Understanding the White House’s Attack on VOA

Last week, the Trump administration attacked the US government-funded Voice of America. The White House did this through its online newsletter and a tweet by Trump’s Director of Social Media. Described as a “bizarre broadside,” these public statements are really just more revelations of the decay and drift of US foreign policy and this administration’s inability to provide even a modicum of leadership.

Understanding VOA’s role and the administration’s response is not based on partisanship. It does require a grasp of basic facts, legislative requirements and restrictions, the intended function of VOA, and the president’s role as head of US foreign policy. Few, however, take the time to know or understand any of this, including the White House and Congress, while others take advantage of the lack of oversight.

An honest analysis here starts with VOA and then loops back to the White House. For this discussion, the purpose of the White House newsletter’s, 1600 Daily, to push praise and articles, often from sites with weak associations with facts, and the removal of the newsletter’s archive to obscure the public record is irrelevant. Also irrelevant is any perceived separation of Dan Scavino, Jr.’s tweet as Director of Social Media from the newsletter as they were created effectively by the same office at the same time.

The central question that must be asked: Was VOA’s English-language tweet and article on Wuhan’s light show relevant to its mission?

VOA tweet of 7 April 2020, 10:42pm (CET?) on a light show in Wuhan, China, that "marked the end of a mont's long lockdown".
Screenshot taken 14 April 2020, 11:45a CET

To answer this question, it is important to consider VOA’s role and legislative authorities (in other words, the law), why VOA tweeted in English, and why the article in question, authored by the Associated Press and not VOA, was posted.

First, it is not the job of VOA to inform Americans about the world, regardless of whatever the current VOA Director may assert or imply. This is not related to legislation authorizing the “dissemination abroad” of information as these words were included at the request of the State Department to provide a blanket global authority and not a restriction imposed by Congress. Nor is it an issue stemming from the denial of access amendments passed by Senators Fulbright (1972) and Zorinsky (1985) that shape modern views of the Smith-Mundt Act. Nor is it an issue of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2013, which clarified that the language in the Smith-Mundt Act, found in Title 22 of the US Code, does not pertain to Title 10 nor Title 50 activities, nor to any agencies other than the State Department and the then-named Broadcasting Board of Governors, which are covered by Title 22.

Congress was clear with its intent that VOA must not compete with commercial media. Section 502 of the original Smith-Mundt Act, now 22 USC 1462, says VOA’s leadership, actually the leadership above VOA, “shall reduce such Government information activities whenever corresponding private information dissemination is found to be adequate.” The term “private” was inclusive of commercial and nonprofit operators and opposed to public or government operations. Above the VOA Director was the CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), but in 2018 the BBG was renamed the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) after the board was eliminated. Section 502 stressed “the fact that this Government service functions only where, as, and if private agencies are unwilling or unable to function,” as Rep. Karl Mundt (R-SD) said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in July 1947 on his bill, HR 3342, which became the Smith-Mundt Act. Section 502 also serves as a “sunset clause.”

It is unlikely the current Acting CEO of USAGM would testify before Congress and declare VOA is providing content for Americans because “private information dissemination” in the US is inadequate.

Congress was also clear with its intent with Section 1005 of the Smith-Mundt Act, now 22 USC 1437, requiring VOA to use private agencies to the “maximum extent practicable.” This section intended to place as much of the news programming into the hands of private media. The government’s role was to be supplemental and facilitative. This section authorized VOA, to give an example used in 1947, to take the Herald Tribune and pay for its translation into French. It had the added benefit of also preventing competition with the private sector. 

Here, VOA did use private media, the Associated Press, for its coverage of Wuhan’s light show, superficially satisfying 22 USC 1437. But was this article translated into Mandarin? The decision was likely up to the Mandarin language service chief (I believe VOA’s Cantonese service was discontinued years ago). Even if the Mandarin language service did translate it, for whom was the English language “broadcast” intended?

While we could stop here and dismiss Dan Scavino as being triggered not by a VOA story but an AP story, the question of the tweet and article relevance to VOA’s mission is still unanswered.

Screenshot taken 14 April 2020 11:45a CET

But why was VOA tweeting and posting in English if it is not a news service for Americans and is not to compete with US media, which is abundantly available in the US?

To start, VOA’s English-language service targets global elites, foreign media, and audiences the VOA does not reach in their native language. Over the years, there have been attempts to eliminate the English service. These failed because these groups were considered necessary to reach, and rightly so. I know this because I helped defend the English-language service in my previous roles as a public diplomacy expert, as the Executive Director of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy providing guidance and information to Congress, and as a Governor on the then-Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Both a cursory and in-depth examination of VOA’s English-language site and its tweets, including the article in question here, suggest they are aimed at a sophisticated English-language audience familiar with the US and US-English. Considering this AP report was apparently taken straight from the AP feed, this should not be a surprise. A quick Google search reveals this article was picked up by media around the world, there is no indication the AP intended this article for a non-US English audience considering the use of “SWAT teams,” “hazmat suit,” and converting Chinese yuan to US dollars.

The article on Wuhan was available to AP clients around the world, including in the US, so for what purpose did VOA select this article to post on the web and tweet out? The Google search revealed VOA did not provide any unique value to the article in terms of either reach or additional reporting. In fact, it appears more clearly that VOA is intentionally competing with other AP customers for eyeballs, a violation of 22 USC 1462.

