USAGM Watch OPINION and COMMENTARY
By Ted Lipien
What is more important: protecting Voice of America (VOA) U.S. federal government employees and contractors working as journalists from policy influence of administration officials, or protecting U.S. citizens and foreign audiences from foreign propaganda and U.S. domestic partisan bias when VOA directors, managers editors and reporters help to spread disinformation and partisan messages in illegal attempts to influence U.S. elections? Are American taxpayers and most members of Congress aware that the Voice of America often violates its 1976 congressional VOA Charter? The answer to the second question is no because mainstream liberal media are either unaware of these violations or choose not to investigate them and do not report them.
Obviously, the Voice of America in the $800 million U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) must be protected with some form of “firewall” from direct editorial interference by U.S. administration officials. Kim Andrew Elliott, a retired Voice of America audience research analyst and media journalist, focused entirely in his recently published op-ed in The Hill on the need for “firewall” protections for VOA journalists. Unfortunately, he ignored the second and, in my view, a much more pressing issue of VOA officials and journalists illegally propagandizing to Americans in favor of what can be broadly described as a liberal agenda, and in some cases, an extreme left-wing agenda.
Like many U.S. liberal media reporters and commentators, Kim Andrew Elliott also failed to explore the problem of foreign propaganda and disinformation seeping in recent years into VOA programs. The problem became critical because of the lack of effective leadership, inadequate oversight, and the vastly diminished accountability of VOA managers, editors and reporters who use the excuse of the “firewall” to avoid monitoring of their work and to avoid taking responsibility for their own frequent violations of the VOA Charter.
Elliott did not address the fascinating dilemma of how attempts by federal government officials to protect U.S. citizens and U.S. elections from foreign or partisan propaganda through more aggressive enforcement of the provisions of the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law, may be under certain circumstances in conflict with the “firewall” provisions, which are also in the legislation and are designed to protect the independence of VOA journalists. The solution may be in establishing effective procedures for independent evaluation of VOA programs and for Republican and Democratic political appointees at USAGM to follow these procedures. They currently do not exist or do not work.
In my personal opinion, based on 30-plus years of working for the Voice of America in journalistic and managerial positions, as well as many years of studying VOA’s history, just as important as the editorial firewall between the Executive Branch and VOA is an effective system of holding VOA officials and journalists accountable so that they do not start engaging in foreign or domestic partisan propaganda. I saw it happen in recent years far more often and to a much more harmful effect than any instances of interference from White House or State Department officials, although such government attempts to influence VOA programs did occur, especially prior to the passing of the VOA Charter in 1976.
The Internet and social media now allow VOA officials and journalists far more opportunities to intentionally influence U.S. politics. They sometimes have illegally taken advantage of these opportunities, especially during the last few years. They have gotten away with it most of the time.
Almost all of the recent violations of the VOA Charter and the VOA Journalistic Code were by VOA executives, editors and reporters who were left-leaning since there are hardly any mainstream conservatives left at VOA, especially in the VOA central English newsroom, and those who are left keep a very low profile unlike their liberal colleagues. At the same time, almost all of the U.S. media warnings and alarms have been about alleged right-wing influence and bias, whether from the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s or the Donald Trump administration despite the fact that Obama administration officials were in charge of the agency until June 2020 and continue to hire editors and reporters who shared their political outlook. Contrary to most U.S. liberal media reports, VOA programs have not changed in any substantial way since Trump-appointee Michael Pack became USAGM CEO a few months ago.
Starting with the first Voice of America chief news writer and editor Howard Fast who was the 1953 Stalin Peace Prize winner, VOA thankfully never in its long history had a dominant right-wing culture, even under the most conservative Republican administrations. After the initial WWII period when VOA officials and journalists aggressively promoted Soviet propaganda, VOA had a moderate liberal organizational culture, which was, in my view, appropriate most of the time.
Even liberal Democratic administrations were aware that some VOA officials and journalists were leaning too radically to the left and in some cases were promoting foreign interests, mostly those of the Soviet Union. World War II era Under Secretary of State Summer Welles, a liberal personal friend of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and one of his key foreign policy advisors, convinced the Roosevelt White House to force the resignation of the first VOA director John Houseman–a film, radio and theatre producer responsible for hiring many of VOA’s early communists.
Houseman’s forced resignation was handled quietly. Disinformation about his tenure at VOA is still part of the official VOA management narrative, in which he is falsely presented as a defender of truthful journalism. Sumner Welles argued in his secret 1943 memorandum identifying Houseman as a pro-Soviet fellow traveler that a liberal message from America to the world would probably best serve broad U.S. interests. But Welles also argued strongly that any such message should be based on traditional American liberalism and be in support of liberty rather than promoting a foreign ideology which Soviet Russia tried to force on Americans with the help of American Communists and naive fellow traveler journalists and officials like Houseman and many other early VOA broadcasters.
