If Joe Biden wins the presidency, he’s promising at least one staffing change: firing the CEO of a US-funded global media agency who’s accused of trying to turn it into a propaganda shop aligned with Donald Trump’s ideology.
Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the former vice president’s campaign, told me Biden will oust Michael Pack from his Senate-confirmed position at the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) soon after entering the White House. The reason is simple: Biden believes Pack is trying to turn one of the world’s largest media networks into something akin to Breitbart or Trump TV.
“Michael Pack is decidedly unqualified,” Bates said, “and his actions risk hijacking invaluable, nonpartisan media institutions that stand up for fundamental American values like freedom and democracy in the world.”
USAGM is a government department that oversees five media organizations: Voice of America, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Collectively, those outlets reach hundreds of millions of people around the globe with the main goal of disseminating factual, unbiased news to people who live in countries where freedom of the press is either strongly curtailed or nonexistent. Many stories run by those organizations have a pro-US bent, leading some to say they remain in the propaganda business like they were during World War II and the Cold War.
Pack, a close ally of former top Trump strategist Steve Bannon, began his three-year tenure just this month and wasted no time making dramatic changes to reshape the agency. Last week, within hours of introducing himself to employees, he purged four top officials from the agency’s media organizations. The two chiefs of Voice of America (VOA), the most prominent outlet in the agency, had already resigned earlier over Pack’s appointment.
According to three current and former VOA staff, the new acting director is Elez Biberaj, the head of VOA’s Eastern European division. Biberaj has a reputation for being very tough on the region’s dictators and passionate about delivering news to underserved communities on the continent. However, the agency has yet to officially announce that appointment.
The real concern, though, is about Pack’s vision for Voice of America’s editorials, which are essentially government statements read aloud on air or placed on a VOA English or foreign-language website. (They differ from editorials in a traditional newspaper, which are written by a panel of editors to represent the newspaper’s view, or op-eds, which represent a columnist or outside contributor’s views.)
Having editorials helps the US government basically get pseudo-press releases out into the world, which is why the State Department sometimes signs off on them beforehand.
They also take airtime away from news reporting, creating a distraction VOA’s partner organizations abroad don’t like. VOA has run editorials since before Pack’s time, but they haven’t received much prominence.
That’s about to change. On Wednesday, Pack detailed his new plans for VOA editorials: make them more aligned with the president’s views. “Editorials are the only place in all of US international broadcasting where administration policy, set by the president, is communicated directly in the name of the US government to audiences abroad in various languages,” the agency said in a press release. Now, an “editorials” section has replaced the “coronavirus outbreak” tab on the main page.
Emphasizing editorials creates another issue: How does a foreign audience know what’s information and what’s a US government statement?
“Abroad, we want a bright line between the two,” Matt Armstrong, a former board member of the agency, said of news and editorials. “Blur that line and you step into the propaganda trap quite easily.”
A veteran VOA foreign correspondent unauthorized to speak publicly told me this new editorials policy is a “return to the Cold War mentality,” referring to when the outlet countered Soviet propaganda. In other words, making editorials prominent — as they once were — means the outlet is now putting extra focus on official US statements at the expense of regular journalism.
Pack, Bannon, and others purposefully want to have VOA and other outlets push back harder against top American opponents in the world, like China. Trump has also toyed with creating a new government-run media outlet, but Bannon in 2018 specifically told the president, “You got one. … it’s called Voice of America.”
Pack, according to an agency spokesperson, noted the CEO “was confirmed for a three-year term” and “looks forward to serving the country and the American people.” But should Biden win in November, he plans to not only remove Pack, he would also install someone as CEO who doesn’t want to broadcast Trump-aligned views to the world.
Pack’s editorial plan is partly why he has so many critics, including Biden
The change Biden wants to make couldn’t come soon enough for many of Pack’s detractors.
Pack’s decision on editorials would mainly promote a single-minded viewpoint, violating the VOA Charter: “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions,” the 1976 law reads in part.
Many worry pushing editorials with a pro-Trump bent will eventually lead Pack to push for Trump-friendly news coverage, whether that’s boosting the president’s domestic policies or bashing foreign adversaries. Until now, news agencies funded and overseen by the federal government have mainly operated independently when it comes to the stories they cover and how they cover them.
A change in that tradition would break the “firewall,” enshrined in US law, which “prohibits interference by any US government official in the objective, independent reporting of news, thereby safeguarding the ability of our journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference,” according to the VOA website.
On this point, the veteran VOA foreign correspondent told me there’s “increasing nervousness” in the newsroom, “but no panic yet as no fist has come through the firewall. But we do hear tapping noises.”
The correspondent and others feel left in the dark about the outlet’s future. “Staff members are learning more about what’s likely to happen at VOA from listening to Steve Bannon’s podcast than from their own bosses,” the correspondent told me.
It’d be one thing if Pack’s plan were nefarious and effective, but few experts actually believe it will work as intended.
“The old Cold War model where the audience was all listening to shortwave radio from DC is gone,” said David Ensor, who ran VOA from 2011 to 2015. The outlet’s audience now watches or listens to VOA reports and reporters on local news programs. “There is no place for the editorials there. That’s not what our broadcasting partners will accept.”
“Moving editorials to more prominent places on the VOA websites will probably reduce the number of visits to those websites, but hopefully not too much,” he added. “This is not likely to be a smart move, in my view, in terms of VOA’s reach and impact around the world. Our audience wants news, not opinions, for the most part.”
Which means Pack appears to have put his own job, and the reputation of decades of US-backed reporting, in danger for likely little gain.