The Voice of America is the nation’s largest publicly-funded international broadcaster, reaching 280,000,000 multimedia users in 47 languages each week, many of whom access it daily for honest, balanced and accurate world news.
To most senior VOA officials, past and present, including this writer, an unsigned White House blog on April 9, 1600 Daily, omitted or misstated vital information about the scale and original date of the coronavirus outbreak in mainland China. That blog asserts in a bold headline: “Voice of America spends your money to speak for authoritarian regimes.”
But that attack was just the beginning.
President Trump went even further at his daily news briefing on April 15, largely devoted to the coronavirus. “If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting”. The President then assailed Congress for failing to take up his nomination of conservative Michael Pack as chief executive of all five U.S. funded multimedia organizations, the U.S.Agency for Global Media, until recently known as the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The USAGM is the oversight body of five overseas multimedia U.S.-funded networks: VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic, and Radio/TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba. Research in approximately 100 countries indicates that collectively, the five networks reach 350,000,000 people abroad every week.
In singling out VOA, however, Mr. Trump called on a largely absent Senate to formally adjourn so he could proceed to fill vacant positions as he chooses, including that of the USAGM’s CEO, capably led since last October 1 by Grant Turner, State Department careerist and previous chief financial officer of the USAGM.
In words directed at Congress, the President said at his April 15 news briefing: “The current practice of leaving town while conducting phony pro-forma sessions is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during this crisis.”
As VOA Director Amanda Bennett put it as early as April 9: “Unlike China, VOA has stuck to verifiable facts in Mandarin and English” and in its 45 other languages. She cited “China’s curtain of secrecy — keeping news of the PRC’s initial outbreak of coronavirus from a curious world for weeks after the deadly disease struck initially in China early last December.”
Ms. Bennett added: “VOA has thoroughly debunked much of the information coming from the Chinese government and government-controlled media. One of the differences between publicly-funded independent media, like VOA, and state-controlled media, is that we are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976.”
Minutes after President Trump’s formal condemnation of VOA April 15, Director Bennett was quoted by VOA White House correspondent Steve Herman as adding: “For more than 75 years, VOA has followed its mission of telling America’s story overseas and of bringing objective, fact-based information to places around the world that have no other access to it. As we have long said, we export the First Amendment.
“I believe in that mission,” Ms. Bennett added. “And judging from the way our audiences are surging to us seeking information they can rely on during this coronavirus crisis, the world believes in our mission. It’s hard work, and it’s important work, perhaps more than ever before.”
Impact of VOA and other Western International Broadcasts
Does carefully-sourced, objective news make a difference? The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy reports on April 16: “Now, countries around the world are under growing pressure to act. China, whose insatiable demands for animal parts drive much of the world wildlife trade, has taken the extraordinary step of banning the consumption of wild animals and may do the same for dogs. Vietnam, another country with a large demand for animal products, may do the same.”
As the VOA Charter (Public Law 94-350) puts it: “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive”. Or, as stated on the Voice’s first broadcast in 1942 during
World War II, “The news may be good for us… the news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.”
Other U.S. media organizations and VOA broadcasts have reacted to White House criticisms of VOA’s coverage of the pandemic and U.S. responses:
*National Public Radio (NPR) reporter David Folkenflik quotes Joel Simon, executive director of the U.S. Committee to Protect Journalists as saying: “It is outrageous that the White House is attacking Voice of America, which has a tradition of reporting stories that challenge the narratives of authoritarian regimes around the world.
“At this moment,” Mr. Simon continued, “citizens in some highly censored countries are depending for their health and safety on VOA news of the coronavirus, and President Trump should absolutely not undermine the news outlet’s efforts to do its job.”
*An in-depth article by Politico’s Caitlin Oprysko: Contacted by Politico after the unsigned White House statement, President Trump’s social media specialist Dan Scavino “took issue with one VOA tweet that showed a video of a light show in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak began and which is finally out from under a months-long lockdown. As Scavino put it: “American taxpayers — paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. government-funded Voice of America! Disgrace!”
VOA Director Bennett’s direct response: “We love FACTS. The fact is Wuhan has ended their lockdown and this video shows exactly that.” Politico concluded: “A former senior White House official in the George W. Bush administration couldn’t recall any instance when the White House ripped an executive agency as the White House did to VOA on April 10. According to Politico, “a public action like this was certainly uncommon, if not unprecedented.”
A recollection of my time as Chief of News and Current Affairs at VOA rings true in this global coronavirus crisis. Just after I arrived at work at 7:30 a.m. one Monday in late 1975, the coffee was just warming up when I received a call from a policy officer at the Voice’s parent agency at the time, the U.S. Information Agency.
“Congratulations, Alan!” the officer said. “A few minutes after midnight yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed a House annual appropriations bill that included the VOA Charter, meaning that it is now the law of the land, likely for years to come.” (The Charter had been approved initially by the White House during the Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s but it was not a law). That was up to Congress, as well as the Executive Branch.
The Charter has been reaffirmed by Congress at least twice over the years since that historic surprise call from USIA’s general counsel’s office. Its text still remains the network’s steady guiding North Star to this day.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More