The Cold War was fought not with weapons, but with information and ideas. In the struggle, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, American government-funded news outlets, were on the front lines.
They were powerful not because they were propaganda, but because they weren’t. Today, under the leadership of conversative documentarian Michael Pack—appointed, of course, by Donald Trump—the credibility of US government-funded media, built over decades, is being squandered, and experienced journalists are being dismissed, maligned, and punished with deportation. Such efforts undermine the ability of the US government to counter the malicious propaganda and misinformation being used to manipulate global public opinion.
After a two-year delay, Pack, an ally and friend of Steve Bannon’s, was confirmed in June by the Senate as head of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees the news outlets. Pack’s confirmation required the personal intervention of President Trump, who was furious at VOA for covering his administration with an independent streak. Following Pack’s confirmation, VOA director Amanda Bennett (a board member at the Committee to Protect Journalists) and her deputy Sandy Sugawara resigned. Pack then dismissed the heads of the other networks, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and replaced the members of the independent advisory boards with his lackeys. Pack is also accused of seeking to undermine the Open Technology Fund, which promotes an open internet around the world.
Pack has been an elusive figure since taking over at the USAGM, refusing to answer questions from his own staff or the media. But he has agreed to appear before the House Foreign Relations Committee on September 24. Here are some questions committee members might ask. I, for one, am looking for some answers.
Who are you working for? (Part one) Under its charter, VOA is bound by law to present news coverage that is “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” Yet President Trump has made clear he expects US government-funded media to be a mouthpiece for his administration. You have stated that your job is to help “drain the swamp, root out corruption, and deal with these issues of bias.” Are you prepared to stand up to the president?
Why on earth would you suggest journalists are spies? In an interview with the Federalist podcast that was aired on August 27, you strongly implied that the reason you are slow-walking visa renewals for VOA staffers is because some journalists might be spies. Do you recognize and understand how such language endangers the lives not only of VOA journalists, but journalists everywhere? American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Daniel Pearl were all accused of espionage before being executed by Islamic militants; Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was imprisoned in Iran for eighteen months on such baseless charges.
Will you respect the firewall? When the VOA Urdu service published a subtitled video featuring Joe Biden urging people to vote, you announced an investigation into the matter and issued a statement condemning the video. Will you continue to edit VOA stories? And will you be copyediting as well?
Will you fight propaganda with the truth? VOA has been recognized as a reliable news source around the world, particularly in countries where state media is a form of propaganda. Yet you appointed conspiracy theorist Frank Wuco, who has promoted false birther theories about former president Barack Obama, as a front office adviser and put him in charge of auditing USAGM’s office of policy and research. How will USAGM stand up for the truth if people working for you are known to spread lies?
Who are you working for? (Part two) Steve Bannon described VOA as “a rotten fish from top to bottom…totally controlled by the deep-state apparatus.” He has called former VOA director Bennett “a classic ‘useful idiot’ who kowtows to Beijing’s party line” and a “running dog for the Chinese Communist Party.” Do you share his assessment?
Do you think VOA was promoting Chinese propaganda? In an unprecedented statement issued in April, the Trump White House claimed that VOA had “amplified Chinese propaganda” by covering a light show that marked the end of the lockdown in Wuhan. As a news outlet, VOA reported on the ways in which Chinese government censorship helped fuel the spread of the coronavirus, as well as reporting that China brought the virus under control. Will you repudiate the White House’s smear?
Do you have compassion for VOA employees? You have acknowledged that VOA journalists who face repression in their home countries take grave risks to report the news. So why did you decide to freeze visa renewals and contracts for journalists working in the United States, knowing that they could face violent attacks or imprisonment if they were forced to return home?
How do you expect anyone to want to work for the agency when you show no loyalty or goodwill toward your staff? When the host of the Federalist podcast joked about reducing staff numbers at federal agencies by “banning masks and turning off the air-conditioning,” you responded, “We’ll have to look into that one.”
Will VOA stand up for press freedom, including the rights of its own journalists? Heartlessly deporting your own journalists, and implying that some of them are spies, has led many at US government-funded media not only to question your commitment to their personal well-being, but to wonder if you still are willing to defend the rights of your own journalists and support the coverage of press freedom, for which VOA has been known. Will you?
Who are you working for? (Part three) Bannon has said of you and your new role, “He’s my guy, and I pushed him hard.” President Trump has called VOA “disgusting” and said that “Michael Pack would get in and do a great job [at the agency].” As head of the USAGM, your job is to work on behalf of the American people. How can we be sure that you are?
CPJ US researcher Katherine Jacobsen contributed reporting.
Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.