The massive taxpayer-funded collection of news outlets under the U.S. Agency for Global Media is supposed to be a nonpartisan booster of information and American ideals abroad. But over the past six months, President Donald Trump’s handpicked leader, Michael Pack, has dramatically reshaped the agency — to promote not news or democracy but the president himself.
Pack announced last week that he was “rescinding” the firewall between the agency’s political leaders and its newsrooms. The agency employs hundreds of journalists who work for Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and other organizations.
Many correspondents are among the few sources of reliable news for people living in the world’s most repressive societies, places where press freedom is a dream and rulers rarely face real public scrutiny.
Now Trump and his appointee want to make their work more vulnerable to political whims.
Pack argued in a statement Monday that he should be able to take actions such as blocking stories to check what he views as “biased reporting.” The result is that an $800 million dollar news operation with major influence on global opinion is in disarray and vulnerable to exploitation just ahead of a presidential election that Trump is already undermining with unfounded allegations of fraud and corruption.
For a president who is clear that he doesn’t see winning the most votes or even counting all of them as his path to reelection, the biggest priority over the next week is messaging: Persuading people that any outcome in which he does not win is illegitimate.
The agency is not permitted to target Americans with its journalism. But it can help shape the international conversation about the likely election chaos in the U.S., affecting the calculus of foreign officials and governments that Trump administration officials said the president is counting on to help him retain power.
The Republican-held Senate confirmed Pack — a conservative filmmaker who once railed against liberal “indoctrination” on campuses — to head the agency in June, soon after Trump and the White House began publicly berating VOA for not hewing to the administration’s line that the devastating effects of the coronavirus were due to China and not Trump’s own failed strategy.
Since then, Pack’s team has accused a longtime correspondent of anti-Trump bias and ousted veteran officials while hiring people such as a former conservative radio host who once called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a Nazi.
It would be very difficult for the president to convert a taxpayer-funded news outlet entirely into Radio Trump without congressional approval. But lawmakers, experts and journalists themselves are terrified about the damage Pack could do to the agency’s professionalism and credibility ― both in the post-election period and in the long run, even if he is ultimately removed by a President Joe Biden next year.
Pack has already signaled one of his priorities is not original reporting but the renewal of VOA editorials, the part of USAGM that is intended to directly communicate the views of the U.S. government. In recent months, these editorials have put an enormous emphasis on religious liberty above other human rights issues.
Meanwhile, BBGWatch, a website run by current and former USAGM staff, has become increasingly aggressive in pushing a pro-Trump line.
The attempted removal of the firewall suggested that even broader changes lie ahead, putting journalists on edge as they wonder if the future will involve restrictions on their reporting.
“The action seems to send a very clear message to the newsroom,” said an employee with a USAGM-supported network who spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. “Fall in line or else.”
A USAGM spokesperson denied that Pack aimed to instill political loyalty to Trump or to promote propaganda.
“When [Pack] served at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, he sought to bring objectivity and balance to its programming. He fully intends to do the same with USAGM’s networks in order to ensure that they adhere to their mission statements and maintain their professional journalistic standards and principles,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to HuffPost.
Pack’s shake-up has chilling parallels in other nations. For hard-right political forces worldwide, a top goal is reshaping independent media organizations to amplify their own message and reduce the risk of reporting that can challenge their power. In Poland, for instance, the ruling Law and Justice party quickly turned the country’s state media into a mouthpiece that now spreads disinformation and targets party enemies.
“If USAGM becomes sort of Fox [News] international, which I fear it will, or a sort of [Steve] Bannon news on steroids, then basically we will have replicated the information space that we tried to resist in Eastern Europe,” said Jay Tolson, a former news director for Radio Free Europe.
A Partisan Process
Trump nominated Pack in June 2018. But top Democrats and a handful of Republicans held up his confirmation in the Senate over concerns that he would harm the agency.
Pack rejected offers to be briefed by existing leaders at the agency and by outside analysts of its work, such as Martha Bayles, a Boston College expert on American public diplomacy who has known him for years.
“When he was first nominated, … I felt relieved,” Bayles later wrote in The American Interest. She now sees the beginnings of “a nightmare.”
Right-wing activists pressured the Senate to move Pack forward, particularly after former agency chief John Lansing left the post last September. They argued the president’s nominee deserved a vote and that a new leader was needed to clean up the agency, which they believed too often took what they viewed as the liberal bent of mainstream media and was vulnerable to foreign influence.
Pack and his supporters received an unexpected boost this spring when Trump began alleging that the VOA was unfair to the U.S. and overly sympathetic to Beijing, picking up a complaint that his former adviser Bannon, a long-time Pack associate, had promoted for years.
