By The Federalist
There was a time when VOA had an effective role in U.S. international broadcasting and did not interfere to any significant degree in domestic American politics. Those days are long gone. U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), under which VOA operates, has turned during the last decade into U.S. Agency for Global Mediocrity abroad and a partisan, anti-conservative propaganda outlet at home. Since the end of the Soviet Union (at least on paper), this agency has been adrift. It has lost its way. The robust development of global media has made it much more difficult for the agency to maintain a significant presence internationally. It has some presence abroad in a few countries, but it has greatly diminished, contrary to the unsubstantiated, unilateral claims by its bureaucrats that it has experienced significant foreign audience growth beyond what would be expected from the addition of various Internet platforms. We know what that is all about: you can’t go up to Congress and ask for money if your most critical foreign audiences are in decline…some might suggest precipitous declines the last twenty years in countries that really matter: China, Russia or Iran. Voice of America’s audience and influence has grown, however, to some degree in the United States — completely contrary to what the U.S. Congress intended for VOA.
This slippage of the agency’s role abroad and growing interference in U.S. politics and elections have no doubt been accelerated by a fossilized bureaucracy that is largely incompetent or at the very least incapable of dealing with competing points of view among global publics and their increased access to other international broadcasters and increasingly sophisticated domestic ones. This does not mean that these other broadcasters have a lock on objectively arrived at truth. It does mean that they have gotten better in the packaging of a message and knowing their audiences.
In addition, the agency seems to be roiling in internal scandals and an institutionalized demoralized workforce, neither of which come as a surprise if you know the cast of characters who have been running the place for decades.
Two events have revealed just how diminished the agency has become in recent memory: the election of Donald Trump as US president and the arrival of Michael Pack as the new CEO of the umbrella organization: US Agency for Global Media (U-SAG-M). The events are widely spaced but integrated into one internal undercurrent:
VOA, the VOA newsroom in particular but not exclusively, has developed a reputation for a one-sided radical partisan bent. This really became visible when Trump was running for election and the way he was characterized in various VOA online posts and in public social media comments and memes by some of VOA newsroom editors and reporters .
Following the 2016 election, an atmosphere of “resistance” was tolerated by holdover Obama appointees when examples of bias and subjectivity surfaced, in many instances catalogued by BBG – USAGM Watch. After Trump won in 2016, individuals inside the agency worked their contacts in the so-called “mainstream media” with wild and hysterical narratives about how the agency would be abused under Trump when in truth, the abuse of the agency and its Charter was at their own hands.
When Michael Pack was ultimately confirmed by the Senate in June 2020, the hysteria fired up again.
Pack has an unenviable task: to delve into the inner workings of this agency and make decisions on corrective actions where required…and all the while facing a hostile bureaucracy and rogue employees mostly concentrated in the VOA newsroom and among some retirees of same and some self-appointed apologists who offer misinformed opinions to sympathizers in the outside media.
Let’s be clear: this agency is no pedestal of virtue. The record shows a variety of scandals at various levels through the agency whether senior agency officials or even down into the VOA language services. In short, it is an agency that lacks proper internal oversight and professional discipline.
For some time, we have held the view that some of the VOA newsroom federal government employees are not “journalists” in the traditional meaning, nor do some of them subscribe to journalistic standards of objectivity or balance. In this regard, some of these employees mirror the behavior seen in the mainstream left-wing and right-wing media. In VOA’s case, some of the newsroom editors and reporters are less journalists and more partisan agitators against Trump and his administration.
They are, in effect, 100% taxpayer-paid domestic U.S. broadcasters via the Internet and social media, which has a large bearing on how these generously-compensated federal government employees should be treated unlike the people working for the mainstream private broadcasting outlets. Many private media journalists are also highly partisan and lack objectivity, but they have the right to be whatever their private employers allow them to be. Unlike Voice of America’s federal government workers and contractors, these private media journalists are not expressing their partisanship at U.S. taxpayers’ expense, and they are not required to abide by the rules of the VOA Charter.
U.S. Agency for Global Media federal employees are not in the same category as private media reporters. Both, however, are accountable to their employers who pay their salaries. Partisan domestic propaganda by the federally-funded and government-managed Voice of America can skew U.S. election results. This represents a threat to American democracy. Congress should take action to defund all Voice of America programs which violate the VOA Charter ban on such domestic propaganda activities by federal employees and contractors.
With this in mind:
The latest hysterical uproar embraced by the renegade group of federal employees in the VOA newsroom is a review of how the J-1 visa program has been administered by the agency, mostly in the hiring of non-citizens for agency positions. They have been quick to go running to their kindred souls in the media with tales of doom, gloom, paranoia and disaster concerning this review.
