This month, President Donald Trump successfully coerced Senate Republicans to ram through the stalled nomination of conservative filmmaker Michael Pack to run the United States Agency for Global Media, which oversees a handful of federally funded but editorially independent media organizations, like Voice of America. Pack, an ally of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, was selected by Trump in hopes of steering favorable coverage from the group of outlets, which, put together, amount to one of the largest media networks in the world. Trump has railed on about the buttoned up coverage of VOA, which broadcasts in 40 languages to as many as 280 million people a week, at one point referring to it as the “Voice of the Soviet Union,” and more recently accusing it of reciting Chinese propaganda. On Wednesday night, Pack did what he was sent to do and summarily fired the heads of the five media organizations overseen by the media agency. Pack also dismissed the bipartisan board that oversees the media organizations, replacing it with Trump loyalists, including himself as the chair.
The top brass of Voice of America had already resigned earlier in the week [including Amanda Bennett, the now former director, who is the spouse of Donald Graham of Graham Holdings, which owns Slate] but by Wednesday Pack had cleared out the remaining leadership of five more of the agency’s media organizations: Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Open Technology Fund. The removal of the networks’ top brass, which have been historically committed to broadcasting strait-laced news to parts of the world where real news is hard to come by, is an ominous sign. Installing a Bannon-aligned leader that appears bent on making the network of organizations what they were specifically designed to combat is just the latest sign of the degradation brought on by the Trump administration. The entire point of Voice of America, created in 1942 as a radio broadcast, was to combat Nazi propaganda with good faith news reporting.
VOA is familiar with navigating the changing political winds in Washington and protecting its mandate to do the news despite the whims of the political leaders that oversee its funding. While VOA itself had overtly political oversight in its early days, opening it to accusations that it too was propaganda in its own right, its mission has been refined and its independence strengthened over the years. For a no-nonsense report on Trump’s criticism of the network and its history, it’s no surprise that you need not look further than VOA itself, which produced this unselfconscious account of the Trump-generated controversy and its history. “By 1976, Congress and VOA executives determined the agency needed a clearer editorial mandate to ensure that it maintained credibility with overseas audiences,” the story reads. “Congress drafted the Charter, which says VOA must publish accurate news; produce content that represents all of American society; and provide clear explanations and discussions of U.S. policies.”
The premise of the networks—that information itself is more powerful and more persuasive than propaganda—was already under implicit threat by Trump’s mere existence in the Oval Office; now it is under explicit attack. “If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting,” Trump fumed during a coronavirus press conference in April. “Things they say are disgusting toward our country.” What Trump has discovered is something that these media organizations have known since their creation—the truth hurts.