The White House on April 10 issued a statement claiming the agency “spends your money to promote foreign propaganda,” citing its coverage of a Chinese light show to celebrate the end of the coronavirus-related lockdown in Wuhan. Days later, the president called the agency out during a briefing on the pandemic: “What things they say are disgusting toward our country,” Trump said.
By the end of the month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told employees to ignore interview requests from VOA because of the White House’s view of the agency, according to an email later obtained and published by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
Faced with clear intent to challenge USAGM’s journalistic independence, Pack and his supporters avoided challenging Trump and instead saw an opportunity.
“It was unusual when the president sort of expressed his views on VOA in a press conference,” said Katrina Lantos Swett of the Lantos Foundation, a longtime human rights advocate who is one of the few Washington establishment figures to welcome Pack. “I think that certainly raised the profile of the quieter battle that was going on, and it may have had an impact in sort of coalescing Republican votes.”
A USAGM spokesperson told HuffPost that Pack found Trump’s remark “absolutely appropriate, for he is also firmly on the side of reform.”
In early May, Trump personally called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to tell him pushing Pack through was a priority. The Senate approved him 58-38 on June 4 ― as Pack’s opponents noted that he was under investigation by the District of Columbia attorney general over allegations he had illegally funded his private film company with nonprofit donor funds. (That probe is ongoing.)
Pack’s installation caused immediate turmoil at USAGM. Within days, the agency’s various branches were left rudderless, as some leaders resigned and Pack fired four others, including two Republicans nominated by Trump. By the following month, both parties were raising the alarm.
“Regardless of the issues at [the agency] that might be addressed during your tenure, the credibility and independence of these networks, as required by law, is critical for audiences overseas living under repressive regimes, the network’s brave journalists who often come under threat for their work, and the future of U.S. broadcasting,” seven senators, four of them Republicans, wrote in a letter to Pack in July. “As the United States faces global challenges, … it cannot afford to invest in an enterprise that denigrates its own journalists and staff to the satisfaction of dictators and despots, nor can it be one that fails to live up to its promise of providing access to a free and independent press.”
After The Massacre
Pack’s mass firing, dubbed a “Wednesday night massacre” by a former official, was the first sign the agency’s leader might have a darker agenda ― that he wasn’t incompetent or uncertain but rather committed to dramatic and potentially dangerous changes.
“The radios certainly have their problems. This is not the way to fix them. This is going to do exactly the opposite,” said Gregory Feifer, a former senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe.
Other worrying signs about Pack piled up quickly.
In one of his few interviews after taking office, with the conspiratorial pro-Trump newspaper Epoch Times, Pack warned that he had other employees in his sights. “Obviously, there are some bad actors who need to be pushed aside,” he said. Elsewhere, he parroted Trump’s depiction of America’s bureaucracy as a self-interested, anti-democratic “deep state” and praised Bannon, who sought “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Bannon began publicly boasting that Pack would “clean house” at the agency and redirect it to echo Trump’s narrative about the evils of China. The two men worked together during Pack’s time making documentaries ― a period in which he was clear that ideology guided his work.
With regard to Pack’s most recent production for PBS, a documentary on conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a watchdog for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting determined that he violated the government-funded organization’s standards by featuring only Thomas’ view of his controversial career without seeking additional perspectives or opposing opinions. (The USAGM spokesperson declined to respond to that claim, instead citing praise for Pack’s work by outlets such as The New York Times.)
“A little morsel” like the Bannon link should not be seen as the sum total of someone like Pack, Swett told HuffPost. “I know that he is eager to sort of mend fences and reassure those who have expressed concerns. … His background is probably quite a bit broader and much less sort of ideological than perhaps some of the coverage would indicate.”
But a New York Post op-ed in which Pack described his goals focused on the go-to grievances of Trump’s Republican Party rather than outreach to skeptics. He criticized the reaction to his mass firing of agency heads as “over the top,” accused his critics of McCarthyism for noting his connection to Bannon and argued his firing of Republicans showed he was not biased.
“Powerful forces were and remain deeply committed to the status quo at the agency I now lead,” Pack wrote.
Pack has continued to signal that he sees the White House as a far more important constituency than his own staff or audience. He’s fixated on efforts to identify and publicize apparent anti-Trump bias among employees, such as probing employees who produced a video Pack’s team considered pro-Biden and investigating VOA White House correspondent Steve Herman, who was already threatened by Vice President Mike Pence’s staff before Pack took over the agency.
“He’s trying to find one incident and examples he can show that he is improving the content,” a person familiar with the Biden video incident told Politico.
Pack’s open challenge to the firewall between political leaders and journalists is the most alarming development yet.
“It is unclear why CEO Pack is opposed to journalistic objectivity,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the next day. “Fortunately, the requirement that [the agency’s] broadcasts be objective and conform with the highest professional standards in broadcast journalism is mandated in statute. Mr. Pack may be able to repeal a regulation, but he cannot repeal the law.”
