In June, after years of delay, the Senate confirmed Michael Pack, a right-wing documentarian and Steve Bannon ally who was Trump’s pick to lead the US Agency for Global for Media, the public body that oversees US-backed foreign broadcasters including Voice of America, which Trump called “disgusting” and accused of shilling for China and Iran. In the six months since then, Pack has made up for lost time—obliterating the firewall that is supposed to protect the broadcasters’ editorial independence from agency management, and generating a string of controversies that have been, by turns, dark and bizarre.
Pack fired contractors and staff, including the heads of the respective broadcasters; refused to approve visa extensions for foreign journalists working in the US who could face repercussions if forced to return to their home countries; and trashed his agency in interviews with right-wing media, calling it “a great place to put a foreign spy.” On his watch, two political appointees—one of whom was formerly a conspiracy-touting right-wing shock jock, the other of whom is under a restraining order in Maryland after allegedly threatening to kill his father—investigated the reporting, tweets, and even likes of agency journalists, including VOA’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, in a hunt for supposed anti-Trump bias. Justice Department lawyers argued in court that the agency’s reporters speak for the government, and thus aren’t protected under the First Amendment; late last month, a federal judge rejected that reasoning, calling the investigations a constitutional violation and ordering Pack to stop meddling in editorial matters. Last week, NPR’s David Folkenflik, who has dominated the Pack beat recently, reported that the US Office of Special Counsel, a government watchdog, has found a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” at the agency, and ordered Pack to, in effect, initiate an investigation of himself. As Folkenflik has also noted, there’s even been a sex scandal at the agency; the details are too weird and convoluted to do justice here, but it involves the Daily Caller and a SCIF.
From the magazine: The New York Times and the unending blizzard of takes
Trump’s defeat in the presidential election hasn’t ameliorated the situation at the agency; if anything, it risks making it worse, if only in the short term. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reports that Pack is declining to cooperate with Joe Biden’s transition team, and has ordered top officials not to disclose operational, budgetary, and personnel details. (An agency spokesperson denied this, telling Farhi that officials are “working transparently and cooperatively with the transition as required by law.”) On Monday, CNBC’s Brian Schwartz warned that Pack is plotting one last purge at the agency; his reported bid to fire staffers he previously placed on leave could be complicated by the fact that many of them have filed whistleblower complaints against him, although, as Folkenflik reported yesterday, Pack has already succeeded in demoting Elez Biberaj, who had served as the acting director of VOA. In an exit note to staff, Biberaj alluded to the “regrettably adversarial” posture of agency management; Pack intends to replace him with Robert R. Reilly, an “outspoken conservative ally,” in Folkenflik’s words, and author of the 2015 book Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything. The acting heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia could be ousted next.
In the longer term, though, Pack, too, is on his way out. As far back as June, the month that Pack was confirmed, the Biden campaign told Vox that Biden would fire Pack should he win the election, calling Pack “decidedly unqualified,” and accusing him of “hijacking invaluable, nonpartisan media institutions that stand up for fundamental American values like freedom and democracy in the world.” Supporters of the agency’s pre-Pack mission are optimistic that Biden will restore its integrity, and were encouraged when he tapped Richard Stengel, a former top editor of Time magazine, to lead a transition team with oversight of the agency; Stengel’s name has even been mentioned as a possible replacement for Pack. Jeffrey Gedmin, who led RFE/RL from 2007 to 2011, told me that Pack’s wrecking ball can only do so much lasting damage. “He can indeed slow the Biden team down in different ways, but elections are elections,” Gedmin says. Pack’s decisions “could stand for the next four months, or they could stand for fourteen months, but if Biden and his team care, and apparently they do… they’re gonna fix things.”
The question of fixing Voice of America and the other broadcasters is more complicated than a restoration of lost editorial independence—as I wrote in June, following Pack’s confirmation, these outlets have always been tools of American soft power, and so it’s arguably more useful to assess them through a foreign-policy lens than a journalistic one. Pack made that focus explicit; in October, he wrote that he had rescinded the “firewall” separating the agency and its broadcasters on the grounds that it obstructed his mandate “to support the foreign policy of the United States.” Stengel is a former journalist—but he also served as a top public-affairs official in Obama’s State Department, where his job included coordinating digital warfare against online ISIS “fanboys.” The key point here, though, is that many liberals view editorial independence for the agency’s broadcasters not as a conflict with US interests abroad, but as an expression of American democratic values. That position invites ample scrutiny, of course, but it’s also undeniable that agency journalists shine light into repressive countries that aren’t on the radar of Western commercial media. Sometimes, they put themselves in harm’s way; several RFE/RL reporters, for instance, have recently been arrested while covering protests against the repressive regime of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. Weakening Lukashenko is in America’s interests, as traditionally defined—but there are also vital human-rights questions at stake.
