Royce: USAGM, VOA Management Must Be Strengthened

Investigation by the House Foreign Affairs Committee uncovered new spate of management failures

Rep. Ed Royce
Rep. Ed Royce / Getty Images
December 22, 2018

A three-month congressional investigation uncovered new evidence of management failures at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the Voice of America and related taxpayer-funded media outlets.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) on Friday released an oversight report that faulted "insufficient management" for allowing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Voice of America to run Facebook ads that illegally targeted audience in the United States. The ads run counter to the USAGM's mission to focus on countering U.S. adversaries' propaganda overseas.

The Facebook ads violated the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits domestic dissemination of U.S. taxpayer-funded content produced by the State Department and related agencies, the Foreign Affairs investigation found.

In fact, a review of six VOA language services found at least 860 Smith-Mundt violations over a two-year period. The violations continued even after the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), previously the Broadcasting Board of Governors, created a task force to address the issue, the report found.

"I strongly support the USAGM mission of providing objective, accurate and timely news to people in countries where a free press does not exist," Royce, who is retiring at the end of this year, said in a statement. "As terrorists and repressive regimes in Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly weaponize information to undermine our democratic values, the U.S. needs strong, agile and independent-minded international broadcasting to stand up for freedom and truth."

Reform efforts aimed at empowering a CEO at USAGM have produced progress, but there is still more work to be done, Royce said. Royce has tried to fix the agency, which he has described as "broken" and mismanaged, over the last several years. He has argued that the problems plaguing the now-USAGM have allowed the Russians and U.S. foes to gain the upper hand in the information-warfare sphere.

"Management of digital operations must be strengthened not only to ensure compliance with the law, but to produce more effective digital content," Royce said Friday. "I hope the next chair and ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to work closely with USAGM to hold our broadcasters to the highest professional standards."

"That is what they want, and what our country needs. We're faced with a misinformation onslaught and we've got to get this right," he added.

The mismanagement is the latest example in a string of scandals the agency has faced in recent months.

In October, the VOA fired or disciplined 15 of its journalists after an internal investigation found they had accepted bribes passed to them by a Nigerian official.

In late November the VOA fired one employee and disciplined another within the VOA's Chinese language division for conducting a controversial interview with a prominent exiled Chinese dissident that the VOA determined had violated journalistic norms, as well as managers' directions. Critics argue that the VOA management was overly influenced by Chinese officials and pressured to cut the interview short.

A late November report by Stanford University's Hoover Institution cited concerns about Chinese officials' influence on American institutions, including specific details about its "charm offensive and tougher tactics" on VOA and Radio Free Asia employees working in China, including details about the Chinese embassy officials meeting annually with VOA leaders of its Mandarin service to express their opinions about the content.

The report also cited what it called a "pattern" by VOA Mandarin Service of avoiding stories that could be perceived to be too tough on China and detailed activities by Chinese security officials it said amount to "a campaign of intimidation against some VOA and RFA staffers and their family members."

In another incident, a month before the presidential campaign, the BBG's Ukrainian service posted online an unedited video, with subtitles and the VOA logo, of Robert De Niro unloading on Trump, calling him a "dog," a "pig," and a "con." It was not part of a larger story, and the Ukrainian service removed it after criticism.

The House Foreign Affairs report also comes as USAGM and VOA have become the flashpoint in a fierce partisan battle over its leadership and the direction of its news coverage.

President Trump's nominee to head the USAGM, Michael Pack, is expected to win Senate confirmation in January after outgoing Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) held up his nomination for months.

With VOA Chairman Amanda Bennett's support, Corker and Menendez have pushed a bill aimed at devolving power from the head of the USAGM to an advisory board. The bill's opponents argue that the measure would effectively "neuter" Trump's incoming CEO by preventing him from firing Bennett and other USAGM agency heads without the advisory board's consent.

Bennett has become the focus of conservative ire over her leadership of the VOA, which they say has become left-leaning leaning and gratuitously anti-Trump, as well as too focused on a domestic U.S. audience despite its mission to direct its coverage to counter propaganda from Russia, China, Iran, and other U.S. adversaries.

The bill passed quietly out of the Foreign Relations Committee in late November, and Corker and Menendez hoped to attach it to broader, swift-moving legislation that must pass by the end of the year, such as the government funding bill at the center of the current budget impasse.

A group of conservative senators are determined to fight it and have placed at least one hold on it that will likely prevent it from moving with the broader must-pass measures in the final days of congressional action this year.

Royce, who has worked to try to fix the agency over the last several years, late last week came out strongly against the Corker-Menendez measure, arguing that it weakens the USAGM chief, instead of strengthening the position, which he has long supported.

Royce made his feelings known during a private meeting with the current head of the USAGM, John Lansing.

"The chairman made clear today that he cannot support legislation that would result in backsliding at the USAGM," a Foreign Affairs Committee spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon late last week. "An empowered CEO is critical to making U.S. international broadcasting more effective."

The bill's detractors call the legislative effort "Machiavellian" because it aims to weaken the CEO just as Trump's nominee is poised to take over. The same people pushing the bill now, including Bennett, backed a measure in mid-2016 that would have the opposite impact—to strengthen the CEO—when they thought Hillary Clinton would win the presidency.

Pack is a documentary filmmaker who previously served as a Corporation for Public Broadcasting executive. More recently, he ran the conservative Claremont Institute and its Review of Books.

Bennett and her supporters on the left cite Pack's ties to White House adviser Steve Bannon as cause for concern. The pair worked together on two documentaries, although colleagues have said Pack has had a much broader role in the conservative movement and would in no way be beholden to Bannon, especially after his falling out with Trump.

Pack also has spoken out against liberals having a politically correct "stranglehold" on colleges and universities, particularly film schools.

Bennett stoked additional partisan turmoil over the future of the USAGM and VOA when she wrote an op-ed in November taking Trump to task for suggesting in a tweet that the United States should create its own "worldwide network to show the World we really are — GREAT!"

Bennett placed the op-ed, in which she argued that the VOA helps "export the First Amendment" free from any administration meddling, in the Washington Post, the newspaper her husband previously owned.