Seven years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the taxpayer-funded U.S. broadcasting agency and its flagship media outlet, the Voice of America, as “practically defunct in its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”
“…We’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back to it,” she told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. This was a widely held belief spanning the partisan divide. So much so that in 2016 — the year most political observers expected Clinton to be elected president — Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, a reorganization of the Voice of America and its sister U.S. government-funded broadcasters.
The new law was designed to take power away from a board of governors and give it to the agency chief, a presidential appointee who requires Senate confirmation. The law also gave the new CEO more power to hire and fire division heads within the agency and shift the direction of the programming back to the president’s interpretation of its original charter and mission. It specifically states that the heads of the different broadcast outlets of the U.S. Agency for Global Media “serve at the pleasure of and may be named by” the CEO.
But in Washington, shaking up entrenched bureaucracies – even in small government agencies when there is widespread bipartisan support for doing so — is risky business. There are 535 opinions in Congress on how it can and should be done, and the second-guessing and recriminations extend across the political landscape with think tank heads jumping on soap boxes and so-called good government groups taking sides.
Enter documentary filmmaker Michael Pack, Trump’s choice to head USAGM. Pack is no newcomer to public broadcasting or the USAGM, having served in several U.S. taxpayer-backed media positions under three presidents – two Republican and one Democratic.
During the George W. Bush administrations, Pack served as the vice president of programming for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and before that, during Bill Clinton’s time in the White House as the co-chair of that organization’s International TV Council, which oversees the feasibility of collaborative efforts between American public television producers and states and their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When George H.W. Bush was president, Pack was director of WorldNet, the equivalent of today’s VOA TV, which produced and distributed programs to more than 127 countries across the globe.
Pack directed and produced more than a dozen films in his career that were aired on the Public Broadcasting Service, the most recent a ground-breaking biopic of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which premiered on PBS in May. Despite Pack’s years of direct experience, the fierce media campaign launched against him has either glossed over it or failed to mention it at all, while at the same time playing up his ties to controversial Trump administration figures. For most of the last three and a half years, anti-Trump Republicans joined with Democrats to block his confirmation in the Senate.
The forces aligned against him cited his work with former White House senior adviser Steven Bannon on two documentaries as cause for great alarm. The news media carried dire headlines warning that Pack would turn the USAGM into a Trump-administration megaphone even as he testified that he is dedicated to maintaining the agency’s journalistic independence.
The Senate finally confirmed Pack in early June – and the last few weeks since he officially took the helm have been tumultuous ride, to put it mildly. One article asked whether Trump is putting “fascists in charge of the Voice of America,” even though Pack is Jewish, as are several of the other top officials he’s brought into front-office positions. Other articles claimed he would turn the VOA into a Trump propaganda machine.
“I think the media reaction has been hard to fathom and disproportionate,” he told RealClearPolitics in an interview this week. Instead of turning the USAGM into Trump TV and radio, he pledged to continue to safeguard journalistic independence at its outlets while stressing his intention to return the agency to its original charter to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively” and to “present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”
His opponents, many of them the very board members he fired, have jumped to conclusions about how he plans to fulfill that mission and have complained bitterly that he hasn’t consulted them. Only days before his arrival, then-VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy, who were appointed by President Obama and have remained for most of Trump’s first term, resigned in anticipation that Pack would fire them. As widely expected, Pack then went about dismissing the heads of four media organizations the USAGM oversees, in what critics labeled a “Wednesday night massacre” amid an onslaught of new warnings in the media that he planned a right-wing takeover.
Pack dismissed the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Open Technology Fund, an office devoted to promoting Internet freedom – moves that were largely expected as he looked for his own team of agency leaders. The firings spurred a new torrent of negative stories and a lawsuit from those fired. Pack is standing by his actions as both lawful and necessary.
“I decided to have a fresh start and change the leadership of all five broadcasters,” he told RCP. “I thought by doing it on day one it would be clear that I wasn’t passing judgment on them. I asked for the resignations of both Democrats and Republicans so it wouldn’t be perceived as a partisan witch hunt, even if it’s portrayed that way.”
“I don’t think that’s an unusual thing to do … many people coming in to run a network or news division change leadership,” he said. “… I have to do the right thing and hope that will become clear in the end. I don’t regret doing it.”
The Open Technology Fund, which USAGM officials had curiously spun off as a separate nonprofit months before his arrival, reacted by launching a lawsuit claiming the firings were unlawful. A bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins and Jerry Moran – all members of the Appropriations Committee — upped the ante on Wednesday by sending Pack a letter expressing deep concerns about the firings and warning that they are going to conduct a “thorough review” of USAGM’s funding to ensure the agency is “not politicized.”
“These [firings], which came without any consultation with Congress, let alone notification, raise serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency of Global Media (USAGM) under your leadership,” they wrote.
It came as no surprise that several senior Democrats would sign the letter, including Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, and Chris Van Hollen. But Rubio and Graham, members of the House Foreign Relations Committee, had recently voted in favor of Pack’s nomination in committee and when it came to the Senate floor for confirmation. Some sources have speculated that Rubio is upset that Pack chose to dismiss two Republicans — Jamie Fly, the former head of Radio Free Europe, as well as Alberto Fernandez, who headed the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Fly had once served as a foreign-policy aide to the Florida Republican.
