The appointment of a new acting chief executive for America’s five taxpayer-funded overseas networks and two senior leaders of the Voice of America is a major achievement of the new Biden administration. At 2 p.m. January 20, Michael Pack, the departing CEO, announced his resignation at President Biden’s request barely two hours after Mr. Biden was sworn in as the nation’s 46th president.
Mr. Pack’s Biden administration replacement (acting) was veteran senior VOA official and former acting director Kelu Chao as the new CEO of all of U.S. global broadcasting. Ms. Chao, in turn, fired two recently installed Pack-appointed officers, Voice of America director Robert Reilly and his deputy Elizabeth Robbins, on January 21. They had both been appointed by Mr. Pack just weeks earlier, and according to one account were escorted from the headquarters building in southwest D.C.
The new VOA Acting Director is Yolanda Lopez, a veteran staff member who had served as the Voice newsroom chief. As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi put it, this was “a domino-like” series of reassignments.
Within 26 hours after he assumed office January 20th, President Biden outlined a comprehensive 10-point plan for confronting the deadliest epidemic in the U.S. in more than a century, COVID-19. You could almost hear a nation sighing in relief on that crystal clear, sunny Thursday January 21 in the nation’ s capital.
The new President’s first news briefing dealt, unsurprisingly, centered on emergency steps to at least slow down and eventually eliminate the COVID epidemic. The nation’s five U.S. government-funded overseas networks immediately broadcast the breaking news to millions of curious on-line users, TV viewers and radio listeners around the world. The networks are:
- The global Voice of America, with 278 million multimedia users a week
- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) in Arabic, and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) in Spanish, which together reach 76 million followers weekly. OCB Director Jeff Shapiro also resigned January 21.
Some recent history
Late last May, Trump nominee Michael Pack was approved by a party-line 10-8 vote of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which supervises all five networks. On June 1, 2020, VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy resigned, anticipating the ax about to fall.
Two days later, Mr. Pack arrived and dismissed all four of the other networks’ CEOs, some with only written notices. Altogether, throughout his nearly eight months in office, Mr. Pack forced the removal or resignation of at least 15 senior officials of the U.S.-funded overseas networks — the greatest purge in U.S. international broadcasting since VOA went on the air February 1, 1942.
And what’s next
Not unexpectedly, President Biden’s agenda is a full one, with cabinet posts in other agencies to fill. The international broadcasting agenda for a new Biden-appointed team is likely to be just beginning, starting with the recent new appointments of Mr. Pack’s successors and possibly prospective new heads of some of the other taxpayer networks following those at VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The Biden transition appointed Richard Stengel, formerly Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, to review U.S.-funded media. Stengel is likely to perform a central role in designing or possibly even leading the Biden-era U. S. Agency for Global Media.
The U.S. global image and the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic seems top of mind for Biden’s foreign as well as domestic policy. During his Senate confirmation hearing on January 19, Biden’s designated Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the new administration would join the global vaccine consortium called Covax. Its goal: to ensure that high-risk people in low-income countries have access to more coronavirus vaccines.
The initiative, formally confirmed by President Biden in his overall plan outlined January 21, coincided with Mr. Biden’s resolve to re-enter the World Health Organization from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2019. The WHO has secured hundreds of millions of doses for less-developed countries.
As incoming Secretary of State Blinken told the Washington Post: “We believe strongly that we can do that — ensure that every American gets the vaccine, but also ensure that others around the world who want it may have access to it, as well.”
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