Voice of America, a trusted news source abroad, braces for shift to the right

The US government’s broadcast service to the world has a problem: It is becoming the news itself.

>>Elizabeth WilliamsonThe New York Times
Published : 13 Dec 2018, 10:35 AM
Updated : 13 Dec 2018, 10:35 AM

TV Martí, which aims broadcasts at Cuba, aired a segment in May that called financier and Democratic donor George Soros, a long-time opponent of authoritarianism, “a nonbelieving Jew of flexible morals.”

Voice of America, the flagship of US government efforts to promote its values abroad, was rocked in October when 15 of its journalists were fired or disciplined after an internal investigation found they accepted “brown envelopes,” or bribes, passed to them by a Nigerian official.

And only weeks later, Voice of America fired the chief of its Mandarin-language section after a billionaire Chinese exile who is championed by some on the US right and is known for making unsubstantiated charges against Beijing was promised a three-hour live broadcast.

The debacles are the latest problems that for years have plagued the government’s efforts to meld journalism and political messaging across its array of radio and television channels around the world.

And they suggested that under President Donald Trump, the broadcasts are at risk of greater ideological tilt as more political appointees eventually join the organisation, the US Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The broadcast room during Voice of America’s Russian language broadcast, in the company’s studio in Washington, Dec 3, 2018. The New York Times

Trump’s nominee as chief executive of the global government media agency is Michael Pack, who runs a conservative filmmaking business out of his house in suburban Washington. He declined to be interviewed.

Pack would join a couple of other Trump loyalists in the operation who some employees say have already shown a clear political tilt in their approach to broadcasting. Among those working in the Cuba office, for example, is Jeffrey Shapiro, a former Breitbart News writer who played a prominent role in a politically charged battle over the agency’s direction this year. Shapiro, an acolyte of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist, did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.

Pack, who is awaiting Senate confirmation, has collaborated on films with Bannon, a former head of Breitbart News, and has asserted that liberal political correctness is stifling the documentary film industry. If confirmed, he would hold considerable power. Recent legislation concentrates authority with the agency’s chief executive and would replace its current bipartisan board with an advisory council.

The current top managers, appointed in the Obama administration and drawn largely from traditional media backgrounds, expect to lose their jobs if Pack comes in. They include the agency’s current chief executive, John Lansing, a journalist and former president of Scripps Networks, and Amanda Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who runs Voice of America. For now, though, they have intensified its efforts to encourage professionalism, reinforce ethical standards and remind staff of safeguards against political interference.

The agency’s work, and the episodes that suggested an ideological shift to the right from some staff members even before Trump’s team takes full control, have drawn particular scrutiny after signals from the president that he would like to see the government play a bigger role in developing a message separate from the news media.

In a Twitter post last month, Trump criticised the way CNN portrays the country and raised the possibility of the United States’ starting “our own Worldwide Network to show the World the way we really are, GREAT!”

At risk from the recent missteps and the potential for Trump to impose his own self-interested vision of news, media analysts say, is the agency’s brand as an objective, trusted source of information in nations where freedom of the press is under attack. Reports by the government network’s 3,500 journalists reach more than 345 million people in 100 countries each week.

“What’s at stake here is the credibility of the United States as a beacon of information, free speech and truth,” said Frank Sesno, a former broadcast journalist and the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “If we go down the road of turning our international broadcasting into a product that appears to be manipulated or becomes a conspiracy network or an apology network for anyone, we will lose stature and standing as a country.”

The agency’s journalists are legally shielded from political meddling, but it is unclear how those protections would be enforced. For decades, an uneasy mix of politics and journalism has led to management problems, turf battles and inertia. In congressional testimony in 2013, Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, called the agency “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”

Romanov Mamonov, the anchor of Current Time American, Voice of America’s Russian language broadcast, in the company’s studio in Washington, Dec 3, 2018. The New York Times

Lansing took over as chief executive in 2015, after a management restructuring. He, Bennett and a team of seasoned journalists have boosted the networks’ global weekly audience by more than 100 million and developed models for measuring effect. They have expanded their use of platforms from encrypted live broadcasting to shortwave radio to push content into countries that jam or ban US programming.

