Pompeo accused of politicizing VOA in speech calling for press freedom

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set off alarms among ethics experts and whistleblowers this week when he leaned into his criticism of Voice of America (VOA) during a speech broadcast live by the government-funded media outlet.

Even before Pompeo stepped into VOA headquarters on Monday, there had been concerns he was trying to politicize the outlet. Reporters protested his visit, arguing the Trump administration was seeking to use the outlet as a propaganda tool while its journalists were blocked from questioning the secretary.

In his speech, Pompeo touted “American exceptionalism” and criticized VOA for a lack of positive coverage of the administration.

“It’s not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation the world has ever known,” Pompeo said on the broadcast. 

“I’m not saying ignore our faults. Acknowledge them. But this isn’t the Vice of America, focusing on everything that’s wrong with our great nation. It certainly isn’t the place to give authoritarian regimes in Beijing or Tehran a platform.”

In the hours after the speech, VOA reassigned reporter Patsy Widakuswara, its senior White House correspondent, after she was seen attempting to question Pompeo as he left the building.

David Seide, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project who is representing roughly 20 VOA employees in whistleblower proceedings, said Pompeo’s speech “confirmed all of the fears we raised ahead of time.”

Seide had sent a letter to VOA leadership Friday, warning that Pompeo’s speech and the decision to live broadcast it without questions from reporters, “will be one-sided and lacking the necessary objectivity.”

“The secretary’s speech largely consisted of worn-out propaganda. The mandatory dissemination of the speech worldwide through Voice of America breached the firewall protecting VOA reporters and editors from political meddling,” he said after the speech.

“The subsequent ‘reassignment’ of VOA’s White House reporter because she dared to question the secretary after the speech is further evidence of misconduct by Secretary Pompeo and the political leadership at Voice of America.”

VOA would not comment on Widakuswara’s reassignment nor Pompeo’s speech. The State Department also did not return request for comment.

VOA, a branch of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, was founded amid World War II. Though its mission includes showing the diversity of America while presenting the policies of the U.S., its journalists are supposed to be walled off from political interference.

Its wide audience — the agency estimates it reaches 280 million people a week through its broadcasts in more than 40 languages — was noted by Pompeo during the speech.

“I read that some VOA employees didn’t want me to speak here today. I’m sure it was only a handful. They didn’t want the voice of American diplomacy to be broadcast on the Voice of America. Think about that for just a moment,” Pompeo said, noting that each institution has a role to play.

“This kind of censorial instinct is dangerous. It’s morally wrong. Indeed, it’s against your statutory mandate here at VOA. Censorship, wokeness, political correctness, it all points in one direction — authoritarianism, cloaked as moral righteousness.”

Pompeo took questions from Robert R. Reilly, VOA’s director, but VOA reporters were alarmed that the speech would be live broadcast, something they argued interfered with editorial decisionmaking as to whether and how to cover the event. 

“I just think there’s general prohibition on using public office for private gain. If this served a legitimate purpose, it would have been carried out in accordance with [VOA] standards and principles which calls for balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions. You can’t do that if you don’t allow questions,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.

“The irony is he’s criticizing China and he himself doesn’t take questions and limits other reporters from being able to participate in this event,” she said.

“I can see why the whistleblowers filed a complaint, and it looks like when someone confronted him about statements that he made that they were retaliated against.”

Pompeo’s speech was also criticized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 

“The value of U.S. international public broadcasting is in serving as objective, independent, and credible news services, particularly for global audiences desperate for information they can trust. That editorial autonomy should not bend for any one nation’s interest, including our own,” Bruce Brown, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

But David S. Jackson, who served as director of Voice of America from 2002 to 2006, said he was not alarmed by Pompeo’s speech or the decision to broadcast it without questions from reporters.

“I’m very surprised there were VOA employees who thought broadcasting a live appearance from the secretary of State was not news. Such a thing was always considered news and is part of what VOA was created to report on,” he said, calling Pompeo’s comments something of interest around the world. 

“In the past this would have been a totally uncontroversial issue, a nonissue, but suddenly a group of employees have decided that they should pre-censor a secretary of State and it’s a preposterous notion.”

Pompeo’s visit to the Voice of America capped off his nearly two-and-a-half years at the helm of the State Department where a hallmark of his tenure has been frequent clashes with reporters.

The secretary reportedly cursed at NPR veteran reporter Mary Louise Kelly after she pressed Pompeo on issues related to Ukraine; cut off reporters’ questions over his firing of the State Department inspector general; criticized a BBC reporter as spending her whole life “trying to drive a wedge” between American officials; and chastised reporters for asking “ridiculous questions.” 

He admonished the press again in his speech to VOA, accusing the media agency of politicization, crediting the Trump administration with rectifying the problem and imploring the journalists in the audience to cover that issue. 

“We want to reorient VOA to its mission of truth and unbiased reporting. We want to depoliticize what takes place here,” he said.

“That’s a pretty good feature story for whoever wants to write it up.”

Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert with Campaign Legal Center, said Pompeo’s speech fits into a broader pattern across the Trump administration.

“I think there is a larger point about the politicization of government agencies and government roles that are supposed to be nonpartisan. It’s something we’re seeing across the Trump administration and something we’re seeing with him,” she said of Pompeo.

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