COMMENTARY

By The Federalist

US Government International Broadcasting – US Agency for Global Media – Voice of America

Collecting Ds from “Dysfunctional” and “Defunct” to “Disgusting” and “Disgrace

The US Agency for Global Media (ISAGM or U-Sag-M, as I like to call it): finding new ways to get itself in trouble. It is adding to the number of “D” words being used to describe its performance.

It has long been labeled:

Now the list includes:

Wow. How do they do this? How does this agency manage to find itself in the middle of a political minefield time and time again?

The simple answer: inept leadership under former (until September 2019) BBG and USAGM CEO John Lansing and current (since 2016) VOA Director Amanda Bennett and gross mismanagement, also under both of them and their recent predecessors.

The latest additions come from President Trump himself in a recent press briefing. The agency got on the Trump radar for posting an Associated Press story on the Voice of America (VOA) English language website (the agency has about two dozen language services) regarding reports from the Chinese government connected to its COVID-19 outbreak. The agency was accused of recirculating Chinese propaganda.

Make no mistake, the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious, priority issue with the White House made so by the virus itself and by the constant barrage of criticism of Trump’s handling of the virus by media favoring the outlook of the political opposition to his administration.

Trump wants to clean house at VOA specifically and USAGM in general. In Trump’s thinking, the way forward would be to adjourn Congress and make recess appointments which include the nomination of Michael Pack to be the next CEO of the agency. A recess appointment seems unlikely, but it put all the holdover Obama era appointees in the agency on notice, especially the hapless VOA director Amanda Bennett.

Almost immediately, The Washington Post and others pounced on Trump’s remarks coming to Bennett’s defense.

And really, this is what it’s all about: what you could call the “Washington Insider Protection Association” getting on board to help a well-connected Washington insider which is who Bennett is with ties to the Post and elsewhere. 

To Washington’s Left-leaning elites, this is all about connections to Bennett. She can do no wrong, right?

From her first day in the job, Bennett set herself up for trouble, referring to the agency’s bureaucracy as a fantastic leadership team. Then as now this is a seriously misplaced endorsement. The agency has a long and solid reputation as being one of the worst agencies in the Federal government. It has found itself mired in scandals and a serious editorial drift toward the political Left. It has attacked Trump even before his election, characterized in images with the Nazi swastika superimposed on his own and portrayed as the male genitalia. One of the agency’s language services featured a video of actor Robert DeNiro in a vulgar anti-Trump rant. Finally, employees of the VOA newsroom made its own crude mockery of Trump and his wife in its December 2016 “VOA Follies.” And we should also not forget multiple postings of obscene political memes by employees in their own Facebook pages.

Bennett has been ineffective in rehabilitating the agency’s reputation and mission. It is mired in anemic mediocrity.

It appears the AP story on VOA was the proverbial last straw.

So, there is Bennett: on the White House radar, twisting in the wind.

And that elevates saving Bennett as the Top Priority among her Washington supporters: not “A Free Press Matters” because uncritically repeating Chinese communist regime propaganda does not make VOA a free press; not the agency; not the agency’s mission and certainly not the agency’s employees. These things are incidental asides. It’s all about sparing Bennett from being politically and publicly disgraced.

Bennett has a known reputation as a journalist. Unfortunately, that does not mean that she is nonpartisan, without any potential conflicts of interest, or has prior public government service experience or administrative and management skills, particularly in this agency which buried itself in dysfunction years before she arrived. The only thing the bureaucracy is interested in is protecting itself from political appointees and the extent to which it can conduct business as usual. This is the agency’s own insidious internal virus. They found that they can as they please under Amanda Bennett. They do not want her to leave, and she does not want to leave them.

To all appearances, Bennett has sat by and allowed the agency bureaucracy to proceed with business as usual and allowed scandals to continue, one after another. She contributed to some of them and prevented none.

Now, whatever distinctions Bennett may have earned in the past as a journalist are in jeopardy of having an ugly footnote attached to them with her horrid term as a VOA director.

For his part, Trump went after the holdover Obama political appointees with an oversized swipe. Trashing the agency wasn’t necessary and certainly not in a public display. To be sure, there are plenty of Trump haters inside the agency. But Trump would have benefited from a more subtle approach: he knows what he wants to do — remove failed bureaucrats. Most Americans are not going to care what he does with the VOA anyway. It’s a Washington insiders power battle. Leave it there and plan to win against the bureaucracy. Protecting the VOA Charter, VOA’s non-partisan status and its effectiveness abroad should be a bipartisan goal and should not divide Republicans and Democrats. Americans will not benefit if either party tries to use VOA for domestic propaganda.

Firewall? Independent?

In the rush to defend Bennett the old arguments are raised: that there is a “firewall” separating the agency from political influence and that the agency is “independent.”

Well, no on both counts.

