New law will nudge federally funded news closer to White House, critics say

A change to laws regarding the 70-year-old, federally funded Voice of America news service would allow presidents to appoint partisan executives, placing the organization’s commitment to unbiased coverage in jeopardy, critics say.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
President-elect Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Dec. 9.

Journalists and First Amendment advocates are raising concerns about a law that could give a federally funded news service a partisan slant, potentially allowing President-elect Donald Trump and future administrations a way to broadcast their agenda on both foreign and domestic airwaves.

Voice of America and its affiliated broadcasters such as Radio Martí, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Free Asia are tasked with providing reliable reporting that also promotes democratic views in countries where free media is lacking, and receives nearly $750 million in federal funding to do so. But a new law buried more than 1,000 pages deep in a sweeping National Defense Authorization Act would scrap the broadcast agency’s bipartisan governing board in exchange for a chief executive officer appointed by the sitting president. That person would be able to fire and hire reporters and editors working on the various channels.

The potential shift in power could lead to personnel shakeups and hamper the organization's journalistic integrity, mass media scholars say, a concern that would be valid no matter who occupies the White House – although Mr. Trump’s contentious history with mainstream media, including a close relationship with former Breitbart news executive Steve Bannon, have particularly set off sirens in the media world, with many worrying that the president-elect could launch an effort in the vein of his proposed "Trump TV."

“It does raise concerns,” Jeffrey Seglin, the director of the communications program at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass., tells The Christian Science Monitor. “All the concerns about Trump would’ve been the same regardless of if Trump was elected president.”

Winning a president election, of course, comes with a national mandate – to an extent – and a president’s appointees work to deliver policy in that vein across a number of agencies. But freedom of the press plays a pivotal, defining role in American history, and many don’t believe the president should have any mandate to control the media.

“Even if [the appointed CEO] wasn’t an extreme, polarizing figure, this is not an agency that was intended to reflect the president's agenda,” Professor Seglin adds. “There are various departments and cabinet positions where they are brought in to carry out his policies. This doesn’t seem like it should be on a comparable level.”

Founded in 1942, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which operates Voice of America, sought to push pro-democracy news through Europe, hoping to combat the spread of Nazi propaganda with vetted, reliable reporting. Voice of America has since grown to reach more than 250 million people speaking more than 60 languages in 100 nations, and styled itself as a traditional news source, while still promoting democratic values.

But the bipartisan board, which consists of four Democrats and four Republicans appointed by the president as well as the secretary of State, has been an inefficient, part-time operation. President Obama can still choose to veto the bill, but in the past he has supported efforts to streamline the massive organization's operations.

The original structure was meant to shelter reporters and editors from political bias, making them free to determine what stories to pursue. Then, in 2015, the board appointed chief executive John Lansing, the former president of Scripps Networks, to handle the day-to-day duties of running the organization, hoping he could streamline operations.

The Obama administration hailed the change as a move in a positive direction, and the bill passed the GOP-controlled House and Senate earlier this month. But Trump’s characterizations of members of the mainstream media as "dishonest" and "liars," and the perpetuation of conspiracy theories on social media, have muddied the relationship between journalists and those who consume the news, shifting observers' focus to what the billionaire businessman’s controversial appointees could mean for the media.

“The Obama administration – perhaps anticipating a Hillary Clinton presidency – supported these changes. Now its outgoing public-diplomacy officials will have to hope that Mr. Trump chooses an executive committed to the U.S. broadcasting tradition of independent and reputable journalism rather than a political loyalist or alt-right ideologue,” The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote late last week. “Either way, there is likely to be an exodus of seasoned professionals from the surrogate broadcasters as well as VOA – meaning that U.S. international broadcasting, whatever its current deficiencies, is likely to get worse.”

For some, the concerns over the overlap between Trump's inauguration and the passing of the law represents a double standard. Instead, the concern over presidential influence in Voice of America's coverage should have arisen in conversation if Hillary Clinton won the presidency, too.

“The argument shouldn’t be that we’re going to change the rules depending on who’s elected president,” says Seglin, who also serves as ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

While the chief executive would have the ability to hire and fire personnel, he or she would not have the power to tell reporters or editors what stories to cover or bury, thanks to a legal protection shielding journalistic autonomy.

"The CEO now is legally required to abide by and oversee the firewall," a spokeswoman for the board told NPR. "It is the job of the news directors, editors and broadcasters, under the strict journalistic standards spelled out in the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994 to determine the stories that get covered."

Still, placing a highly partisan figure in the position could lead to the hiring of like-minded reporters and the termination of those in opposing camps, which would have the ability to slowly and more subtly shift the broadcasting coverage, critics say.

For now, it’s unclear if Trump has any interest in using the channel to further his agenda, or if he’ll stick to unfettered chains of communication, like Twitter or YouTube announcements, to take his updates directly to the public.

“It’s probably very easy to overstate Trump’s interest or Bannon’s interest in this CEO position, because what they want to do with it is unclear,” Bryan Gervais, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, tells the Monitor.

Whether or not Trump would want to redirect the American message sent out to foreign nations is debatable, but the domestic broadcasting opportunities could pique his interest. Voice of America was not able to broadcast domestically until 2013, but it currently receives about 2 million online visits from those in the US each month. If the Trump administration brings changes, however, Voice of America would likely see a change in its audience. 

“It’s a group that’s selectively exposing themselves to this,” Dr. Gervais says. “They’re sophisticated news consumers.... If they’re aware of the changes happening, are they really going to start listening to something that sounds like Breitbart news?”

Trump using the state-sponsored channel to spread propaganda and delegitimize other news organizations isn’t a likely outcome, but the Voice of America’s goal to provide "accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness, and objectivity” is compromised by any presidential power over it, experts say.

“Some of it is the illusion of credibility,” Seglin says. “You don’t want to give the perception that there’s a bias there [by adding a partisan CEO]. Even if they continue to do good news and to go good work, it changes the nature and perception of the appearance of a bias at a time when, perceptions of media are already frayed.”

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