addressing mismanagement and lax enforcement of laws and regulations by the previous agency leadership team. Agency sources also said that they did not approach VOA journalists directly but went through the acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj.
As someone who managed many VOA programs over several decades, I believe Pack has a duty to bring balance to VOA but may have received poor advice on a still-unclear matter of law. Pack should have relied on the acting VOA Director to deal with these problems according to the established policies and procedures. He claims that he did so. He also could have hired a permanent VOA Director who would enforce the rules of good journalism and the VOA Charter fairly and without any partisan bias. Pack is telling reporters that he did not hire a new VOA director because all of those he approached, who had the gravitas for the job, said, “talk to me after the election.”
While Pack’s behavior was presented by his critics as threatening toward VOA journalists, VOA has not changed its unbalanced anti-Trump coverage. There has been no major change since Michael Pack took over as USAGM CEO, although his presence may have stopped some of the most blatant violations of the VOA Charter. With Biden’s win, the real danger is that VOA will continue to be a voice against conservative America.
I believe that Voice of America’s illegal political propaganda targeting U.S. voters may have had an impact on outcomes of U.S. elections in some states. One video posted by VOA condoned physical violence against Trump and could have intimidated some voters. Media outlets, instead of taking the word of journalists who were behaving badly, should have analyzed current and past VOA news reports and looked at multiple scandals at VOA and the agency, including the firing of VOA Mandarin Service journalists under former VOA Director Amanda Bennett and former USAGM CEO John F. Lansing.
VOA’s Charter, which is U.S. law, requires the Voice of America to represent all of America, not any single segment of American society. Years of hiring of like-minded left-wing journalists have left the VOA central English newsroom almost completely empty of mainstream conservatives. A few who stayed have told me that they do not dare to challenge their bosses and colleagues in public because they fear being ostracized and denied promotions. But apparently, one of them published anonymously a comment on the University of Southern California public diplomacy blog that “Taxpayers (especially conservative ones) should not stand for VOA continuing to be the ‘Voice of Biden’ ‘Voice of Liberal America,’ as it has been for all of 2020 and basically all of the Trump presidency. If taxpayers knew what VOA really has become — a partisan news outlet that consistently ignores & marginalizes conservative voices in America — and if they realized that they are all paying for it, they might be furious.”
Another current or former VOA journalist observed: “We’re violating our Charter by only representing liberal America, no matter where our audiences are, be they overseas or in the U.S. And because VOA content is accessed by many people in the U.S. (a fact that cannot be disputed), it makes matters even worse, because taxpayers are essentially funding liberal propaganda that can influence domestic politics, whether that is VOA’s intention or not.”
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director.