VOA Needs Protection to Stay Effective, Author Says

By Bill Wanlund

The Voice of America and other U.S –funded international media risk ideological “capture” if protections against outside interference aren’t strengthened, media scholar Dr. Kate Wright told a First Monday Forum [FMF] audience Aug.7.

Wright, associate professor of media and communications at the University of Edinburgh, is lead author of the forthcoming Oxford University Press book, Capturing the News: Trump and the Voice of America. The book examines VOA’s management and journalism at the tail end of the Trump Administration, during what Wright calls the “quite controversial” period – June 2020 – January 2021 – when political appointee, Michael Pack, directed the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), parent agency of VOA and other government broadcasters.

During that period, Wright and coauthors Martin Scott (University of East Anglia) and Mel Bunce (City, University of London) found evidence of increasing politicization in VOA, reflected in journalists’ self-censorship –including filing non-analytical, event-focused reports while refraining from analysis or background; relying on “safe” sources, especially wire services; and doing “far less reporting” on the 2020 presidential election than during previous elections.

VOA language services were affected most by self-censorship, with some no longer “pitching” any U.S. stories, or by not doing any original reporting at all. One service “deleted tens of [previously posted] online stories out of fear,” she said.

Wright said the “fear” stemmed partly from direct interventions by Pack and members of his “front office team” of political appointees, including internal disciplinary investigations, which many VOA journalists found “intimidating.”

These direct interventions in editorial matters were enabled –and their impact exacerbated - by changes in the journalists’ working environment. Wright noted that an Obama-era change in the law shifted authority from the bipartisan Broadcast Board of Governors to a single political appointee, the CEO of the federal agency [later renamed USAGM]. Wright argued that the wording of this law was “very vague and open to interpretation” by failing to clarify the limits of a CEO’s power. She explained that Pack brought other people into USAGM “through various practices common in the US civil service,” and concentrated decision-making in their hands.

Pack and his team then suspended several long-time USAGM executives for various unproven allegations, including USAGM’s General Counsel, who advises the CEO. The executives have since been fully cleared and reinstated, and their suspension was strongly criticized in a report by the Office of Special Counsel. Meanwhile, Pack and the attorneys he recruited were able to reinterpret VOA’s Charter and the attendant body of law, which Wright argued contains several unresolved tensions and lacks key definitions.

In addition, Wright said, structural changes made during a previous period of politicization in the Reagan era shifted VOA’s support services to its parent agency, producing what Wright called a “bureaucratic bottleneck” which meant that VOA could not access Congressionally allocated funds, recruit staff, pay running expenses, or access the visas needed to employ foreign journalists, without USAGM approval. Wright said the Pack Team’s decision to freeze spending and recruitment, as well as their review of the visa application process, left many VOA journalists under-resourced, overworked, and increasingly stressed— especially in some language services.  

Moreover, the requirement that VOA staff use a USAGM server for emails caused concern that communications could be under surveillance - an issue of special concern during the pandemic period, when many employees worked from home.

Asked by FMF moderator Will Youmans, executive director of the GWU Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, about VOA journalists’ resistance to what they saw as encroachment on their professional rights and duties, Wright replied that some used “external” tactics -- for example, taking management to court, whistleblowing, working with the civil society Government Accountability Project, and leaking to media and Congress. These tactics have “born fruit,” Wright said, but legal and governmental action “took a long time” to produce changes.

Wright said employees also used “internal” resistance tactics, such as “slowwalking” the procurement and security clearance procedures involved in bringing in proposed political appointees, during the final days of the Trump administration, to ensure that due process was correctly followed. Some VOA staff also “very deliberately buried” the hyperlink to a controversial January speech by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which they had been instructed to livestream in full without analysis.

The researchers then compared VOA’s experiences during this period with periods of ‘capture’ of other national and international public service media, -- including in the UK, Hungary, Poland, South Africa, Slovakia, Japan and Turkey – and could “trace striking parallels” between what happened to VOA and the increased politicization of public media in those countries, most of which were going through periods of de-democratization. She added that there wasn’t a “playbook or recipe for capture” as such, but there were “chords or common themes we have to be conscious of.”

Wright emphasized they found “no nefarious plot to turn the Voice of America into the Voice of Trump.” Instead, what they found was “much more piecemeal and chaotic—characteristics found in much of the Trump Administration.” They also found evidence that Pack and his front office seemed to “genuinely believe that they were correcting liberal bias and corruption – which means it is possible to be sincere about what you’re doing, but also sincerely wrong about the effects of what you’re doing.”

PDCA member Daniel Robinson noted Wright’s acknowledgment that the authors had not spoken to Pack or his team in writing the book. Wright replied that it was a “serious ethical question” for the authors. At the time, she said, an investigation into Pack’s management by the Office of Special Counsel was underway, which could potentially lead to other lawsuits. So, Wright explained, “We didn’t want to compromise those who were going to talk to the investigators or complicate [the investigation] in any way.” Instead, the research team “filled in their perspectives from their internal communications to balance out what we’d been looking at.”

“The best thing a researcher can do is be transparent in every way, and that’s what we tried to do,” Wright continued. But she stressed the independence of the research project, saying “This is not a VOA book – this is our book.:” The research team had a contract with USAGM, clarifying researchers' and USAGM's rights and responsibilities, including safeguarding researchers’ independence. But the book was not commissioned or conducted as consultancy, no money was offered or accepted, and organizational approval was neither sought nor given.

Wright said it was clear from the outset that [USAGM] had “no veto power – if they didn’t like something, they didn’t have the right to tell us [not to print it]. And they have stood by that. They could note inaccuracies or things they believed were misleading and give us proof of that. [But] we weren’t obliged to change anything.”

After doing the study, Wright concluded that, “there is no need for the VOA Director and Deputy to be political.” In fact, to ensure that VOA is protected from capture it “should keep all political appointees out” --though she conceded that this is unlikely, especially in a time of acute polarization.

“I’m not inferring that Michael Pack or any member of his team intended to turn VOA into a domestic broadcaster,” she said. “But when I looked at the laws, I saw they were toothless. What happens if an authoritarian from either political party uses VOA to target US citizens? Very little. There are laws there, but they’re really hard to enforce.”

Wright said VOA can continue to be important to U.S. diplomacy. “In the bigger picture, Russia, China, and Iran aren’t messing around in terms of the money they’re pumping into media. Aren’t there bigger values - democratic values, the virtues of public debate - that we should be upholding regardless of how we vote?”

“In any democracy and any representation of democracy, we should listen to each other,” she added. “Otherwise, we’re heading down a very nasty slippery slope.”

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The First Monday Forum is sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Council of America, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, and the GWU Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication. The full recording of this event is available here.