The U.S. government’s foreign broadcasting services have suffered in recent years from a lack of leadership, and the Trump administration’s new broadcasting chief says he wants to fix the problem.
Michael Pack, chief executive officer of the new U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), said more assertive news reporting, especially to China, is needed to counter foreign disinformation and to promote American ideals.
Mr. Pack, a former television executive and documentary filmmaker, took over two weeks ago as the senior official in charge of the U.S. government network of media outlets that receive about $800 million annually in taxpayer funds to send news and information to closed states such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
“My plan here, and I think everybody in the White House and everybody else knows this, is to hold these agencies accountable to fulfilling their mission, and in [Voice of America’s] case, its charter, and that’s what I plan to do,” Mr. Pack, 66, said in an interview with The Washington Times.
Voice of America, the flagship of U.S. government outlets, has a mandate under its charter to provide news and to present U.S. government policies “clearly and effectively” to foreign audiences.
Other government-funded outlets under the USAGM are Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
In recent years, however, VOA has come under fire for shifting its focus from hard news and American views to what critics say is “fluff” soft news with little explanation of U.S. policies.
The criticism reached an unusual level in April when a White House website posted a statement saying VOA “too often speaks for America’s adversaries — not its citizens.”
Dan Scavino, President Trump’s social media director, echoed the claims on Twitter. He said American taxpayers were “paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. government-funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”
That in turn has fueled liberal complaints that the White House is trying to turn a broadcaster with a reputation for evenhandedness into a propaganda organ for the government.
Making up for lost time
In the interview, Mr. Pack insisted that he has not been given any marching orders from the White House and has not spoken with Mr. Trump since taking up the post.
But his appointment proved a partisan flashpoint. Mr. Pack was forced to wait more than three years to take over the agency formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors because of political delays by Senate Democrats who sought to scuttle his nomination.
He has been making up for lost time since his swearing-in. One of Mr. Pack’s first actions as CEO was to dismiss all radio directors except for Voice of America’s Amanda Bennett and her deputy, who resigned rather than face an expected firing.
Veterans from the networks were appointed as interim directors and, for now, are in charge.
Democrats were upset that Ms. Bennett and other liberals were out, but Mr. Pack also angered some Capitol Hill Republicans when conservative broadcast directors were summarily dismissed.
Seven senators — Republicans and Democrats — wrote to Mr. Pack on Monday to question the firings at Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, as well as an Open Technology Fund that USAGM oversees.
“These actions … raise serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency for Global Media under your leadership,” the letter said.
The senators urged Mr. Pack to respect the independence of the entities and warned that they intended to review USAGM’s funding “to ensure that United States broadcasting is not politicized.”
Signers included Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
On Friday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of the fired radio directors seeking to block the dismissals as illegal.
Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia acknowledged that Mr. Pack’s action had “global ramifications” but ruled that “Congress has decided to concentrate unilateral power in the USAGM CEO, and the court cannot override that determination.”
Mr. Pack defended the firings by noting that his CEO position was created precisely to bring a new kind of management.
“So on my first day here, I brought in a team of politicals and I had the career people report to them — not an extraordinary thing to do,” he said. “And then I changed the leadership of all the networks. All. To have a fresh start. Democrats and Republicans. I naively thought that that would make sure that it wasn’t perceived as a partisan witch hunt. How could it be?”
But, he added, “of course it was anyway.”
Need for change
The executive position at USAGM was created to fix problems at the old Broadcasting Board of Governors, which was made up of outside executives who ran the broadcasters but were not there full time.
The agency, set up in 1994, faced problems from the beginning. Mr. Pack said there was bipartisan agreement by the end of the Obama administration that the agency was poorly run and needed changes.
Mr. Pack said his wholesale replacement of top personnel was meant to avoid the appearance of partisanship and to avoid making judgments about the directors’ performance.
The reaction, he said, was enormous and vastly overblown.
“I think what I did was not unusual, and surely if it happened three years ago, it would have been even less unusual,” he said. “The reaction seems to me totally out of proportion.”
Wholesale leadership changes are not uncommon in the government and the private sector when a new management team comes in, Mr. Pack said.
For VOA, Mr. Pack said, he wants the broadcast to report the news “objectively, fairly, in a comprehensive manner, and that means that it is from both sides.”
“That’s all — not just the Trump side or the anti-Trump side or the left or the right, but all sides of American opinion,” he said.
Second, VOA needs to do a better job presenting American ideas and institutions fairly and “to tell America’s story, to have the ideas out there,” particularly regarding one adversary.
“I think we really need to do that now that we’re under attack from China as well as others,” Mr. Pack said.
Third, VOA will “put forth the administration’s views strongly, clearly, along with responsible criticism,” he said.
“If the VOA fulfills their charter, I’m happy and I believe so will the White House be happy,” he added.
Mr. Pack said he has heard reports of problems at VOA but has not examined the issues.
“That’s part of what we have to do in our time here: to see to what extent these allegations that somehow the VOA isn’t fulfilling its charter are true or not true,” Mr. Pack said. “And if they’re true, to fix it. And if they’re not true, not to worry about it.”
The China challenge
Asked about countering disinformation and information warfare targeting the United States from adversaries like China, Mr. Pack said USAGM will be part of a larger U.S. government effort.
“The American government writ large, not just USAGM, has to rethink what we want to do about this battle of ideas, information warfare… in the world we’re in,” he said.
The entire government needs to re-evaluate its priorities in dealing with information threats and what assets to bring to the battle.
A specific focus is on China and other countries and areas where the internet and outside broadcasting are blocked or restricted.
“China especially, and Iran and North Korea, are blocking their citizens access to the internet,” he said. “That would be a great thing to stop, and we have some money for viral circumvention, but probably not enough.”
Mr. Pack said broadcasting into China and about China will be a very high priority.
“I agree with the assessment that China is our biggest threat in the future,” he said. “I think it’s a great achievement of the Trump administration to have to focus the world’s attention on that problem.”
One potential change is to bolster shortwave broadcasting into China. In recent years, VOA and other radios have limited shortwave broadcasts in favor of easily blocked internet broadcasting.
The Chinese people “need information. They need the truth,” Mr. Pack said. “That’s true for lots of places in the world as well. Iran, North Korea, many.”
China, in particular, has been actively promoting its communist system of governance around the world, which could create misunderstandings about America.
“We need to get our values out,” he said. “Not that we always live up to our values, but what those values and principles are as enshrined in the Declaration [of Independence] and Constitution and that we as a country are dedicated to that are very different from the principles of communist China.”
Mr. Pack said selecting new executives for the radio services will take time and it is still “pretty early in the process.”
“At the moment, all of them are run by very senior career people who in the government tend to run things anyway for a long time,” he said.
Mr. Pack said he intends to shore up some relationships on Capitol Hill after the uproar over his personnel shake-up.
“I’m a documentary filmmaker, so fence-mending on Capitol Hill isn’t my expertise,” he said. “But I’m going to try to pick it up as quickly as I can.”