WASHINGTON, DC - Less than five months from the U.S. elections, the Trump administration with the support of Republican members in the U.S. Senate, has taken control of the country's extensive media networks around the globe.
Trump appointee Michael Pack, the new CEO of The U.S. Agency for Global Media, in his first week has purged the heads of almost all the major networks. while the top two officials of Voice America handed in their resignations earlier in the week. Pack, according to The Washington Post, was recommended for the post by Steve Bannon, the co-founder of the far-right Breitbart News who later served as senior counselor to Trump.
"He's my guy, and I pushed him hard," Bannon said in an interview.
"That Mr. Pack took this drastic measure in his first week on the job is shocking, and we have deep concerns that he takes the helm of a critical agency with the intent to prioritize the Trump administration's political whims over protecting and promoting independent reporting, which is a pillar of freedom and democracy," Congresswoman Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Congressman Eliot L. Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, both Democrats, said in a joint statement released on Thursday.
Pack did not give specific reasons for each sacking, saying he was doing what his authority as CEO of the USAGM entitled him to do.
Lowey and Engel followed up Thursday's statement by sending a letter to Park on Friday demanding all documents related to the firings including performance reviews, and the processes undertaken for the mass terminations be provided to Congress. They also took issue with the alleged failure of the newly-installed Park to consult with Congress.
"In your introductory email to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) staff, you stated that you had three broad goals as you join the Agency. In the third goal, you acknowledged that bipartisan support created your position of CEO and that you would confer extensively with Agency staff and consult with all stakeholders, including Congress. Unfortunately, your actions this week came without any such consultations and undermined any sense of bipartisanship," the pair wrote.
"We take seriously our responsibility to provide oversight of the USAGM and to ensure it is adequately resourced to fulfill its mandate in providing fair, independent, ethical reporting to global audiences. We expect you to do the same, and not to put political priorities over your responsibility to advance the USAGMs core mission," Lower and Engel said.
The heads of the hugely-respected Voice of America, Director Amanda Bennett, a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara, quit on Monday.
"Mr. Pack has gone on a wholesale firing spree, removing the heads of the networks, dissolving their corporate boards, only to replace them with unqualified political people, fundamentally undermining the mission and work of the organization. It's now obvious why the White House wanted Pack so badly, so they can transform the agency into their own personal mouthpiece," Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday.
"This is a blow from which it may never recover. Once the credibility is gone, no one will ever trust a report from Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti, nor trust the tools of the Open Technology Fund," he said.
Lowey and Engel in their statement said Pack replaced the corporate boards "with new boards comprising himself, his chief of staff, Trump Administration appointees, and the senior counsel of an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group."
Alberto Fernandez, who led the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, said he was proud of the work the networks did during his three-year tenure and was honored to have worked with talented journalists in the United States, Dubai, Beirut and elsewhere. He also pointed to the ongoing challenges USAGM agencies face in getting news to the viewers, listeners and readers around the world.
"Wish the incoming people at USAGM well," Fernandez tweeted Wednesday. "I hope they know what they are doing. They have an immediate opportunity to make a difference. Yesterday the Iraqi government shut down Radio Sawa transmitters in Baghdad, Basra and Karbala and threatened to seize USG property."
Earlier Wednesday, Pack sent his first communication to VOA employees since being confirmed by the Senate last week, pledging in an email to uphold its mandated role of providing independent worldwide journalism even though it is a U.S. government-funded agency.
Pack wrote that he is "fully committed to honoring VOA's charter ... and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world."
He was nominated by President Donald Trump to lead USAGM more than two years ago. But with solid Democratic opposition to his appointment, the Republican-controlled Senate voted only two weeks ago to approve a three-year term for Pack to head USAGM.
The vote proceeded even though the Washington, D.C., attorney general's office announced last month that its office is investigating whether Pack illegally moved money from a nonprofit group to his profit-making film company.
In recent weeks, Trump has criticized VOA for its news coverage of China during the coronavirus crisis. When asked about the Pack nomination on May 15, Trump said, "Voice of America is run in a terrible manner. They're not the Voice of America. They're the opposite of the Voice of America."
Pack made no mention of Trump or the controversy in his email to staff. Nor did he say who he plans to name as VOA's director.
Bennett was a staunch advocate for VOA's independent journalism, rebuffing Trump's recent criticism and defending the U.S.-funded news agency's mission and reporting.
"We export the First Amendment to people around the world who have no other access to factual, truthful, believable information," she said. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
"That's why more than 80% of our 280 million audience in 47 languages in more than 60 countries say they find our work credible," Bennett said.
Some outside watchdogs have voiced fears about Pack's tenure at USAGM, citing his record as a conservative filmmaker and associate of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and suggesting he might not withstand White House pressure for news coverage favorable to Trump.
The New York Times said in an editorial Tuesday, "The specter of turning VOA into a propaganda tool of the White House should be frightening to all Americans, regardless of political leanings." The editorial concluded, "Mr. Trump wants a bullhorn, not a diplomatic instrument, and he insists on loyalty."
As Pack took over as chief executive, the directors of the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- which formerly controlled VOA and its sister networks -- published their own definition of independent journalism in the Federal Register of government actions.
"USAGM-funded networks each enjoy full editorial independence, as that term is defined and understood by best practices of journalism," the statement said.
"Editorial independence includes, but is not limited to, the fact that only individuals within the network may make any decisions with respect to newsgathering or reporting," the directors said. "USAGM networks and their employees, including the heads of each network, are fully insulated from any political or other external pressures or processes that would be inconsistent with the highest standards of professional journalism."
Pack, in his mid-60s, has held previous executive positions at U.S. government international and public media agencies. But in recent years, he told USAGM employees, he has run a private venture, Manifold Productions, that has produced 15 documentaries that have aired in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting Service.
"These films were also my way of telling America's story," he said. "Although making documentaries is very satisfying work, I was eager to return to international broadcasting at this critical juncture in our history."
He said, "America's adversaries have stepped up their propaganda and disinformation efforts. They are aggressively promoting their very different visions of the world."
Pack said he would seek to improve employee morale at USAGM and "examine some of the problems that have surfaced in the media in recent years."
"Most importantly," he wrote, "my mission will be to make the agency more effective."
(With extracts, references and links from/to VOA News, The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Wikipedia).