VOA’s failure to properly manage its scarce resources and provide quality and unique reporting is not, unfortunately, an atypical problem. I encountered worse when I was a Governor on the BBG with reporting produced in-house. In one case, the initial article read like it should have come from Moscow’s RT (Russia Today) network. An investigation I requested revealed the article was edited about three dozen times over a 24hr period, grew in size by 24%, including a title change, with no indication to the user the article had any change. VOA had, until then, refused to show a publish date and time because they felt doing so suggested the article was breaking news. They also believed it was ok to update articles over time as if they were some kind of Wikipedia entry, though even Wikipedia uses time-stamps and the ability to see changes over time. My inquiry, and pressure, led them to change their practice and start publishing the time stamp (you’re welcome), which returns us to the AP article in question. Mercury News, the Silicon Valley newspaper, has the same AP story as VOA on its website, both originally published on April 7. Still, Mercury News shows the story as updated on April 8. The VOA story is 100-words shorter than the newspaper’s update and missing various edits. VOA’s failure to update the story suggests a lack of attention, and possibly that the story is just filler. If so, then why publish the article at all? This gets to the penultimate point.

The VOA Director, Amanda Bennett, tweeted a rebuttal that avoided the central question. Director Bennett asserts that VOA is an independent news agency providing factual coverage of China pointing to English-language articles published by VOA. One came from the AP, another from the French wire service AFP, many from VOA reporters, and one from VOA’s sister agency at USAGM, Radio Free Asia. At no point does she discuss why the materials are in English, that the English-language audience is not primary, nor does she mention whether any of the articles were intended for audiences outside of the US. Nor does she explain why Radio Free Asia’s article was translated into English. These are inconvenient, yet highly relevant, questions.

The collection of these reports in English that draw an English language audience, violates the basic non-compete principles intended from the start, enshrined in the original law, and called out in the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2013.

I have heard and seen comments from many colleagues the value they place on the English-language service of VOA. I question the value VOA has achieved here not because of VOA is some kind of “propaganda” agency, it is not, but because it has scarce resources to conduct its unique mission of informing the uninformed and ill-informed.

This is not, apparently, a problem restricted to VOA at USAGM. There is a recent situation that RFE/RL was using FaceBook ads to potentially expand its audience in the US, a country that is not among RFE/RL’s target countries. There is also the now-ancient issue of RFA spending its even more scarce resources to translate its programming to English to influence Congress and others.

In the end, it would seem the tweet and the article on Wuhan’s light show were not relevant to VOA’s mission, at least not the English-language version which did not provide any additional value over other commercially available media. A cursory look suggests this may be the case with the majority of VOA’s English-language operation.

It should be apparent at this point that there is a problem of leadership at both VOA and USAGM that has permitted the situation to not just perpetuate but potentially get worse, as Director Bennett’s mission-deaf comments reveal.

So where is the oversight to fix this?

Once upon a time there was a bipartisan board overseeing the operation. The design was to have eight “Governors,” four Republicans and four Democrats, serving staggered 3-year terms. The Secretary of State, or the Secretary’s designated representative, served as the ninth member of the board. The staggered terms meant to ensure “new blood” would invigorate the board without the loss of knowledge that would come with an appointment of a whole slate. No president, neither Bush 43 nor Obama, ever nominated members with the required regularity. By the time a new board was nominated in 2010, for example, the terms of the few remaining members had expired about 3.5-years earlier (members served until replaced, not when their terms or expired or administrations changed). The system was defective in other ways such as, until 2013, Governors encouraged the different broadcast units – VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, Middle East Broadcast Networks, Office of Cuba Broadcasting — to compete against each other instead of the agency looking holistically at the mission and what each entity brought to the table. The past CEO of BBG, who is now the president and CEO of NPR, lied and withheld information to the Governors, Members and staff in the Senate, and to the State Department to abolish the board and thus remove that level of oversight in December 2016. The legislative change meant the CEO of the then-BBG held all the power of the agency, a position to be filled by a Presidential nominee confirmed by the Senate. This can lead to a highly-politicized agency. One fellow Governor told me he supported this plan because “USIA’s Director was never political,” a demonstrably untrue statement.

The Trump administration did announce a nominee in 2018, a Steve Bannon ally, for the CEO job of BBG, and then-renamed USAGM. But, in April 2020, like many other positions across government, there is only an Acting CEO.

(Note: Unless there was a change, the VOA Director may not be fired by the CEO as the Director is a Non-Career SES, Senior Executive Service, position. The White House may fire the Director, at the CEO’s request or despite the CEO’s opposition.)

The other recourse for oversight is Congress. Here the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committees are the first stops. My personal experience with both is their knowledge of the agency and the relevant legislation is low. In my visits with committee Members when I was a Governor, well over half were ill-acquainted with the BBG and several expressed surprise VOA was still operating and only learned of the fact because of my request to meet. The only real Congressional oversight over the past decade and beyond was exercised by the Senate appropriations committee. The staff here, who had the full support of the chair and ranking Members, have since retired or moved on. In the situation we have here, a phone call from the appropriators would have been expected, and dreaded.

It is perhaps ironic that the conditions that led to the White House’s discomfort with the VOA’s story, which was actually an AP story, can be traced to a lack of leadership by the administration that allows Director Bennett to misuse scarce resources to run VOA as just another news agency competing with US media for audience instead of reaching and empowering audiences abroad. One can lament the politicization of VOA, but the action of the last CEO also made it possible for the entire agency to become similarly politicized with little in the way of recourse when Congress is blind and paralyzed and the White House is incompetent.

This article was updated on 16 April 2020 at 6:26a CET for clarity. The year the Trump administration first nominated a CEO for BBG was also added.