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Number 1 Shimbun

White House’s “Political” Voice of America Probe Draws Criticism






Photo courtesy of Steve Herman




Friends and colleagues of Steve Herman have voiced dismay and disbelief following reports that the FCCJ’s former President (1997-8) is being investigated for alleged bias against the Trump administration.

Many current members will recall Herman, the White House bureau chief for Voice of America [VOA], as an urgent, keyboard thumping presence in the workroom at the Yurakucho Denki Building as he edited his latest radio dispatch from Tokyo down to the last second.

After stints as a VOA correspondent and bureau chief in India, South Korea and Thailand, Herman became the network’s senior diplomatic correspondent before being appointed White House bureau chief.

As the US presidential campaign reached its climax, NPR reported that political appointees at the US Agency for Global Media [USAGM] – the government body that oversees VOA – had investigated Herman and compiled a confidential report claiming his reporting had been “unfair” towards Trump, in violation of the broadcaster’s journalistic standards.

Trump appointee orders investigation

According to NPR and other US media reports, Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed chief executive of the USAGM, ordered two political operatives he had hired as aides to investigate Herman’s reporting on the administration.

Pack seems to have been particularly troubled by Herman’s revelation that the US vice president, Mike Pence, had not worn a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic in April.

According to Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page director of the Washington Post, Pack’s appointees submitted a 30-page report recommending that Herman be “banned from covering presidential politics because of an alleged “conflict of interest,” based on Herman’s comments on Twitter, where he has well over 100,000 followers, and on his social media “likes”. However, at the time of writing, no action had been taken against Herman.

‘Straight down the middle’

Trump’s appointment of Pack, whom the Post described as an associate of the President’s former aide and alt-right propagandist Stephen Bannon, has fueled accusations that the USAGM’s investigation was politically motivated.

The Asian American Journalists Association said allegations by political appointees regarding Herman’s journalistic integrity were “alarming”.

“They are the latest in a slew of insidious actions undermining VOA’s editorial independence,” the AAJA said in a statement. “We condemn any action taken that undermines the journalistic independence of VOA,” it added, noting that Herman is a long-time AAJA member and board member of its Washington DC chapter.

The FCCJ Freedom of the Press Committee backed the AAJA statement, saying it “stands behind Herman ... and behind the principles of press freedom”.

Regular members recall Herman as a hard-working journalist who was among the first foreign reporters to get close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after it suffered a meltdown during the March 2011 triple disaster.

“I’ve known Steve for more than a decade and in all that time I’ve never known him to be anything other than an impartial journalist,” said Martyn Williams, a former FCCJ President and a journalist/researcher for the North Korea Tech and 38 North websites.

“He’s straight down the middle and only interested in the facts. In knowing him personally, I don’t think I can remember ever having any political discussions with him that were framed around his beliefs and opinions rather than the facts on the ground.”

Suvendrini Kakuchi, Tokyo correspondent for University World News, agreed that Herman strived for objectivity in his reporting. “In conversations about news he would keenly avoid sounding biased in his comments,” she said, adding that the USAGM investigation was a “great disappointment”.

“I was also impressed by his generosity to other working journalists, such as sharing tips on producing an effective radio broadcast and encouraging people to look into new ventures and topics. As a President of the FCCJ he was hugely popular,” Kakuchi said.

Julian Ryall, Tokyo correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and the South China Morning Post, said, “For anyone to suggest that Steve is anything other than a straight arrow is just silly. But I guess they’re of the opinion that if they throw enough accusations around, if the President’s ‘base’ swallows it and Fox picks up the cudgel, then something will eventually stick.”

Williams shares concerns that the investigation was part of a “predictable” attempt by an increasingly embattled White House to steer media coverage in a more favourable direction just weeks before the presidential election.

“What the White House and Trump fail to understand is that impartial, fair news coverage that shows the best and worst of America is actually the best advertisement for the country,” Williams said.

“VOA is targeted at countries where there isn’t a free press, so to hear a state-funded broadcaster report critically but fairly on the administration projects a good impression of the US and its democratic values.”

Herman, who has declined to comment publicly while the investigation’s findings are still under deliberation, was in familiar territory covering Trump’s campaign stops in Nevada and Arizona, as Number1 Shimbun prepared to go to press.

“It’s sad that Steve is having to defend himself against these accusations at the same time as doing his job,” Ryall said. “I can only say that I hope his overlords [at the USAGM] are swiftly replaced by a new administration and he can get back to doing what he does best.”

Justin McCurry is Japan and Korea correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer, and co-chair of the FCCJ Freedom of the Press Committee


Published in: November 2020

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