Voice of America has placed journalist Joshua Fatzick on administrative leave after Mediaite reported that he posted racist, sexist and homophobic messages in a pro-Trump Reddit channel under the screen name UncleSam4200.
The headache does not end there for Voice of America, a taxpayer-funded news outlet that covers U.S. public affairs for foreign audiences. Fatzick's reporting appears to have been colored, at times, by his apparent political views, just as Voice of America is working to combat suspicions that it could be used to advance President Trump's agenda.
“Long before the election, we've been doubling down on combating bias, including instituting mandatory training. We find bias on either side of the spectrum — on gun control, immigration, affordable care, religious rights — to be totally unacceptable,” Amanda Bennett, director of Voice of America, said in an interview. “This one actually represents the minority of the kind of cases we're dealing with.”
Still, some recent articles by Fatzick seem like they would have been at home on a conservative news site such as the Daily Caller, where he previously worked. Headlines include “Racist Remarks at Air Force Prep School Were a Hoax,” “American College Campuses Increasingly Hostile to Free Speech” and “U.S. Congresswoman Calls Gun Rights Group 'Domestic Security Threat.'”
Story selection alone is not conclusive evidence of bias, of course, but in addition to highlighting popular right-wing themes — claims of racism are dubious, free speech is in peril, the Second Amendment is under attack — Fatzick has presented information in misleading ways.
In the article about a gun-rights group, for example, Fatzick asserted that “Americans are specifically afforded the right to bear arms by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” which isn't a universally accepted interpretation of the Second Amendment. Whether the Constitution guarantees the right to own and carry a gun, unconnected to the “well-regulated militia” also is mentioned in the Second Amendment, is one of the longest-running debates in American politics.
Fatzick did not acknowledge that debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment, an omission that might have left Voice of America's mostly foreign audience with a false impression.
In coverage of Trump's address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, in February, Fatzick quoted the president's media-bashing tirade at length without challenging Trump's false claim that journalists routinely “make up sources.” What's more, Fatzick wrote that “Trump supporters who cheered his remarks said afterward they agreed with the president's contention that reporters make up fake sources to hurt him.”
In coverage of a memorial for the woman who was killed during a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Fatzick reported an inaccurate claim without correcting the record by quoting from a statement by Trump: “You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.” In reality, protesters who opposed the white supremacists did get a permit to demonstrate nearby and were not legally required to seek a second permit to enter the park where the white supremacists had gathered.
Fatzick based the article about free speech on college campuses on a single interview with an executive from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which Fatzick failed to describe. The group is ostensibly nonpartisan, but its cofounder acknowledged in the New York Times last year that conservative causes are “coinciding with our agenda.” The foundation's major funders include prominent conservative donors such as the Charles Koch Institute and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
A Voice of America spokeswoman said the organization could not comment on specific elements of Fatzick's coverage but said a review of his work would be part of an internal investigation. Bennett said in a previous statement that “Voice of America has zero tolerance for public or personal racist, sexist or politically-biased social-media communications. Our policies make it very clear that such behavior is prohibited.”
Fatzick did not respond to a request for comment.
In the Reddit posts, UncleSam4200 referred to African Americans as “n-----s” and Muslim immigrants as “rapefugees” and used gay slurs such as “f----t.”
Fatzick's suspension follows reporting by CNN's Hadas Gold that Trump will probably appoint Michael Pack as chief executive of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees Voice of America. Pack recently stepped down as president of the conservative Claremont Institute. He has served as vice president for TV programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and worked with Breitbart News Chairman Stephen K. Bannon on two documentaries.
Bennett told me in a July interview that Voice of America remains committed to independent journalism and said she has felt no pressure to provide soft coverage of the Trump administration. “Honestly, there has been no change,” Bennett said.
Scrutiny of Voice of America by other journalists began almost immediately after Trump's inauguration, triggered by a pair of tweets in which the news organization seemed to validate — or, at least, did not question — false statements that then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer made about crowd size and media coverage.
Bennett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, told me in July that she thought some journalists unfairly rushed to conclusions about Voice of America's direction. “Honestly, I found that kind of shocking, in terms of the outside media,” she said.
Fatzick joined Voice of America before Trump's election, but Fatzick's flawed news coverage and the hate-filled Reddit messages he allegedly posted in a pro-Trump forum hurt the cause as Voice of America insists that it will not become a mouthpiece for the president.
“Being scrupulous in reflecting all sides of an argument and in representing all sides of U.S. issues fairly, through fact-based reporting, is at the very core of our mission,” Bennett said Saturday, “as is our mandate to provide accurate, unbiased news and information to countries around the world that have no other access to it. When we find instances where we have failed to do this, we are addressing it promptly and vigorously.”
Correction: This article originally misstated the title of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education executive who spoke with the New York Times. The correct title is cofounder, not president.