USAGM Watch Commentary

by Ted Lipien

There May Be Only One or Two Bari Weisses and Andrew Sullivans Left at the Voice of America English Newsroom, But They Are Afraid to Speak Up

This is a story missed or wrongly reported by most of U.S. media, especially media outlets claiming that the taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) in the federal U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has been always up to now a model of fair, balanced and unbiased news reporting. Op-ed writers and reporters who made these claims have not done any checking. They simply assumed that this assessment was true because President Trump had criticized VOA earlier as being outrageously mismanaged. Until a few weeks ago, VOA was run by Pulitzer-Prize editor Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, both with previous professional ties to The Washington Post. The bad Orange Man had to be wrong and therefore not even basic checking of facts was required, except that this time Trump happened to be right, on that and on some other points about VOA.

During the last decade, the Voice of America has become politicized and turned violently partisan as it has never been in its history. VOA also came under the influence of foreign propaganda from China, Iran, Russia, and even North Korea. The Washington Post and The New York Times informed their readers with supreme confidence that that this was not true, that Trump was wrong or lying, especially about Chinese government propaganda in VOA broadcasts. Sadly, it is true, even more disturbingly because it happened at a government entity which by law must be always accurate, fair, balanced and comprehensive in its news and information output.

The Trump administration did not make VOA politicized, partisan and biased, or tainted with foreign propaganda; mostly well-meaning but inexperienced and incompetent officials did–some with apparent conflicts of interest, such as doing corporate business in China and Russia. Appointed during the Obama administration, and even earlier under both Democratic and Republican administrations, they allowed this to happen. Some of these executives have already left, but some left only very recently. They were in charge during most of Trump’s current term while Democrats in the U.S. Senate were delaying the confirmation of his nominee to run the agency under a new bipartisan law signed by President Obama. For three years, they prevented any reforms at USAGM where a senior strategy advisor to the former CEO went to federal prison for stealing taxpayers’ money. Senators were told in mainstream media reports that everything was fine and the only threat to VOA would come from Trump’s nominee, conservative filmmaker Michael Pack.

Trump’s newly confirmed USAGM CEO cannot change the bias and partisanship overnight to bring VOA coverage back to balance. I don’t see it happening without a major change of the agency’s focus to concentrate money and human resources on what is missing in the most important parts of the non-democratic world rather than offering biased news in English already available in better quality from multiple other sources. NPR, PBS, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal may not be perfect as providers of U.S. and international news in English, but they are still less biased and much better in their journalism than VOA is at this time. VOA News in English only makes sense if it is superior to what others can offer, more relevant and more targeted than what international audiences can now easily get from other U.S. media. U.S. taxpayers deserve better than what they are paying for now, and no taxpayer should be forced to subsidize blatant partisan propaganda.

At the present time, the Voice of America is heavily tilted to the left and I do not see a real danger of VOA turning right-wing anytime soon, or ever. It never did during its history. VOA’s first chief news writer and editor was a Communist who in 1953 received the Stalin Peace Prize. Should Michael Pack attempt to start pro-Trump propaganda, the way VOA still presents one-sided pro-Democratic Party messages in support of its social policy agenda and candidates, it would surely be noticed and rightly condemned. He has a long way to go even to bring VOA back to the middle. Pack had assured U.S. Senators that he wants to restore the VOA Charter which requires VOA to be accurate, non-partisan and balanced. It would be a major improvement if he succeeds while at the same time putting more money and resources into programming to China, Russia, Iran and several other countries that need uncensored news and opinions more than ever since the end of the Cold War. VOA can succeed if it is reformed and if it has bipartisan support of U.S. taxpayers and politicians as it did when it was relevant and effective during the Cold War. In may never have the same impact as it had then, but it can still help to present America abroad in a balanced way, both good and bad and without partisan propaganda of any kind.

