White House Attacks Voice of America

WASHINGTON — The White House lobbed a bizarre broadside against Voice of America this week, using one of its popular communications channels to accuse the United States-funded foreign news broadcaster of amplifying Chinese propaganda.

The post appeared Thursday on “1600 Daily,” an events summary produced by the White House digital team. The charges hurled at the 75-year-old broadcaster seemed so overheated that some readers worried that hackers had infiltrated the White House’s networks.

But Dan Scavino Jr., President Trump’s social media director, echoed the claims on Twitter.

“American taxpayers — paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!” Mr. Scavino wrote in sharing a V.O.A. post about a light show in China on Wednesday. The light show marked the reopening of Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected, which had been locked down for months.

Among other charges, the White House post claimed that V.O.A., which uses widely watched numbers from Johns Hopkins University to track coronavirus cases and deaths around the world, “created graphics with Communist government statistics to compare China’s coronavirus death toll to America’s.”

“V.O.A. too often speaks for America’s adversaries — not its citizens,” the post read. Asked about the post on Friday, the White House had no further comment.

Amanda Bennett, who leads Voice of America, pushed back against the claims. “We are thoroughly covering China’s disinformation and misinformation in English and Mandarin and at the same time reporting factually,” she said in a statement on Friday. “V.O.A. has thoroughly debunked much of the information coming from the Chinese government and government-controlled media.”

The statement includes links to more than a dozen V.O.A. reports exposing Beijing’s underestimates of coronavirus deaths in Wuhan, its use of Twitter to spread disinformation about the origins of the virus, and its bogus claims about aiding other nations.

Ms. Bennett, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, also responded to Mr. Scavino on Twitter.

“We believe a healthy democracy means having an #Independent and #FreePress, so we love a good dialogue,” she wrote in a series of messages about the broadcaster’s work. “Our team works hard to fact-check and hold authorities and leaders accountable for what they say. We have a whole department dedicated to this effort @PolygraphInfo.”

The White House’s post about V.O.A. comes as White House officials try to deflect criticism of Mr. Trump’s coronavirus response.

The Trump administration has also sought to appoint people favorable to the president inside V.O.A.’s independent parent agency, the United States Agency for Global Media, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Voice of America is the flagship of American government efforts to broadcast its values abroad. Founded in 1942 to report on World War II, it reaches more than 280 million people in around 100 countries. The broadcaster is a source of information especially in countries where democracy and freedom of the press are under attack.

At home, V.O.A. has been plagued by scandals in recent years. However, it has rarely, if ever, been accused by a White House of echoing the foreign propaganda it was created to combat.

In this case, Mr. Trump has weathered his own criticism over his praise for President Xi Jinping of China’s response to the early stages of the outbreak.

“He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus,” Mr. Trump said in a pair of Twitter posts in February.

But since then, Mr. Trump and other officials in his administration have used a harsher tone when describing China’s handling of the virus, especially over how it shares internal data related to the spread of cases.

And in March, Mr. Trump began referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” underscoring the belief of those in his administration that Beijing had failed to appropriately handle a growing health emergency, and who seek to shift any blame for the spread in the United States away from the Trump administration’s own policies.

The United States Agency for Global Media tries to promote American democratic values by melding journalism and political messaging across an array of radio and television channels around the world. Reports by the network’s 3,500 journalists reach more than 345 million people globally. Journalists for the independent agency are legally protected from political interference. But its various leaders have been accused of political bias by Democrats and Republicans alike over the years.

Ms. Bennett is among the leaders brought on during the Obama administration. She is married to Donald Graham, whose family owned The Washington Post before its sale to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Separate from Thursday’s events, Ms. Bennett has struggled to instill American standards in V.O.A. journalists from nations where questionable practices and political propagandizing are commonplace. Since the start of the Trump administration, she has served while expecting to lose her job should Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the agency take the helm.

That nominee, Michael Pack, has stalled in the Senate amid bipartisan concerns about his qualifications. Mr. Pack is a conservative documentary filmmaker who has collaborated with Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist.

Pro-Trump appointees inside the agency have played a role in some scandals. In 2018, TV Martí, which aims broadcasts at Cuba, aired a segment calling the financier and Democratic donor George Soros, a longtime opponent of authoritarianism who is a frequent target of the anti-Semitic far right, “a nonbelieving Jew of flexible morals.”

Katie Rogers contributed reporting.

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