For America’s publicly-funded overseas broadcasters, it has been the most perilous summer and fall in the 78 years since the Voice of America went on the air during World War II with the pledge: “The news may be good, the news may be bad for us (the U.S.), but we shall tell you the truth.”
The newly-confirmed chief executive of the five networks, Michael Pack, has now been in his post since June 3. His first day at the office, he fired or suspended the presidents of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcast Network in Arabic (MBN), and Radio-TV Martí in Spanish to Cuba. Anticipating what was to come, VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, resigned two days before Mr. Pack assumed charge of the five networks.
On October 15, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), proposed legislation to outlaw political tampering with newsroom coverage produced by VOA and other U.S. government international broadcasters. National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik, who has been tracking events closely at the five networks, quotes Senator Murphy as saying that while there are some legal safeguards intended to insulate the networks from ideological or partisan influence, the statute can be stronger.
“My legislation that I’m introducing today just adds some specificity to the statute,” Murphy says, “to make it totally crystal — 100 percent clear — that you cannot from the White House or from any other political position, try to infuse politics into the reporting of folks who are doing work at agencies like VOA.”
I heartily agree, as one who has participated in, supervised, or watched closely U.S.-funded overseas broadcasting since 1962.
My view is that objective, non-partisan U.S. taxpayer-funded international overseas broadcasting now confronts the greatest threat to its existence since that pledge cited above to its audiences in February, 1942.
The removal of the five network heads, four of whom were sacked on Mr. Pack’s first day at office in early June, was only the beginning. On August 12, Mr. Pack fired or suspended seven additional senior managers at the networks, including the agency’s general counsel, chief financial officer, and executive director.
On August 13, House Foreign Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) accused Mr. Pack of trying to push out career officials, saying that the August moves “smack of illegal retaliation. I understand,” Mr. Engel added, “that a number of the individuals who have been relieved had tried to make agency leadership aware of potentially inappropriate or unlawful actions during Mr. Pack’s first months in his position.”
At about the same time, Mr. Pack said: “My plan here, and I think everyone in the White House and everyone else knows this, is to hold these agencies accountable to following their mission and in the Voice of America’s case, its Charter, and that’s what I plan to do.”
On October 9. according to VOA, an 84-page lawsuit filed in a DC federal court by five former or suspended USAGM employees claiming that Mr. Pack and his new team of political appointees have aggressively sought to make the parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media encompassing all five U. S.-funded networks, into “a state-sponsored media”.
This action would run counter to Public Law 94-350, VOA’s Charter provision whose guiding principles have since been applied to all five networks after approvals by Congress. Its legal mandate is that the Voice and its four network cousins (RFE/RL, RFA, MBN and the Martis to Cuba) be “a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news… accurate, objective and comprehensive”.
This distinguishes the U.S. from most other state-funded networks and is comparable to an editorial approach of the BBC World Service. (The only exception is official U.S. government editorials, written outside the Voice but clearly labelled as representing U.S policy in each broadcast). Mr. Pack has insisted these be listed prominently in Voice internal listings of daily “insights” for use by its English and 46 other language services.
Pack’s widening purge
Five additional USAGM senior managers overseeing the networks also have been suspended. They are:
- Grant Turner, chief financial officer
- Dr. Shawn Powers, chief strategy officer
- Marie Lennon, director of management services
- Oahn Trang, managing director
- Matthew Walsh, deputy director of network operations
Those five officers have filed a suit naming Mr. Pack and four of his recently named new senior managers. The suit says:
“This case is about the insidious politicization of journalism that threatens not only our nation’s publicly-funded media but also our nation’s reputation for modeling and defending a free press around the world. In the United States, publicly-funded journalism is protected from government interference by a firewall much like privately-funded media is protected from corporate interference by similar mechanisms.
“As a former VOA director (Amanda Bennett) explained to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, ‘a firewall of sorts exists in every news organization… to allow journalists to operate independently without reference to any kind of pressure.
‘Unlike the private sector, the firewall protecting publicly-funded journalism, e.g., the USAGM networks, is enshrined in law: it stands between government officials on one side and reporters on the other, protecting against even the perception that iconic outlets like VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, are mere mouthpieces for the U.S. government.
‘The firewall protects the credibility of these networks, which is crucial to completing their mission of spreading free speech and independent media to audiences living under oppressive regimes across the globe.’”
What to watch for now
Both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are preoccupied with elections until Nov. 3. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election, there’ll be roughly a two-and-a-half month interval under the Trump administration before Mr. Biden assumes power. He has said that Mr. Pack will be removed if that happens. A major question: will the five U.S.-funded networks be able to recover their role as stallions of valued, trusted news and information as the new year dawns?
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