There is no law spelling out the agency having a “firewall.” The concept of a firewall (which showed up in congressional conference language but not law) presumes the agency adheres to the stipulations spelled out in the VOA Charter. As we have seen in numerous examples highlighted by BBGWatch, the agency treats the VOA Charter like a superfluous annoyance and something to be ignored. 

The agency also has a “Journalistic Code.” You can forget about that, too. VOA has embraced ideological advocacy. Not in every news report, but it is sometimes more brazen than in the US media. Just consider the characterizations of Trump noted above. Its Trump haters carry their so-called “resistance” like a badge of honor. This includes not only some current but also some former employees who think the agency can do no wrong or can do whatever it wants without accountability. That’s called extreme hubris.

These imagined defenders of the agency are very wrong on both counts. The agency can and has done plenty wrong and seems intent upon moving full speed ahead with doing more.

As to the notion of being “independent:”

That is wrong, too. All agencies of the Federal Government are subject to oversight.

In the agency’s doublespeak, “independent” really means no accountability.

This agency is part of the Executive Branch of the US Government. What does that mean? Simply put, it falls under the White House, not the Congress. Its budget originates as a proposal from the White House. That budget is debated, appropriated and authorized in the Congress but still operates under the Executive Branch and subject to administration expectations in how it carries out its mission, whether a Democrat or Republican is sitting in the White House.

Heads of the agency are supposed to be under the current law political appointees. BBG Governors were also political appointees operating as a bipartisan board but with a partisan majority. As we know, the agency is being currently run by holdover Obama political appointees. That is not what was intended by U.S. lawmakers or even the Obama administration. That is certainly an unworkable situation and one, as we have seen, that can lead to obstruction. It’s no secret that the Trump administration wants these appointees out.

This obstruction is what is being played out. There’s no question that the Democrats are now pinning their hopes that they can reclaim the White House. The strategy seems to be to hold out until the national election is decided in November. 

Maybe they can.

But maybe they can’t. And if they can’t, Trump may exert maximum pressure to clean house. And that starts with a reasonable expectation that the Obama holdover political appointees should submit their resignations. They are not likely to do this without even more pressure from the White House, from Congress, from taxpayers and from media. While it may not be instantly visible, even some Democrats have had enough of scandals and dysfunction at the Voice of America and its federal agency. Because the Voice of America can do damage to national security by unwittingly repeating foreign propaganda, Republicans and Democrats should agree on removing failed bureaucrats and replace them with officials of known qualifications and experience.

Freedom, Democracy, Etc.

In defending herself, Bennett declares of the agency, “We export the First Amendment.”

That sounds like some cutesy phrase maybe created by the sycophants who surround Bennett. It has very little connection to the real world.

Bennett would have to point to where it states in the VOA Charter that the agency exports the First Amendment. She can’t. It’s not there.

And that is a very large part of the problem: the agency under Bennett, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and now the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM and under whoever is the agency CEO has not adhered to the spirit or the letter of the VOA Charter.

Global publics don’t want the agency to be an exporter. They want unvarnished news and information and information about the United States as provided under provisions of the Charter.

The Charter has been hijacked by the BBG and now the USAGM bureaucracy which declares in its mission statement that it serves “in support of freedom and democracy.”

Even more trouble.

The trouble comes from declaring an unconditional outcome that has nothing to do with the Charter.

“Supporting freedom and democracy” is easier said than done, particularly when it comes to large parts of the world having limited or, more so, no practical experience with the theory, practice and mechanics of freedom and democracy as ambiguously expressed by the BBG and now the USAGM.

Too much of what we hear about “freedom and democracy” from Bennett or the BBG and USAGM sounds like the political equivalent of an advertisement for “Miracle Gro:” something that produces spectacular results almost overnight. Just add water.

So how is this “freedom and democracy” thing playing out? One might want to read an opinion piece, appearing recently in the Washington Post and authored by Joshua Kurlantzick:

Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In short, “freedom and democracy” isn’t doing very well as an export commodity of Bennett’s VOA. 

And it’s not hard to see why: the agency has gone off the script of the VOA Charter. Bennett, the BBG members, the current temporary acting CEO and that notorious bureaucracy all need to be held accountable and factored into a general housecleaning of the agency. It’s no accident where the agency finds itself today.

What To Do?

Quoted in a recent commentary by Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation, the solution may be found in remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:

I would urge to get a CEO of that organization in place so that the [Broadcasting Board of Governors] will have the right leadership, so they can do the traditional mission; perhaps in a different information environment than we did back in the Cold War, but can perform its function in a way that is important and noble, and reflects the enormous resources that … American taxpayers have put towards that.

See: Trump’s Attack on VOA Over COVID-19 Shows Need for New Agency Chief

Bennett wants a battle. She will not go quietly into the night.

It’s up to the White House to leverage its power and authority and send Bennett packing. Sooner is much preferable than later.

Get it done.

The Federalist

April 2020

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