For agency staff with far less power and few ways to respond to Pack’s allegations, the past few months have been nightmarish.
“These are hard days, depressing days. … It’s not a comfortable environment because you don’t know what is next,” said a journalist at Voice of America, one of the outlets now under Pack’s purview, who requested anonymity to protect their position.
A person with knowledge of internal conversations among managers at the agency told HuffPost they have “no indication” of Pack’s plans for permanent new leaders for the news outlets. (“These positions are a priority, and a comprehensive search is underway to find the most qualified individuals to lead these important networks and grantees,” a USAGM spokesperson told HuffPost.)
Pack’s denial of visa renewals for reporters has been especially wrenching, prompting a letter from high-profile agency employees. He’s carried out the policy anyway, causing at least 15 journalists to prepare to leave the U.S. already.
He justified his decision not to renew visas for VOA journalists by suggesting there are security lapses in the vetting process for them while refusing to provide additional details or examples.
But at a House of Representatives hearing on Sept. 24, former agency figures told lawmakers that Pack cut off visas for dozens of journalists to match Trump’s hard line on immigration.
By publicly suggesting that those U.S. government employees could be foreign spies posing as reporters, Pack was “basically writing a press release” that autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin could use to harm journalists, said Jamie Fly, a former adviser to GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who ran the agency’s Radio Free Europe arm before Pack fired him via email days after entering the job.
Pack skipped the hearing, defying a congressional subpoena.
Denying visa renewals is a life-and-death proposition: Sometimes just associating with the media agencies is enough for reporters or their family members to be targeted, former officials told HuffPost. Staff members have previously been abducted from their homes or detained while visiting relatives, the former officials said.
“Anybody who knows any of these organizations knows dozens and dozens of examples like that,” said Jeffrey Gedmin, a former president of RFE/RL. “We owe these journalists our support and our appreciation and our loyalty. They’re not pieces of an auto engine being manufactured in a plant. They’re human beings.”
Some of USAGM’s problems predate Pack. Many experts and agency staff members question a move by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and then-President Barack Obama in 2016 to centralize a significant amount of power in the CEO position Pack now holds. Having authority delegated was helpful, and policymakers opted for an easy apparent fix instead of understanding systemic problems in agency morale and operations, they believed.
“You really need to meet the kind of people who are working for the system ― there are bad ones but there are a lot of good ones ― and not just stay in Washington and feed off of the very narrow and rather misguided debate that occurs,” said Bayles, the scholar, who opposed the CEO change. Officials at the agency told HuffPost that no matter who was elected in 2016, the risk to their work would have been higher than before.
A Voice of America employee told HuffPost that Pack was correct to note unhappiness among agency staff, saying that under past leadership, “there was a wall ― you were in the same building but very hard to reach.”
The employee requested anonymity to avoid retribution.
That hasn’t improved under Pack, however. Instead, agency employees are under tight scrutiny and anxious about holding onto their jobs as they wonder what the CEO may institute next.
“One thing for Mr. Pack is to listen to [journalists] and give them the opportunity to express themselves on … how to improve. That would be my humble suggestion,” the VOA employee said.
Asked about Pack’s effect on his staffers’ spirits, the USAGM spokesperson said, “Every action that he takes, as he has said previously, is intended to improve not only USAGM’s reputation and effectiveness but also employee morale.”
In addition to raising alarm among staff, some of Pack’s moves have put the agency in legal jeopardy.
Last month, a District of Columbia judge declared that Pack broke the law when he took control of the Open Technology Fund, an offshoot of Radio Free Asia that works on internet freedom tools for people in autocratic societies, and fired its bipartisan board.
The State Department’s inspector general and congressional committees are investigating a whistleblower report from six former top officials that claims Pack illegally tried to divert funds and check agency employees’ voting histories.
And Pack’s changes may hurt USAGM outlets’ standing with social media platforms and foreign governments deciding whether to add a label to them that indicates they are affiliated with the U.S. government. These agencies have largely resisted such designations in the past, but a change in perception or structure could give an opening to those who want to delegitimize independent reporting. Russia’s federal communications agency has already introduced a draft order that would demand RFE/RL and VOA list themselves as “foreign agents” at the start of every report.
Another concern is that Pack may simply downsize the agencies’ mission and personnel in the name of efficiency or removing red tape, weakening their ability to operate and provide news coverage.
This could undo decades of work bolstering the reputation of the agencies as trusted sources of political developments in the U.S. and other nations.
Supporters of USAGM like to compare the agencies to the British Broadcasting Corporation, but they worry that if their credibility is dismantled, they may instead resemble the Kremlin-owned outlet RT.
“It shouldn’t be turned into a government mouthpiece,” the VOA journalist told HuffPost.