(December 10, 2020 / JNS) Whether most Americans even know it, they are paying for an international broadcasting organization called Voice of America, or VOA. Yet only the most naive imagine that it speaks for us all. In reality, though its charter confidently promises to “represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions,” that has been mostly wishful thinking. As former VOA executive Ted Lipien observes, “there are two Americas, one left-leaning liberal America and one right-leaning conservative America. But the taxpayer-funded VOA, in the $800 million USAGM, not only reflects but also represents just one of them—illegally.”
And tragically, for public diplomacy is a formidable weapon defying oppression. Like Lipien, a refugee from communism, I recall my parents, at great risk, listening to America’s (forbidden) message on shortwave radio. Broadcasting to isolated, information-starved people in China, North Korea, Africa and elsewhere is undoubtedly a godsend. But our government-sponsored media must offer “a balanced and comprehensive projection” of ideas, for both legal and moral reasons. Yet far too often, it does not.
Consider VOA’s coverage of Iran, which after 2006 became increasingly “reflective of positions and viewpoints held by various Islamic officials such as foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.” So reported Jamshid Chalangi, a former Persian service employee who had launched NewsTalk in 2006 to great acclaim: It “was to have the highest ratings of any Persian-language TV show outside Iran for the next five years.” Yet in 2012, the annual task of assessing the Persian service was inexplicably assigned to a Hooman Majd, formerly an official adviser and interpreter of the infamous Iranian president Mahmood Ahmadinejad. Chalangi was fired without explanation. And, he reports, things didn’t change much even after U.S. President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s pro-Iran policy “the message nonetheless coming out of VOA Persian continues to be one that still sides with ‘them’—namely, the mullahs in Tehran.”
And what of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In 2015 alone, VOA repeatedly attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and misreported U.S. policy on Palestinian statehood. In 2016, the host of a VOA news program praised U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s New York Times article defending Palestinian “anger and despair, which are major drivers of violence and extremism,” for being “balanced.” This NPR-style coverage of Israel continues. After Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, for example, VOA editors posted on Facebook six raw footage videos of protests in the Muslim world, including burning of Israeli and American flags, with no additional information, context or balance. Two weeks later, these videos registered nearly 3.4 million views. Notes BBG Watch: “The only other major international broadcaster showing such raw footage videos of anti-Trump, anti-American and anti-Israeli protests, clearly for propaganda purposes to hurt America’s interests and to stir up trouble, was Russia’s multimedia channel RT.”
As recently as Nov. 16, a VOA report on Israeli plans to build 1,200 homes in eastern Jerusalem cited only one source by name: Brian Reeves of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, who predicted that “settlement expansion will eventually make a Palestinian state impossible.” Presumably, other (anonymous) “experts say peace in the Middle East is as elusive as ever. And as VOA diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports, some of those experts caution that the Trump administration has lost the trust of Palestinians to be an honest broker in the conflict through several recent actions.” The news report also notes that “European officials condemned the Israeli plan,” too, but no alternative views are presented from America or elsewhere.
As to China, which Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, writing in the WSJ on Dec. 3 called “National Security No. 1,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee found that the VOA Mandarin Service has engaged in a “pattern” of avoiding stories that could be perceived as too tough on China. Released in 2018, the committee’s report also detailed activities by Chinese security officials it said amounted to a “campaign of intimidation against some VOA and RFA staffers and their family members,” citing a study by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution that documents Chinese subversion of VOA, including Radio Free Asia employees working in China. A year earlier, in April 2017, VOA leadership had decided to censor a live interview with a Chinese dissident, leading to the dismissal of five Mandarin journalists. Their later firing in May 2019 was denounced by Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) executive director Ann Noonan as an “assault on free press made especially harmful to VOA’s and America’s image in China and everywhere else.”
Things only got worse. In September 2019, Ann Noonan again accused VOA of continuing to side with the PRC: “If [pro-China Hong Kong governor] Carrie Lam needs to be quoted, can’t VOA say how this relates back to the CCP’s own propaganda to divert attention from the suppression of basic human rights in Hong Kong?” Yet in March 2020, VOA was still spreading PRC’s COVID-19 statistics without question, even creating social-media graphics and videos to further facilitate dissemination of this disinformation. The House report’s conclusion that USAGM is all but a “broken agency” seems amply justified.
