Three months ago, Michael Pack was named chief executive officer of the five U.S.-funded overseas multimedia networks. They are: Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcast Network in Arabic (MBN) and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba.
The five networks are supervised by the U.S. Agency for International Media (USAGM), until recently known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors. On his first day in office, Mr. Pack:
— Fired the CEOS of RFE/RL, RFA, MBN, and the Martis. The director of the flagship Voice of America Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara had resigned just two days before Mr. Pack formally assumed office.
— Ordered VOA, largest of the networks, to promote daily on its website U.S. government editorials written by policy officials in the USAGM hierarchy, not the Voice itself. (U.S. government editorials have been part of VOA output for decades, but less seldom used in the 21st century).
— Replaced the director of the USAGM’s Open Technology Fund to pave the way for a successor organization and board of directors under Mr. Pack’s direct supervision. (A new OTF established by Mr. Pack explores new technology options to assist all five networks in better reaching their users).
Latest estimates based on surveys in more than 100 countries globally are that the USAGM networks reach 350 million users weekly, of which 280 million access VOA.
The Voice’s Journalistic Code notes that:
“Since its founding in 1942, VOA has built a global reputation as a consistently reliable source of news and information. Accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness and objectivity are attributes global audiences have come to expect of VOA broadcasters and their product.
“These standards are legally mandated in the VOA Charter (Public Laws 94-350 and 103-415). Because of them, VOA has become an inspiration and information lifeline to nations and peoples around the world.”
This is the awesome challenge all the U.S.- funded broadcasters face around the clock. It is, by and large, observed by those privately-run non-governmental network cousins of the Voice with specialized targeted programs to Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Cuba. (RFE-RL, RFA, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network are U.S. government-funded private sector organizations. Radio-TV Marti, like VOA, is a federal agency).
My experience as a former deputy and acting director of VOA for six months in the late Nineties is that collaboration among the networks is a worthwhile goal. Is Michael Pack a leader who will enhance that prospect around honesty, integrity and sharing of world news among the networks?
Three months since Mr. Pack assumed office, uncertainty lingers. Washington Post reporters Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison summed it all up on September 3: “Since becoming the overseer of VOA in June, Michael Pack has fired subordinates, disbanded advisory boards, and declined to renew the visas of foreign workers who work under him.
“Political appointees frequently make personnel changes when they take on a new role. But Mr. Pack, who heads the U.S. Agency for Global Media (of which VOA is the largest network), has offered a unique justification for his actions: He says he is rooting out potential spies.” So far, no suspects have been named.
About 70 non-citizen VOA staff members work under J-1 visas, which require periodic renewals. Without such renewals, non-citizen workers must leave the U.S., likely to their home countries, where they may face retribution for having worked at the Voice. It’s unclear exactly how many VOA J-1 visa holders are imperiled by this move, but it would appear to apply already to broadcasters whose visas expired in July and August … unless their visas are renewed.
Michael Pack’s predecessor John Lansing, now the CEO at National Public Radio, told NPR reporter David Folkenflik on August 31: “Pack’s insistence that there were issues related to security in hiring at VOA is merely a smokescreen to avert attention from his blatant attempt to interfere with the legislatively mandated independence, or ‘firewall’ protecting VOA journalists from government interference.”
A petition signed by 14 VOA staff members (and subsequently by more than at least a score of others) given to Mr. Pack on August 31, says: “The undersigned VOA journalists are compelled to express our profound disappointment with the actions and comments of the chief executive officer of USAGM, which endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives…
“We have watched in dismay as USAGM executives have been dismissed for, in their words, attempting to educate the new CEO on avoiding legal violations, as well as guiding him on the firewall that protects VOA’s legal mandated editorial independence.
“Mr. Pack has made a thin excuse,” the staff statement adds, “that his actions are meant to protect national security. But just as was the case with the McCarthy ‘red scare’ which targeted VOA and other government organizations in the mid-1950s, there has not been a single demonstrable case of any individual working for VOA — as the USAGM CEO puts it — “posing as a spy.”
National Public Radio reports that six senior officials of USAGM have been suspended recently by Mr. Pack: Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, the agency’s General Counsel David Kligerman, the Deputy Director for Operations Matthew Walsh, the Chief Strategy Officer Shawn Powers, USAGM’s Executive Director Oanh Tran and the Director of Management Services, Marie Lennon.
News agency reports say that there is bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill about Mr. Pack’s actions. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing with Michael Pack on September 24 to answer multiple questions about his first three months as CEO overseeing VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, the Middle East Network and Radio-TV Marti.
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