Protecting the independence of such work is worthwhile, and Pack’s ouster will be a good start. But Gedmin argues that Biden should also seek to change the agency’s current managerial structure, which—thanks, ironically, to a late Obama-era reform—consolidated power in the CEO position Pack came to hold, replacing a board of governors that was widely viewed as dysfunctional. “I believe that the cure is at least as bad as the disease,” Gedmin says. Biden’s team may be tempted to harness that power, but “we have elections in this country,” Gedmin says. “In the Tucker Carlson presidency in 2024, you really don’t want a CEO-on-steroids.”
Below, more on the US Agency for Global Media:
- Murphy’s law: In October, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed a bill—which he said was sparked by NPR’s reporting on the agency’s Herman probe—that would ban political appointees from pressuring agency journalists. Some safeguards are already codified in law, but Murphy told Folkenflik that they could use some clarification.
- ‘Spare the indignation’: In 2017, Dan Robinson, who had a lengthy career as a journalist with Voice of America, wrote for CJR that VOA and its partner broadcasters “do not do, and have not done, journalism for journalism’s sake.” In June, Robinson told me that “lawmakers see the agency as a useful national security/foreign policy tool. When you come right down to it, that’s what they are—not government-funded CNNs or MSNBCs, but part of the national security structure.”
- Czechs and balances: This morning at 10am Eastern, the Czech Republic’s embassy in the US is hosting an online discussion to mark the seventieth birthday of RFE/RL, which is headquartered in Prague. Two former RFE/RL directors, Tom Dine and Jamie Fly, will discuss the broadcaster’s role in the world today with Tomáš Etzler, a Czech journalist. To find out more and sign up, follow this link.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected Republicans’ efforts to overturn Biden’s win in Pennsylvania—news that was, once again, framed as a “blow” to a subversion campaign that has been dead for ages. Also yesterday, Christopher Krebs, the cybersecurity official who was fired after he rebutted Trump’s election lies, sued Joseph diGenova, one of Trump’s lawyers, for defamation and emotional distress after diGenova said on Newsmax that Krebs should be “taken out at dawn and shot.” Krebs accused Newsmax of “conspiring” with Trump and his legal team, and wants the diGenova interview removed from its archives. And Zeynep Tufekci, who argued in The Atlantic that Trump is attempting a “coup,” published a counter-argument by Maciej Ceglowski in her newsletter—an exercise she plans to repeat in future newsletters, with compensation for contributors, in the name of “thinking out loud, together.”
- For CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, Joseph Romm, of Front Page Live, and Jeff Nesbit, of Climate Nexus, explain how right-wing media and social media use misleading attack lines to bake in negative public perceptions around ideas such as the Green New Deal. “While the left sometimes sustains a short burst of consistent messaging on a subject, Democrats and the mainstream media typically lose focus after a short while,” Romm and Nesbit write. “But the right never ends the demonization.”
- Report for America, a program that sends journalists to fill coverage gaps at local news outlets, said that it will deploy more than a hundred additional reporters and partner with sixty-four new newsrooms in 2021. The program has doubled its partnerships with newsrooms owned by people of color, and more than a third of the beats it has added involve communities of color—reflecting a national “surge in demand” for such coverage.
- Sara Fischer, of Axios, profiles Stat, a news site covering health and science that has thrived during the pandemic as many other outlets have struggled. The site—which is owned by John and Linda Henry, who also own the Boston Globe—brought in more than $10 million in revenue this year, a two-thirds increase on last year, as its readership exploded. It plans to expand its staff by around 40 percent in 2021.
- Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez profiles ADDitude, a magazine that covers attention deficit disorders. “ADDitude’s website aims to be a one-stop shop for just about anything you’d want to know about living with ADHD,” Tameez writes. “The stories are easy to read, and written in simple language. They deliver on what the headlines promise… Readers come away with the information they came looking for.”
- Yesterday, an official inquiry in New Zealand published its report on last year’s attack in Christchurch, where a white supremacist murdered fifty-one Muslims at two mosques. The shooter posted a manifesto to 8chan then livestreamed the attack on Facebook, but the inquiry found that he had mainly been radicalized by YouTube. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, pledged to raise that finding with YouTube’s leadership.
- In October, Le Temps, a newspaper in Switzerland, published an investigation outlining allegations of sexual misconduct against three powerful men at RTS, a Swiss public broadcaster. The report forced a reckoning at RTS: management commissioned an inquiry, staffers launched an Instagram account called “@Swissmediatoo,” and two RTS reporters recently aired an investigation of their own. Le Monde has more (in French).
- Public broadcasters in Germany are appealing to the country’s constitutional court after officials in the state of Saxony-Anhalt failed to agree an increase to the license fee that funds public broadcasting. Under German law, every state must agree to the increase for it to take effect nationally. The head of the TV station ZDF warned of a pending shortfall in its budget, which was already hit by the pandemic. Die Zeit has more (in German).
- And Jack Nicas, of the Times, spoke with Josh Hall, a food-delivery driver in Pennsylvania who created a fake Twitter account in the name of Trump’s sister that Trump thought was real. Hall, a Trump supporter, also created fake accounts for many other public figures. “I was just trying to rally up MAGA supporters and have fun,” he said. (He was also trying to raise money for a pro-Trump group that doesn’t exist.)