The letter threatened to review the agency’s funding, but it didn’t argue that Pack’s leadership shakeup is illegal. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, who is weighing the merits of the Open Technology Fund’s lawsuit aimed at overturning the firings, last week appeared wary of OTF’s demand for an injunction against the firings. While the judge agreed the dismissals were abrupt, she maintained Pack, as the agency’s chief executive, has “very broad discretion” to name and replace appointees.
“That power is a little different from what the general public is accustomed to, I think, because for so long the agency was run with a bipartisan group of nine people” on its board, the judge reasoned during a hearing. But she referenced the changes Congress made in 2016 to give the CEO more power. “This is empowered. Every administration that comes into power [can] reconstitute leadership of all the agency-funded organizations,” the judge said.
On Wednesday the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization that holds leadership exchanges and forums, waded into the controversy. It held an online forum titled “America’s Megaphone at Risk,” giving several of the fired USAGM board members and former executives a platform to rail against Pack’s moves.
Vivian Schiller, the executive director of the Institute’s digital arm, hosted the virtual conference and served as its moderator. Afterward, she re-tweeted an AspenDigital video of the forum with a “spoiler alert” that the “recent upheaval” at USAGM has already done “irreparable damage” for democracy “both at home and abroad.”
“With one stroke of a pen, he removed those who are absolutely the best and the brightest in their field,” said Ryan Crocker, a former career ambassador who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and held a position the USAGM board of governors before his removal. “I’m deeply concerned that through these abrupt terminations, that the intent of the administration is to effectively turn USAGM into precisely those state-controlled media agencies [of other countries] we are locked in battle with.”
Pack counters such attacks by referring to the driving force behind the congressional reforms that gave him the new powers. Critics and journalists covering the issue for the first time, he said, really don’t know the full history and the reasons behind Congress’s decision to dissolve the board as soon as the Senate confirmed a new CEO.
“There was bipartisan agreement that [USAGM] was not doing what it should — and that the structure, that a bipartisan board — should not manage an agency of this size,” he said, referring to congressional concerns about agency mismanagement and a series of recent scandals. “There were all kinds of things that I think made people on a bipartisan basis agree to create this job – the CEO job that replaces the board.”
Critics have also assailed Pack for installing interim heads of the USAGM media outlets, including Jeffrey Shapiro, who several media reports have cast as a Bannon ally, as leading the Office of Cuba Broadcasting – at least in an interim basis. Bannon made himself an easy target with several recent comments suggesting he could be involved in USAGM decision-making. Pack dismisses the notion that Bannon is playing or angling to play an influential role in running the agency – either officially or in an informal advisory capacity.
“I haven’t been in touch with Steve and I haven’t seen Steve since he left the White House a couple of years ago,” Pack said. He also clarified that Bannon is not a business partner, that the two only worked on two documentaries together “five-plus” years ago. “He was essentially a consultant,” Pack said. “He provided creative and business advice, and I actually think he did a great job and he’s fun to work with, but it wasn’t like a political partnership or a media partnership.”
Pack also dismissed rumors that Sebastian Gorka, an aggressive ex-Trump aide, could get a USAGM role. “I have not approached Seb Gorka to serve in any position whatsoever in this agency, and I have no plans to do so,” Pack said.
He declined to discuss the Open Technology Fund’s lawsuit against the firings, though he sought to clarify that he is still evaluating the OTF’s role and has no plans to dismantle it. An online petition, signed by 498 human rights and “Internet freedom” organizations, several of them left leaning, asserts that Pack has plans to eliminate the OTF and rescind its funding. Along with the lawsuit, the groups have launched a social media hashtag campaign dubbed #SaveOTF.
The OTF, on its website, says it is devoted to advancing “global Internet freedom” and countering “repressive censorship and surveillance.” Its research and development funds have helped support innovative encryption products that help dissidents and protesters communicate and organize in repressive countries, but there’s widespread disagreement on whether it’s been effective in piercing China’s, Iran’s and other repressive regimes’ Internet firewalls. Over the past decade, the USAGM has received more than $100 million for its internet freedom programs, but internal agency figures, viewed by RCP, show that only 1.7% of people inside China have access to USAGM programming.
RCP also reported last week that the State Department inspector general is investigating the way in which the OTF was recently spun off to become a private nonprofit, even though the organization is taxpayer funded. Pack says he’s still in the early information-gathering stage about what technology tools are the most effective in helping break through those information iron curtains. “I have made no decisions,” he said. “I simply changed the leadership of that organization. I haven’t taken positions on these technologies and which ones are going to work.”
Instead, Pack has spoken more broadly about the importance of ensuring the U.S. is doing all it can to help citizens under repressive regimes break through internet barriers and provide greater protections from government censors. “I give internet firewall circumvention a high priority. I think it’s really important. I agree with people who call it the Berlin Wall of our time,” he said. “I think if you can give people in China and other places access to the internet, it’s a huge win for liberty.”
“My sense is it hasn’t been pursued as aggressively in the past as it should be,” he added. “I plan to change that.”