The current administration’s clumsy attempts to turn the Voice of America into a propaganda vehicle for all things Trump have now been halted by a federal judge. It remains for the incoming Biden administration to restore this valuable asset of American foreign policy to its former luster.
The sad tale of the erosion of the VOA and the perversion of its mission — to be a model for free press around the world — began last June. That’s when the US Senate confirmed Michael Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker who has collaborated with Steve Bannon, to head the VOA’s parent organization, the US Agency for Global Media, last June. Pack, a Trump loyalist, fired senior staffers, launched an investigation of its chief White House reporter, and held up visas for many of the foreign journalists who serve the VOA and its sister networks, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, a French service to Africa, and an Urdu language service.
In October, with the presidential election looming, Pack unilaterally rescinded the firewall that had long guaranteed the integrity of journalists working at all the agency’s media outlets, assuring their freedom to report the news free of interference from the political appointees who head the agency.
The beauty of the VOA throughout its more than 70-year history is that it was never intended as a propaganda arm of the US government, but rather as an example of what a free press looks and sounds like. Its governing legislation was designed to assure the agency remained true to that mission — and it did until Pack’s arrival.
But until Pack can be sent packing — and that day can’t come soon enough — a federal judge had to step in to stop the staff purge and reinstate that firewall, the thing that separates this nation’s government-funded media from, say, Russia Today.
The ruling from Chief US District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell in Washington came in response to a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by five fired or suspended senior executives at the agency. The injunction she issued in the case effectively bars Pack from interfering in the editorial product at any of the networks.
“These outlets,” the judge wrote in a 76-page opinion, “are not intended to promote uncritically the political views and aspirations of a single US official, even if that official is the US President. To the contrary, their mission of pursuing and producing objective journalism applies just as forcefully to their coverage of the US government and its officials.”
Justice Department lawyers had shamefully argued, “Voice of America is a government agency; its speech, even in a journalistic capacity, is government speech. . . . The networks are not protected by the First Amendment, and Congress has not extended those protections to the networks by statute.”
The judge countered, “That US foreign policy with respect to US-funded international broadcasting is centered on the promotion and exportation of First Amendment values only bolsters the inevitable conclusion that enforcement of VOA and network editors’ and journalists’ First Amendment rights is in the public interest.”
So the agency has for the immediate future dodged a bullet. President-elect Biden is already on record promising to fire Pack at the first opportunity. A seven-member task force, headed by Richard Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine and former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy under President Obama, has been named to take a look at USAGM as part of the Biden transition effort.
The first item on their to-do list should be to restore the bipartisan board — the old Broadcasting Board of Governors. Under the terms of a “technical” amendment attached to the Defense Authorization Act, passed in the waning days of the Obama administration, the board went out of business when Pack came in as CEO. Former senator Ted Kaufman, longtime Biden chief of staff and now head of his entire transition effort, was also a member of that board.
The board may not have been a perfect vehicle, but as Pack has proved, neither is one-party rule.
There is no conflict between the agency’s public diplomacy mission and honest journalism. And from its founding, Voice of America staffers have made that clear. Judge Howell in her ruling opened with a line from the VOA’s initial 1942 broadcast: “The news may be good or bad; we shall tell you the truth.”
That part of the mission remains as critical as ever around the world. The Voice of America’s new leader must never forget that.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.