Despite a litany of lawsuits, whistleblower complaints, and congressional subpoenas, Trump-appointed CEO of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) Michael Pack continues to aggressively reshape Voice of America (VOA) and other news networks managed by the agency, and he’s using executive powers enabled by his Democratic successor to do it, according to current and former USAGM staffers who requested anonymity and documents obtained by The Real News.
On Monday, Oct. 26, just days ahead of the presidential election, Pack quietly tossed out a crucial “firewall rule” that prohibited interference by any US government official in the objective, independent reporting of news. The firewall is intended to safeguard the ability of VOA journalists to report independently and free of political interference, despite the agency’s reliance on government funding. Removing it enables Pack to more easily influence editorial decisions and align USAGM networks with “‘broad foreign policy objectives’ of the United States established by the President,” says a statement from Pack on the USAGM website.
In the statement, Pack calls the firewall rule “harmful to the agency” because it prevented him, he claims, from fulfilling his “duty ‘to direct and supervise all broadcasting activities’” across USAGM networks. “By instruction of Congress, I am required to make the agency more efficient and more effective in fulfilling its mission,” Pack argues.
Pack’s actions to drive USAGM’s “mission” are radically different from those of past agency CEOs: “USAGM broadcasters are tasked with advancing human rights and promoting uniquely American ideas and values,” Pack’s statement reads. “At a time when foreign governments, particularly those in China, Russia, and Iran, are spending enormous resources spreading disinformation to undermine freedom and democracy, this duty is more important than ever.”
The move to strike down the firewall regulation has been criticized by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other journalist organizations, congressional leaders, and USAGM staffers. Pack’s actions, they argue, are a direct assault on independent journalism, harm the credibility of the American taxpayer-funded broadcast networks, and reverse decades of work earning USAGM the reputation as a dependable, independent source of information.
Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Eliot Engel advised USAGM journalists to ignore the “illegal interference from Mr. Pack and other administration officials,” adding, “it will be critical for the next Congress to repair the damage he’s done and to enact protections that will prevent an ideologue like him from attempting to destroy the agency again.”
Meanwhile, infighting continues at the USAGM under Pack. Sources told The Real News that Pack did not trust the senior management at USAGM because of their association with his predecessor, John Lansing, an Obama appointee. Pack made his intention to take more control over the agency known as soon as he stepped in as CEO, when he fired the top managers from their positions. The agency’s chief financial officer and former interim CEO, Grant Turner, and its general counsel David Kligerman, were among those who were terminated.
The affected employees have since filed a lawsuit arguing Pack and his team are initiating steps “to fundamentally remake USAGM into state sponsored media,” and asked the court to intervene. The suit argues that Pack and his team influenced editorial decision making, scrutinized news copy and the social media feeds of journalists, in addition to retaliating against staff who flagged concerns about alleged firewall violations. The suit also says USAGM journalists and senior management are avoiding stories that could be deemed controversial to protect staff from potential USAGM retaliation.
The series of firings by Pack was not only a way to consolidate power, USAGM staffers told The Real News, but a way to punish those who allegedly helped introduce the firewall.
“Pack believed these same officials, especially Kligerman and Turner, were also behind the move to install the firewall just ahead of his taking over as the CEO to limit his powers,” a USAGM staffer told The Real News.
In the Oct. 26 statement and the repeal notice it references, Pack claims “the Regulation was promulgated only when it became apparent that the leadership of USAGM was about to change via Senate confirmation of a USAGM Chief Executive Officer (CEO).” Pack said he responded by striking down the firewall because it was intended to make his work as CEO harder.
Since taking over as CEO in June, Pack has also put a freeze on staff contracts and refused J-1 visa renewals, which allows qualified, foreign-language journalists to assist USAGM networks on global news programming. Calling them potential spies, Pack’s refusal to renew visas has prompted an ongoing exodus of foreign journalists and their families from the United States.
While Pack is seen as responsible for turning USAGM networks into propaganda tools of the US government, some argue the powers Pack has at his disposal were the handiwork of his predecessor John Lansing, who amassed vast powers as CEO during his tenure.
The Real News spoke to Matt Armstrong, who worked with former USAGM CEO John Lansing as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). BBG, which had installed the firewall in the days leading up to Pack’s confirmation, provided management oversight to VOA and other networks before it was renamed USAGM in 2018. The board—composed of nine members: four Republicans, four Democrats, and a representative of the secretary of state—was appointed by the president for a fixed term.
“On June 8, 2020, the board of governors disbanded after the first presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed CEO took position,” USAGM’s website explains.
Armstrong lamented that Lansing—now the CEO of NPR—consolidated the powers Pack has inherited. “Lansing provided levers presently at the disposal of Michael Pack,” Armstrong said.
Lansing resigned after the Democrats’ loss in the 2016 election, leaving Pack to inherit the newfound CEO powers that Lansing had consolidated during his tenure at USAGM. It was because of this that BBG reintroduced the firewall rule.
“The firewall rule Pack rescinded was a last-ditch effort by my former BBG colleagues to insulate journalism of the USAGM networks from the whims of the CEO,” Armstrong said.
Meanwhile, USAGM journalists don’t believe that Pack will change course in the weeks and months ahead. Pack could maintain his CEO position beyond the Trump administration because Republicans will likely maintain a Senate majority, allowing them to vote down any effort to bring a new CEO to USAGM.
“We have no idea what lies ahead even though the Trump administration is on its way out,” one USAGM staffer said. “Pack can do much more damage in the next couple of months,” said another staffer.
USAGM, Pack, and Lansing did not respond to The Real News Network’s questions despite multiple requests for comment.