Since becoming president, Donald Trump has waged a persistent disinformation campaign on the American people. In his telling, he’s the most popular leader in U.S. history, criminals and terrorists are flooding across our borders, and he “inherited a mess” of an economy that he has already masterfully rescued. The White House, meanwhile, has barred government scientists from sharing their findings with the public and dismissed critical media coverage as “fake news.” Trump has promoted his distorted views on his Twitter feed, and dispatched his advisers to appear on cable news shows. But if he has his way, the president will soon be able to rely on an even larger and more powerful information machine to trumpet his views: the Voice of America.
A month after Trump was elected, Republicans in Congress changed the VOA’s governing structure, replacing its independent and bipartisan board of governors with a CEO appointed directly by the president. And in January, the Trump administration dispatched two young staffers to monitor the VOA’s operations and assist with the transition: Matthew Ciepielowski, who hails from the Koch-founded group Americans for Prosperity, and Matthew Schuck, who worked as a staff writer for the Daily Surge, a right-wing news site that traffics in “alternative facts.” Taken together, the moves indicate that Trump is poised to turn the government news service—which reaches a global audience of 236 million every week through its radio and TV broadcasts—into a mouthpiece for his personal brand.
“The single most important thing for the Voice of America is its credibility,” says Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “If the Trump administration’s attitude toward the Voice of America reflects its attitude toward the media here at home, and if inconvenient stories are ‘fake news,’ then we’ve got a real problem.”
The VOA was founded 75 years ago as a propaganda tool under the auspices of the Office of War Information. During World War II and then the Cold War, when it operated under the purview of the U.S. Information Agency, it helped spread information to parts of the world that did not benefit from a free press. The stated goal, however, was always to promote American values by presenting accurate and unbiased news—in contrast to the government-fashioned messages emanating from the Nazi and Soviet regimes. “The news may be good or bad,” a VOA presenter vowed in an early broadcast. “We shall tell you the truth.”
The VOA’s charter mandates that the news agency be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive,” presenting a nonpartisan view of America. “It doesn’t avoid stories that are embarrassing to the United States,” says Geoffrey Cowan, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California who served as the VOA’s director under Bill Clinton. “The underlying belief is that, in the end, the values that are most important to the United States will be best served by a service which is accurate and balanced.”
In recent years, however, Republicans have worked to strip the VOA of any semblance of being objective and fair. In 2014, Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would turn the agency into an explicit instrument of American “public diplomacy,” with a mandate to promote U.S. foreign policy. Then, during last year’s presidential campaign, conservative critics accused the VOA of being anti-Trump. BBG Watch, a watchdog web site started by a former VOA staffer, highlighted news reports in which the agency compared Trump to Lenin and Mao, criticized his immigration policies, and poked fun at his speeches. Last summer, in the wake of GOP criticism, VOA director Amanda Bennett held anti-bias training sessions for the agency’s news staff.
The staff appears to have gotten the message. In January, the VOA issued a pair of tweets echoing the White House’s blatantly false claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history. One of the tweets, which chastised the media for “false, misleading reporting,” was taken down following backlash online. Now, BBG Watch cheerfully reports that Trump may replace the agency’s current CEO with Kenneth Timmerman, a Breitbart contributor who accused the VOA of “wild fantasy-land libel” against Trump during the 2016 campaign.
For her part, Bennett doesn’t sound optimistic about the agency’s future. “The best we can say right now is that the Voice of America is and has been an independent news organization,” she says. “That is in the law, that is the way we operate, and that’s the way we hope to continue to operate.” But now, critics fear, the VOA may become little more than the Voice of Trump. Just as Vladimir Putin has his own TV network in Russia Today and ISIS has turned social media into a viral propaganda machine, Trump may have finally found a news outlet whose coverage of him he can personally control.