Robert R. Reilly is taking the reins at the Voice of America with extreme, publicly stated views on some subjects that may complicate his mission of sharing news and U.S. values with vast audiences around the globe.
In his writings, Reilly has characterized the religion of Islam as though it is something of a monolith, and he attacks it for failing, in his judgment, to sufficiently denounce terrorists who draw inspiration from radical interpretations of the faith. And Reilly has repeatedly condemned homosexuality, arguing, for example, that widespread social acceptance of gay marriage requires a collective lie.
"I really implore people across the political spectrum to read some of the hate-filled and dehumanizing things Robert Reilly has written about gay people," former U.S. Agency for Global Media Acting CEO Grant Turner, who is gay, said in a written statement to NPR. "It's mean-spirited, sexually explicit, and just plain weird."
USAGM is the parent agency of Voice of America and its sister networks, which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, among others.
Turner added, "There is tremendous potential damage to VOA's mission with a person like Robert Reilly in charge. The last thing this guy should be doing is running a respected news organization."
Reilly's arrival is loaded enough on its own terms. But the network, which reaches an estimated 280 million people overseas each week in more than 40 languages, has been in a state of crisis ever since a conservative filmmaker appointed by President Trump took control of VOA's parent agency. The past seven months have been filled with lawsuits, investigations, and congressional uproar.
Reilly was hired by U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack, and shares Pack's belief that the network should serve the U.S.' diplomatic aims, not the journalistic mission embraced by its newsroom. Reilly has defended Pack this year from what he wrote was a "globalist borg" that depicted the USAGM chief as a "fascist."
A federal judge recently ruled, however, that Pack has repeatedly and unconstitutionally interfered in the VOA's journalism since taking over the parent agency in June. The judge particularly cited investigations, at Pack's behest, of VOA journalists for anti-Trump bias by Pack's senior aides.
Pack cleared the way for Reilly on Tuesday, when he removed Acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj, who had resisted Pack's interference in the newsroom. That action, and Reilly's past publicly stated positions, have set off alarms inside and outside the organization.
Reilly, Pack and USAGM public affairs officials did not respond to emails seeking comment for this article. "Bob's inimitable experience and proven leadership as both a public servant and a private citizen will greatly benefit the entire agency," Pack said in a statement announcing Reilly's appointment. "Bob has dedicated his career to – and, indeed, succeeded in – promoting the national interest and advancing U.S. foreign policy."
Criticizing Buttigieg and accusing Muslims of 'intellectual suicide'
Reilly's 2014 book, "Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything," argues strongly against gay marriage. In public remarks, he said at least a murderer or a consumer of pornography ultimately regrets what he or she does, but asked, "What if you organize your life around something that is wrong?"
Last year, Reilly wrote scathingly of the aspirations of former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and his husband to have children: "Chasten Glezman is pretending to be a woman so he can be the 'wife' in this arrangement. Buttigieg is also pretending that Glezman is a woman. If they engage in sodomy – the defining act of homosexual behavior – then they are both pretending that a certain bodily aperture is actually a vagina, which neither of them has. This is called play-acting."
"Reilly is a dangerous choice," Amanda Bennett, who resigned as the VOA's director in June just days after Pack's nomination to USAGM was approved, wrote in the Washington Post Friday night. "His views are not conservative — they are extreme. As head of one of America's most powerful voices to the world, he risks causing reputational damage that will be hard to repair."
The VOA and other federally financed networks are intended to model how independent journalism works, to convey American pluralism by fairly depicting political debate, and also, in regions where a free press is repressed or not financially viable, to provide local journalism.
Reilly is 74, a veteran of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. He served as head of VOA for roughly a year, from 2001 to 2002, and later took posts in the U.S. Defense Department and as an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Information after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. His new appointment and Biberaj's reassignment are part of a frantic effort in the waning weeks of the Trump administration to embed loyalists in key bureaucratic roles at the networks.
Turner, whom Pack suspended along with other senior executives this summer, notes that Pack has also placed a member of the conservative evangelical group Liberty Counsel Action on the networks' advisory boards. Liberty Counsel has been deemed by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be a group advocating against gay rights under the guise of religious liberty.
As executive director of the conservative Westminster Institute based in suburban Virginia, Reilly was paid $47,800 annually to work eight hours a week, according to the Institute's tax forms for 2018, the most recent that could be retrieved publicly. It described its mission as "independent research with a particular focus on the threats of extremism and radical ideologies." He was a strong proponent of the invasion of Iraq and continued to defend it even years after a near-uniform consensus emerged among military and diplomatic authorities that it proved to be disastrous for U.S. interests.
A frequent commentator on classical music, Reilly often invokes Western philosophers in his ruminations. In his 2010 book "the Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis," Reilly argues that theological debates a millennium ago determined a ruinous course for the faith.
Reilly's publicly stated views lump a vast number of Muslims and disparate Islamic denominations and movements together without distinction, argues Saman Zia-Zarifi, a Shiite Muslim who is the head of the International Commission of Jurists, a leading human rights organization.
"Any attempt to view a population of more than a billion people that straddles the globe from the southern Philippines to the westside of Los Angeles, the long way around, is going to be superficial," said Zia-Zarifi, an Iranian-American attorney. "And any attempt to try to understand them by linking them to the events of a thousand years ago is going to be facile. At any rate, a superficial, facile approach is not a great basis for coming up with a communication strategy to reach those people."
Zia-Zarifi said his father listened to the Voice of America inside Iran for trustworthy news about the U.S. and other countries, often at some personal risk.
"If the listeners, who are very sophisticated these days, get the sense that they are not hearing about the very apparent problems of the US political system while they're being told that their own political system or their own ideology is broken, I think that will, in fact, have the exact opposite impact than what is intended," Zia-Zarifi said. Instead, he argued, it would show "that this U.S.-based platform is just another biased government mouthpiece."
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Media & Tech editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.