President Donald Trump's more-than-one-year delay in naming new leadership at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its flagship broadcasting service, the Voice of America, is fueling fierce internal battles over the direction of its coverage and criticism from conservatives that the $684 million BBG budget is being used to undermine Trump's policies at home and abroad.
Aware of the turmoil within the BBG-controlled agencies, the White House last year planned to tap Michael Pack, a senior fellow and past president of the Claremont Institute and its Claremont Review of Books, to run the BBG, according to two government officials and outside sources.
However, Pack, a documentary filmmaker who previously served as a Corporation for Public Broadcasting executive, has been unable to take the post because he is working on a film about the life of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The Thomas film would pose conflict-of-interest issues with leading the BBG, the sources said.
The Thomas film is still far from complete, delaying Pack's potential nomination. The Senate would then likely take several months more to confirm him to the post, meaning that new Trump appointed leadership at the BBG could be a year or more away.
Pack also has ties to former White House advisor Steve Bannon and was thought to have his blessing for the role. Pack and Bannon worked on two documentaries together, and Pack wrote an op-ed for the Federalist last year praising Bannon as a pioneer in documentary filmmaking.
With Trump's excommunication of Bannon early this year, it is unclear if Pack is still the top contender for the post or if the White House has moved on to other candidates or decided not to make filing the post a top priority.
The White House did not respond to an inquiry about Pack or the broader BBG turmoil.
A spokesman for the Claremont Institute, where Pack remains a senior fellow, said only: "Out of respect for the selection and nomination process, which is still ongoing, Mr. Pack would like to refrain from comment at this time."
Those who support the current VOA practice of trying to emulate mainstream commercial cable outlets are worried that the Trump administration could get too involved in the BBG and its outlets could become a mouthpiece for his administration reducing their reputation for independence and fairness throughout the world.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow early last year warned that a retooled VOA with a Trump appointee could become a "state-run media operation" and a megaphone for Trump's policies abroad.
With the Obama appointees remaining in place for more than a year, tensions are bubbling over within the BBG as conservative-leaning current and former employees, some of whom joined the organization as a way to fight back against totalitarian regimes, continue to bristle at what they argue is the VOA's negative coverage of the Trump administration's signature policies.
The critics often voice their opposition to management decisions on BBGWatch.com, which is produced by unpaid volunteers, including many current and former employees. The website says its mission is to "restore good management and sharp news focus to taxpayer-funded American media outreach abroad."
With an annual budget of roughly $684 million, down from its high of $787 million in fiscal year 2017, the broadcasting board controls U.S.-taxpayer-funded media outlets like Voice of America (VOA), and Radio Free Europe, which are intended to counter propaganda from repressive regimes with coverage that promotes freedom and democracy worldwide.
Several conservative critics, including a former VOA director during the Bush administration, say the organization has lost its way, and VOA coverage now reflects the same anti-Trump bias you would find in the New York Times or Washington Post or on CNN—only in this case it's taxpayer-funded and directed at an international audience.
"The Trump agenda keeps getting slammed left and right," one government official told the Washington Free Beacon. "Why is the VOA acting like it's part of the resistance and opposition to Trump? That is not part of the VOA's charter or mission."
Recent headlines from VOANews.com include: "Crackdown Sparks Fear in LA Immigrant Communities," "Trapped: Diasporas from Travel Ban-Affected Countries Reflect One Year Later," and "Trump Challenges Justice Department Tradition of Independence."
After Trump's state of the union address, the VOA's coverage featured a large photo of a "Dreamer" immigrant with her hand over her mouth for a story with the headline: "Trump Promotes Immigration Reforms, Democrats Reject His Policy as ‘Heartless.'"
A month before the presidential campaign, the BBG's Ukrainian service posted online an unedited video, with subtitles and the VOA logo, of Robert DeNiro 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.
Last year, three VOA employees were suspended and threatened with firing for conducting an interview with a controversial Chinese dissident, which the Free Beacon first reported. The chief of VOA's China division, one of those suspended, said VOA leadership in Washington was caving to pressure from the Chinese government.
