THE WHITE HOUSE has just confirmed, no doubt unintentionally, that the U.S. government’s premier international broadcaster, Voice of America, is independent from the Trump administration. A shrill commentary posted on the White House website Friday assailed VOA for “promoting propaganda” of the Chinese government about the novel coronavirus epidemic. The evidence? A tweeted video showing residents of Wuhan watching a light show following the lifting of that city’s lockdown, and another tweet showing that the covid-19 death toll in the United States “exceeds the official China tally.”
For the record, the accusation would be outrageous if it were not simply ridiculous. The video accompanied a link to a straightforward news article — written not by VOA but by the Associated Press — that described the end of the lockdown. The tally of Chinese deaths was taken from the respected covid-19 information site of Johns Hopkins University. And as director Amanda Bennett pointed out in a statement, VOA has reported extensively on China’s initial attempts to cover up the coronavirus outbreak and its subsequent disinformation campaign — so much so that Beijing recently barred most of its reporting staff from working inside China. That’s a funny way to treat an organization that, according to the White House, has been pushing Chinese propaganda.
We’d write this off as just another day at a White House communications shop whose theatrical and fact-free messaging strategy seems modeled after Baghdad Bob — only the attack seems to form part of a more troubling political project. For several years, the Trump administration has been trying to install a new chief executive at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA as well as Radio Free Europe and other U.S. international broadcasters. Last month, the administration resubmitted its nomination of Michael Pack, a filmmaker and former president of the conservative Claremont Institute, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
According to a recent report in the Washington Times, Mr. Pack is planning a “major housecleaning” in U.S. broadcasting, including the removal of Ms. Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who oversees VOA’s professional — and, yes, independent — newsgathering. If this coup succeeds, VOA will no longer differ substantially from other state-run broadcasters — and it very likely will earn that “propaganda” label.
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