The Voice of America, the largest US international broadcaster, underwent major changes in leadership that could jeopardize its independence. Candy Chan writes about the significance of VOA’s mission and free press. 

On Monday, leadership at VOA changed almost entirely. The Senate confirmation of President Trump’s appointed head of USAGM Michael Pack was followed by the resignation of two top executives, Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara, both deemed experienced independent journalists. 

In her farewell message, Bennett said, “Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us.”

Pack, a conservative filmmaker who previously ran the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is also an ally of alt-right icon Steve Bannon and under investigation for potentially channeling money from a nonprofit to his film production company. He has already fired four directors across the organization—a purge that does little to ease concerns about editorial meddling. These firings include: Bay Fang of Radio Free Asia; Jamie Fly of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Alberto M. Fernandez of Middle East Broadcasting Networks; Emilio Vazquez of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting; and Libby Liu of the Open Technology Fund. 

Though those fired by Pack show no distinction along party lines—Fernandez and Fly were both Trump appointees—the replacements of their bipartisan boards are now largely filled by Trump administration appointees. Pack’s decision has been criticized by congressional officials as an attempt to change the nonpartisan nature of the news outlet. 

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement on Wednesday saying, “The wholesale firing of the agency’s network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump’s political allies, is an egregious breach of this organization’s history and mission from which it may never recover.”  

Brett Bruen, director of global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said that VOA “does not present a Republican or Democratic voice to the world,” He added that VOA “has  always put forward an American, a credible voice.”

What is Voice of America? 

Founded in 1942, VOA is the largest US international broadcaster, delivering news and information to an estimated weekly audience of 280 million people. Its name comes from President Franklin Roosevelt’s speechwriter and American playwright, Robert Sherwood, who in 1939 prophesied

“We are living in an age when communication has achieved fabulous importance. There is a new decisive force in the human race, more powerful than all the tyrants. It is the force of massed thought–thought which has been provoked by words, strongly spoken.”

VOA is not a device of the government; it is, in fact, created to be a tool to amplify and share American voices to people around the world.

The “force of mass thought” would be represented by VOA, whose charter also states they 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.”

VOA is not a device of the government; it is, in fact, created to be a tool to amplify and share American voices to people around the world. Key to the purpose of VOA is its “firewall,” which prohibits interference by any US government official in the objective and independent work the journalists do. The firewall protects VOA’s ability to make final decisions on what stories to cover and how to cover it, even if it is government-owned.

VOA is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and is government-funded, but its core mission has always been to provide reliable and accurate—this also means unbiased—news.

The USAGM, previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was founded to counter propaganda from countries with repressive regimes, offering its audience independent and reliable sources of news. It currently oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, ensuring that content on these platforms remain independent of political influence. 

On the Voices of America website, there is a specific header for Press Freedom. The page monitors news of media repression in foreign countries and states that VOA is “committed to press freedom around the world.” Looking at this page after the events of the past week, one might suggest VOA start at its home base, the US.

So what happens when a government agency angers the government?

In April, the VOA ran a story about the reopening of Wuhan, China, where the COVID-19 outbreak first emerged. After months of lockdown, the city reopened with a light show, which VOA documented and shared on social media. 

This story was condemned by Trump and his social media director Dan Scavino Jr. The White House website ran an article under the headline “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda.” Scavino chimed in, tweeting, “American taxpayers — paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. government-funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”

At a news briefing on April 15, Trump only had bad things to say about the broadcaster. “If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting. What – things they say are disgusting toward our country,” Trump said. “And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”

VOA also received criticism for using widely watched and reputable data from Johns Hopkins University tracking COVID-19 cases and deaths around the world. The White House accused VOA of creating “graphics with Communist government statistics to compare China’s coronavirus death toll to America’s.”

These attacks took the VOA executives by surprise. Rarely have they been called out by an administration in this fashion. 

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you what prompted it,” said Bennett, then Director. “I don’t actually know. It just came out of the blue.”

The USAGM is representative of American ideals: freedom and democracy

Though these attacks took Bennett by surprise, the Trump administration had been planning to make significant changes at VOA since 2018. Pack’s nomination to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media was stalled for two years.

It may be too early to tell what will come of Pack’s changes, but the direction he is taking VOA and USAGM may undermine their entire purpose. As head of USAGM, Pack is prohibited from interfering in VOA editorial processes. But as he has shown, he can dismiss and hire new members, those who can change the content and stories produced. 

The world was listening then as America fought Nazi Germany and a leader’s grasp for tyrannical power; the world is listening now. 

The voices of America might now be the voice of the American government. And this change will be noticed around the world. 

In 1942, in its first broadcast, announcer William Harlan Hale said, “We bring you Voices from America. Today, and daily from now on, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good for us. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.” 

The world was listening then as America fought Nazi Germany and a leader’s grasp for tyrannical power; the world is listening now. 

Candy Chan is studying History with a focus on War and Revolution at Barnard College. She is currently a staff writer at the Columbia Daily Spectator, covering issues pertaining to Columbia's...

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