USAGM Watch Commentary
In recent years, USAGM Watch has uncovered and commented on multiple management scandals and journalistic failures at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the Voice of America (VOA) and other USAGM-managed, U.S.-taxpayer-funded media entities. USAGM Watch tries to keep officials running USAGM, VOA and other USAGM media entities accountable for their performance.
The U.S. Secretary of State cannot hold USAGM, its Chief Executive Officer, or VOA Director accountable for Voice of America programs even if U.S. taxpayers and members of Congress of both parties expect some kind of accountability.
One of the longtime VOA managers is current USAGM Acting Chief Executive Officer Kelu Chao. She said after her recent meeting with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that he wants to hold people and governments in power accountable. In the case of USAGM and VOA, he can’t.
Voice of America executives, editors and journalists, even though they are U.S. government employees in the $800 million federal agency, cannot be easily supervised by anyone other than themselves when it comes to broadcasts and other types of news and information programming, some of which now reaches Americans through VOANews.com websites and social media. A large percentage of VOANews.com English-language website traffic, possibly close to 50% although we do not have the latest numbers, comes from the United States even though by law the Voice of America and the agency are not supposed to target Americans.
Voice of America, however, can influence U.S. politics just as much, if not more, than Russian state media outlets which reach American audiences.
Even if VOA and the agency do not deliberately target Americans, as they were accused of doing earlier by former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the former U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) when he was still in Congress in 2018, Americans can be influenced by reading, listening to or watching VOA programs in English through social media and other online platforms.
Ethnic communities in the United States, which include U.S. citizens and U.S. voters, can also be influenced by VOA in foreign languages through online content. Critics said that a VOA Urdu Service video was posted by the service during the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign to influence Muslim vote in Michigan and in other states.
At the time, Kelu Chao was VOA program director but presumably did know about the video being produced. The question is why didn’t she know?
The video was eventually removed after several days online because it clearly violated the VOA Charter.
Would such a video, as well as a 2016 VOA Ukrainian Service video in which Donald Trump was called offensive names without giving his campaign the right to respond and for the first time in VOA’s history physical violence against a U.S. presidential candidate was condoned in a VOA program, be produced by VOA journalists under a different VOA leadership?
Such transgressions are committed usually by lower-level U.S. government employees, but not always.
It is an issue of the quality of senior USAGM and VOA leadership and oversight.
Why did the VOA Urdu Service think that it was not wrong to produce a one-sided, partisan video which violated the VOA Charter and post it online during the U.S. election campaign?
Why did a top aide to former USAGM CEO John Lansing think that he could get away with stealing money from the U.S. government?
Why did several VOA Hausa Service journalists think that they could accept bribes from a Nigerian official?
Would any of these many scandals happen if USAGM and VOA had different leaders in the last ten years?
What happens to the Voice of America news reporting and programming if USAGM and VOA top officials and key VOA reporters and editors all hold essentially the same political views and interpret news the same way?
What kind of message does posting by Voice of America’s government employees and contractors of a pro-Biden video during the election campaign in the United States send to Russian journalists, both independent and those working for pro-Putin state media?
What kind of message does it send to China and to the rest of the world about VOA’s journalistic standards?
How does anyone within USAGM prevent violations of the VOA Charter without being accused of violating the so-called “firewall” which is designed to prevent U.S. government officials, members of Congress and other U.S. government employees from interfering with VOA program content?
Does pointing out mistakes and VOA Charter violations–VOA Charter is U.S. law–amount to interference with journalism?
Such interventions can easily be criticized as an attempt to intimidate VOA editors and journalists. Fortunately, USAGM Watch, which is non-partisan and independent, does provide from outside of the federal government some small measure of accountability for decisions, actions and performance of USAGM and Voice of America executives, managers, editors and journalists who are U.S. government employees paid by U.S. taxpayers.
It is not much, but it is better than nothing. At the very least, USAGM Watch citizen journalists, some of them former VOA and agency reporters and employees, let administration officials, members of Congress and taxpayers know how VOA and other USAGM entities are doing.
Members of Congress of both parties can play a critical role in keeping an eye on USAGM. We have reported, for example, that the Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who was strongly critical of former, Trump-appointed USAGM CEO Michael Pack, does not seem to be very happy with some of the decisions of the current USAGM leadership which is essentially the same as it was when multiple management scandals were reported at the agency in previous years before Michael Pack came to USAGM in mid-2020 and departed in January 2021.
There is not much official information or an official photo from the State Department, but U.S. Agency for Global Media Acting CEO Kelu Chao described briefly her recent meeting with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in an e-mail to USAGM staff. It is worth noting that Secretary Blinken is concerned about the Russian government’s attacks on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Russia.
Secretary Blinken is right. People and governments in power need to be held accountable. It also applies to USAGM and VOA officials. We mean accountability, not censorship.
U.S. Agency for Global Media needs strong leadership to deal with Russia, China and Iran, but it also needs strong leadership to deal with many other internal problems.
KELU CHAO: Our audiences’ respect for our coverage, and for free press more broadly, was reflected in a meeting I had earlier this month with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. During our conversation, the Secretary expressed strong support for our networks’ independent reporting. He also noted his concern about the Russian government’s exorbitant fines that target RFE/RL and threaten the network’s operations in the country. Secretary Blinken agreed that the Russian government’s efforts to silence independent journalism only harm the citizens it is meant to serve. It’s important to note that the Secretary started his career as a journalist and has encouraged the press to ask tough questions and hold people and governments in power accountable. That is something USAGM networks do daily. I was honored to represent such a talented, dedicated group of professionals. – Kelu Chao, Acting Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Agency for Global Media
We at USAGM Watch were happy to hear this from Ms. Chao.
Citizen journalists working as volunteers for USAGM Watch have resumed their activity after a pause of several months.
We are now focusing on reports of violations of the VOA Charter at the Voice of America, delays in posting some VOA news reports and the lack of reporting on certain topics.
Here are some of our most recent commentaries.