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Trump's New Foreign Broadcasting CEO Fires News Chiefs, Raising Fears Of Meddling

Jun 18, 2020
Originally published on June 18, 2020 12:57 pm

President Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack, showed up to work Wednesday for the first time after being approved by the U.S. Senate two weeks earlier.

His words to staff were affirming. His actions were anything but.

Pack swiftly sidelined most of the agency's senior leadership by stripping them of their authority. He also fired the chiefs of the government-sponsored broadcast networks for foreign audiences that his agency oversees, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Radio Free Asia; Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and Television Martí; and Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which runs Alhurra and Radio Sawa.

The two top officials at Voice of America resigned days earlier in anticipation of Pack's arrival.

Pack dissolved advisory boards over each of the networks and placed his own aides above them. He gave no reason for his actions other than his authority to do so, according to two people with direct knowledge of the day's events.

Trump had sought to place Pack in the position for two years, complaining about the Senate's slow pace in confirming him. This spring, lawmakers learned Pack was under investigation by the Washington, D.C., attorney general's office over concerns he had improperly transferred millions of dollars from his not-for-profit outfit to his for-profit production company. That investigation has not been resolved.

Pack's bold moves took people who work at the agency by surprise. A memo obtained by NPR that was sent out by Pack's new chief of staff, Emily Newman, said that officials could take no actions and make no external communications without approval from above.

Several staffers, who spoke to NPR on condition they not be named, said that effectively shut down the agency.

A new direction?

Pack is a filmmaker whose documentaries have appeared on PBS. President George W. Bush appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities, and he has held senior positions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Pack is a past president of the conservative Claremont Institute and has worked on projects with former Trump political strategist Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network.

In an internal memo sent Wednesday evening that NPR reviewed, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty chief Jamie Fly conveyed his surprise.

"It is with great sadness that I leave all of you at RFE/RL," wrote Fly, who moved with his family to Prague last summer for the job. "I had hoped to work with you much longer and to make progress on the initiatives that we've begun."

The fired head of Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Alberto Miguel Fernandez, wrote in a tweet Wednesday night that he regretted his departure was so "precipitous," adding, "Wish the incoming people at @USAGMgov well. I hope they know what they are doing."

Libby Liu, a past president of Radio Free Asia, had given notice she would step down in July as head of the agency's Open Technology Fund, intended to promote Internet access around the world. Pack made her departure immediate.

The director and deputy director of Voice of America, Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara, resigned over the weekend, saying Pack deserved to have his appointees leading the news service. Bennett's parting statement noted Pack's promise to uphold the journalistic independence of the news service and the firewall that exists to protect it from political interference.

The resignations nonetheless followed fast on the heels of the disclosure that another government agency sought to shut her journalists out.

Earlier this week, documents obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University showed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a ban on responding to questions from former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, now hosting a show for VOA, or anyone else with the government-backed news service. The CDC cited a White House memo for its policy — a remarkable instance of one government agency shutting out another's requests for public information.

Voice of America has increasingly been a target of Trump and his administration. In 2018, Bannon told the Los Angeles Times, "VOA is a rotten fish from top to bottom." He added, "It's now totally controlled by the deep-state apparatus."

Instead, the White House claimed in a formal statement in April that VOA had "amplified Beijing's propaganda" by running an Associated Press article about COVID-19 policies in China.

VOA has aired highly critical reports from China, particularly regarding the government's ongoing persecution of Uighurs and other Muslims in the northwest of China.

Pack's immediate predecessor as permanent CEO of the broadcasting agency, John Lansing, now CEO of NPR, expressed concern in an interview.

"If VOA is converted to a mouthpiece for an American president's agenda, then we will be giving aid and comfort to authoritarians around the world," Lansing said, "and that will ultimately make American citizens less safe and will diminish America's standing around the world."

An agency born in conflict

The service, created during World War II to provide reliable news and information about the war to people in countries under German occupation, has served as a form of "soft diplomacy." It is intended to project American values abroad through a reliable news service in multiple languages as an example of the nation's commitment to political pluralism and freedom of the press.

Over the decades, the U.S. government's international broadcasters have at times been political footballs, pushed this way or that to emphasize certain regions or policy imperatives by various administrations.

Prominent Democrats, including House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York, had warned Pack against politicizing the agency. The agency's old bipartisan board issued federal rules on June 11 stating with more specificity the firewall and journalistic standards intended to protect the news services' reports. It now stands as federal policy.

