The Media Today

Voice of America staff rebel over new CEO’s comments

September 1, 2020

A group of journalists who work for Voice of America, the US state-backed broadcaster, sent management a letter of protest Monday denouncing the new chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA and a number of other similar media outlets. In the letter, the staffers allege that comments made by Michael Pack, a Trump appointee who took office in June, “endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives.” As NPR’s David Folkenflik reported, the comments in question came during a podcast produced by the conservative website The Federalist, and included Pack saying the agency was “a great place to put a foreign spy,” as well as joking about deporting his own employees and turning off the air conditioning or banning masks at VOA headquarters in order to help him “drain the swamp.” Pack also questioned whether the agency’s broadcasters were adhering to standards of balance. “Whatever CNN or any other network does is one thing,” he said on the podcast, suggesting that at VOA he “found egregious examples of flouting of those standards.”

In the Federalist interview, Pack also suggested that he has had to take strong action since he was appointed because of security lapses that occurred at the agency prior to his arrival. But his predecessor in the role of USAGM chief executive, John Lansing—now the CEO of National Public Radio—said that this is untrue. “Pack’s insistence that there were issues related to security in hiring at VOA is merely a smokescreen to avert attention from his blatant attempt to interfere with the legislatively mandated independence, or ‘firewall’, protecting the journalists of VOA from government interference,” Lansing told Folkenflik. (A note on the NPR story said that because of Lansing’s previous job, neither he nor any other senior NPR executive reviewed the Pack story prior to publication). The letter from VOA staffers—including two White House correspondents, foreign correspondents based in Africa and Islamabad, and national security reporters—said that Pack’s allegations about security lapses at the agency were as baseless as the “Red Scare” conspiracy theories that targeted Voice of America and other entities during the 1950s (an early version of the letter started circulating in early August, according to a report by the BBG-USAGM Watch website, which is written and edited by current and former employees of USAGM networks).

Since Pack took over the agency, he has made a series of dramatic restructuring moves, including, in mid-August, forcing out the USAGM’s chief financial officer and general counsel, both of whom were placed on administrative leave and had their security clearances revoked. A statement from the agency that was sent to Politico and the New York Post at the time said these removals were meant to “restore respect for the rule of law in our work” after a review found lax vetting of journalists. But both of the executives said Pack’s actions were in retaliation for their whistle-blowing about what has happened at the agency since he took over. Chief financial officer Grant Turner told a reporter for Voice of America that his removal was punishment for speaking up about “patterns of gross mismanagement” under Pack, as well as violations of the legal firewall that is supposed to protect USAGM journalists from political interference, and general counsel David Kligerman said he was sidelined “in retaliation for attempting to do my job in an apolitical manner and to speak truth to power.”

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Since he took over, Pack has removed the heads of each of the five media outlets he is in charge of (Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks), and refused to sign visa renewals for a number of foreign journalists working for those networks. He has also repeatedly criticized some of the agency’s reporters for favoring the Democratic party in their journalism, echoing some of the same accusations made by Donald Trump before Pack was appointed to his role. (Among other things, Trump said Voice of America was too soft on China in the wake of the COVID pandemic). In their letter, the VOA journalists said that Pack’s actions “risk crippling programs and projects for some countries that are considered national security priorities. He has ordered the firing of contract journalists, with no valid reason, by cancelling their visas, forcing them back to home countries where the lives of some of them may be in jeopardy. Now the purge appears to be expanding to include U.S. permanent residents and even U.S. citizens.”

As CJR’s Jon Allsop noted shortly after Pack’s appointment, what makes the accusations of interference by the Trump administration more complicated is that the Voice of America has always had a dual nature. While it does independent journalism and its leaders have often tried to make it a normal news organization, it’s also true it was created to be a vehicle for American “soft power,” one that would do things like promoting Western values in Iran during the Cold War. Dan Robinson, a longtime former VOA correspondent who wrote for CJR about the agency in 2017, told Allsop that while Trump’s criticisms and attacks have been unusually public, government officials have always communicated criticisms to the staff of the VOA, and the president has always had the power to pick agency leaders. All of which gives the letter writers a high bar to clear: can they show that Pack’s meddling, mismanagement, or other malfeasance goes beyond what the agency’s chief executive is allowed to do?