Indeed, they have gone to the extent of presenting a letter to acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj, a longtime VOA manager. The letter, dated August 31, 2020, is an all-out attack on the agency director Michael Pack.
In the letter, the signatories claimed the actions and comments by Pack,
“…endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives.”
But there is a problem:
What the letter does not say or acknowledge is that the review of the J-1 visa holders comes as the result of investigations by the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
Kind of waters down the argument, “…threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives.”
Things popped up in the OPM/ODNI investigations like false Social Security numbers and aliases.
And what one also discovers is that the agency under its previous management had its security investigative functions removed and transferred elsewhere in the government…not exactly a ringing endorsement of the agency’s handling of these functions.
“He has ordered the firing of contract journalists, with no valid reason, by cancelling their visas, forcing them back to home countries where the lives of some of them may be in jeopardy.”
Contract employees of the agency can be terminated at any time. It is as simple as that. Some of the contractors in trouble are those working in the VOA Urdu Service who produced a video which to outward appearances is in net effect a partisan campaign advertisement for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Such a piece might have flown under the radar if there were a companion piece on President Trump. However, that does not seem to be the case, thus putting the piece way above the radar.
It should be noted that this is not the first time the Urdu Service has gotten in trouble. Some years ago, it produced a promotional video for one of its programs featuring someone dressed as “Uncle Sam” as a bloodthirsty vampire.
“Now the purge appears to be expanding to include U.S. permanent residents and even U.S. citizens, with Mr. Pack recklessly expressing that being a journalist is ‘a great cover for a spy.’”
“Purge” in this context is inflammatory and incendiary, perhaps intended to be so. It is intended to create an evocative image one might associate with foreign totalitarian governments, such as Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and similar purges in various Soviet Block nations before the Soviet dictator’s death in 1953. For the group of VOA Newsroom protesters , this comports with their view of Trump.
“We have watched in dismay as USAGM executives have been dismissed for, in their words, attempting to educate the new CEO on avoiding legal violations, as well as guiding him on the firewall that protects VOA’s legally mandated editorial independence.”
This is what we commonly refer to as a crock. The signatories buy into the narrative of the officials who have had their security clearances yanked and have been placed on administrative leave. One suspects that these actions have little or nothing to do with their “guidance.” One could ask why didn’t they apply their own guidance to themselves to avoid violations of security rules at the Voice of America.
Indeed, what it may have a whole lot more to do with is those OPM and ODNI investigations which showed that the agency ignored the findings in the reports…for TEN YEARS! In short, that made a bunch of people complicit in the deficiencies in those reports.
There is no firewall. These partisan agitators use the term “firewall” as doublespeak: a way of saying they can do anything they want, without consequences or oversight. Sheer and utter nonsense. They are not untouchable. The are not above the law, one of them being the VOA Charter.
“There has not been a single, demonstrable case of any individual working for VOA – as the USAGM CEO puts it – ‘posing as a spy.’”
It is probably safe to say that these reporters do not have access to agency security files, investigations or findings. They do not make a “need to know” list. They put themselves at risk of being part of a potentially false narrative. If true, this creates the potential for misconduct.
“In line with strictly upholding the VOA charter, which was signed into law in 1976, we insist on competent and professional oversight for VOA and our sister media organizations…”
In truth, “competent and professional oversight” is what has been missing from this agency for decades under the bureaucracy that has run it.
Apparently, they believe that Mr. Biberaj, the acting VOA director, is going to tell his boss, Mr. Pack, that he is incompetent. One should not put money on that. This is yet another demonstration of flagrant arrogance by these signatories. They really should read what they attach their names to.
“Given these concerns we fear that the current USAGM leadership is failing not only the news organizations of USAGM (one of the world’s largest broadcasting entities) and our audiences, but also our stakeholders, including the American public.”
Let us break out the violins for this sympathy song.
This is not a news organization. It is a government agency in the business of public information broadcasts abroad but, by U.S. law, not in the United States. Its audiences abroad have tanked as any examination of social media, seemingly a top priority, reveals. They are not journalists. They are government broadcasters.
In short: Cut the crap.
As far as the American public is concerned, the only thing these people seemingly care about is the American taxpayer paying the freight to provide for their salaries and pad their pensions.
One should consider this letter for what it is: an exercise in hypocrisy.
But it does not end there.
In typical fashion, these people have been beating the drum with the sympathetic partisan media including The Washington Post. Consider this headline from September 1, 2020:
“Revolting” is right: in the sense of disgusting.
And by the way, there is no such thing as revolt in the Federal Service. What there is, as this case may demonstrate is: violations of the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law. These people are right there on the precipice.
We do not know how the agency intends to handle these people. But this kind of behavior should not and cannot be tolerated.