That board, however, was dissolved as Pack took over as CEO.

Part of the internal concern over Pack stems from his collaboration with Bannon on two documentary projects and his work in ideological forums such as the Claremont Institute.

In his memo to staffers Wednesday morning, Pack committed himself to respecting VOA's charter and the mission of the other broadcasters. He said he also believed they serve as a bulwark against misinformation by foreign actors. (China and Russia are internally seen as the two leading offenders.) And Pack invoked President Abraham Lincoln, writing, "We need to counter lies with the truth. We need to make clear to the world the ideals that inspire America."

Pack also wrote he intended "to examine some of the problems that have surfaced in the media in recent years. I have no preconceptions – I simply intend to make sure there are no issues getting in the way of your ability to report the news."

Pack did not respond to requests for an interview.

The people swept out by Pack include those who have received praise for helping their networks fight misinformation from China and Russia with factual reporting. And they include officials appointed during the Trump presidency.

Fry, until Wednesday the chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, had been a top aide to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, though he had been critical of Trump during the 2016 campaign. Fernandez was a State Department official under President George W. Bush as well as an ambassador under President Barack Obama.

Other steps were taken in anticipation of Pack's arrival.

A photograph of Lansing, Pack's predecessor, adorned a wall in a hallway at the agency's headquarters, along with a quote taken from his farewell address there: "A set of unimpeachable facts, and the existence of a baseline of truth is the foundation that undergirds our democracy, its institutions, and the health, safety and security of all American citizens.

"Since our country's founding, journalists and journalism have stood watch over private and public officials in power to hold them accountable to what is factual and what is true."

The quote was painted over last weekend, the photograph removed.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR's Mark Katkov. Due to Lansing's prior role at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The newly installed head of an agency that oversees U.S. government broadcasts overseas has fired a stream of top executives. His name is Michael Pack. He's a conservative filmmaker appointed by President Trump. He now oversees the Voice of America, whose leader resigned when Pack was confirmed by the Senate. And then Wednesday night, Pack dismissed the heads of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Open Technology Fund. Our media correspondent David Folkenflik has been working this story through the night and joins us now. Hi there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is Michael Park? Tell me a little more about him.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, as you mentioned, he's a conservative documentary-maker. He's well-regarded as a documentary-maker. He's said to have made about 15 that have aired on PBS. But the conservative part of the element is a big part of his resume. He's - one of his notable documentaries was of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It was praised for getting access to the notably reticent justice, also a sympathetic portrait.

He's also held roles, more than once, at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And he, in fact, held a role as the - almost 30 years ago - as the top executive over the television agency that became, really, the voice of America's television outlet. So he's held a number of jobs that commend him for this role. But he's also got a strong ideological tilt. One thing we should mention, close professional ally at times, Steve Bannon, the notable former presidential political strategist for Mr. Trump and also the former head of the conservative news site Breitbart.

INSKEEP: Now he is overseeing this constellation of U.S. government broadcasters. They're supposed to be independent but provide an American point of view on the news. It's considered a key part of America's image in the world and foreign policy. The job that he has, we should disclose, is a job once held by John Lansing, who's now the CEO of NPR. His departure opened up that job. Michael Pack moved in. And is it understood what his agenda is in getting rid of so much top leadership?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you really saw him sort of, after two weeks of not showing up on the job, show up yesterday and willed, effectively, a side, taking out all the folks that you mentioned. A few of them will stay on in slightly different roles, perhaps, but certainly defenestrated as the chiefs there - also essentially sidelining and stripping of authority the top executives and top officials at the agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, that he now heads. And it was all done at once. He has not said why even to the people that he pushed out - why he's doing, what he's doing - other that he is able to do so.

But it's worth noting that Steve Bannon, for example, has previously said to the Los Angeles Times that Voice of America, one of the most prominent agencies - news agencies there, stinks like a fish. And he said he believed that it was part of the deep state arrayed against President Trump, as so many federal agencies have accused often without substance of being by the president.

INSKEEP: Didn't the president, himself, complain about some story on Voice of America? It was just a Associated Press wire copy, basic facts, but the president didn't like them?

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. In April, he accused - the White House accused the Voice of America of running, essentially, Chinese propaganda by having that Associated Press piece right there.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's David Folkenflik will continue reporting this story as we learn more. David, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREG FOAT GROUP'S "THE DANCERS WALTZ")

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.