Voice of America can't have it both ways.
The broadcaster insists it's not a government propaganda arm, but its staff blew the whistle on former U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack and his lieutenants for running it like one.
Robert R. Reilly, whom Pack appointed Voice of America's director, invited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address VOA staff on Jan. 11 and then demoted White House reporter Patsy Widakuswara for daring to ask Pompeo a hard question, according to National Public Radio. The next day, senior editor Yolanda Lopez was shunted from the newsroom to a paper-pushing post.
Pack and Reilly sparked an outcry for their efforts to influence news coverage, ordering investigations into purported bias against former President Donald Trump and punishing journalists who held Trump administration officials' feet to the fire, NPR's David Folkenflik reported.
On Inauguration Day, Pack stepped down at President Joe Biden's request. Biden promptly tapped Kelu Chao, a senior news executive, to take the reins as acting CEO. A long-term leader will require Senate confirmation, which underscores the inescapable reality separating Voice of America from conventional broadcasters.
Founded during World War II to counteract Nazi propaganda in Europe, VOA has always served U.S. government interests. Truthful, accurate reporting may often be among those interests, but what happens when leaders decide it isn't?
Voice of America produces radio and television broadcasts for foreign audiences that reach 278 million people each week. Its sister outlets under the U.S. Agency for Global Media umbrella include Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The agency oversees "public service media networks that provide unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted," according to its website. That's a noble mission, but while the First Amendment's ironclad press freedom guarantees are the envy of journalists around the globe, laws meant to safeguard the stations' editorial independence have proven more pliable.
Reilly sought to root out what he called pervasive anti-Trump bias in the Voice of America newsroom, while VOA journalists said leaders' unabashed pro-Trump bias interfered with their work. If either charge is true, the network forfeits its claim of neutrality.
Unlike NPR and PBS, which allow sponsors to underwrite their programs, rely on listener and viewer contributions and receive comparatively small federal allocations through the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the U.S. Agency for Global Media's $628 million budget is entirely on the taxpayers' dime.
The networks' news content is officially off-limits to Uncle Sam, but their operating structure makes that flimsy firewall impossible to fortify. Political appointees rule the roost, and Congress holds the purse strings. Government influence is a feature, not a bug.
Voice of America's signal has been available on the homefront for less than a decade. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 authorized "an information service to disseminate abroad information about the United States, its people and policies ... having to do with matters affecting foreign affairs." Legislation enacted in 2013 allowed VOA to broadcast in its home country.
To their credit, Agency for Global Media outlets have produced exemplary work that's earned national journalism awards. VOA employs ambitious, talented reporters. It's not to blame for the decades-old conflicts of interest that plague its network, but that makes it no less politically compromised.
Though Biden's pick for the agency's next CEO may prove to be more ally than adversary, the threat of interference from any administration is too great to ignore. Call it propaganda, public diplomacy, state media or something else; the broadcasting model clearly isn't independent in any sense of the word.
Voice of America doesn't have to go radio silent. Congress can relinquish control and direct the agency to incorporate as a nonprofit and then gradually wean it off federal funding as grants, sponsorships and donations pick up the slack. Nominal budgetary support could be funneled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Foreign audiences will still tune in to VOA. Privatizing the outlet would only increase its credibility in countries like Iran, where more than 80% of people cite government-owned media as their primary news source.
To truly showcase American liberty on the world stage, fire the political hacks and leave journalism to the professionals.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.