The real problem at VOA is therefore the opposite of what is being described and reported by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico, The Hill or NPR. The arrival of Michael Pack did not stop VOA English Newsroom editors and reporters from still refusing or resisting to cover many news stories which might present their favorite political causes or liberal politicians in a bad light. Several such news stories have been ignored by the Voice of America in the last few weeks, just as they were for many years before the recent change of agency leadership–the change affecting only so far the very top layer of the bureaucracy.

This is not the first time the taxpayer-funded, federal government-managed multimedia outlet refused to cover or minimized coverage of news about criticism of ideologically-inspired censorship being forced by radical left-wing activists on institutions and individuals, including media newsrooms. Significantly, the latest round of criticism came from a centrist-left New York Times op-ed editor and a large group of left and centrist-left American and foreign liberal intellectuals.

The VOA Newsroom which already had imposed the rule of silence against anyone to the right of Pulitzer-winning fellow traveler journalist Walter Duranty has been pretending for years that responsible conservative and centrist criticism of the Left does not exist. It’s either they or far-right fascism. As far as VOA English Newsroom editors are concerned, National Review, Thomas Sowell, Victor Davis Hanson or Candace Owens are not worthy of any frequent or lengthy mentions. Communist activist Angela Davis, on the other hand, is.

I can’t tell you how many times I have written to John F. Lansing, the former USAGM CEO appointed during the Obama administration and former Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, also appointed during the Obama administration, informing them that VOA Newsroom editors and reporters simply refuse to report on mainstream conservative, centrist and even some left-wing criticism of ideologies and individuals they openly favor and support. VOA editors have often ignored such news stories even when the news is big enough that liberal U.S. media outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and NBC News report it.

The way things work in the VOA Newsroom is that after years of ideological cronyism and nepotism in hiring and promotions, its leadership and staff are almost uniformly ideologically monolithic. It’s a place of uniform thinking that punishes dissent and dissenters. I know how it works because I had lived under communism. Those very few conservative and middle-of-the road journalists left in the VOA Newsroom who might disagree with the approved thinking don’t dare to propose news coverage required by the VOA Charter because they fear being ostracized by their colleagues and denied promotions by their supervisors. Consequently, no one dares to initiate coverage of news stories that challenge the approved VOA Newsroom culture.

The latest example of VOA’s selective censorship according to the ideological test were how the VOA English Newsroom handled the recent resignations of New York Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss and New York Magazine writer Andrew Sullivan. Initially, I could not find on the VOA English News website or other VOA websites any original Voice of America reporting or analysis on this topic.

Eventually, VOA re-posted an AP report on Bari Weiss’ resignation, which also mentioned Andrew Sullivan’s resignation, but it happened two days after other U.S. media reported on it, and one day after I wrote to VOA’s management pointing out their lack of reporting on this story. The date on the original AP report was July 14. VOA posted it on July 16.

When they absolutely cannot avoid reporting on something that might reflect poorly on their preferred social causes, organizations and politicians, VOA Newsroom editors and writers will sometimes use a news agency report, usually a short one. That way no one can be accused by their colleagues or superiors of initiating and writing their own reports that down the road might help Trump and conservatives win the next election. It is important for Americans to know that a large portion of web traffic for VOA English News content comes from the United States and may have an impact on American elections. It is also important to know that not all news agency reports used by VOA meet the criteria of the VOA Charter. This can result in state-funded interference in U. S. elections by U.S. government employees. It would not happen if they always observed the VOA Charter, but they do not, even when they re-post news agency reports.

In any case, what respectable news organization publishes a news agency news report with a two-day delay? I still could not find any mention by VOA of the Harper’s Magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by leading American and foreign left and centrist intellectual figures. Because of the large number of prominent signatories, the letter was even more significant than the protest resignations at the two liberal media outlets. What these defenders of free speech said describes perfectly the VOA Newsroom.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. 

These were important developments in the current culture war in America widely reported by both liberal and conservative media. They were at first ignored by VOA and then only partially mentioned in an AP report re-posted two days late by VOA, which previously has reported constantly and favorably, and still does, on many “cancel culture” initiatives, often in multiple lengthy articles with one-sided commentaries from supporters of these actions and approving commentary from VOA reporters.

