The unsigned statement said, in part: “Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda. This week, VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world—and then tweeted out video of the Communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s alleged end.”
It added, “Even worse, while much of the U.S. media takes its lead from China, VOA went one step further: It created graphics with Communist government statistics to compare China’s Coronavirus death toll to America’s. As intelligence experts point out, there is simply no way to verify the accuracy of China’s numbers.”
The statement was preceded by a barbed tweet on Thursday from Dan Scavino, President Trump’s social media director. In sharing VOA’s tweet showing a Chinese celebration marking the end of a lockdown, Scavino wrote, “American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”
Scavino is one of President Trump’s longest-serving aides; he often produces videos that accompany Trump’s tweets.
The stinging public criticism, which may be unprecedented by an administration since VOA was founded in 1942, took VOA officials by surprise.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you what prompted it,” said Amanda Bennett, VOA’s director. “I don’t actually know. It just came out of the blue.”
VOA has for decades provided audio, video and print news reports in multiple languages around the world, often serving as the only source of independent information in countries where the domestic news media is censored or state-controlled.
Like several western news organizations, including The Washington Post, VOA has been imploring the Chinese government to allow its journalists to report from within China. The government hasn’t renewed the visas of VOA reporters, forcing its journalists to report from neighboring Taiwan and from Hong Kong.
Although funded by Congress, VOA is screened from political influence by an independent board, called the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
However, Trump has occasionally given indications that he wanted to wrest more control of the board and VOA itself. VOA staffers reacted with some alarm early in his administration when Trump dispatched two staffers to review its newsroom in Washington. The visit followed a tweet from the VOA’s social media account questioning former press secretary Sean Spicer’s erroneous claims about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.
Trump has nominated a conservative filmmaker, Michael Pack, to chair the board that oversees VOA. But Pack’s nomination has been held up in the Senate for nearly two years by Democrats and some Republicans.
VOA is one of the largest newsgathering operations in the world, with some 1,500 employees. Bennett, effectively its top editor, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
It has reported widely and critically about the official Chinese response to the coronavirus outbreak for months. Among other things, it debunked Chinese and Russian claims that the U.S. military was involved in spreading the virus in Wuhan.
However, in its statement, the White House claimed that VOA had amplified propaganda from other authoritarian regimes.
“Last year, VOA helped highlight the Twitter feed of Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif while he was issuing threats against the U.S. and sharing Russian anti-U.S. propaganda videos,” it said.
Bennett defended VOA’s independence and categorically denied any favoritism.
“We have never promoted propaganda for anyone,” she said. “We cover stories from all different sides. That’s part of the reason we are so trusted by people around the world.”
A White House representative didn’t return a request for comment on Friday.