Michael Pack, the embattled chief executive officer of the Voice Of America and other U.S. government foreign broadcast outlets, defended his efforts to overhaul what he called political “biased” and poorly run radio stations that were failing to follow their organizing charters.
Mr. Pack, President Trump’s pick to head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), fired back in an interview at critics who claim he tried to politicize the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other government-funded broadcasters and undercut their reputation for journalistic impartiality.
“In my time here, the fact that I tried to make what I think are modest changes to USAGM and international broadcasting, simply to make it more powerfully fulfill its mission, that that has created such controversy and pushback makes me really despair a little bit,” Mr. Pack told The Washington Times.
He contended that bureaucratic opposition from within and from Capitol Hill to needed reforms — including major personnel security problems and bias within VOA’s Chinese and South Asian services — reflected the politicization and bias of mainstream media outlets that reached a crescendo during the Trump administration.
“The culture in the VOA newsroom and a lot of the journalists working here is not that dissimilar to the culture of journalists working in the mainstream media more generally,” he said. “Our journalists look up to The Washington Post and The New York Times and CNN as their model.”
Mr. Pack said the bias made it difficult for him and others leading the USAGM to return the outlets to honoring their legal obligation to present unbiased and balanced news reports.
The sole appointment made by the CEO in his seven months on the job was naming former VOA Director Robert Reilly to head the VOA. Mr. Reilly is a conservative who will attempt to restore VOA reputation and credibility, Mr. Pack said.
“He’s eminently qualified to run the VOA,” he said.
A White House newsletter in July criticized VOA for using taxpayer funds to “speak for authoritarian regimes” and for supporting “America’s adversaries — not its citizens.”
Mr. Pack, a conservative documentary film maker, is the first Senate-confirmed CEO of the agency, a post created to eliminate the previous management system called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a group of people who have been blamed for the management troubles at the $700 million-a-year government broadcast outlets for years.
Opposition from Senate Democrats and board members who sought to keep their paid positions delayed Mr. Pack’s confirmation for two years. Additionally, the outgoing board tried to limit the new CEO’s authority by imposing a “firewall” between USAGM and the radio networks it oversaw.
Mr. Pack went on a major housecleaning after the firewall was rescinded, firing or forcing out all radio heads, both Republicans and Democrats, in June.
VOA’s Director Amanda Bennett resigned in protest shortly before Mr. Pack could take office in mid-June.
The turmoil sparked a vicious media backlash against Mr. Pack, who was recently denounced in a Washington Post editorial for what the newspaper said was “the evisceration” of the Voice of America and other U.S. global broadcasters in the final weeks before President Trump leaves office. A spokesman for now-President-elect Joseph R. Biden said in June that Mr. Biden would fire Mr. Pack once in the White House.
‘Adhering to the mission’
Mr. Pack denied he is gutting the agency’s broadcasting outlets and said he tried to lead the broadcasters targeting foreign audiences into “more closely adhering to their mission.”
“The mission is to report the news in an objective and balanced way,” he said.
Mr. Pack cited as one example of the larger problem of political bias an incident in July when the VOA Urdu language service broadcast a segment drawn from a presidential campaign ad for Mr. Biden that appeared designed to promote his candidacy among Muslims in Michigan.
“We asked them to remove it, he said, adding that he has asked for an investigation into the incident that violated the VOA operating charter. “It was completely inappropriate.”
The investigation was the first time VOA was probed for improper broadcasting, he added, noting that unless there is accountability, the problem will be repeated.
The China-language division has been another area of contention. The VOA’s Mandarin service in particular has been criticized as pro-Beijing in content and for presenting soft features instead of aggressive news reporting.
In 2017, five employees of the VOA Chinese service were fired after the Chinese Embassy complained about a VOA interview with anti-communist dissident Guo Wengui. One of the five has been reinstated.
Mr. Pack said he has asked Mr. Reilly, the new VOA director, to look into problems in the Mandarin service as the most pressing priority, and also to examine the Persian-language service that broadcasts into Iran.
“I’ve heard lots of complaints about both services that they are putting out programming that is too supportive of those regimes in power,” Mr. Pack said.
Mr. Pack defended the firing of the heads of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuban Broadcasting, which broadcasts into Cuba, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network as the work of a new executive who feels the need to clean house.
The head of the USAGM-funded Open Technology Fund, a program ostensibly aimed at promoting an open internet, also was dismissed. Critics said the fund’s staff included several liberal political operatives and produced few programs aimed at China.
“On my first day, I made sure that all the agency heads changed,” he said, insisting that he had the legal authority to do so. “My view at the time was to start fresh with a new group of people.”
The dismissals included both Republicans and Democrats and prompted bipartisan criticism of Mr. Pack on Capitol Hill. Employees of both the radios and the former Broadcasting Board of Governors have sued USAGM and the cases are now in the courts.
Mr. Pack said one of the most serious problems he encountered since taking the job involved hundreds of broadcasting employees who were found to have been improperly granted security clearances for access to classified information.
Out of a total work force of around 4,000 employees, around 1,500 workers were found with security clearance problems. Some 500 people left the agency as a result. The remaining 1,000 people — a quarter of the workforce — were granted “confidential,” “secret” and “top secret” clearances without proper vetting and screening, including some who failed to report contacts with foreign nationals.
“We did find huge security failures,” he said.
Those lapses raised new concerns that foreign governments have planted operatives within the government broadcast system.
From 2010 to 2020, broadcasting agencies were warned about the security problem but Mr. Pack claimed the prior leadership took no action to remedy the problem.
In 2012, the agency’s authority to grant clearances was revoked, but the broadcasters continued granting clearances anyway.
“This was a massive thing to fix and huge problem and a distraction from other things on my agenda, but I had to fix this first,” Mr. Pack said.
In addition to re-clearing the 1,000 employees, Mr. Pack also sought to hold those in leadership positions accountable for the security failures.
Mr. Pack said in the interview that VOA’s reporting needs to reflect its charter, a charter that calls on government broadcasters to reflect the range of opinions in the United States while supporting freedom and democracy.
“We need to be doing that way more aggressively,” Mr. Pack said. “We’re in a battle of ideas, with China, North Korea, Iran and others, and we need to fight for those ideas and principles that we believe in, ideas rooted in our founding, based on the Declaration [of Independence] and Constitution.”
Mr. Pack seconds Mr. Trump’s calls for VOA also must do more to represent the U.S. government’s views.
“And that will be true whether it’s the Trump administration, the Biden administration or any future administration,” he said. “When the organization is weak, when it’s perceived as biased and only on the side of one party, it cannot really fulfill that function.”
VOA needs to be broadcasting more content about American ideals and institutions, something that he said the outlets have not been doing adequately.
He called a Washington Post news story and editorial that he had refused to cooperate with the Biden transition team for USAGM, headed by former State Department public diplomacy undersecretary Rick Stengel, “completely false,” insisting he has been working with the transition team for some time.
The Post, he said, never contacted his office or the transition team regarding the bogus claim.
Other news outlets picked up the story and repeated the false information, he said.
“I think it’s amazing that a story like that could run in The Washington Post. There’s just no grounding in fact. It’s a good example of how misleading stories can get circulated and suddenly acquire the ring of truth.”