However, seeing an old AP report on the VOA English News website, most likely re-posted on instructions from higher-ups who had been told of VOA’s failure to cover the story, represents a small progress under Michael Pack and new Acting VOA Director Dr. Elez Biberaj. Pack has chosen Biberaj for what appears to be an interim appointment until a permanent VOA director is selected. He was picked most likely because he is an immigrant from a communist country, has high academic credentials, has been with VOA for many years and can compare the American experience to what goes on in the rest of the world. He cannot be accused of being a Trump loyalist since his personal and family links to former President Obama, former Vice President Biden and other Democratic Party politicians can be found on social media. It somehow did not occur to op-ed writers and reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times that Pack would not have picked someone like Biberaj even for an interim appointment if he wanted to mess with VOA’s objectivity. Even restoring objectivity will be no simple task for whoever is chosen as permanent VOA director.

Former VOA director Amanda Bennett, her former deputy Sandy Sugawara and their former boss John Lansing (now in charge of NPR) usually did nothing when I informed them about missing news stories and other violations of the VOA Charter. With one or two exceptions in 2016, they never responded to any of my messages about serious management-related problems. Many of them later turned into full-blown scandals, including illegal targeting of Americans with Facebook ads, posting a call to violence in a 2016 election campaign video against an American politician (Trump), Iran regime propaganda, offensive social media comments by several VOA Newsroom reporters against Trump and Trump voters, and hiring a reporter who had previously produced Russian propaganda videos with anti-U.S. conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic themes.

Since the Voice of America did not report on its own on these significant developments American culture, politics and journalism, I wonder how much former Director Amanda Bennett’s favorite slogan “Free Press Matters” is really worth at VOA?

Sure, VOA reporters have compared Donald Trump to Lenin, Stalin and Mao when he tweeted that media spreading “fake news” is “the enemy of the people.” But what about attacks on free press and free speech from the radical Left and even some moderate left-wing groups and individuals? VOA Newsroom editors and reporters did not come to the defense of their VOA Mandarin 5 colleagues when some of Chinese Branch anti-communist journalists were suspended and some fired in a programming dispute with former VOA director Amanda Bennett. Their voices and their careers in journalism were effectively silenced or halted.

The VOA Charter says that:

VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

I have not seen anything from VOA for years on cancel culture-inspired censorship at academic institutions. VOA basically treated the same way the recent resignations of Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan, and the Harper’s Magazine letter critical of “cancel culture.”

Liberal media report on these developments, even if they don’t like criticism, because it became a somewhat important news in America. Some foreign media report on it. Voice of America VOA Newsroom reporters and editors did not initiate their own coverage. Russia’s RT had three original reports, one of them by “a Russian-American journalist living in New York, who has written for The New York Times.” BBC reported already on July 8 that “Some 150 writers, academics and activists – including authors JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood – have signed an open letter denouncing the restriction of debate’.”

Foreign scholars, victims of communist repressions whom we had interviewed at VOA during the Cold War, have been targeted by “cancel culture” movements in the U.S.  But VOA won’t report on it, may be because … quite a few VOA editors and reporters view anyone who disagrees with them with contempt. By anyone I mean mainstream conservatives and centrists who are against racism and discrimination as well as against “cancel culture.”

Responsible mainstream conservative thought is almost never reflected in VOA output, but views and claims of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are, repeatedly.

I know a few Andrew Sullivans at the Voice of America Newsroom, now may be three or four who are left among dozens of journalists and broadcasters. They are decent middle-of-the-road Americans, men and women, Republicans and Democrats who sometimes contact their former VOA colleagues to complain about intolerance, ideological intimidation and radical left-wing censorship at their U.S. government employer. But they say they are afraid to go public, and they won’t, because under the “cancel culture” at the VOA Newsroom, it is too dangerous. 

Just something to consider. 

Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a former acting associate director of the Voice of America and former chief of VOA Polish Service during independent trade union Solidarity’s struggle for democracy. He is now a co-founder and supporter of BBG – USAGM Watch.