On June 17, Michael Pack, the newly-confirmed director of U.S. international broadcasting, arrived at its headquarters in southwest Washington, D.C, with this pledge:
“I am fully committed to honoring the VOA Charter, the missions of the grantee broadcasters (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic and Radio-TV Marti to Cuba in Spanish) and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world.”
Within hours, Mr. Pack ordered the termination of the principal officers of four of the five networks and a key supplementary fundraising support unit, the Open Technology Fund. That was just two days after the resignations of VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy, Sandy Sugawara — intended, they said, to clear the way for him to nominate his own choices for managing the nation’s largest publicly-funded network.
But the sweeping removal or resignations of the top managers of all five networks and the Open Technology Fund was unprecedented. Mr. Pack moved swiftly to name a pro-Trump senior management slate to assist him in the reorganization or restructuring ahead.
This followed sharp criticism of VOA by President Trump at a nationally-televised news briefing in mid-April during which he characterized VOA content as “disgusting.” A White House newsletter entitled “1600” had specifically identified the VOA’s report of the celebrated reopening of China’s city of Wuhan as promoting PRC interests. That was even though the Voice also had thoroughly covered PRC opposition figures and Hong Kong anti-Beijing protests, including sending a team of reporters to Hong Kong to conduct on-scene interviews.
Since taking charge, Mr. Pack reportedly has named several aides to reshape operations of America’s overseas networks. According to CNBC, they are:
- Emily Newman, Chief of Staff
- Andre Mendes, Chief Operating Officer
- Michael Williams, Vice President for Legal Compliance and Risk Management
- Jonathan Bronitsky, Director of Public Affairs
Mr. Mendez was a former acting VOA director and chief engineer for all of U.S. international broadcasting, who left suddenly after differences with former CEO of all the networks, John Lansing. Mr. Mendez then joined the Commerce Department.
Michael Pack’s other initial decisions in his new role also have included:
Elevating the use and placement of official U.S. government editorials in all 47 VOA languages. The policy-related editorials, written outside the VOA in an upper-echelon office of the USAGM now headed by Mr. Pack, are cleared by the State Department.
This practice has sometimes required weeks for approval. For that reason, VOA, an around-the-clock broadcast network, has tended not to use the editorials. As Mr. Pack sees it:
“Editorials, by their very nature, are meant to express the views of their house institution. In this case, the house institution is the U.S. government, of which VOA — a federal public service media organization — is a part. As such, it has been invested with both the trust and funding of the American people.”
According to Brian Schwartz of CNBC, Mr. Pack also has terminated the board members of the individual USAGM networks, including those of RFE/RL, RFA and the Open Technology Fund. These are separate from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which exercised oversight of all of the publicly-funded overseas networks until its abolishment by Act of Congress in 2016.
On June 23, the Open Technology Fund and three former members of the recently disbanded boards filed an emergency temporary restraining order in the DC District Court against Mr. Pack. (Petitioners included Ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Karen Kornbluh and a third member, Michael Kempner). Pack’s initial actions were dubbed the “Wednesday night massacre”, taken just hours after officially assuming his role on Wednesday June 17. At this writing, a court date has not been set.
A widely circulated column co-authored by my two friends, public diplomacy scholar Martha Bayles and former president of RFE/RL Jeffrey Gedmin, weighed in on the “Wednesday night massacre”.
As they put it:
“Truth-telling is a hard principle for any government to follow. Authoritarian regimes and criminal gangs do everything they can to crush the distinction between objective truth and official faction. The U.S. government should do everything it can to uphold it.
“This means playing the long game. It has taken decades for the USAGM system to build up the trust and credibility it now enjoys. It would take only days to tear it down.”
As a former deputy director and for six months acting director of VOA, I heartily agree. As the decades-old maxim says: “Time is fleeting.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More