Elections have consequences, and by any standard, VOA is no longer presenting the policies of the United States
There are four branches of government in the United States. In addition to the three you learned about in civics class, there is a vast civil service that is theoretically answerable to the executive but in practice is certainly not. During the Trump era, the independence of this fourth branch of government has been buttressed by the media’s willingness to portray any attempt to subject it to control by elected officials as a “purge,” and in an Orwellian inversion of reality, antithetical to democracy.
The firing of Geoffrey Berman in the Southern District of New York is just the latest example of this, resistance to which is based on the theory that U.S. Attorneys should not be subject to the Attorney General. The conspiracy theory concocted to obscure this false sense of where authority lies is that he was fired to cover up Trump’s corruption.
No evidence exists for this theory, and it’s just as likely he was fired for failing to bring charges against Jeffrey Epstein’s co-conspirators. Berman had recently clashed with Washington, being unwilling to put his name to a letter criticizing the New York Mayor’s double standards on quarantine enforcement, on the one hand encouraging protests while using the NYPD to break up a Jewish funeral. If the Department of Justice wishes to make an issue of that, as part of a duly elected executive government, they should be able to have prosecutors who are willing to do so.
This isn’t a difficult principle, and in matters of state the executive has even more latitude. Yet late last week, another agency made headlines as the victim of yet another Trump purge: the U.S. Agency for Global Media, home to the various quasi-journalism operations that form the United States’ public diplomacy apparatus. The heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Network, Radio Free Asia, and the Open Technology Fund were all sacked by incoming USAGM executive Michael Pack, who was recently confirmed by the Senate. No career employees were fired; all four had special contracts.
NPR’s David Folkenflik set the tune for coverage of the sackings, with his story alleging in the headline that they were “raising fears of meddling.” Meddling to what end, however, Folkenflik did not seem terribly clear about. Pressed by CBS about what this could portend for their editorial direction, he told the anchor that it could have ramifications for Radio Free Asia’s “bolder reporting” about Uyghurs in China, citing John Bolton’s revelation that Trump had downplayed China’s persecution in a meeting with Xi Jinping. He didn’t mention that Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Act the same week as the sackings took place.
Concerns about “editorial independence” are at the heart of the controversy, according to CBS. Editorial independence is one thing that the recently departed head of VOA, Amanda Bennett, had emphasized as part of the organization’s mission. In a statement to VOA staff before she departed, she said, “Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us.” Woe betide Pack if after being confirmed by the Senate he dares to exercise control over an institution chartered and funded by Congress.
Even if you believe that a government-funded broadcaster could, through the magic of some bureaucratic or legal fiction, exercise meaningful editorial independence, the lack thereof is a fact: VOA’s editorials are cleared by the State Department. If this shake-up portends an end to that fiction, that is a good thing.
The theory of Bennett and various Pack critics goes something like this: Other countries will recognize what a long leash we give our state-funded broadcasters, and therefore the editorial independence of VOA and its siblings itself becomes part of the soft-power pitch being made. It’s an interesting argument, but also somewhat self-serving. The VOA charter says, “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.”
It’s hard to argue with the fact that, at least at Radio Free Europe, the coverage sounds more like Trump’s Atlanticist critics: prone to seeing Russian meddling everywhere, skeptical of populist politicians like Salvini, Orban and Duda, and fond of NATO. You can think their view is the right one, but it’s also not the view of the president the American people put in the White House. By that standard, the VOA is out of step with its charter.
By any objective measure a shake-up at USAGM is fully justified, for years it has lingered at the bottom of the lists of federal agencies in terms of employee satisfaction. VOA had to fire half the staff of one of its Africa broadcasters for accepting bribes two years ago. Nor can the shake-up be attributed to partisanship: the former heads of the European and Middle East broadcasters, Jamie Fly and Alberto Fernandez, worked in the Bush administration. Perhaps this is why CNBC, for example, uses the term “Trump loyalists”—it’s true that Fly, a leading neoconservative and Never Trumper, is a Trump disloyalist. The big question is why they hired him in the first place.
A pattern common to many Trump-era controversies also holds true here: the hawks are mad about it. The leading interventionist of the senatorial opposition, Bob Menendez, said the firings were part of Trump’s “efforts to transform U.S. institutions rooted in the principles of democracy into tools for the President’s own personal agenda.” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, an Iran hawk and ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs committee also expressed his concern. What they object to is American foreign policy ever being subject to democratic control: they claim to be defending democratic institutions while thwarting the demos’s revealed preference for a more restrained posture abroad.
What personal benefit Trump could possibly derive from getting his message out on an African radio station or a TV studio in Dubai is unclear, perhaps Senator Menendez could clarify that for us. As with Russiagate, the backlash to Pack’s shake-up is really about policy differences, not concerns about corruption. It remains to be seen what the administration intends to do with USAGM, but given the differences of opinion between the administration and many career officials involved in both public and official diplomacy, it’s hard to blame them for wanting both a shorter leash and a fresh start.
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