As anyone who’s ever lived, worked or served overseas will tell you, the Voice of America is an invaluable and highly respected source of news and reliable information in a world too often flooded with misinformation and propaganda.
That is because, since its founding, just weeks after America entered World War II, the VOA has, as it announced to the German people in a live broadcast on Feb. 1, 1942, aspired to deliver reliable journalism and “tell the truth” to the nations of the world, friend or foe, ally or adversary.
In that first broadcast, after a stirring rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the esteemed journalist and VOA announcer William Harlan Hale spoke directly to the German people, relaying this simple yet profound message:
”We bring you voices from America. Today, and daily from now on, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good for us. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.”
Nearly eight decades later, with a U.S. president who regularly labels well-documented, credible reporting “fake news” and claims that “much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people,” one can understand why he and his administration are now apparently setting their sights on the VOA.
In an unprecedented and, frankly, shocking April 10 statement, the White House said the “VOA too often speaks for America’s adversaries—not its citizens.” The proof? The VOA had shared with its online readers that the U.S. coronavirus death toll (just 3,873 at the time) had surpassed China’s.
Yes, China’s statistics on the number of its coronavirus cases and deaths are unreliable, but this is hardly an amplification of “Beijing’s propaganda,” as the administration claims.
Strangely, the White House also claimed that “much of the U.S. media takes its lead from China.” If that’s true, we hadn’t noticed it from our newsroom here in Dallas or in the stories filed by any of our reporters around the world.
In fact, we agree with Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who recently said, “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.”
Yet President Donald Trump has used even harsher language, calling the VOA “disgraceful” and saying, despite decades of valuable and accurate reporting and editorials supporting freedom, human rights and democracy abroad, “They’re not the voice of America. They’re the opposite of the voice of America.”
From our perspective, it’s clear that this attack on the journalistic integrity and loyalties of the VOA was orchestrated to stir up controversy and set the stage for the June 10 firing of the heads of the VOA’s cornerstone broadcasters: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Also fired was the chief executive of the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit corporation that supports newsgathering technologies and internet freedom around the world.
In what some are calling the “Wednesday massacre,” Michael Pack, President Trump’s newly confirmed chief of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the VOA and its affiliates, sacked all the top executives at the five federally funded agencies and disbanded their separate bipartisan advisory boards, replacing them with Trump administration political appointees.
Since then, a lawsuit has been filed by members of those advisory boards arguing that the VOA outlets’ “independence from political interference is protected by a strict ‘firewall’ embodied in statutes, regulations and binding contract provisions.” The lawsuit goes on to claim that Pack’s VOA firings “constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history.”
Whether or not that argument will hold up in court is anyone’s guess. Given the high court’s recent decision empowering the president to fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (based on the sound premise that, in our system of government, every facet of the government needs to be accountable to the people), we doubt that, in the end, the courts will declare these firings unconstitutional.
In any case, Pack, a conservative filmmaker who has collaborated with former Breitbart News chairman and Trump strategist Stephen Bannon on several projects, was duly confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and it may be difficult to prove that political interference was the motivation behind the firings.
What’s clear, however, and worth lamenting, is that the Voice of America, a storied and respected U.S. institution that has long promoted liberty, democracy and accountability around the world, is falling victim to the highly polarized, shortsighted and uncompromising nature of today’s politics.
The VOA Charter, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, states the organization has “editorial independence” and “will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
In such a divided nation as ours, it might be fair—and necessary—to ask: Is there still one “voice of America”?
The answer must, of course, be yes, and that such a voice needs to be based on fact-based information. But that can only be the case if VOA and other media outlets owned by the government sustain the level of independence they had over eight decades and both Democratic and Republican administrations.