The Voice of America has been an American institution since World War II, delivering news about the U.S. and the free world without the filter of government censorship.
But the Trump White House has lately found VOA to be less a voice for America and more a voice for authoritarian regimes. The administration is complaining that VOA is being too uncritical about reporting news on the coronavirus from China and too eager to broadcast the point of view of Iranian mullahs.
Among the White House’s complaints raised Friday: VOA’s comparison of China’s death toll to that of the U.S., where more than 16,000 people have now died of Covid-19.
The Trump administration has cast doubt on the Covid-19 numbers coming out of China, pointing to the lack of transparency and cooperation from Beijing from the earliest days of the outbreak, as well as the Chinese government’s history of fudging official statistics.
Even mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have stopped trying to report on China’s “official” statistics because they’re so incredibly unreliable. And they do not even bother with using China’s imaginary death toll as a means to attack Trump.
The White House newsletter also singled out one VOA correspondent in particular for helping to “highlight” the Twitter feed of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif by tagging Zarif’s handle in a tweet — implying that the reporter, who was then retweeted by VOA’s official account, was unnecessarily drawing its audience to Zarif’s timeline filled with anti-American threats and propaganda.
It then pointed to VOA’s charter, which declares the organization “will represent America.”
VOA’s reputation for independence has always been based on its arms-length relationship with the U.S. government. But these particular criticisms have little to do with toeing the propaganda line and everything to do with reporting the news accurately.
But the VOA chief, Amanda Bennett, claims the agency must report “all sides of an issue.” Politico:
“One of the big differences between publicly-funded independent media, like the Voice of America, and state-controlled media is that we are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976,” Bennett wrote on VOA’s website. “We are thoroughly covering China’s disinformation and misinformation in English and Mandarin and at the same time reporting factually — as we always do in all 47 of our broadcast languages — on other events in China.”
Bennett says the White House was quoting from a Johns Hopkins study for the death toll carried by the agency. This is true — except the Johns Hopkins chart is based on WHO statistics supplied by host countries. To report that uncritically is negligent.
That said, some of the administration’s criticism of China was silly. Showing a celebration in Wuhan following a reopening of the city is “news” whether it’s propaganda or not. And just because the agency reports on something giving the Chinese point of view, as long as they critically examine that point of view, they’re only doing their jobs as reporters and editors.
While the administration’s criticism of VOA was unprecedented, it was at least partly justified and long overdue.