Michael Pack’s stormy tenure over the federal agency that oversees government-funded broadcasters abroad – including the Voice of America – appears to be coming to a close. Yet President Trump’s appointee has sparked an internal outcry by taking bold steps to try to cement his control over at least two of the networks and to shape the course of their journalism well into the Biden administration.
Pack, the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, also serves as chairman of the boards of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia. Pack and the members of the boards have now added binding contractual agreements intended to ensure that they cannot be removed for the next two years. Pack stocked those boards with conservative activists and Trump administration officials, despite a tradition of bipartisanship.
In other words, although President-elect Joe Biden has already signaled he intends to replace Pack as CEO of the parent agency soon after taking office next month, Pack would maintain a significant degree of control over the networks. Pack and USAGM declined requests for comment.
NPR has reviewed the language of the contracts, which have yet to be signed by the new presidents of the two networks – both of whom were appointed by Pack this month. The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contract was slated to be approved on Wednesday but appears to have been withdrawn from consideration after internal objections and inquiries from Congressional aides, NPR and other media. It is unclear what the future holds for the initiative from Pack.
A group of more than two dozen senior officials from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, including Editor In Chief Daisy Sindelar, wrote Pack in sharp protest on Wednesday. The group said in a statement obtained by NPR that Pack’s actions “will compromise the freedom from political influence that for seven decades has characterized Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) as an independent surrogate news organization for countries with no free press of their own.” (News of the statement was first reported by CNBC.)
The proposed shift in the board is intended to revoke the network’s autonomy, they wrote, representing “precisely the kind of political power maneuver that RFE/RL regularly witnesses in places like Russia, Hungary, Belarus, and Tajikistan. We never thought we’d see it from our own oversight agency.” The statement was signed by regional directors, the head of its central newsroom, and the heads of almost all its language services. The letter was also sent to Congressional leaders, an inspector general, and the head of President Biden’s transition team for the global broadcasting agency.
The reaction of the new president of Radio Free Asia, Stephen Yates, to the proposed contract is not known. Yates is a former national security aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney who later served as the head of the Idaho Republican Party.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reaches more than 40 million people each week in 27 languages across 23 countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Ukraine. Radio Free Asia reaches audiences in China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and North Korea as a “surrogate broadcaster.” They hire local journalists to provide independent coverage in those countries where a free press is repressed or not viable.
In August, pro-democracy protesters in Belarus chanted “Radio Svaboda,” the name of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s service there since 1954, in a rebuke to the nation’s dictatorial president and the state media as evidence grew of rigged elections there. Radio Free Asia’s reporting on the repression of Muslim Uighurs by Chinese authorities helped bring attention to the world.
The stakes for the broadcasters are not merely matters of principle. In Russia, authorities are seeking to discredit Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty by branding its journalists as foreign agents. In Belarus, the regime has stripped RFE/RL’s journalists of standard accreditation and protections.
The federal government owns the Voice of America and another broadcasting service serving Cuba, through the U.S Agency for Global Media. The agency additionally funds Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which are technically independent not-for-profit corporations funded through USAGM. Their corporate boards, appointed by USAGM’s CEO, approve hirings and firings. They also help guide the overall course and priorities of the networks.
“This appears to be a blatant attempt by Michael Pack to federalize and politicize networks that Congress has repeatedly stated in statute should be nonpartisan and free from day to day government control,” Jamie Fly, former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, told NPR. “As the Kremlin and other authoritarian regimes target RFE/RL journalists, his actions continue to put journalists at greater risk and compromise their mission.” Fly, a former advisor to Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, was fired by Pack last summer.
This story is based on conversations with six people inside USAGM and three former USAGM staffers; they spoke on condition they not be named due to the wave of firings and suspensions initiated by Pack since his arrival in June. NPR was not able to confirm whether USAGM reached a similar contract with the board for the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Pack arrived in June after a rocky two-year confirmation battle.
Much coverage of Pack’s brief tenure has focused on his frontal assault on USAGM’s leadership and the independence of Voice of America, publicly attacking its reporting, questioning whether it harbored foreign spies and instigating investigations for perceived anti-Trump bias by its reporters. Earlier this month, he named a former U.S. State Department official who briefly served as director of the VOA under President George W. Bush to lead the network once again. The new director, Robert R. Reilly, declared his personal views irrelevant to his job after reports on his strongly-held views against gay marriage and what he perceives as the intellectual collapse of Islam. Earlier this week, Pack named a State Department official without experience in journalism to be VOA’s deputy director.
Now, Pack appears to be seeking to consolidate control anew by deploying bureaucratic language. In the past, the boards were made of the same people as the primary board overseeing the agency, then called the Broadcasting Board of Governors. (His predecessor, John Lansing, is now CEO of NPR.) Pack was the first CEO to receive Senate confirmation under the agency’s new configuration, which dissolved the parent agency board.
Along with Pack, the network boards he appointed include Jonathan Alexandre, senior counsel to the conservative Christian evangelical group Liberty Counsel Action, which has been active against gay and trans rights and supported President Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020; financier turned Trump White House aide Robert Bowes; Bethany Kozma, a senior aide at the U.S. Agency for International Development who is an anti-trans activist and is reportedly under investigation for violations of the Federal Records Act; Rachel Semmel, the communications director for the White House Office of Management and Budget; and Emily Newman, Pack’s former chief of staff at USAGM. She most recently joined the legal team filing suit on Trump’s behalf to overturn the 2020 election results.
Such boards are typically filled with bipartisan support and contain people with expertise in journalism or the regions covered by the networks. Pack dismissed all those boards in June. In October, a District of Columbia Superior Court Judge rebuked Pack for wiping away those boards. Judge Shana Frost Matini said Pack acted illegally in the case by replacing the board of a fund subsidized by USAGM that was set up to underwrite technology that enable people living under repressive regimes to access the Internet and communicate securely and privately, including via the tools Tor and Signal. Matini ruled that only the previous board had the right to change the fund’s leadership or reconstitute itself. Pack did not act to re-institute the prior boards.
The Biden transition team did not comment but has said its officials are not receiving expected coordination from the Pack team to ensure a smooth handover. This month Pack has sought to dismiss senior executives he suspended over the summer, prompting USAGM’s general counsel, David Kligerman, to resign instead.
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Chief Business Editor Pallavi Gogoi. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing’s prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.