Trump global media chief probes pro-Biden VOA content

July 31, 2020 GMT
The Voice of America building, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The Voice of America building, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of U.S.-funded global media has ordered an investigation into the posting of a video package featuring former Vice President Joe Biden on a Voice of America website and affiliated social media accounts.

Agency for Global Media chief Michael Pack said Thursday his staff is looking into the segment that it called “pro-Biden” and weighing disciplinary action against those responsible. The content, which appeared on the VOA’s Urdu-language website and its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts this month, has since been removed and may have violated federal law, the agency said.

Pack has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for initiating a major shakeup of the agency that oversees VOA and its sister networks. Many Democrats fear he wants to turn the outlets into Trump propaganda machines. His response to the video package could intensify those concerns while heartening VOA critics, including at the White House, who believe the agency is biased against Trump.

“The content at issue featured a video that can only be described as an apparent election advertisement for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden,” AGM said of the segment on a voter mobilization campaign, known as “Million Muslim Votes,” that highlighted Biden speaking to Muslim Americans.

AGM said its management is concerned that the video, which carried the VOA logo, may have been intended to affect votes among the Urdu-speaking Muslim-American community in the upcoming November election. It also noted that two of Trump’s biggest congressional foes — Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashid Tlaib of Michigan — were featured in the video, which was flagged late Tuesday by conservative activists.

Pack has been struggling to tamp down conservative anger at his decision to wholesale fire the heads of all of AGM’s broadcasters and a non-profit technology fund. In a statement, Pack said he wanted to find out who was responsible for “this significant content and editorial breakdown” and determine whether it violates the Hatch Act, which governs political activity of federal workers.

“USAGM staff members who attempt to influence American elections will be held accountable,” he said. “Our networks comprise the U.S.’s megaphone to the world, and this invaluable instrument is generously funded by the American people. To safeguard our agency’s reputation and the integrity of our content, I will continue to ensure that violations of journalistic standards and principles are dealt with swiftly and fairly.”

Congressional aides familiar with the matter said several VOA contractors had been responsible for the content but could not say if any action had been taken against them. The aides, who weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly, spoke on condition of anonymity.

In addition to the mass firings, Pack has also initiated a review of visas for foreign employees, many of whom bring critical language skills needed to communicate with the foreign populations that are the primary audiences for AGM broadcasts, and undertaken a security review of how foreigners are hired.

Pack, a conservative filmmaker and associate of former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, has defended the moves as necessary to overhaul the agency, which critics have long said is beset by bureaucratic and journalistic issues. That criticism exploded earlier this year when the White House attacked VOA for its coverage of COVID-19.

Democrats, who suspect Pack wants to promote Trump over broader American values and interests, and some Republicans have demanded explanations for his abrupt dismissal of the heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Open Technology Fund. The director and deputy director of VOA resigned within days of Pack taking control of AGM in early June.