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Purges and propaganda in the Trump administration

Purges of personnel as a technique for enforcing political loyalty have become a hallmark of the Trump administration, affecting vast swaths of the federal government dealing with both domestic and foreign policy.

Now that technique has been applied to a government agency that is supposed to present an objective face to the rest of the world: the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which controls the broadcasting resources of the Voice of America, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Open Technology Fund.

Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and close ally of former Trump political adviser Stephen Bannon, recently took over the agency and on his third day on the job fired all the remaining heads of the component broadcasting networks. The director and deputy director of Voice of America resigned on Pack’s first day on the job. There was no apparent reason, and none was cited, for the firings in terms of the performance of the officials involved.

There is no reason to expect that this purge will be any different from others under the current administration, which have subjugated the missions of governmental components to the political cause of not producing anything of substance that Trump would dislike. The possible variation in this case is that the Trumpian line will have a Bannonite twist, making the agency’s output sound a little more like the Breitbart network that Bannon used to run.

Any such development would violate the legal requirement that Voice of America and the other outlets practice objective journalism, untainted by political slant. It would mean losing much of their foreign audiences, for whom the main attraction of VOA and the other networks involved is their objectivity and adherence to truth. For audiences in countries with media heavily controlled by governments, it would mean less opportunity to access unbiased reporting and genuine journalism. It would mean lowered respect for the U.S. broadcast networks, inviting cynicism toward them as just another bunch of propaganda outlets, no different from what any authoritarian regime might use.

Trump’s attacks on the VOA for allegedly being biased in other ways do not square with the network’s actual output. A journalistic practice as simple as the use of a wire service story about China gets depicted by the White House as “promoting foreign propaganda.”

My own interactions with the government broadcasters have shown them to be observing their required standard of objective journalism. Inquiries I get from VOA reporters sound the same as any that might come from an independent commercial news organization.  When I am quoted in the resulting story, there are usually also quotations from those with different viewpoints, including ones supporting policies of the administration.

I frequently have been a guest on a weekly public affairs talk show on Alhurra, which is Middle East Broadcasting’s Arabic-language television channel. The program strives to incorporate contrasting viewpoints. The most recent version of the show’s format is explicitly billed as a debate, with guests recruited for their differing opinions on current policy issues involving the Middle East. My sparring partners on the show have typically included hardliners from places like the Heritage Foundation, about whom the current administration would have no qualms.

Among the other guests who have appeared with me on the program are Fred Fleitz, an acolyte of John Bolton when Bolton was still national security adviser and in favor at the White House. Another is Sebastian Gorka, yet another alumnus of the Trump White House and a proud wearer of the Hungarian Vitezi Rend medal, who is rumored to be a possible choice of Pack to head VOA.

Viewers in the Middle East see such clashes of views on a program funded by the U.S. government and are witnessing first-hand what a free and open political system is all about. They are witnessing the U.S. government’s commitment to the principles of such a system.  It would be a shame to lose that.

One of the time-tested signs of democracies degrading into autocracies is the replacement of truth and objectivity with propaganda, perhaps by turning into a propaganda organ a government element that previously had some other purpose. Worrisome signs abound in the Trump administration, including the branding of a free and independent press as an “enemy of the people.”

It is the manipulation of messages to the American people themselves that is most relevant to the degrading of American democracy. But compromising truth and objectivity in messages sent to the outside world is part of the same process, and a reason to be disturbed by the latest purge in addition to the more immediate negative effects it is likely to have on the perceptions that audiences overseas have of the United States.

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