On the day this month when President Trump held a brief news conference in Warsaw, I visited the Washington headquarters of Voice of America, the government-funded media outlet that broadcasts news about U.S. affairs to foreign audiences in 47 languages.
The timing was perfect. In Poland, Trump launched into one of his regular tirades against “fake news,” gave the first question to a reporter he had considered hiring as a spokesman and suggested that NBC owed him favorable coverage because he “made them a fortune with 'The Apprentice.'”
“We want to see fair press,” he said — while making clear that what he really wants to see is good press.
How, I wondered, might a president who craves adoration use his power to ensure that he gets it from Voice of America, the news source he could most easily control, if so inclined?
“Honestly, there has been no change” since Trump's inauguration, Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett told me. “I find even my friends have a hard time dealing with this.”
Skeptical journalists do, too, largely because it is hard to believe Trump could resist the temptation to create a self-affirming propaganda machine. The president has the authority to appoint a new chief executive to lead the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees Voice of America, along with Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.
A provision buried in a defense bill that passed in December reduced the size and sway of the bipartisan board while expanding the power of the chief executive. Politico reported last month that the leading contender for the CEO gig is Michael Pack, president of the conservative Claremont Institute, who served as vice president for television programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and worked with White House chief strategist and former Breitbart News chairman Stephen K. Bannon on two documentaries.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors has not announced a leadership change, and a spokeswoman said she “can’t discuss personnel issues.” It is worth noting, however, that the Claremont Institute said last week that its chief operating officer, Ryan Williams, will succeed Pack on Sept. 1, possibly indicating that Pack is readying for a new job. Pack referred a Fix inquiry about his future to a Claremont spokeswoman who said “we do not have that information, as no official announcements regarding a nomination have been made.”
In the meantime, two former Trump campaign aides, Matthew Ciepielowski and Matthew Schuck, have worked alongside incumbent chief executive John Lansing, reporting back to the Trump administration on the operations of Voice of America and its sister outlets. Nasserie Carew, the Broadcasting Board of Governors spokeswoman, said she “can emphasize that neither Matthew Ciepielowski nor Matthew Schuck have been involved in any editorial processes at VOA or any of our networks.”
Bennett vouched for that claim: “They have not just had zero influence on my coverage; they’ve never suggested anything.”
Bennett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and executive editor of Bloomberg News, said she understands journalists' worries about Voice of America's independence. She shared them when considering the director's position early last year.
“My concern coming here, since I came from a 35-plus-year background in media and had no interest in doing anything different, was to check historically how is the firewall respected,” Bennett said, referring to the divide between administration objectives and journalistic decisions. “I talked to every director I could get access to … and they all said the same thing: It was taken very seriously.”
I mentioned Trump's remarks at the news conference in Warsaw, delivered hours earlier, and asked whether Bennett frets about the prospect of future interference, based on Trump's attitude toward the media.
“I’m not sure how to talk about hypotheticals,” Bennett replied. “All I can talk about is what I’ve seen so far. If I see things that are said — and are accompanied by actions — then I’m going to worry greatly and this entire organization will worry greatly.”
“Accompanied by actions” is the key phrase there. According to Bennett, the president's rhetoric has not been attended by even the slightest attempt to alter coverage in his favor. Until she sees otherwise, Voice of America's director is giving Trump the benefit of the doubt.