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Trump's VOA Criticism Shows US-Funded News Doesn't Mean US-Approved

For the Voice of America news executive who made the fateful decision, the scoop was too extraordinary and important to pass up.

Just 10 days after the September 11 attacks on the U.S. that killed 2,977 Americans and injured countless others, Osama bin Laden's closest ally and protector in Afghanistan – the reclusive Mullah Omar – offered VOA's Pashto service an exclusive interview.

Myrna Whitworth, the acting director of the Voice of America at that time, assigned two journalists to interview by phone the mysterious Taliban leader who had permitted bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind, to take up residence in Afghanistan.

But Bush administration officials soon learned that VOA was preparing a story. Whitworth received a call from the State Department and was told it would be "political suicide" if she aired the Omar interview.

While the Bush administration "respected the agency's right to report news objectively," officials didn't want VOA to "do things that we thought were going to be a comfort for the enemy," Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman at the time, said in a recent interview.

President George W. Bush speaks at a celebration for the 60th anniversary for the Voice of America February, 25, 2002.
President George W. Bush speaks at a celebration for the 60th anniversary for the Voice of America February, 25, 2002.

VOA, the government funded, global multi-media broadcaster, provides service in more than 40 languages to as many as 280 million people a week.  It has a storied history dating back to World War II and a mandate from Congress to impartially and comprehensively report the news.

But tensions between the White House and VOA have been the norm for decades, largely because of the uniqueness of a semi-independent – and occasionally aggressive – news agency operating within the belly of a massive federal government bureaucracy.

June 22: President Barack Obama during an interview about Afghanistan, with Voice of America's Andre DeNesnera in the Map Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
President Barack Obama during a 2011 interview with the Voice of America's Andre DeNesnera in the Map Room of the White House.

Last month, President Donald Trump joined some of his predecessors who have taken issue with VOA's news coverage – but with unprecedented intensity and shrillness.

"If you heard what's coming out of the Voice of America, it's disgusting. What – things they say are disgusting toward our country," Trump said during a coronavirus news briefing in the Rose Garden on April 15th.

Trump's complaint essentially was two-fold: First, that the VOA had used dubious Chinese government data on the coronavirus infections and deaths in China in its reporting  – an accusation vigorously disputed by the news organization.

And second, the president was irate that he had been unable to install a new head of VOA's parent organization – the U.S. Agency for Global Media – for over two years because of Democratic obstacles to confirmation in the Senate.

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Trump has lamented before that he lacks control of a government-owned media outlet that  reflects his values and those of his supporters. Last November, Trump suggested that the U.S. should create a state-run, global news network to counteract what he calls "unfair" and "fake" coverage from CNN and to show the world how "great" this country is.

However, as the Mullah Omar interview and other examples illustrate, Trump is not the first president to criticize VOA's news coverage. That is because while the media organization is usually overseen by White House political appointees, the news content of its career journalists is required by law to be unbiased.

A government broadcaster's editorial evolution

The White House and State Department declined a VOA request to expand on the president's televised criticisms or on separate allegations detailed in a White House newsletter earlier this month, that accused VOA of amplifying Chinese propaganda in its use of data during the coronavirus pandemic.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett rejected the charge and said the agency "strives to do objective fact-based reporting that doesn't amplify anybody's message."

Indeed, VOA has debunked Chinese misinformation nearly 20 times, according to the Reporters Committee, a freedom of the press advocacy group.

President Kennedy at the Voice of America in 1962.
President Kennedy at the Voice of America in 1962.

This straight down the middle editorial approach was not always VOA policy. After the agency was created in 1942 to combat Nazi propaganda with objective news, for its first decades VOA reporting was subject to approval by government minders.

During the Kennedy-era  Cuban missile crisis of 1962, VOA was essentially "operating under government supervision," said, Nicholas Cull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of "The Cold War and the United States Information Agency."

"There was an administrative officer sent from the supervising U.S. Information Agency over to VOA," Cull said. "He had to approve every script."

That approach faltered during the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. Cull said that VOA journalists who insisted on giving a full picture of the investigation into the president's alleged wrongdoing ran into opposition from USIA officials who wanted a more positive story.

The journalists wanted to turn Watergate into an "on-air civics lesson showing that the strength of America lay not in its president never making a mistake, but in the ability of its Congress to correct that mistake through due process," Cull said. In the end, a compromise was reached that every time a negative story was carried about the president, a positive story had to be carried as well.

"This led to some kind of weird broadcasts," said Cull. "They'd be saying, in news today the President was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate crisis… and Mrs. Nixon opened a new kids' school in Washington DC."

A news agency barred from showing bias

By 1976, Congress and VOA executives determined the agency needed a clearer editorial mandate to ensure that it maintained credibility with overseas audiences. Congress drafted the Charter, which says VOA must publish accurate news; produce content that represents all of American society; and provide clear explanations and discussions of U.S. policies.

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