After a two-year Senate confirmation battle, President Trump’s nominee to head the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Michael Pack, was confirmed on June 4.
Two days later, Pack, a conservative filmmaker, fired the heads of several divisions under his supervision, including those running prominent news outlets like Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE). Now, Pack is facing a lawsuit from four former advisory board members challenging the legality of the sweeping changes he made to the various outlets and their advisory boards.
Established in 1999, USAGM is an independent agency that oversees various government-funded media outlets. But these outlets are not mouthpieces for the government to use at its disposal. Instead, the U.S. International Broadcasting Act mandates a firewall that “prohibits government interference by U.S. government officials” in the “objective, independent journalism from USAGM networks.”
On June 15, 11 days after Pack’s confirmation, VOA director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandra Suguwara resigned from their posts without citing a reason but reaffirmed the outlet’s independence in a letter to staff.
“Nothing about you, your passion, your mission or your integrity changes,” Bennett and Suguwara wrote. “Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees V.O.A.’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us.”
Two days later, Pack fired Bay Fang, Jamie Fly, and Alberto Fernandez, who oversee Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network respectively. One former official told CNN the unprecedented firings amounted to a “Wednesday night massacre.” He also fired members of the advisory board of each outlet, and hired different people, who, according to The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, “appear to have been selected for no discernible reason beyond ideological purity.”
“Among these freshly minted political commissars are Rachel Semmel, who has used her position as spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget to provide caustic responses to questions about Trump’s disputed decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine,” Applebaum wrote.
Other Pack hirees include Bethany Kozma, who “brought her anti-abortion stance to the USAID,” and Jonathon Alexandre, senior counsel for Liberty Counsel, an organization upholding “religious freedom.” Liberty once threatened legal action against a library that held a Harry Potter event “on the grounds that [it] constituted promotion of witchcraft.”
In an interview with MediaFile last week, David Ensor, a former VOA director who led the outlet between 2011 and 2015, called the sudden firings “worrying,” and potentially detrimental to VOA’s efforts to provide balanced reporting.
“I’m concerned about the journalism. The quality of the journalism,” Ensor said. The difference between a government-funded entity like VOA and a for-profit news organization like the New York Times or the Washington Post, Ensor said, is that VOA offers journalism in different languages and serves different audiences across the globe.
“The entity that decides which languages is Congress,” Ensor said. “Congress decides what audiences [USAGM outlets] should try to reach. So important audiences of VOA are in Russia, in China, in Iran, in Mali, where there is an Islamist insurrection going on, in Northern Nigeria the language of Housa, which is where Boko Haram is.”
“In other words, in areas where the United States wants to have the [global audience] get reliable information and don’t get it otherwise.”
Since Pack’s confirmation went through, a number of political appointees have been placed in management positions and have been prohibited from making any “external communications” or other actions until they have been explicitly approved by senior level executives, CNN reported on June 18. According to one source, the changes at USAGM have put the agency “at a standstill.”
Additionally, Jeffrey Shapiro, an ally of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is set to head the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Ensor said he was hopeful Pack would “respect the firewall” and protect “the independence of the journalism from any kind of political interference,” but also expressed skepticism regarding the Trump administration’s history of controversial nominations.
“The track record of the Trump administration on this kind of thing is not very good,” he said. “And so there is reason for real concern about Trump appointees and whether they are going to respect the law.”
The legality of Pack’s actions is also still in question. While four former advisory board members have filed a lawsuit against him, other legal organizations are also speaking out. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an organization that provides legal resources to journalists wrote a letter to lawmakers in late April imploring leaders to protect the firewall that ensures VOA’s independence. The letter was written after President Trump attacked the VOA in early April, deeming the outlet “Chinese propaganda.”
“If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting. What – things they say are disgusting toward our country,” Trump said during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing on April 15.
The letter strongly denounced Trump’s remarks and reminded lawmakers about the legal backing of the firewall. The letter also reiterated the work that the VOA has done to fight Chinese misinformation and urge the government to “lean into” editorial independence amidst the public health crisis.
“The VOA firewall is in place precisely so that U.S. international public broadcasting is not seen as propaganda by viewers, listeners, and readers around the world,” the letter states. “Rather, the animating principle behind publicly funded international broadcasting is that an objective, unbiased, editorially independent international broadcaster—one that is free to report critically about the United States itself—is a stronger tool of public diplomacy than state-controlled media.”
Gabe Rottman, director of RCFP’s Technology and Press Freedom Project, told MediaFile about the more concrete actions that Pack has taken in changing the VOA since Trump’s remarks.
“We’re definitely monitoring [the lawsuit],” Rottman said. “The Reporters Committee strongly supports the firewall and strongly urges Pack and other management at the USAGM to respect the firewall.”