Mar 3, 2020 - Economy

VOA journalists fight claims that it is Trump propaganda

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Journalists within the Voice of America (VOA) are pushing back on the idea that their reporting could fall prey to political influence by the Trump administration.

Why it matters: Top VOA executives are concerned that alarmist reporting, some from progressive outlets, may have prematurely undermined the credibility of the agency.

Catch up quick: In the wake of Trump's 2017 inauguration, numerous reports suggested that the VOA — a 78-year-old, government-funded independent, international news agency — would essentially turn into a Trump administration propaganda arm.

  • Reports that the agency would fall victim to partisan control began to pop up after the Trump administration sent two officials to the VOA to conduct a transition team overview in early 2017.
  • "Retooled VOA set to be Trump-run US state media network," was the name of one MSNBC segment hosted by Rachel Maddow at the time.
  • While it's not unusual for administrations to send transition teams into the VOA, there were reservations about the qualifications of the two officials sent in, according to VOA sources.

Yes, but: VOA Director Amanda Bennett told Axios she's tried to get media outlets to accurately assess the VOA today, without much success.

  • "If you guys act as if we're already propaganda," Bennett said, "then how are you going to respect us or help us if something bad ever does happen to us?"
  • "At first I was worried like everybody else," VOA senior White House reporter Patsy Widakuswara told Axios. "Then I began to understand that so many things had to be done by the administration during the transition and that we were pretty low down the rung before he (Trump) even looked at the VOA. ... Other than some small concerns, we're not freaked out anymore."

Between the lines: Broader concerns about VOA independence arose after a legal provision changed governance over the agency from a board of non-partisan directors to a CEO selected by the president.

  • That provision passed during the Obama administration.
  • A CEO has yet to be confirmed. The Trump administration has twice-nominated Michael Pack, but it's been held up in the Senate confirmation processes. Pack is an American documentary film producer and media executive who has received pushback from some Democrats for his ties to Steve Bannon.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn't respond to requests about the status of Pack's confirmation. The White House said it re-nominated Pack last week.

Between the lines: Sources inside the VOA say the agency has been operating as business as usual, without interference from the Trump administration.

  • "In terms of interference, I haven't experienced any," says Wei Lin, social media editor at the VOA's Mandarin service and a 20-year veteran of the VOA.
  • "I don't feel any different at all whether it's a Democratic or a Republican administration" says Dong Hyuk Lee, Chief of VOA's Korean Service, and a 14-year veteran of the VOA.
  • The VOA broadcasts in more than 40 languages and reaches an estimated weekly audience of 280 million.

Yes, but: VOA journalists say that the framing from the media about the role of the VOA can be frustrating, especially from those that don't quite understand the agency's mission.

  • "It's not a pleasant perception," says Lee. "There's a misinformed perception towards the VOA, but theres no political influence or pressure for that matter."
  • Sources said there wasn't this level of concern when the Obama administration took office, because the governance rules were different and because President Obama didn't have a reputation for inflammatory press rhetoric.

The big picture: The VOA was established nearly in 1942 to combat Nazi propaganda with unbiased news and information. Despite a few rare instances, the agency has for decades had a strong reputation for delivering non-biased information to countries abroad, especially ones with autocratic or unstable regimes.

  • The VOA broadcasts in more than 40 languages and reaches an estimated weekly audience of 280 million.
  • The agency receives over $234.7 million in annual funding through the U.S. Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
  • It's governed by a 40+ year-old charter that legally requires the VOA to report "accurate, objective, and comprehensive" news abroad. Sources say that firewall feels very strong within the VOA.

Every source Axios has spoken to at the VOA has mentioned the charter at least once in describing why they feel empowered to report accurately and protecting from political pressure.

  • "I've never felt any pressure from any administration in my time at the VOA," says Widakuswara. "That's the beauty of the VOA charter. ... Many of us come from places where there really is government censorship and pressure."
  • Journalists at the VOA say that they've felt very little attention, let alone animosity from the administration or the president.
  • Yes, but: One source said VOA journalists can sometimes be conscious of their coverage of Congress, which has continually passed higher budgets supporting the VOA.

The bottom line: "It's fine, nothing has happened. But I can't say that I'm breathing easy," Bennett told Axios.

  • "We've always got to be vigilant for this stuff and all kinds of things still go wrong."
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