Eventually, some of the same principles also came to apply to the Voice of America. VOA is a U.S.-based network that was originally created in 1942 to rally the troops. Long perceived as an arm of the U.S. government, it was less successful as a news operation than RFE/RL and the BBC World Service, which maintained reputations for impartiality. To better compete, in the 1970s it was given more independence. But from the beginning it was always intended, as its mission statement still clearly says, to “represent America, not any single segment of American society.” VOA was never meant to be the tool of one political party, but rather to present America from a broad, nonpartisan perspective. Its most successful programs by far had no politics at all: VOA’s “Jazz Hour” at one point had 30 million listeners and a cult following inside the Soviet Union.
Compared with the cost of a nuclear arsenal, these tactics were dirt cheap—and yet they probably did more to undermine communist ideology than all of the U.S. military put together. Over time, the American-backed broadcasters in Europe and Russia built up the trust that helped break the spell of communism and bring down the regimes.
When the Cold War ended, many forgot about these tools. But through the 1990s, the 2000s, and the 2010s, VOA and RFE/RL kept working; Radio Free Asia, along with sister stations broadcasting into Cuba and the Middle East, were added to the group. They kept doing the same job, using the same principles, only in more countries than before. On relatively small budgets, sometimes in difficult conditions, they have kept operating as “surrogates” in countries that don’t have a free press, where journalism is dangerous and governments are not transparent, putting out hundreds of reports in dozens of languages. Through them, and thanks to them, some parts of the world learn about America, and sometimes about their own countries, too.
All of these institutions gathered under the U.S. Agency for Global Media umbrella have had their ups and downs. They have had better and worse leaders; there have been arguments about how much “popular” programming to do on the native-language stations, and how much “serious” news. There have been periods of low morale, staff problems, oversight issues. Last year, Radio Martí, which broadcasts into Cuba, put out some conspiratorial, anti-Semitic material about George Soros, after which eight people were fired. Successive White Houses tried to shape the broadcasters in various ways, and sometimes became annoyed by the output of one network or another. Until this week, however, no U.S. administration had actually set out to destroy America’s international broadcasters or remove their independence. But now, finally, one has.
The author of this action is Michael Pack: colleague of Steve Bannon, producer of a documentary film on Clarence Thomas, and a person so indifferent to the subject of international broadcasting that several people who have met him told me they thought he didn’t really want the job. (Because they still work with him, they asked to remain anonymous.) The Trump administration nominated him as the CEO of the Agency for Global Media two years ago, but his nomination languished in the Senate, not least because Republican senators were unenthusiastic; one congressional staffer who met Pack told me that he seemed to know nothing, had not bothered to “read a 101 on the agency.” Asked about his priorities for the complex broadcasting services, he would respond, according to another interlocutor, with vague phrases like “Give me some time” and “I need to think about it.” Pack is also under criminal investigation for allegedly misdirecting money from a nonprofit to his private company, normally the kind of thing that gives the Senate pause. But for reasons that are still unclear, President Trump finally got interested in his nomination this spring, started making calls, and leaned hard on the supine Republican Senate leadership to vote him in.