If it is desired to give a distinctly liberal cast to these organisations, it would seem possible to find men who are liberal in the light of their own conviction, and of the American ideal, rather than men who have, for one reason or another, elected to give expression to their liberalism primarily by joining Communist front organizations, and apparently sacrificing their independence of thought and action to the direction of a distinctly European movement.Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles April 6, 1943 memorandum to Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President with enclosures, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website, Box 77, State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944; version date 2013.[ref]The memorandum about Soviet and communist influence within the wartime Voice of America, signed off with a cover memo by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a distinguished career diplomat and a major foreign policy advisor to President Roosevelt and his personal friend, was forwarded to the White House with the date, April 6, 1943. The attached memorandum with the addendum listing names of individuals who had been denied U.S. passports for government travel abroad was dated April 5, 1943. The documents were declassified in the mid-1970s and have been accessible online for some time from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website and the National Archives. It appears, however, that they have never been widely disclosed and analyzed before now. They are presented for the first time with a historical analysis on the Cold War Radio Museum website. Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles April 6, 1943 memorandum to Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President with enclosures, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website, Box 77, State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944; version date 2013. State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944, From Collection: FDR-FDRPSF Departmental Correspondence, Series: Departmental Correspondence, 1933 – 1945 Collection: President’s Secretary’s File (Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration), 1933 – 1945, National Archives Identifier: 16619284, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16619284.[/ref]
The Voice of America straightened out its course from pro-Soviet to anti-communist a few years after the end of World War II, but when the Cold War ended four decades later, VOA again drifted much more to the left. More recently , VOA became a venue for extreme left ideology pushed by some of its editors and reporters. More disturbingly, VOA also became a venue for left-wing partisan propaganda targeting Americans, including U.S. voters. There are probably now just a few journalists in the VOA central English newsroom who would describe themselves as mainstream conservatives. Some told me that they do not dare to challenge their bosses and their colleagues, fearing that they will be ostracized and denied promotions. But apparently one of the few remaining conservatives at the Voice of America posted anonymously a comment on the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy website pointing out that VOA is not at all “Voice of Trump” but is instead very much “Voice of Biden” even under Trump-appointed agency CEO.
Submitted by Concerned USAGM… on Fri, 11/20/2020 – 11:09am
In terms of whether VOA should continue to exist if Biden become president and appoints his own people to run it and its supervising agency (USAGM), I would say… no, it shouldn’t exist, if all it does is continue to promote a liberal American viewpoint to the rest of the world and to domestic audiences in the U.S., in violation of the VOA Charter that requires it *BY LAW* to represent all of America, not any single segment of American society. Taxpayers (especially conservative ones) should not stand for VOA continuing to be the “Voice of Biden” / “Voice of Liberal America”, as it has been for all of 2020 and basically all of the Trump presidency. If taxpayers knew what VOA really has become — a partisan news outlet that consistently ignores & marginalizes conservative voices in America — and if they realized that they are all paying for it, they might be furious. But most Americans just don’t know this. More Americans started learning about VOA when Trump made loud complaint about it earlier this year. But I doubt a President Biden would do or say much, so VOA would return to being just a tiny issue relative to everything else going on in this country. Sigh
I also saw elsewhere a response which may have come from a former VOA Newsroom correspondent.
I know VOA is supposed to serve foreign audiences. My point is that we’re violating our Charter by only representing liberal America, no matter where our audiences are, be they overseas or in the US. And because VOA content is accessed by many people in the US (a fact that cannot be disputed), it makes matters even worse, because taxpayers are essentially funding liberal propaganda that can influence domestic politics, whether that is VOA’s intention or not. This is a separate problem not explicitly addressed by the Charter, but it should absolutely be a matter of concern for Congress.
Some of the partisan VOA election propaganda from 2016 to 2020 has been in English, and some in some of foreign languages, as in this example from the VOA Urdu Service.
VOICE OF AMERICA CONTENT (funded by U.S. taxpayers)
Joe Biden (Video, English Audio) and Foreign Subtitles from Voice of America (VOA) Urdu Service. The video with the VOA logo remained for several days on various Voice of America online platforms before being taken down in response to protests.
JOE BIDEN: “I will end the Muslim ban on day one. Day one.
This from the Prophet Mohammad instructions: Whomever among you sees wrong, let him change it with his hand.
If he is not able, then with his tongue.
If he is not able, then with his heart.
NARRATOR: Make no mistake, people.
2020 IS OUR YEAR.
Let’s dive into it with 20/20 vision.
We can see clearly that America is fighting for its very soul.
JOE BIDEN: We all come from the same root here in terms of our fundamental basic beliefs.
And I just want to thank you for giving me the opportunity for being engaged, committing to action this November.
Your voice, your voice is your vote. Your vote is your voice. Muslim American voices matter.
I’ll be the President who seeks out and listens who incorporates and concerns and ideas of Muslim Americans on everyday issues that matter most to our communities.
I’ll include Muslim American voices as part of my administration.
NARRATOR: GETTING OUT THE VOTE.
GETTING OUR FAMILIES out to vote.
Getting OUR ELDERLY out to vote.
Getting OUR MASJIDS out to vote.
Getting OUR NEIGHBORHOODS out to vote.
So LET’S DO OUR PART
AND JOIN THE
1 MILLION MUSLIM VOTES CAMPAIGN.
Let’s roll up our sleeves.
Let’s make our voices heard.
We got the means.
We got the numbers.
And we got the power.
[Photos of Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour]
IF WE JUST DO OUR PART
WE CAN CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director, former VOA Eurasia Division director, former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) regional Eurasia marketing director for VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and former VOA Polish Service chief during Solidarity and martial law period in Poland. He is also a co-founder and supporter of BBG – USAGM Watch.