WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has a way of making easy things difficult and difficult matters impossible. That is a good way to explain what is going on behind the scenes right now at the Voice of America, or VOA.
Trump recently declared war on the VOA, the government-run broadcaster that delivers news in more than 40 languages to an estimated 280 million people around the globe. And that declaration has exploded into a battle royal over Trump’s nominee to become CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Unfortunately for this columnist, the two people at the center of this tempest are both friends. I write at great risk to my personal equilibrium but for all the right reasons. I believe in both of them; I’ve written columns in praise of each on other matters. Besides, I’m a middle child.
The head of the VOA, Amanda Bennett, happens to be a hero of mine. Fifteen years ago, when she was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, she was the only editor in the United States who had the guts to publish the infamous “Danish cartoons” in solidarity with the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, and a dozen cartoonists who had received death threats for their satirical images of the Prophet Mohammed.
I wrote a column at the time praising Bennett’s courage and integrity. My opinion of her has not changed, especially as she (and her broadcasting agency) have lately been in the president’s crosshairs. Trump has accused the VOA of making him look bad and of publishing Chinese propaganda. Writing the news objectively will often make Trump look bad, thanks to his own behavior. But it’s ludicrous to think Bennett would allow Chinese propaganda to pass as fact-based news in her global newsroom.
Necessarily, Bennett pushed back, defending the objectivity of her newsroom’s Chinese reporting. In so doing, however, she has emboldened the forces trying to thwart the Senate confirmation of Michael Pack, the documentary-maker Trump has nominated to be her boss. Said one insider off the record, “Pack’s not a particularly bad guy, but there are a lot of extremely bad people who will almost certainly have roles if he gets the job.”
One such name belongs to former White House strategist Steve Bannon. It is true that Pack hired Bannon to consult on two documentaries, including one about Admiral Hyman Rickover, who founded the modern nuclear Navy and remains a cult hero in some conservative quarters. Bannon is a sufficiently toxic player in Washington that any contact, even professional, might seem like a reason for resistance.
Meanwhile, Trump has lent credence to some of VOA’s concerns by trumpeting that Pack will “fix” everything, which is unhelpful to Pack. And while Pack may be a conservative, he’s still a consummate professional. Before turning to documentaries, he has served in high-ranking positions with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Council on the Humanities and the Claremont Institute, where he was president and publisher of the esteemed Claremont Review of Books.
Fast-forward to last week when, in response to an insistent Trump, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee scheduled a Thursday hearing to push Pack’s nomination through. But, the night before, Pack was served with notice (and a subpoena) that the attorney general of the District of Columbia was opening an investigation into whether he had misused funds raised for his nonprofit charity, Public Media Lab, to finance his documentaries.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, announced the investigation as well as the fact that the hearing was postponed. Which is a reminder that irony never strays far from hypocrisy. Menendez’s brave defense of the Pack investigation is only slightly more impressive than the list of corruption charges leveled against the New Jersey senator a few years ago, which left a jury deadlocked but didn’t stop the Senate Ethics Committee from accusing him of poor judgment that “risked undermining the public’s confidence in the Senate.” You can almost hear the laughter in Washington when Menendez expresses concerns about someone else’s ethical improprieties.
In Pack’s case, my bet is that none will be found. According to various insiders and a nonprofit attorney who has experience in such things, it is both common and legal for nonprofits to funnel funds to be used for other purposes, such as the making of a documentary, as long as the recipient of the diverted funds can demonstrate they were used as intended.
While Bennett may sincerely fear changes at VOA that Pack might make, there’s no basis to presume he isn’t equally committed to the mission of informing the broader world with respect for journalistic norms. Moreover, it would be illegal for him to alter its mission, which was established as independent and beyond the reach of meddlesome politicians.
As usual, if Trump had kept his thoughts to himself — left VOA alone and allowed Pack to speak for himself — the Agency for Global Media might have a good man at the helm. Most important, the VOA’s Bennett could continue without distraction the serious work of informing the larger world and spreading the example of freedom.