How the battle for Voice of America became the struggle for America's heart and soul

The Trump administration has been accused of interfering in the independence of US media after conservative Michael Pack was made new chief of USAGM

                            How the battle for Voice of America became the struggle for America's heart and soul
(Getty Images)

One of the pillars of America’s leadership in the Free World has been its commitment to the independence of the media. Unlike several banana republics in the world, the US has always valued its editorial voice and even foreign audiences have looked up to its media outlets for independent reporting, both in the US and overseas. Outlets like Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have earned a reputation over the years through their credible reporting. 

But that legacy could be in danger now, especially after President Donald Trump installed a new head at the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) in Michael Pack, a conservative film-maker and ally to alt-right propagandist Steve Bannon, a former aide to Trump. Pack started his tenure by straightaway sacking the chiefs of RFE/RL, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MEBN) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and getting rid of their boards. Two top editors of VOA also stepped down earlier this week. 

Pack did not care to give an explanation for his actions and said in a self-congratulatory news release that “every action I will carry out will be geared toward rebuilding the
USAGM’s reputation, boosting morale and improving content.” But according to one piece penned by The Washington Post’s editorial board, disappointed insiders in the agency said Pack looked firm in his drive to turn the body into a vehicle to promote Trump.

The president has in the past expressed his contempt for the VOA. In April, the White House alleged that the outlet was carrying out propaganda for the Chinese as Trump was battling the coronavirus pandemic that originated from the Asian powerhouse. When Trump picked Pack and got the Senate Republicans back him, it was understood clearly that the writing was on the wall for VOA’s award-winning director Amanda Bennett. She and her deputy Sandy Sugawara stepped down soon as Pack entered. Likewise, RFE/RL head Jamie Fly and MEBN’s Alberto Fernandez also met the end of their respective stints. 

Obama administration also blamed

According to the WaPo piece, “such manipulation” of the US government media was also made possible by a “misguided reform” Congress passed four years ago that ended an independent, bipartisan board that earlier governed the broadcasters and provided a buffer from the administration. “Congressional sponsors and Obama administration officials at the time brushed off our concerns that it could destroy the very qualities of independence and journalistic integrity that have distinguished U.S. government media. Mr. Pack appears on his way to demonstrate just how wrong they were,” it said.

Former VOA director Amanda Bennett with Don Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post (Getty Images)


“The Obama administration — perhaps anticipating a Hillary Clinton presidency — supported these changes,” a WaPo editorial piece that time had said.

Critics have expressed worry that Pack will transform the content of the VOA and its affiliates to promote Trump in violation of their character saying they will remain editorially independent from the government, which funds them.

Trump himself fuelled in part the concerns over the VOA’s direction of working from here on by tweeting that Pack’s taking over is "a big victory... for America" after "a big battle in Congress for 25 years”. Bannon, on the other hand, slammed the previous leadership of the outlet, by telling Washington Times, "After decades of kowtowing to (China), Amanda Bennett resigned before being summarily fired.” Bannon even called Pack his guy who he pushed hard. Bannon is of the opinion that America’s media houses should be “on point” with the White House’s foreign policy, especially when it comes to confronting China. 

Trump's VOA adventure slammed on Twitter

The Trump administration’s move to allegedly turn the government-funded agencies into vehicles of its propaganda was slammed on social media.

Author Nina Willner said on Twitter: “VOA once a beacon of light, truth and hope for millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War - is now in the hands of Trump right wing cronies. This folks is the very definition of authoritarianism. Stay tuned.”

Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, tweeted on Tuesday, June 16: “ Voice of America staffers are concerned a massive shakeup at the agency is coming including the possibility of former WH official Sebastian Gorka joining board overseeing outlet. A source close to WH says it’s under discussion.”

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren called it corruption. In a tweet, she said: “Steve Bannon's buddy Michael Pack should understand that Voice of America's programming is supposed to support freedom and democracy around the world, not act as Donald Trump's Ministry of Propaganda. That's what Fox News is for. This is corruption.”

Journalist and commentator Joy Reid tweeted: “What @maddow is describing right now about what Trump is doing to gut and rebrand the @USAGMgov including @VOANews as a Christian far right/ Bannononite / alt right monstrosity, is the the very definition of “kakistocracy.””

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