Stories on the VOA website Friday included "New Blackout Hitting Puerto Rico Amid Funding Worries," "White House Facing Rumors About Top Security Aide’s Exit," and an aggregated Washington Post story about First Lady Melania Trump’s immigration to the U.S. on a merit-based "Einstein Visa" that criticized Trump over his opposition to "chain-migration" because of her parents' process of becoming U.S. citizens based on Melania Trump's green-card status.
Critics are training their fire on Amanda Bennett, the VOA's director. Bennett was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter before going on to edit the Philadelphia Inquirer. She also has served as a top editor at the Oregonian and a columnist at the Washington Post.
She is the author of several books, including The Man Who Stayed Behind, a biography she wrote with Sidney Rittenberg about his experience as a U.S. Army serviceman who was sent to China in the 1940s and became a member of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao Zedong's inner circle
Bennett, who is married to Donald Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post and the son of legendary publisher Kay Graham, was appointed as VOA director by President Barack Obama in April 2016 with the support of BBG Director John Lansing. Lansing, who previously served nine years at president of Scripps Networks, joined the BBG in 2015.
Bennett has tweeted out several of the headlines that have stoked conservative ire on her official @VOADirector Twitter account and posted several of them on her Facebook page. Bennett’s recent Facebook post linking to the story about Los Angeles immigrants drew criticism on BBGWatch.
The anonymous critic accused the VOA of failing to abide by the organization's charter to provide reporting that is "accurate, objective and comprehensive."
"There is almost never any discussion in these one-sided VOA reports about the rule-of-law issues or comparisons to how other countries treat their illegal immigrants, which is far worse than what the U.S. has done," the critic wrote. "There is usually no mention in these VOA reports that U.S. immigration laws, which illegal immigrants violate, were passed by both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress" nor that "these laws have been enforced by both Republican and Democratic presidents and administrations, including President Obama's administration, which conducted similar arrests of some illegal immigrants."
Cuban dissidents and exiles in Miami last year waged such a fierce campaign against what they regarded as pro-normalization coverage at the BBG's Radio and TV Marti during the Obama years and in the first months of the Trump administration, that the woman who ran those operations resigned in June.
"It was totally co-opted and seized by the administration in the service of that normalization process, and that was a tragedy—a distortion," Jose Cardenas, a former State Department official during the George W. Bush administration who now consults on Latin American issues, told the Free Beacon. "I understand why people are impatient and frustrated that a new direction has not been set at the VOA and BBG as a whole."
Marcell Felipe, a lawyer for Miami-based America Teve, a Spanish-language TV station in Miami, is calling on Trump to install new leaders at the BBG and VOA immediately.
Felipe, who also runs the Miami-based Inspire America Foundation, which takes a hardline in opposition of the Catsro government, helped lead the Miami-based campaign to oust the Obama-appointed head of Radio and TV Marti's governing organization, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
"What needs to be done is personnel changes—that's where the growing frustration is now, and it's about to burst," Felipe said in an interview.
A BBG spokeswoman defended the coverage under Bennett's leadership and argued that it adheres to the VOA charter.
"In accordance with the VOA charter, VOA ‘will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.' VOA will be accurate, objective and comprehensive," the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. "Our mission involves providing news and information to overseas audiences in accordance with the highest standards of journalism. Our journalists cover all sides of U.S. policy, including this issue [of immigration policy]."
Critics of the coverage argue that Trump is wasting a unique opportunity to remove top Obama appointees who continue to lead the organization and install stalwart conservatives or candidates committed to nonpartisan coverage and the BBG's mission of "connecting people around the world in support of freedom and democracy."
Congress passed a provision in the 2016 defense authorization bill that disbanded the part-time bipartisan board that served as a check on the BBG director and gave full power to the CEO to control all of the agencies that fall under its umbrella, including VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Robert Reilly, a former VOA director during the George W. Bush administration penned an op-ed last year for the Wall Street Journal, pointing out that "information warfare is being waged against the U.S. by the Islamic State, China, and Russia." He encouraged Trump to take advantage of the BBG’s broader power to nominate "someone to lead the Voice of America who knows how to fight such wars—just as well as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis knows how to fight kinetic ones."
"Together, they could win," he concluded.