With an eye on China, a new Trump appointee tasked with overseeing the US government’s media arm has moved quickly and controversially to overhaul Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the rest of the little-known US Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
In the month since he took charge, conservative filmmaker Michael Pack has fired the top leadership at each of the agency’s news outlets, moved to re-evaluate the visa status of foreign journalists working in them and demanded a new emphasis on the Trump administration’s own policy positions.
But amid growing concern in Washington over Chinese censorship and disinformation, and an urgent debate over how the US should fight back, analysts, cybersecurity experts, current and former employees and members of both parties on Capitol Hill warn that the administration’s efforts to counter Beijing are being undermined by its own ideological zeal – and that the administration’s political strategy is overshadowing its work to thwart China on the technological front.
The latest warning came from US House appropriators, who on July 6 attached a not-so-subtle message to this year’s annual spending bill about the direction Pack is taking the agency.
“Recent action by the USAGM chief executive officer (CEO) … raise serious questions about the agency’s commitment to maintaining the firewall and upholding the highest standards of professional journalism,” the Appropriations Committee report said.
The “firewall” refers to the legally mandated separation between USAGM’s news reporting and the US government’s opinions. It is that separation, analysts say, that allows for honest and critical news coverage from the agency – a stark contrast to the often heavy-handed propaganda that China and other authoritarian countries prefer to broadcast around the world and to their own people.
The House is expected to vote on the budget this week. Bipartisan Senate appropriators wrote their own warning letter, with similar sentiments, on July 1.
A separate legislative proposal to restrict Pack’s power over the agency and give expanded authority to its bipartisan board passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday as part of the national defence spending bill.
The administration has repeatedly blamed China for unleashing the virus on the world, and bristles at any suggestion that US President Donald Trump bears some responsibility for the 140,000 Covid-19 deaths in America so far.
Tensions between the two nations spiked again this week as the US charged two Chinese nationals with hacking American coronavirus research and defence secrets, and ordered China’s consulate in Houston to close.
Analysts say the administration’s push to change the US Agency for Global Media, which had been simmering for years in some circles, took on new life after Trump objected to its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.
In particular, the White House was enraged by a Voice of America tweet that had included video of a light show in Wuhan, where the outbreak first began, celebrating the end of the city’s months-long lockdown.
The White House also chided Voice of America for citing China’s official coronavirus fatality count – which the agency’s own reporting had exposed as false – when the US death toll first passed China’s.
“Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda,” an official White House newsletter said on April 10. Five days later, Trump called the news outlet “disgusting”.
“Labelling VOA as supportive of the CCP fundamentally misunderstands the current and historical role of the VOA,” said Erin Baggott Carter, an assistant professor in the political science and international relations department at the University of Southern California.
“In fact, expelling VOA from China has been a leading goal of the CCP for decades, one frequently articulated to US policymakers.”
In March, about four weeks before Trump’s comment, Chinese authorities ordered Voice of America to divulge information about their staff, finance, operations and real estate in China. (They also expelled reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.)
Pack’s nomination had been languishing in the Senate, but he was quickly confirmed on a nearly party-line vote – one Democrat supported him – and analysts say he entered his new job feeling emboldened to shake up the organisation and change its tone.
His first act was to remove the head of each outlet – regardless of whether they were doing good work, analysts say.
Radio Free Asia’s Uygur-language service was the first news outlet in the world to expose China’s mass internment of Uygurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups in camps.
It had also helped exposed China’s false official Covid-19 statistics at the beginning of the pandemic by calling funeral homes and counting how many urns were being returned to families.
Pack had the sitting president of Radio Free Asia, Bay Fang, fired along with the previous president, Libby Liu, who had run the agency for nearly 15 years and since November had been in charge of the USAGM’s anticensorship and anti-surveillance operation, called the Open Technology Fund (OTF).
“It was evident a clean start was required,” Pack wrote in an op-ed in the New York Post on July 8, defending his actions. Others disagreed.
“When he got in there and started firing everybody, that raised a lot of eyebrows,” said one Republican Senate aide, who was not authorised to speak publicly.
Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for an investigation by the State Department inspector general.
For its part, the Open Technology Fund sued Pack, claiming he lacked the authority to carry out the terminations because the organisation is supposed to be independent from political interference. A federal judge in Washington ruled against OTF, but on Tuesday the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit issued an injunction voiding the firings until it rules on the appeal.
Pack’s second act was to move Voice of America’s editorial section to the top of its website, alongside the news reports. VOA’s television broadcasters now also have to read them on the air as well.
“Editorials, by their very nature, are meant to express the views of their house institution,” Pack said on June 24 when announcing the change. “In this case, the house institution is the US government.”
Critics say the new emphasis on promoting the administration’s version of events will muddle the actual news reporting it does and undermine the organisation’s journalistic credibility.
“There’s always been, to some degree, Russia and other authoritarian states would call it a propaganda arm,” said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Centre’s Science and Technology Innovation Programme and author of the book How to Lose the Information War. “But it’s hard to actually make that accusation unless it’s just about critical coverage of the regime that the reporters are working in.”
“Now if these outlets are going to start publishing puff pieces about the president and his administration, it’s going to become easier to make that argument,” she said.
One of the editorials, dated July 10 and titled “Facing the Challenge of China”, summarises a recent speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the need for a transatlantic partnership against China. Another, from July 17, outlines an executive branch report warning American businesses about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Pack’s supporters say fears about the new editorial policy are misguided.
“USAGM is not CNN,” said Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s something else. It’s funded through the State Department budget.”
“And anyone who thinks that just by hiding the editorials, you can make people believe that it’s not a US government enterprise, I mean that is just silly,” she said. “Who doesn’t think that Voice of America is run by the US government?”
A third change under way, also in the name of being tough on China, is on the technology side: Pack, as head of the US Agency for Global Media, now oversees the agency’s Open Technology Fund, which has helped develop apps used in China for encrypted messaging and accessing censored websites.
Pack has come under pressure from those who insist the only way to counter China online is by tearing down the country’s “Great Firewall,” which they believe would cause the Communist Party to topple.
Some have also spent years pushing for the agency to support specific software produced by Falun Gong, the quasi-religious group that Beijing has targeted as an illegal cult.
But experts who study Beijing’s digital police state say a narrow focus on censorship evasion alone, while ignoring other aspects of cybersecurity – among them, tools to avoid online surveillance – would be ineffective for dissidents in China, and potentially dangerous.
On Capitol Hill, a group of House and Senate Democrats demanded answers from Pack about the future of the Open Technology Fund in a letter on June 24, asking for him to reply by July 15. Pack did not respond.
“I would say the technical realities of the internet are certainly taking a back seat to political battles,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights programme at the New America Foundation.
“They certainly claim that they are tougher on China than the people they are replacing. And they claim that they will be more effective at bringing down the CCP than their predecessors,” she said. “I don’t think so.”
Melissa Hooper, director of the Human Rights and Civil Society programme at Human Rights First, said the changes under way at the agency would no doubt help authoritarian governments – including the one in Beijing – even if the effect was supposed to be the opposite.
“We’re seeing a very direct act that would put a thumb on the scale for the Russias and Chinas, in making it easier for them to gain influence abroad,” Hooper said.
“The US has been that counterweight in so many places,” she added. “If the US steps away, there’s going to be an equal and opposite reaction, and that’s going to be, you’ll see influence campaigns step forward. You’ll see the Russias and the Chinas get more influence.”
The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.