News from Washington is coming in waves, as each new appointment, executive order, and White House action washes over and obscures the last. So it would have been easy to miss one action that barely caused a ripple but could have alarming implications for news itself in the U.S.
On the Trump administration’s first full day, two White House aides visited the offices of the Voice of America, an enormous agency founded in 1942 to transmit to people around the world “in support of freedom and democracy,” according to its website. Citizens risked their safety to listen to the Voice of America in occupied Europe during World War II, in Soviet-dominated countries during the Cold War, and in other countries where authoritarian governments controlled information.
The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other networks, belong to the Broadcasting Board of Governors or BBG. And as its name suggests, the BBG was governed by a bipartisan board. A 1948 law forbidding it from broadcasting to the American people both protected the broadcast industry from competition and protected U.S. residents from government-sourced propaganda.
But in 2013 the law was changed to allow U.S. audiences to access the broadcasts, and this December, on page 1,404 of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress disbanded the bipartisan governing board and gave management of the agency to a CEO appointed by the President.
President Trump and his closest advisors are nothing if not media savvy, so surely they understand the power that’s been handed to them – control of an agency with a budget of more than eight hundred million dollars per year to generate news for the American people and the world, positioned both to feed and compete with established mainstream media.
Before the election, Trump’s contentious relationship with the press stirred speculation about whether he would start his own network. Now he controls a mammoth network that we’re paying for. The current director of the Voice of America insists that the agency will be able to remain independent, but staffers admit they’re worried the agency might become a partisan propaganda arm of the new administration.
As news cycles become ever-faster and webs of news, fake news, and alternative facts become ever-more tangled, we’ll need to be extra-vigilant in holding this government information source accountable: we pay for it, and it represents us – it’s the Voice of America.