Beware the Russian Elephant
As the West considers how to respond to the Kremlin’s use of bots, trolls, fake news, and hacks as tools of foreign policy, the way we describe things will define whether we prevail.
Published on: November 20, 2017
By TARA PALMERI
President Donald Trump on Monday dispatched two aides to scope out the studios of Voice of America, heightening concerns among some longtime staffers that Trump may quickly put his stamp on the broadcasting arm that has long pushed U.S. democratic ideals across the world.
The arrival of the two aides – both political operatives from Trump’s campaign – comes after Voice of America received blowback over the weekend for sending out a series of tweets about White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claims about inauguration crowd size that looked to some like an endorsement of his false statements. The news outlet later deleted one of the tweets.
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The concern among some staffers is especially acute because Trump’s administration is getting control over the broadcasting agency just weeks after Congress moved to eliminate the board of directors that had served as an integrity check on the organization, instead consolidating power with a CEO position appointed by the president.
As POLITICO reported last month, that change – along with a prior shift that allows the network to legally reach a U.S. audience — had stoked fears among some agency officials that Voice of America could serve as an unfettered propaganda arm for the former reality TV star.
On the first Monday of his administration, Trump, who has flirted with the idea of launching his own TV network, deployed two “transition officials” who will evaluate the managers and studios of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has an annual budget of $800 million and includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.
Trump campaign New Hampshire state director Matthew Ciepielowski and Wisconsin communications director Matthew Schuck will be “temporarily assigned” to the CEO suite at the BBG where they will work with senior management “to ensure an open, transparent and seamless transition of the BBG to the Trump Administration,” according to an email by CEO John F. Lansing to staff obtained by POLITICO.
In a statement to POLITICO on Tuesday, Lansing emphasized the agency’s independence.
“The BBG, including Voice of America and our other four networks, is an independent federal agency that is legally mandated to produce objective, professional and independent journalism designed to engage, inform and connect with people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” Lansing said. “As is routine for many federal agencies during any presidential transition, yesterday we welcomed the two-person landing team from the Trump administration. We look forward to working with them as we continue to fulfill our mission, and support the independence of our journalists around the world.”
The timing of the Trump aides’ arrival is not necessarily unusual – the Obama administration also sent transition officials to the BBG during his transition in 2009.
But some senior staffers have already expressed reservations about the backgrounds of Trump’s political operatives. Schuck, a 2012 graduate from Montgomery College, was a staff writer for the right-wing website the Daily Surge until April 2015.
“There’s concern among the journalists about what these guys are going to be doing,” said the senior VOA staffer. “People are hanging tight, seeing what will happen.”
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
Public scrutiny of the broadcasting agency’s articles has already started.
Voice of America director Amanda Bennett explained that she pulled a tweet on VOA’s official account that featured Spicer’s erroneous statement that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period — both in person and around the globe,” following blowback from the account’s 905,000 followers, some of whom argued the agency shouldn’t be promoting his comments without a fact check.
“Irony is that VOA’s reason for existing was to provide truth to those who lived where the government controlled the press,” tweeted Stuart Stevens, a former advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, in response to the tweet.
Other Twitter followers called the network “pure propaganda” and “embarrassing,” and urged the network to have “self-respect” for tweeting out Spicer’s words, without additional fact-checking.
Bennett also said she temporarily pulled a story about an ethics complaint lodged against the Trump administration because it didn’t have a response from a Trump representative. The story was reposted later with a comment from Trump’s attorney Sheri Dillon.
Bennett said she was not ordered by the Trump administration to pull the story or the tweet.
“Ever since I arrived here in April I have been extremely firm that we need to follow absolutely the best journalistic practices – which include a diligent focus on facts and objectivity,” Bennett told POLITICO in an e-mail. “For the last nine months, we have been routinely pulling stories that do not meet those standards and asking that they be redone, or that additional reporting be done.”
In a phone conversation later on Monday, Bennett added, “I know that everyone is looking to say that we’re being manipulated by the Trump administration, we’re absolutely not.”
The Broadcasting Board of Governors is the largest public diplomacy program by the U.S. government, reaching an audience of 278 million by broadcasting in 100 countries and 61 languages. Voice of America was created in 1942 during World War II to send pro-democracy news across Europe, as it aimed to counter Nazi and Japanese propaganda. The agency has since evolved into a more traditional news operation, while still pushing out the virtues of democracy worldwide.
Early last month, a provision buried into the National Defense Authorization Act called for disbanding the bipartisan board of the BBG, pleasing critics who said the part-time board was ineffective but alarming others who feared an accountability layer was being swept away.
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A former board member said on Monday that the editorial team may have not received marching orders from the new administration but that they’re aware of the new power of Trump’s team to take over the organization without the firewall of a bipartisan board.
“They’re clearly just trying to stay in stead with their new bosses to keep their jobs,” said the former BBG board member. “If they’re starting to turn this into Pravda before they are even told to.”
The status of the board is in limbo, however, since Obama added a signing statement to the NDAA, saying it was unconstitutional to get rid of the board because it violates his constitutional right of appointment. Another uncertainty is that Lansing can be replaced at any time for a CEO appointed by the president.
At the editorial level, there’s been caution against posting stories that don’t have a response from the Trump administration, according to a senior VOA staffer. “I think there’s going to be more of a focus on making sure that we’re balanced,” the staffer said.
Bennett said she met on Monday with Trump’s representatives, Schuck and Ciepielowski, who she said will not be involved in news decisions.
“I met with them, we gave them a briefing. We’re going to be showing them around,” she said. “If people are concerned, a lot of people have been through transitions before and this is standard procedure. We gave them the briefing book.”
When asked if she had any concerns about their prior jobs, she said, “They are who they are. They are filling a function that is exactly the same as it would be in any administration.”
And Bennett said Voice of America is not changing course under the new administration. “We are trying to do the best journalism we can, and follow the highest journalistic standards is the only way we’re going to operate,” she said.