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Here’s more on Voice of America and the USAGM:

  • Visas denied: NPR’s Folkenflik wrote about the withdrawal of visas for a number of Voice of America’s foreign correspondents in June. “The foreign journalists affected by the visa decision are particularly valued for their language skills, which are crucial to VOA’s mission as an international broadcaster covering news in many countries that do not have a free or robust press. One VOA journalist, who asked not to be named because of a fear of retaliation, said it could lead to the departure of more than 100 staffers in the foreign language services.”
  • Internet freedom: The Open Technology Fund, a non-profit entity that works for internet freedom under the umbrella of the global media agency, filed a lawsuit in June against Pack, arguing that his moves to replace top staff and the governing board of the agency were unlawful. According to the court filing, Pack did not have the legal authority to fire any staff or governing board member of the Open Technology Fund. The lawsuit also argued that, in firing the chiefs of the five networks, Pack violated the “firewall” clause in a federal broadcasting law that shields the news outlets from political interference.
  • Never independent: In his CJR piece in 2017, Dan Robinson notes that he spent about 35 years with Voice of America, serving in positions ranging from White House correspondent to overseas bureau chief and head of a key language division, and the agency has “always been funded by taxpayers to support a larger agenda.” While there are many reasons to be concerned about the Trump administration’s treatment of the media, he wrote, “to hold VOA and its parent agency out as journalistic paragons of virtue, as some major media have done, and assert they are no different from non-government media, ignores basic facts.”


Other notable stories:

  • Facebook warned on Monday that it would block users and news organizations in Australia from sharing local and international news stories on its social network and its Instagram photo-sharing service if the country passes a proposed code of conduct aimed at curbing the power of Facebook and Google. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is drafting a bill for Parliament that would require both companies to negotiate with media publishers and pay them for content that appears on their sites. Facebook said publishers and users in Australia trying to share news on its site would be greeted with a notification saying they were no longer able to do so and pointing to the legislation.
  • Corey Hutchins writes for CJR about the Colorado News Collaborative, known as COLab, a new venture designed to be an “independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition” bringing together nearly a hundred journalists from more than sixty news organizations. Hutchins writes that the creation of the COLab has launched what could be “a dramatic third act in the state—one that might see its disparate news media outlets bury old rivalries and unite, in order to hold off collapse.”
  • Fact-checking has become more popular during Donald Trump’s administration, but Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan argues that it is increasingly fruitless. “More and more, fact-checkers seem to be trying to bail out an ancient, rusty and sinking freighter with the energetic use of measuring cups and thimbles,” Sullivan writes. “Most people no longer share with their fellow citizens the trust in news organizations — or in political actors — that would give them confidence in a shared basis of reality. And worst of all, the flow of disinformation on social media is both vile and unstoppable.”
  • Was it all just lip service? That’s the question employees inside media companies are starting to ask about diversity and inclusion pledges, says Digiday. “More than two months after many media companies issued statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and promising to improve the levels of diversity and inclusion inside their organizations, employees inside media companies are growing impatient that their companies’ leadership teams are not taking strong enough immediate action to back up their words.”
  • Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, LA Bureau Chief at Cronkite News and a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, won first place at the LA Press Club awards in the Minority Reporting category for a piece she wrote for CJR about The Liberator, a newspaper that published from 1900 to 1914 and helped build the city’s Black community. “Edmonds’s newspaper was part of a post-war surge of Black publications. He became a contemporary of other leading Black editors, such as JJ Neimore and Charlotta Bass of The California Eagle, Robert Sengstacke Abbott at The Chicago Defender, and WEB Du Bois of The Crisis magazine. Edmonds played host to Du Bois, who was the first Black Harvard-educated sociologist, when Du Bois visited Los Angeles in 1913.”
  • Many Americans remain skeptical toward the news media, questioning not only the quality of journalists’ work but their intentions behind it, according to a new research report from the Pew Center. The research found that no more than half of US adults have confidence in journalists to act in the best interests of the public, or think that other Americans have confidence in the institution. And the public is more likely than not to say that news organizations do not care about the people they report on. While most Americans expect the news they get to be accurate, nearly seven in ten think news organizations generally try to cover up mistakes when they do happen.
  • After the Assad regime made Syria inaccessible for journalists, Syrian citizens stepped in to do journalism, but this has created safety concerns and ethical dilemmas, according to a report from Nieman Reports. “The label of citizen journalism has been given to them by us, not by them. So what we were doing was reaching out to people who weren’t journalists, but were on the other side. And some of those people were activists,” Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post, told Nieman. “They are people who picked up video cameras, picked up their cell phones, started recording what was going on because they knew it wouldn’t be in the official state media. And they wanted the world to know what was happening. So in a way that made them journalist-like, but they were never formal journalists.”
  • A new AI-powered tool can show journalists and analysts how much screen time different public figures and topics are getting on TV, reports The Next Web. Stanford University researchers created the system to increase transparency around editorial decisions, by analyzing who’s getting coverage and what they’re talking about. “By letting researchers, journalists, and the public quantitatively measure who and what is in the news, the tool can help identify biases and trends in cable TV news coverage,” said Maneesh Agrawala.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.