For a president who rails against the “fake news media” and dreams aloud of creating a state-run alternative, the Voice of America would seem an irresistible target.
The government-owned news service beams around the world, reaching an estimated 275 million people on radio, internet and television, with a brand honed during the mid-20th century Cold War era that President Trump idealizes as a time of unquestioned American greatness.
Yet two years into his administration, despite predictions that he would transform it into “Trump TV,” the Voice of America has remained largely untouched.
Despite journalistic ethics lapses by some of its staff that have brought embarrassment and scrutiny of its foreign coverage, the service’s reporting on the Trump administration is hardly distinguishable from that of commercial news outlets. The bipartisan board and chief executive who oversee the network — for now — along with its news director and her deputy, are the same group of people who have been in place since President Obama sat in the White House.
Yet the debate over the news service’s future may be nearing eruption.
After a six-month stall, the Senate could give a hearing early in the new year to Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, Michael Pack, an ally and former filmmaking collaborator of the president’s past strategist and provocateur, Stephen K. Bannon.
And Trump recently tweeted that “something has to be done” to counter the international influence of CNN, his media nemesis, “including the possibility of the United States starting our own Worldwide Network to show the World the way we really are, GREAT!”
On one side of the emerging fight are Trump allies, led by Bannon, who are eager to shed some of the Voice of America’s hard-won independence and use the service more overtly to further Trump’s “America first” agenda.
“VOA is a rotten fish from top to bottom,” Bannon, the former leader of the conservative Breitbart news site, said in an interview. “It’s now totally controlled by the deep-state apparatus.”
He has been pushing Trump to take control of the Voice of America since he served as chief White House strategist during Trump’s first seven months in office. Following his forced departure, Bannon has kept up the fight from the outside.
On the other side is a bipartisan group arguing that independent reporting — including controversial stories about U.S. politics — offers the best advertisement for American values abroad.
The potential showdown comes at an especially fraught time for the network. In October, 15 people — more than half the staff for Hausa-language broadcasts to West Africa — were fired or recommended for termination for taking bribes from a government official. An employee in the Voice of America’s Mandarin service was recently let go after she ignored orders to limit a live interview with a prominent critic of the Chinese government to an hour.
Compounding the Voice of America’s problems: The same chief executive who oversees the network also runs American networks that long have been viewed as producing pro-democracy propaganda, including Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The Cuba network, which produces Radio and TV Marti from Miami, recently was forced to discipline employees and begin an internal investigation over the publishing of an online anti-Muslim piece and an anti-Semitic broadcast that labeled liberal philanthropist and donor George Soros a “non-practicing Jew of flexible morals.”
Voice of America editors, who typically come from more traditional journalism backgrounds, have long had a strained relationship with Marti and the other networks. But the sister entities’ scandals could undermine their efforts to preserve their own independence.
In the Trump era, the battle over the news network could well serve as a proxy for larger arguments the president has provoked about the value of a free press.
Bannon, who shares the president’s view that open warfare with the mainstream media is the most effective tool in politics, said he told Trump long ago that he didn’t need to start a new government network. “You got one,” he said he argued. “It’s called Voice of America.”
Trump’s interactions with Voice of America have been limited to a pair of interviews with Greta Van Susteren, the former cable news host who now has a weekly show without taking a salary.
To date he has largely ignored Bannon’s entreaties to take a more personal stake in the network. “Some things don’t resonate with him,” Bannon said. “He doesn’t think it’s big league.”
Voice of America’s defenders welcome that disinterest, assuming Trump has ignored it because most broadcasts are in one of 46 foreign languages and are largely unseen inside the United States.
“He seems to be totally focused on what he calls the ‘enemy of the people,’ which are the domestic media, so I don’t think he has a focus on that. But some of his people clearly have tried to get their tentacles into it,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has oversight of Voice of America.
Menendez spoke out in March against what the mainstream news site Foreign Policy labeled a “coup attempt” by Bannon allies inside the operations. They attempted to overthrow the leadership of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which runs Voice of America and the other government news entities.
One person identified as an instigator transferred to the Commerce Department. Another still works at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Earlier efforts to embed Trump allies during the postelection transition also stoked fears among Voice of America advocates.
But Bannon may ultimately get his way. In June, Trump nominated Pack, former president of the right-leaning Claremont Institute, to become the chief executive of the Agency for Global Media.
Pack, who declined to comment while his nomination is pending, has worked with Bannon on two documentaries, one on nuclear power and the other on the Iraq war. Bannon said Pack was tapped to infuse the agency with Trump’s America first vision.
Some critics, including congressional Democrats, fear Pack will do just that.
“I am concerned,” Menendez said, adding that one of the reasons Pack’s nomination has stalled “is because we haven’t given it a green light.”
But some Voice of America supporters and employees say it’s too soon to judge Pack, pointing out that he was not especially controversial when he served as the senior vice president for programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 2003 to 2006.
Menendez is skeptical. He’s proposed a bill to weaken the power of the Voice of America chief.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said through a spokeswoman that Pack’s nomination had been held up only because he failed to submit the proper paperwork. But Corker, in an interview, said he shared the view that the network needed to remain free of political influence.
“The last thing I want to see happen with this organization is that they become a propaganda arm,” he said. “Obviously, we want news about America to be pumped into these countries and we want news about these countries to be pumped in. But we want that to be the truth.”
Corker, an occasional critic of Trump, is retiring at the end of the year and his successor, Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, has been a stalwart Trump supporter.
Voice of America officials and allies are depending on the agency’s charter to ensure a firewall between government officials and the professionals tapped to make editorial decisions. The charter was written into law in 1976, in response to the Nixon administration’s attempts to clamp down on Voice of America’s Watergate coverage. The agency’s leadership is key to protecting that firewall, however.
Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who earlier won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, keeps the charter on her wall. She said she had tried to steer clear of questions over whether the current chief executive, John Lansing, is replaced by Pack or anyone else. A new chief executive would probably spell the end of her tenure running the news operation.
“There’s only two things I want out of this transition,” she said — to “have it be done according to legal process and have it be somebody who respects the firewall.”
Bennett said the Voice of America had differentiated itself from the propaganda outlets of Russia, China and other foreign powers, which use them as tools of information warfare and foreign policy.
“We’re America’s BBC,” she said. “Without the cool voices.”
David Ensor, a former Voice of America director who previously was a network news correspondent, said VOA inevitably encounters difficult confrontations with governments in countries where it reports, many of which are police states. He credits the current management with maintaining professional standards in the face of such stress.
“This is tough stuff,” he said. “This is grown-up activity.”
Ensor said he pushed back against domestic political pressure from Washington more than once in the job. In one instance, an assistant secretary of State called him in to convey a request for softer coverage of the human rights record of a country — which he would not name — that had been helpful in combating terrorism and in other intelligence issues.
Ensor asked for examples of factual errors in Voice of America’s reportage. The official was unable to provide them.
“Well, Mr. Secretary, you did your job and I’m going to do mine, which is to ignore you completely,” Ensor recalled telling the official. “It’s absolutely inappropriate for me to interfere with the human rights coverage of country X, just because that country doesn’t like it very much.”