The threat to the five international multimedia U.S. networks, at times, seems unrelenting. These networks are a key public diplomacy aspect of the nation’s outreach to at least 100 countries around the world. Herewith, a summary of the ongoing debate about prospects for their future.
In an editorial on October 28, the Washington Post headline reads Voice-less: The administration wants a Trump propaganda operation. As the Post noted: “The U.S. government’s international broadcasting (the U.S. Agency for Global Media) has long had one big advantage over its Russian and Chinese competition: a commitment to independent journalism, rather than official propaganda.
“Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets are staffed by professionals who deliver unbiased news reports, including about the U.S. government, earning them credibility and influence with audiences around the world — especially in countries that lack free media.” (The other U.S. taxpayer-funded networks are: Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba).
NEW LEADERSHIP AT THE NETWORKS
Since early June, the networks have reported to Michael Pack, a Trump ally who was approved by a 10-8 party-line vote of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late May. That was nearly two years after Mr. Pack’s initial nomination for approval. Mr. Pack subsequently failed to appear before the committee by ignoring a subpoena to do so by the SFRC on September 24.
As New York Times reporter Pranshu Verma reported October 27, Mr. Pack rescinded a procedure that sought to protect government-funded global media, including VOA and the four other networks. That provision is “a firewall” to prevent U.S. government partisan interference in the news offered by any of the five U.S. networks.
Collectively, these networks reach an estimated 350,000,000 people in 62 languages weekly in more than a hundred countries around the globe. That is based on person-to-person interviews, with each individual counted only once despite how many times he or she tunes in per week.
On October 26, Michael Pack issued a paper entitled Background on Rescinding a So-called ‘Firewall Rule. In its final hours of existence (last May) before his confirmation, according to Mr. Pack, his predecessors issued what he termed ‘a so-called ‘firewall rule’. This was aimed at ensuring an interpretation of the 1994 International Broadcasting Act that would ban partisanship in accurate and comprehensive reporting of events by the five networks.
“I rescinded that rule,” Mr. Pack continued, “based upon extensive legal analysis of the regulation and its conflict with Congress’s statutory mandate for USAGM – BBG’s successor – to support the foreign policy of the United States.” He asserted, as well, that “the new rule” prohibited him from engaging in managerial and editorial oversight which Congress mandated “to ensure that the agency carries out its proper governmental function.”
BIPARTISAN CONGRESSIONAL QUESTIONING OF PACK’S ACTIONS
On Capitol Hill, there was immediate questioning of the new Pack approach on both sides of the aisle. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) of the Senate Relations Committee put it in a VOA interview, the Agency’s firewall exists to prevent political interference. “The firewall that was codified as part of the International Broadcasting Act is what distinguishes USAGM-funded networks from state-sponsored propaganda we see in places like Russia and China. We cannot allow the President’s political appointees to influence journalistic content and we must ensure the law remains on the side of the journalists.”
Representative Michael McCall (R-Texas) told VOA: “It is unclear why CEO Pack is opposed to journalistic objectivity as USAGM and its networks. Without it, the mission and effectiveness of the Agency is undermined.”
Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said: “Mr. Pack has shown again and again that he doesn’t feel constrained by laws.” He added that he would encourage USAGM journalists to continue carrying out their important work and to ignore what he termed “illegal interference” by Mr. Pack and other administration officials. In a nationally-televised news briefing last April 15, President Trump termed VOA content as “disgusting”, setting the stage for Mr. Pack’s long-delayed confirmation.
There have been times in the past when an administration pressured VOA about its news coverage. But two former VOA directors have been highly critical of Michael Pack’s actions in his first four months as USAGM chief executive. They are Amanda Bennett, who voluntarily departed the Voice immediately after Pack was confirmed by the full U.S. Senate, and Sanford Ungar, who served as VOA director from July 1999 through June 2001. Mrs. Bennett told NPR she was “stunned” to hear the news. Mr. Ungar called the Pack move “catastrophic.” And the U.S.- based progressive website Vox quoted Biden spokesman as saying that Joe Biden would fire Pack if he wins the November 3 election because “Pack’s actions risk hijacking invaluable non-partisan media institutions that stand up for fundamental American values like freedom and democracy in the world.”
Scholar and public diplomacy specialist Nicholas Cull, professor at the University of Southern California, and my longtime friend and PDC colleague summed it all up. In his words, the firewall rule “had simply been an attempt to codify the standard practice”.
“The BBC has a firewall. Deutsche Welle has a firewall. Radio Pyongyang does not have a firewall. Taking away this kind of firewall, in practice, or in regulation, is a step away from credibility… no international broadcaster should take a step away from credibility.”
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