The acting CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media continued her sweep of federally funded international broadcasters to remove leaders linked to former President Donald Trump.
On Friday evening, Kelu Chao fired the recently appointed presidents and boards of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks named by her predecessor, Trump loyalist Michael Pack. Over his seven months there, Pack had embarked on a scorched-earth assault on the agency’s networks, telling conservative media outlets he needed to “drain the swamp” and that its newsrooms were overrun with anti-Trump journalists.
The firings were described by several people with knowledge of the actions and in materials reviewed by NPR. USAGM had no comment.
Unlike Voice of America and the Cuban broadcasters, which are owned by the federal government, these are technically private not-for-profit networks funded by USAGM.
RFE’s Ted Lipien, RFA’s Stephen J. Yates and MBN’s Victoria Coates were appointed by Pack in late December. (Coates’ dismissal was first reported by Politico.)
Lipien was a former VOA official turned sharp critic of USAGM, VOA and the other affiliated networks on a pair of blogs. Yates, a former Idaho GOP chairman, had registered as a lobbyist for Taiwanese government in early December, and was first contacted by Pack’s team for the job one day before his appointment was announced.
At the same time, Pack stocked their boards with right-wing ideologues and Trump apologists. New board member Roger L. Simon wrote in his column for the conspiracy-retailing and Trump-supporting Epoch Times that the boards would never give in to pressure from Biden officials.
Pack resigned under pressure from the Biden team just two hours after the new president took office.
It is unclear whether Chao’s actions will be subject to legal challenges. Attorneys for Radio Free Asia were contesting Chao’s authority to fire Yates; language in new defense authorization bill gave the CEO several weeks to make such moves before more stringent protections kick in. RFA appeared to be challenging both Chao’s powers and timing.
Soon after taking office Pack launched his own assault on the agency, seeking to fire top executives, replacing network chiefs and instigating investigations of reporters and editors for bias. He was rebuked by federal watchdogs and two judges, who ruled his actions illegal and, in one case, unconstitutional. Pack argued the rulings were mistaken.
Through his actions and words, Pack sought to cast aside longstanding policy and law protecting the networks’ newsrooms from political interference from above. Earlier Friday, Chao wrote a memo for all USAGM staff shared by Lipien with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in which she invoked the importance of that protection, called a firewall.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us: reaffirm the firewall, the highest standards of professionalism, and the sacred editorial independence and journalistic integrity; and ensure the safety and security of our journalists,” Chao wrote in the memo, obtained by NPR.
Notably, Chao did not once invoke Lipien’s name or those of the presidents of the other not-for-profit networks. Several hours later, she fired them.