Current Time, a network broadcasting news, features and documentaries for Russian speakers, started in 2017. Polygraph and Faktograph are new websites aimed at combating a torrent of disinformation by Russia state-controlled media. A new Persian-language service, VOA365, begins broadcasting early next year.

As autocratic governments bar, detain and harass the agency’s journalists, it has been deploying freelancers in alias and sending reporters to remote areas to cover protests, national disasters and elections outside the immediate reach of authorities.

But change has been difficult, as the spate of recent journalistic and ethical problems has shown, leaving some employees concerned that the Trump administration or its allies could exploit vulnerabilities as an excuse to reshape the agency’s mission.

“Is this going to be fuel for people who want to take us in a very different direction?” Bennett said of the recent scandals. “Who knows?”

Lansing says he has experienced no high-level interference, and he pushed back on reports of discord and nervousness among career staff. But he and his team acknowledge that in a global, federally funded enterprise whose employees embrace a variety of views, there is clear potential for political views to become an issue.

This year, reports emerged that Shapiro, the Trump administration adviser, had allied with a longtime agency executive, Andre Mendes, in an effort to position themselves as Trump-era leaders in the agency.

Mendes subsequently transferred to the Commerce Department, but Shapiro remains in the Cuba office, which he has reportedly accused of sympathising with the communist government in Havana.

After Voice of America’s Mandarin service chief, Sasha Gong, was put on leave following the live interview with the Chinese billionaire, Guo Wengui, she appeared, while still on the federal payroll, in “Trump@War,” a documentary directed by Bannon.

Gong was fired last month. She is contesting her dismissal.

The agency’s standards editor, Steven Springer, a former CNN journalist, said he has struggled to instill a culture of political balance in the Cuba office, where the broadcast maligning Soros originated.

He said that at times “people don’t quite understand certain little aspects of how journalism is supposed to work,” including basics like sourcing, attribution and avoiding plagiarism.

Tomás Regalado, the White House-appointed director of the Cuba office, is a former Spanish-language journalist who was previously the mayor of Miami and said he was recommended for the post by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla Regalado said that when he arrived at the broadcaster in June, “Some of the hosts of the programs asked me the first thing, ‘Can we call Raúl Castro a dictator?’ And I said, ‘Of course. Go ahead. Bring it on.’ ”

Regalado was not involved in the anti-Soros broadcast and called it “a nightmare.” But in an interview he said Judicial Watch, the conspiracy-minded conservative group relied on by the broadcast for some of the false or misleading material it contained, was a “good source.”

Televisions broadcasting different Voice of America shows, at its studios in Washington, Dec 3, 2018. The New York Times

The piece about Soros was presented by a TV Martí journalist, Isabel Cuervo. The multipart broadcast levelled unfounded, anti-Semitic claims against Soros, including that he ignited the 2008 financial crisis and that his Open Society Foundation is “a facade for investing in and looting countries.”

The material was distributed on Martí television, radio and its website for days. The broadcast drew scrutiny only in October, after a pipe bomb was sent to Soros’ home.

Lansing wrote letters of apology to Soros and the Open Society leadership and ordered an investigation into the episode and a review of all Martí content aired over the past year by outside journalists. A report on the broadcast is due out in early January.

Regalado said that two contractors have been fired and four federal employees suspended, including Wilfredo Cancio, Martí's former news director, and Cuervo, who continues to display the broadcasts on her personal Facebook page. Links to the broadcasts still appear on Martí's website. Soros’ representatives are calling for additional oversight of the agency.

Bennett said that it was important that the problems, although embarrassing, be made public.

“We want to use these incidents to say, ‘Here’s our standards, and having these principles is really important,’ ” Bennett said. “It’s a fight worth fighting.”

© 2018 New York Times News Service

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher