A pro-Trump “coup” could turn a government media agency into a “propaganda machine”

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Whistleblowers allege that top staffers at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency that oversees U.S. government-backed news outlets around the world, plotted to illegally replace the BBG’s CEO in an effort to slant the agency’s coverage in a manner more favorable to President Donald Trump’s administration, according to a letter from the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The board, through news outlets like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, promotes democracy and provides independent news coverage to people around the world, with a particular focus on countering propaganda by authoritarian governments. With an audience of 278 million people in 100 countries and 61 languages, the agency has tremendous power to shape the perception of the United States around the world -- or to serve as a Trump propaganda outlet.

In his letter to the agency, first reported on by CNN last night, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) wrote that according to whistleblowers, the Trump administration planned to remove current BBG CEO John Lansing and replace him with BBG Chief Information Officer/Chief Technical Officer Andre Mendes, “presumably with the aim of pushing the BBG's journalism toward a viewpoint favorable of the Trump Administration.” Mendes, BBG senior adviser Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, and White House Associate Director of Presidential Personnel Jennifer Locetta “allegedly prepared a memorandum for the White House outlining this scheme and are pushing for Presidential action,” Engel wrote, citing “multiple sources.”  

According to Engel, the plot would be unlawful because only the board itself can name an interim CEO until one is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. He said that the whistleblowers described the alleged effort as “a coup at the BBG.” Engel requested that BBG provide his staff with the memorandum and all related documents by the end of the week.

Mendes and Locetta both denied to CNN that they had conspired to remove the BBG CEO. Lansing reportedly announced in a note to BBG staff on Tuesday that Mendes was leaving the agency and joining the Department of Commerce.

The BBG’s networks pride themselves on providing accurate information, not propaganda, stressing the “firewall” separating those news services from government interference. Conservative critics have complained that those outlets are insufficiently supportive of U.S. government policies.

Shapiro, a former Breitbart.com reporter who joined the agency in July, is one of the right-wing Trump appointees who have apparently been embedded in the agency to alter its coverage.

BBG sources told CNN in October that Shapiro represented himself to staff there as a close associate of Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart CEO whose stormy tenure as White House chief strategist ended abruptly over the summer, with a mandate to purge the agency of personnel insufficiently loyal to the president and turn the BBG into a “Bannon legacy.”

Shapiro’s reporting at Breitbart raises questions about his view of the types of stories journalists should pursue. In an April 2011 piece published shortly after President Barack Obama responded to Trump’s birther attacks by releasing his long-form birth certificate, Shapiro criticized the press for being insufficiently dogged in questioning Obama’s citizenship.

“Journalists did not address the fact that the president was refusing to resolve an issue about his constitutional eligibility,” he wrote. “Instead, they covered the ‘birther’ movement in an effort to discredit any American who had a legitimate question.”

Shapiro, who got his start in journalism at the tabloid Globe, has most recently written for the conservative Washington Times, where he criticized “the tarring of Steve Bannon” as a white nationalist.

Shapiro joined Matthew Ciepielowski and Matthew Schuck, who were deputized to BBG to oversee the transition to the Trump administration in 2017 after serving on Trump’s campaign team. In his letter, Engel warns that Trump’s supporters at the agency appear driven “to remake the BBG into an agency aimed at promoting the Trump Administration’s agenda,” turning it into “a propaganda machine”

Even if the Mendes “coup” fails, Trump will have the opportunity to appoint leadership more to his preference. Michael Pack, a conservative documentarian who has worked with and praised Bannon, is expected to be Trump’s nominee to replace Lansing, though he would need to be confirmed by the Senate.

The next BBG CEO will have broad power to shape the agency, thanks to bipartisan legislation passed shortly after the 2016 presidential election that eliminates the board of governors.