Trump, Michael Pack, and the complicated role of Voice of America

The last few months have been turbulent for Voice of America, the US state-backed broadcaster. Breaking, as he often does, with past presidents, Donald Trump has publicly attacked VOA’s coverage, calling it “disgusting”; his White House, meanwhile, accused VOA of carrying “propaganda” for China and Iran. In April, the office of Vice President Mike Pence threatened to bar Steve Herman, a VOA reporter, from Pence’s plane after Herman questioned the claim that Pence didn’t know he was breaking the rules when he failed to wear a mask at the Mayo Clinic. Around the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blacklisted VOA media requests. Then, earlier this month, the Senate finally confirmed Michael Pack—a right-wing filmmaker and Steve Bannon ally whose recent oeuvre includes a praiseful documentary about Clarence Thomas—to lead the federal agency that governs VOA and other overseas broadcasters, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Pack’s appointment had been three years in the making, but was stalled by conflict-of-interest issues, Congressional concerns about his credentials, and, most recently, an unresolved investigation into whether he misappropriated funds from a nonprofit he runs.

On Monday, VOA’s two top editors, Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara, resigned, saying that Pack has the right to pick his own leadership. Both inside and outside VOA, there are growing fears about who that leadership might include, as well as the depth of Pack’s commitment to VOA’s stated editorial independence and mission to produce quality journalism. Amid the recent turmoil, Bennett, a former top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer who worked on Pulitzer-winning projects at the Wall Street Journal and The Oregonian, spoke out repeatedly in defense of that mission—but she is now gone, and Trump has made no secret of his belief that his administration should play a greater role in “managing” VOA. According to CNN, Sebastian Gorka, the fire-breathing Trump aide turned right-wing shock jock, could get a seat on the board that serves under Pack. Yesterday, Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed that Pack plans to purge career officials at the agency as soon as this morning. (Pack, who pledged to respect journalistic independence at his confirmation hearing, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Bennett.)

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Ever since Pack was first touted for the top job, journalists and commentators at mainstream news organizations have expressed, or at least implied, the concern that Trump is turning his authoritarian tendencies on publicly-funded news, and that we should be worried. The concern is justified—because Trump has many authoritarian tendencies, and because Pack, for reasons that did not originate with Trump, will have unprecedented control over the broadcasters he oversees. (The Obama administration created the role of CEO, which Pack will fill, to bring more direction to a governance-by-board structure that was broadly seen as dysfunctional.) Still, as is often the case, outrage about Trump’s brazen behavior risks obscuring a messy, broader picture. While VOA is mandated by Congress to do independent journalism and its leaders have sometimes sought to style it as a normal news organization, there’s no getting around the fact that it was founded, during the Second World War, as a vehicle for American soft power, and never really abandoned that role. (In the early days of the Cold War, to cite just one example, the US leveraged VOA to promote Western values in Iran in the years before a botched CIA-backed coup.)

“VOA and similar media do not do, and have not done, journalism for journalism’s sake,” Dan Robinson, a longtime former VOA correspondent, wrote for CJR in 2017. “They are and always have been funded by taxpayers to support a larger agenda.” Yesterday, Robinson told me in an email that while Trump has been unusually pointed—and public—in his attacks on VOA, officials have always communicated criticisms to its staff, and the president has always had the power to pick agency leaders. “Lawmakers see the agency as a useful national security/foreign policy tool,” Robinson told me. “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.”

In 2017, as rumors started to swirl around Pack’s nomination, I did some reporting on US state-funded broadcasting in general, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in particular. What emerged from my interviews with staffers, former staffers, and outside observers were concerns about strategic drift, and a debate as to how assertive a role publicly-funded broadcasters should play in promoting US interests abroad—particularly at a time when other countries have weaponized their state-backed media outlets (RT, Sputnik, etc.) against the US. Some of the people I spoke to argued that allowing US broadcasters to do independent, rigorous journalism was itself the best way of promoting US interests abroad—because the free press enshrines a core liberal value, and because the broadcasters scrutinize dictatorships, in Central Asia, for example, that have repressive information climates and aren’t typically on the radar of mainstream corporate media in the US. Yesterday, Jeffrey Gedmin, who was president of RFE/RL from 2007 to 2011, told me that the danger of instead treating the broadcasters as mouthpieces for the current president is that “people around the world would get whiplash: Obama wants to reset. Trump is in love with Putin. The next president is not in love with Putin,” and so on. “You would have this herky-jerky back and forth.” Consistency, Gedmin argues, enhances credibility.

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Looking at Trump’s war on VOA through the lens of his broader war on the press, while valid, might not be the best approach: VOA and its partners would seem primarily to be victims of Trump’s fitful, moral-free approach to US foreign policy. The latter lens demands nuance, and a clear-headed assessment of the less-than-pure mission the broadcasters were founded to serve, as well as their continuing projection of American soft power. It is also true, however, that they employ many talented and honest journalists who contribute useful work, often in countries whose citizens desperately need to see it. That work—and the editorial values that protect it—are worth saving. While we don’t yet know much about Pack’s plans, Trump’s very public attitude toward VOA is ample cause for concern.

