In an unprecedented break with longtime practice and in violation of the VOA Charter, the Voice of America posted online in 2016 a number of unbalanced and unchallenged promotional videos and partisan commentaries. Almost all were in favor of Democratic Party candidates or against Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump, although in one instance, VOA ran a commentary attacking Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vemont) when he was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
The VOA Ukrainian Service posted on social media on October 9, 2016 without any context or balancing material a third-party Robert De Niro video attacking Donald Trump. In the video, for which the Ukrainian Service provided Ukrainian-language captions and the VOA logo, De Niro calls Trump “pig,” “dog,” and similar names. For the first time in VOA’s history, material posted by VOA seemed to condone physical violence against a U.S. politician.
Use in full of such unbalanced electoral political ads and commentaries was unprecedented in VOA’s history. The video was removed after outside critics lodged complaints.
The Obama administration-appointed VOA director in 2016, Amanda Bennett, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) [the agency’s new name since 2018 is the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM)] CEO John Lansing, also appointed during the Obama administration, said that they opposed such partisan commentaries by VOA editors and reporters but failed to stop them.
Almost no reporter, editor, or manager responsible for these violations of the VOA Charter received faced any serious consequences for these VOA Charter violations. Some were later promoted by VOA director Amanda Bennett and other managers.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Voice of America did not start out as a news organization devoted to telling the truth no matter what. It started out during World War II as a propaganda machine against Nazi Germany and Japan. It operated in the service of the White House and was guilty of disinformation, bias, censorship, and coverup of Soviet crimes against humanity. It was dominated during the war by strongly partisan individuals and quite a few Soviet sympathizers. They did not believe Stalin could do anything wrong and wanted to protect America’s military ally in the war with Nazi Germany at any price, including the freedom and independence of smaller nations. Not even the State Department approved of some of the misleading wartime VOA propaganda.
Eventually, the Office of War Information and the Voice of America paid the price for VOA’s pro-Soviet propaganda abroad and OWI’s pro-Soviet and some partisan propaganda targeting Americans. President Truman, who like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also a Democrat but had a much sober view of Stalin and Soviet Russia, dissolved after the war VOA’s parent organization, the Office of War Information. He put VOA in the State Department to increase oversight for its broadcasts and personnel. A few wartime VOA broadcasters went to work for communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
The U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, not only to prevent VOA from competing with private U.S. media, which was a minor consideration, but to ensure that pro-Soviet propaganda, partisan reporting, and hiring of foreign agents would not continue during the Cold War. Lawmakers also did not want such abuses to spread to U.S. domestic media through commercial sharing of Voice of America programs on American stations or in American newspaper articles.
However, the main purpose of the Smith-Mundt Act, was to expand informational, educational, and cultural outreach and exchanges abroad. VOA was lucky not to lose its funding from the angry Congress altogether
Since VOA was still doing poorly against Communism, President Truman and Congress later made secret appropriations to establish Radio Free Europe (RFE), which did much better in this area, but not in U.S. public diplomacy, which remained VOA’s specialization in addition to news reporting.
The founding father of the Voice of America, American playwright and President Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert E. Sherwood, was a highly partisan but brilliant individual who held strong liberal opinions and was an enthusiastic supporter and implementor of close coordination of Voice of America and Soviet propaganda during World War II. He issued propaganda directives to VOA and included in them some of the Soviet propaganda directives he tried hard to obtain in meetings with Soviet officials. But he was also politically savvy to understand that in order to push his ideological agenda, he had to at least pretend that the Voice of America was above domestic politics and remained nonpartisan in its reporting on U.S. presidential elections.
A statement on U.S. election coverage presumably written by Robert E. Sherwood was placed in the Congressional Record by John W. Murphy, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, on May 26, 1944. It is important to keep in mind that the wartime VOA was not exactly how Sherwood had described it in his statement. He was after all a great master of domestic and foreign public relations. But while contrary to official declarations, VOA employed many partisan individuals who engaged in pro-administration and pro-Soviet propaganda, some of his advice on how VOA should cover U.S. elections remains as valid today as it was then.
It’s quite clear that Robert E. Sherwood was above all a propagandist when he says that “[e]very attempt should be made to create the best possible impression of both candidates.” That is not be VOA’s role, but the rest of his statement is worth reading. His directives are preceded by another statement, which is not clearly attributed. It may have been delivered by the Office of War Information Director Elmer Davis and repeated by Congressman John W. Murphy.
STATEMENT BY AN OWI OFFICIAL
Inasmuch as the Office of War Information is primarily a news organization, the public may be interested in the policies which it is following in dealing with news of the Presidential campaign.
We are a war agency, staffed by members of both political parties or of no party, existing to serve a national interest which would not be served by any partisan misrepresentation or misinterpretation of the news.
These must be the objectives of an American war information agency, regardless of what administration may be in power; they will still be the objectives on January 21, 1945, no matter who may have been inaugurated as President the day before. Accordingly, we have followed and shall continue to follow the policy laid down in May 1943, with, my complete approval, by Robert E. Sherwood, Director of the Overseas Branch [which included Voice of America]. This declaration, which to my knowledge has never been published, is as follows:
STATEMENT ATTRIBUTED TO ROBERT E. SHERWOOD
We should advertise and dramatize the fact of the campaign and the free election as a demonstration of American democracy is continuing freely in the midst of war. Every attempt should be made to create the best possible impression of both candidates, with absolute impartiality; for one or the other of them will become the President of the United States, and it will then be our duty to convince the world of his good faith, his statesmanship, and his wisdom in handling all the manifold problems of the war and beyond the war.
In accordance with that policy, and in pursuance of these objectives outlined in the foregoing, we conduct our foreign news service. It is as accurate and truthful as possible but its content is determined to some extent by the interest of foreign audiences, most of whom care little about the details of American politics. Generally speaking, what they want to know about the forthcoming election is simply this: Will whoever may be elected be determined to conduct the war to complete victory, and will the successful candidate and party be willing to cooperate with other nations in some form of collective effort to keep the peace hereafter?
Beyond that, much news of great importance to the American publics of little or no interest overseas. This is true of most purely domestic issues; though the self-governing nations of the British Commonwealth and such neutral democracies as Sweden and Switzerland have a good deal of interest in the workings of American democracy, and in such of our problems as happen to resemble problems of their own. In such cases our staff is under instruction to report the issues objectively, without partisanship or editorializing on either side. Otherwise we say little about domestic issues to foreign audiences.
We endeavor to maintain a general balance between Republican and Democratic statements that will give the world a fair impression of the principles of both sides, but we do not aim at a rigid mathematical equality; we make as wide as possible a selection of quotations from political personalities of all parties, and we use whatever there may be in their statements that serves the purposes of a war agency promoting the national interest abroad.