The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was ordered in April not to cooperate with the Voice of America because the White House claimed the government-funded news service was disseminating Chinese “propaganda,” according to an email unearthed by a watchdog organization.
The bizarre White House attack on the federally funded VOA said “much of the U.S. media takes its lead from China.” The broadside was so odd that many initially thought hackers had posted it on the White House website, The New York Times reported.
The Voice of America’s director on Sunday angrily responded to the CDC, calling the freeze on its reporters “shocking” and “troubling” and comparing the action to authoritarian nations without a free press — like China.
In the April 30 CDC email, obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute and published by Just Security and released Friday, Michawn Rich informs the organization’s press staff: “As a rule, do not send up [press interview] requests from [VOA reporter] Greta von Susteren or anyone working for VOA because of this” — and links to the White House statement. Rich, communications director for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, was assigned to the CDC in March to shape the CDC’s press response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The White House statement posted in early April accused the Voice of America of amplifying “Beijing’s propaganda.” As an example, the statement cited a comment in a VOA article that China’s strict lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak was successful in stemming the spread of the disease — a view widely held by scientists around the world.
The statement also accused the VOA of using “Communist government statistics” to compare China’s coronavirus death toll to America’s. In fact, the VOA used figures provided by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center in Baltimore, widely considered the gold standard of pandemic statistics.
At the time the statement was issued, the U.S. COVID-19 death toll had surpassed China, and President Donald Trump had begun to accuse the Chinese government of lying about its figures — and blaming China for the pandemic.
The VOA responded to the White House statement with a long list of its articles critical of China based on what it called “verifiable facts.” It also bitingly pointed out the difference between “state-controlled” media — compelled to follow the party line — and “publicly-funded independent media,” like the VOA, which “shows all sides of an issue.”
On Sunday, the VOA issued a scathing response to the CDC email.
“We were shocked to read the internal CDC documents instructing the agency’s media relations office to refuse media requests from ‘anyone associated with Voice of America,’ citing White House” accusations that the VOA was spreading “Chinese propaganda,” director Amanda Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, said in a statement. “VOA, a federally funded independent news organization, strongly rejects the accusations and calls on the CDC to immediately withdraw the instructions.”
For a “federal agency’s public affairs office to categorically deny in advance interview requests from VOA journalists … based on a White House opinion statement … is even more troubling,” Bennett continued.
The attack on the VOA is occurring as Trump is making a power play to control the organization and force it to spin positive coverage for his administration. The Senate early this month voted to make conservative filmmaker and Steve Bannon pal Michael Pack head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the federal agency that oversees the VOA.
The New York Times reported that Trump intervened to nail down Pack’s confirmation quickly amid an investigation by the attorney general for the District of Columbia into whether Pack diverted at least $1.6 million in donations to his nonprofit organization to his for-profit film company. That investigation is continuing.
VOA is commendably rejecting Trump's call for VOA to be his own personal propaganda outlet. But Trump's newly appointed CEO, Michael Pack, could change that. Pack is an associate of Steve Bannon and has collaborated with him in the past. He could remake VOA a the new Brietbart./2
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) June 14, 2020
The CDC did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
CORRECTION: The internal emails were obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute, not JustSecurity as originally reported. The latter did, however, publish the emails.