The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s attack on the VOA reeks of McCarthyism

President Trump at a news briefing on April 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump, in his planned takeover of the Voice of America, is employing a tactic straight out of the Joe McCarthy playbook: smear and persecute with demagogic attacks on patriotism, while offering no proof whatsoever. It’s called McCarthyism, a term coined after the Republican senator from Wisconsin rose to prominence in the 1950s on his false claim that communists and Soviet sympathizers had clandestinely infiltrated U.S. institutions, notably the State Department. His slimy tactic of tarring an agency with hints of disloyalty and subversion didn’t die with him in 1957.

McCarthyism was in full bloom last week as the White House’s official website accused, with no plausible evidence, the U.S. government-funded Voice of America of using taxpayer dollars to promote Chinese propaganda.

The unsigned White House statement, published with the belligerent headline: “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda,” 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.”

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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 White House said: “VOA too often speaks for America’s adversaries — not its citizens.” Thus, a not-so-sly branding the Voice of America as un-American.

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Trump personally piled on during Wednesday’s Rose Garden briefing on the pandemic, saying “If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting.… things they say are disgusting toward our country.”

Trump was angry because the Senate has not approved Michael Pack, his nominee to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media that oversees the VOA. Trump complained that Pack’s nomination has “been stuck in committee for two years, preventing us from managing the Voice of America.”

Later in the news briefing, Trump returned to the subject of the VOA with a slur directed at the patriotism of its director, Amanda Bennett, though she was not mentioned by name. He denigrated the VOA leadership in general: “Look at what they’re doing and what they’re saying about our country,” he said. “It’s a disgrace — the people that [sic] are running that." Then he praised Pack as “somebody that’s really good, really talented, and that loves our country” — insinuating that people at the VOA don’t.

That’s the way McCarthyism goes about its business: defame by means of unsubstantiated charges and drive good employees out of their jobs. Trump learned its methods well. Maybe it’s because the late Roy Cohn, the ruthless counselor to McCarthy’s red-baiting Senate subcommittee, was once Trump’s lawyer, mentor and tutor in the unsavory ways of the New York business world.

Trump’s war on the VOA will end in the same way McCarthy’s assault on the State Department came to a halt. McCarthy came up with nothing. Trump’s firing blanks at the VOA, too.

President Trump calls criticism of his coronavirus response "fake," yet cherry-picks news clips to make his case. He can't have it both ways, says Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP; Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

In response to Trump’s slime, VOA director Bennett took the White House to school on the matter of the broadcasting service’s 75-year history and its independent and apolitical approach to covering the news and sharing our country’s story with the world. “We are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976,” she said in a statement. “We are thoroughly covering China’s dis-information and misinformation in English and Mandarin and at the same time reporting factually — as we always do in all 47 of our broadcast languages — on other events in China.” Then she refuted Trump’s baseless charges with a string of 19 specific examples from the VOA’s extensive fact-based reporting.

Not that hers was a lesson Trump cares to learn.

He wants Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker and a Stephen K. Bannon ally, to side astride the VOA and convert it into a Trump propaganda machine — as if having Fox News serve that purpose isn’t enough.

It would be an outrage if Trump succeeds in ousting Bennett from her post. He will be silencing a superb, award-winning and widely respected journalist — former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Lexington-Herald Leader, executive editor at Bloomberg News, 23-year Wall Street Journal veteran, and, on a personal note, a family friend.

My son, Rob, a senior vice president and editor-at-large with ESPN, was a Philadelphia Inquirer deputy managing editor when Bennett was editor. He champions her commitment to responsible, incisive and fair journalism. My wife, Gwen, and I have also gotten to know her, as does Rob, to be a woman of heart, intellect and substance. Especially heart.

At one of the lowest points of Rob’s life, after he and his wife suffered heartbreaking losses in trying to become parents, Amanda found him in his office and said words that carried the greatest piece of advice ever heard: “It’s going to work out. You just don’t know how yet.” Today, he has three kids.

One day, McCarthyism and the novel coronavirus will be gone.

VOA, America: It’s going to work out. We just don’t know how yet.

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Read more:

The Post’s View: No, Mr. Trump, VOA is not Chinese propaganda. Now don’t turn it into U.S. propaganda.

Hugh Hewitt: Churchill’s lessons for Trump — and for us

Erik Wemple: One America News Network has been ousted from coronavirus briefing rotation. Here’s why.

Jennifer Fiore: Sanitizer moms don’t have the patience for Trump’s misinformation

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