Michael Pack, the new CEO of the government-run global media media entity that oversees Voice of America and other news outlets, plans to clean house of the agency’s top career leadership, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said on Tuesday.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said in a statement that he had learned that Pack, confirmed by the Senate earlier this month to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, “intends to force out a number of the agency’s career senior leadership tomorrow morning.”
“My fear is that USAGM’s role as an unbiased news organization is in jeopardy under his leadership,” Engel said. “USAGM’s mission is ‘to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy’ — not to be a mouthpiece for the President in the run up to an election.” Engel suggested that the the action was connected to Trump’s focus on the so-called “deep state,” or bureaucrats he thinks are working against him.
A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Engel’s warning came a day after the director of Voice of America, Amanda Bennett, and her deputy, Sandy Sugawara, announced their resignations.
During Pack’s confirmation hearings last fall, Democrats raised concerns that he would be able to retain his independence from the White House, in part because President Donald Trump has harshly criticized Voice of America. More recently, Trump has claimed that Voice of America trafficked in Chinese propaganda and called its coronavirus coverage a “disgrace.” Last weekend, emails obtained the Knight First Amendment Foundation showed that public affairs officials at the Centers for Disease Control were told to reject all coronavirus interview requests from VOA reporters.
Brett Bruen, who interacted with the agency, then known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, when he served as director of global engagement for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said that he also has heard the same reports of a clearing out of career staffers. He also said the agency has not been able to pay its bills or hire for weeks because of a spending and hiring freeze.
But his concern also is that the agency be able to function properly during this election year amid worries of foreign interference in the information ecosystem.
“This comes as Russian, Chinese, and other adversaries’ disinformation campaigns are rapidly ramping up in response to COVID-19, protests across the U.S., and our presidential elections,” Bruen, who is now president of public affairs firm Global Situation Room, wrote in an email. “You have our best hope for pushing back against this propaganda frozen and living in fear of a political witch hunt. This directly impacts the safety and stability of our country, along with allies around the world. Now is not the time to unilaterally disengage, dismantle, or damage our defenses against modern information warfare.”
The agency also oversees other outlets including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra and Radio and Television Martí.
Pack is a conservative filmmaker who has done projects with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, and has held posts at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and served on the National Council on the Humanities. In his confirmation hearing, Pack told lawmakers that “the whole agency rests on the belief the reporters are independent, that no political influence is telling them how to report the news and what to say. Without that trust, I think, the agency is completely undermined.”
He also said that he wanted to improve morale, after a series of scandals that have beset the agency. He said that his goal was to “create a more effective U.S broadcasting effort on the world stage.”
In his statement, Engel contended that the targeting of the agency was part of “a trend that we have seen from the very first days of the Trump Administration,” and that the president’s obsession “with the myth of a so-called ‘Deep State’ has jeopardized our national security by depriving that agency of untold years of experience, sometimes breaking the law in the process.”
Engel said that Pack “needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information. The law requires that our international broadcasting be independent, unbiased, and targeted toward audiences around the world. USAGM broadcasters are credible only if audiences believe what they’re seeing and hearing is the straight, unvarnished truth.”
The attorney general for the District of Columbia, Karl Racine, confirmed last month that he was conducting an investigation into claims that Pack directed funds from the non profit Public Media Lab to his for profit production company, Manifold Productions.
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