Evidently, by the time Michael Pack became USAGM’s first Senate-confirmed CEO in June 2020, nearly three years after his nomination by Trump, the agency’s credibility had sunk to unprecedented lows. Unfazed by hysterical media accusations of presumed ultra-right-wingism, the former director of VOA’s WorldNet, senior vice president at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and producer of 15 highly acclaimed films shown on PBS that document America’s complex story committed on day one on the job to “honoring VOA’s charter, the missions of the grantees, and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world.”
In July, he launched a comprehensive investigation of evidently longstanding “systemic, severe, and fundamental security failures.” A few days later, he released a joint report by the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the director of national intelligence, which revealed that from 2010 to 2020, the agency repeatedly ignored common national security protocols. The backgrounds of 1,500 employees and contractors—roughly 40 percent of the agency’s workforce, which includes numerous foreign nationals—weren’t properly investigated. Some employees’ fingerprints were never submitted to federal authorities, while others were never fingerprinted at all, violating government hiring protocols. Previous internal government reviews of USAGM practices had also found that some employees and contractors have used aliases and fake Social Security numbers, while others left entire sections of their background and security forms blank.
It also turns out that the agency had been operating without proper authority since 2012. Even after OPM officials notified top-level USAGM officials about the agency’s lapsed authority to provide background investigations, in 2015 and again in 2017, “the [USAGM] Director of Security and the Chief of the Adjudications Branch (Adjudications Chief) claimed ‘nobody knew’ of the expired MOU during our 2018 onsite activities.” Nobody seemed to be in charge—or care.
Inevitably, cases of corruption soon made headlines in The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and even The New York Times. But perhaps the most brazen case came to light on June 27, 2019, when a very senior official, Haroon K. Ullah, admitted to stealing thousands of dollars by submitting falsified hotel invoices, falsified and inflated taxi and Uber receipts, and billing the government for personal travel and for travel that had already been paid by third parties. As the agency’s chief strategy officer, Ullah had worked closely with the USAGM’s head since 2015, John Lansing. In fact, Lansing had recruited Ullah.
Already in 2017, members of the USAGM’s advisory board had complained that Lansing had repeatedly disregarded their recommendations, concerns and requests, and had willfully withheld information from them. One member, Matt Armstrong, resigned in January. A month later, on Feb. 8, 2017, Sputnik News interviewed Lansing, who declared the United States and Russia “are not in an information war.” Was he speaking for himself or for the American people? Certainly not for many in Congress, let alone the administration. Finally, on Sept. 5, 2019, just one month before Ullah was to be sentenced, Lansing resigned. The reason, however, was neither censure nor retirement: He had just been named president and CEO of NPR.
How appropriate, considering how closely VOA’s one-sided coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles that of NPR. The latter has best been described by Eric Rozenman of the Committee on Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) in 2011: “[A]n anti-Israel, pro-Arab bias recurs chronically in such coverage, highlighted by implicit acceptance of ‘the Palestinian narrative’ and its language and by ‘stacking the deck’ when it comes to sources, speakers and viewpoints. While this would be objectionable in the private news media, it is unacceptable and essentially illegal in publicly-funded media.” Substitute “VOA” for “NPR,” and the statement would be equally accurate. Can it be mere coincidence that Linda Gradstein, NPR’s Jerusalem correspondent for two decades, is writing for VOA News?
That NPR should have engaged in relentless vicious, one-sided attacks against Pack’s attempts to clean up an organization that even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2013 had called “practically defunct” is no more surprising than is similar treatment by The Washington Post. The reasons evidently go beyond ideological kinship, since the Post’s owner before Jeff Bezos, Donald Graham, is married to Amanda Bennett who until her resignation in June 2020 had been the Obama-appointed director of … VOA.
Though Pack had been confirmed to serve for another three years, Joe Biden declared in June that, should he win in November, he planned to fire Pack and, according to Vox reporter Alex Ward, “install someone as CEO who doesn’t want to broadcast Trump-aligned views to the world.” But since the CEO’s job is to enforce a charter committed to “represent America, not any single segment of American society,” the president elect flaunts his intention to violate the law by ignoring the perspective of fully one half of the electorate.
Pack’s courage, his almost quixotic commitment to presenting America’s message fairly and his fight against USAGM’s pervasive corruption are unlikely to be replicated. For whoever replaces him cannot risk antagonizing the ideocracy, the left-wing media establishment and the Democratic leadership. If we go on ignoring this, we have no one to blame but ourselves: We will have lost our voice.
Juliana Geran Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her latest book is “The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom (2019.)” She has taught at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and George Washington University.
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