The House Foreign Affairs Committee summoned Michael Pack, the CEO of five publicly-funded overseas networks, to be the principal figure at a long-scheduled hearing September 24. The problem was: Mr. Pack, though under subpoena after resisting the invitation, never showed up.
The main issue: Mr. Pack’s nearly four-month leadership of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba.
The three-hour long hearing, in Michael Pack’s absence, was left to high-level officers of his organization who either resigned upon his assuming office in early June, or were suspended from their key roles in what is known at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the USAGM.
Grant Turner was the Chief Financial Officer at USAGM and its acting director from last October until Mr. Pack’s confirmation by a 10-8 party line GOP majority in late May. Mr. Turner’s testimony centered on what he termed his “significant concern” about Mr. Pack’s leadership.
He recalled that the new CEO inherited top leadership of an Agency which had in the year and a half before he took office last June expanded its worldwide weekly audience in 61 languages from 270 million to 350 million listeners, TV viewers and on-line users.
“I have been in the U.S. government for 17 years,” Mr. Turner added, “but nothing in my experience has approached what has happened at USAGM this past summer under the new leadership. I worry about our credibility, and our failure to focus on that.”
The suspended executive then quoted the former director of the largest U.S. global network, VOA’s Amanda Bennett, a nationally-known journalist, as saying “USAGM exports the First Amendment in its commitment to accurate, objective and comprehensive news and information.”
Mrs. Bennett was the second speaker at the House hearing. She noted that according to last November’s annual research report, VOA then reached 270 million listeners who tune in weekly to its TV, radio and rapidly growing on-line services. (Although many of those access VOA multiple times in a seven-day period, each user counts only once in internationally-recognized research totals during any given week. That’s also the case at the other four networks).
Former RFE/RL President Jamie Fly told hearing participants that on the evening of the first day of Mr. Pack’s tenure last June, he was abruptly fired before even a single discussion with the incoming CEO. During his relatively brief tenure at RFE/RL, headquartered in Prague, Mr. Fly said morale at the network was on an upswing, and he was able to oversee the re-establishment of a much-needed Hungarian Service closed after the Cold War.
(I recall that VOA’s Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara resigned shortly after Mr. Pack’s confirmation. All of the four other USAGM network presidents at RFE-RL, RFA, the Middle East Broadcast Network, and Radio-TV Marti were immediately dismissed. They were replaced by other U.S. government employees with little or no international media experience on June 3, Mr. Pack’s first day at USAGM.)
A relatively new collateral technical organization under the USAGM, the Open Technology Fund (OTF) supports development of new on-line services designed to enhance the reach of all five networks in the 21st century’s rapidly-evolving multimedia arena. In his first week in office, Mr. Pack replaced the board of the OTF and became its chairman.
All five networks consider U.S. government interference in their 24/7 broadcast streams as counter to the commonly-accepted “firewall” to alter or interfere with their content. For years, use of USG policy editorials (identified as such) have remained optional in VOA broadcasts. One of Mr. Pack’s initial orders when he assumed office early last June was to insist that the Voice identify them by title in upcoming daily in-sight notices and broadcast them without fail.
Credibility is everything, especially for government-funded international media. “It’s the thing that distinguishes us,” Ms. Bennett said.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a key figure on the bi-partisan Broadcasting Board of Governors that used to oversee the five networks prior to Mr. Pack’s appointment, praised former network chiefs he immediately dismissed. In his words:
“Amanda Bennett, Jamie Fly, and nearly-native Arabic speaker Alberto Fernandez, president of the Middle East Broadcasting Network, were distinguished CEOs and advocates for their organizations. They could out-talk and out-think anyone who would seek to challenge them. I’m very worried about the cracks that have now taken hold in the ‘firewall’.”
As a participant and historian of U.S. international broadcasting for more than a half century, I’ve never witnessed an assault on the networks as massive, across the board, as this one. It’s high time for Congress to come to the rescue, for the sake not only of justice, but fairness to the third of a billion users around the globe who depend upon the networks as centurions of truth.
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