“It’s a critical moment for someone who doesn’t have this experience—due respect to you, Michael Pack—and a critical moment where you in this job report to a White House which I find unstable and I find not reliable on issues I care about,” Gedmin, who describes Pack as a professional acquaintance, says. “That’s my diplomatic way of saying: let’s see, but all the yellow lights are flashing for me.”

Below, more on US state-backed broadcasting:

  • The good: Last year, Dana Priest, Nicole Kirkner, Rae Wee, and Kerrigan Stern wrote, for CJR, that the US-funded work of RFE/RL in unfree countries is “a bit of good news” in a worsening climate for international press freedom. RFE/RL journalists often face extreme harassment related to their work; some, including Sabawoon Kakar, Abadullah Hananzai, and Maharram Durrani, in Afghanistan, have even been killed because of it. (Kakar, Hananzai, and Durrani were killed on the same day as seven other journalists in 2018. Working with Aliya Iftikhar and Mehdi Rahmati, I gathered remembrances for CJR.)
  • The bad: Also last year, Katherine Khashimova Long reported on concerns among academics and US State Department officials that RFE/RL’s station in Tajikistan, Radio Ozodi, was helping to spread pro-regime propaganda. According to other local sources, the station’s “reporting is skewed in favor of the government, requests from the state security service to strike articles critical of the government are routinely honored, and the station is financially entangled with the president’s family,” Long wrote. (RFE/RL told Long that Radio Ozodi “remains a vital source of independent information.”)
  • The ugly?: For FAIR, a group that aims to highlight bias in corporate media, Julianne Tveten ran the rule over recent coverage of the situation at VOA. “Major media have thus reached a consensus: Despite their official funding, VOA and its parent agency are neutral, even noble entities—unless Trump is involved,” Tveten writes, but such a characterization “is categorically dishonest.”


Other notable stories:

  • As expected, the Trump administration is suing John Bolton, its former national security adviser, over his book, which is due out next week. The lawsuit claims that the book contains classified information, but rather than seek prior restraint—a move that rarely succeeds, thanks to the First Amendment—the administration is pursuing Bolton for breach of contract, arguing that he unilaterally curtailed a prepublication review process to which he previously agreed. (Bolton’s lawyer has said that the White House abused this process to suppress the book.) While the lawsuit aims to persuade Bolton to hold off on publishing, it is “more squarely focused” on seizing his profits, the Times reports.
  • Alexis Johnson, a Black journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who was benched from covering protests after management accused her of showing bias, is suing the paper for racial discrimination. Elsewhere, Tom McGrath, the editor of Philadelphia magazine, is stepping down; he said he’s advised the magazine’s board that his successor should not be another “middle-aged white guy.” And Johnny Whitfield, the editor and publisher of the Roxboro Courier-Times, in North Carolina, resigned after publishing a racist cartoon. The same syndicated cartoon led to three resignations at The Missourian last week.
  • “We are living in a time of unprecedented corporate insincerity,” Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Post, writes, and that brings him to Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Post and Amazon. Amid the current reckoning over race, Bezos has given $10 million to “good causes,” but he could more usefully have fixed pay disparities at the Post and let Amazon workers unionize. “He won’t do it,” Nolan writes. “That’s all you need to know.”
  • On June 3, the Associated Press used a quote from Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, as its “Thought for Today” feature. The AP apologized and said the feature would be scrapped. Rachel Abrams has more for the Times. Elsewhere, a statue of Josephus Daniels—a former publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer who used the paper as a vehicle for white supremacy—has been removed. Martha Quillin has more.
  • Last week, Covering Climate Now, a project led by CJR and The Nation, convened a webinar for journalists to discuss the intersection of the race and climate stories. “The environmental justice story has long been sitting there, waiting to be told,” Mark Hertsgaard writes in CCN’s newsletter. “But most news organizations have missed it.” (Mark’s newsletter comes out on Wednesdays; you can sign up for it here.)
  • Amid the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, Minnesota Public Radio is cutting 28 positions and axing two shows, including the successor to A Prairie Home Companion. Fourteen staffers already took buyouts last month. Bring Me The News has more details. Meanwhile, in Chicago, WBEZ is laying off 12 staffers. Robert Feder has more.
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin praises Harris Faulkner, of Fox News, for her interview with Trump last week. Faulkner “was neither antagonistic nor admiring,” Grueskin writes. “She put herself into the interview, framed in her roles as a Black woman and a parent, in a way that journalists rarely do with her skill and care.”
  • In 2017, WikiLeaks published details of highly classified CIA hacking tools—a leak that officials have called the biggest in CIA history. Now the Post has obtained an internal agency report on the incident; it found that the leak exposed a workplace culture that “prioritized building cyber weapons at the expense of securing their own systems.”
  • And two weeks ago, Mike Desmond, a radio reporter in Buffalo, New York, filmed police shoving Martin Gugino, an older protester. The video went viral. At the time, Desmond did not realize that he and Gugino were in the same class at high school; Erik Brady, of the Buffalo News, apprised him of the link. Gugino has a fractured skull and cannot walk.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.