In doing so, Biden appears to be putting the brakes on what critics said was an effort by the Trump administration to turn the news agencies into mouthpieces for Trump’s views and policies.
The federal government spends $637 million annually to support the five news networks — VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and Radio Free Asia. The agencies were established by Congress as an extension of American “soft power,” although the news and commentary they produce is by regulation independent of government or political control.
Voice of America alone broadcasts in 47 different languages, primarily in countries where press freedom is limited or nonexistent.
One of Biden’s first moves Wednesday was to seek the resignation of Pack, a Trump appointee who created a trail of scandal, lawsuits and acrimony in the eight months since he became chief executive of the news organizations’ parent, the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Biden named Kelu Chao, a journalist who has worked at VOA for nearly 40 years, as Pack’s interim replacement. (The Senate must confirm the agency’s permanent chief executive.) And Chao, in turn, dismissed VOA’s director and deputy director, Robert Reilly and Elizabeth Robbins on Thursday, both of whom had been appointed by Pack only last month. Chao named Yolanda Lopez, another longtime VOA journalist, as acting director.
Biden’s selection of Chao, and Chao’s appointment of Lopez, signaled support for veteran staff and the way the news organizations had been operating before Pack.
Chao joined a whistleblower lawsuit against Pack last fall after he suspended six senior USAGM executives and sought their removal, part of a sweeping purge of veteran managers under him.
Lopez, who had directed VOA’s editorial operations, was one of two VOA journalists reassigned by Reilly just last week, apparently as punishment for her role in a dispute over a speech by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo at VOA headquarters.
Also on Thursday, another Pack appointee, Jeffrey Shapiro, the head of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, resigned. OCB operates Radio and TV Marti, which beam broadcasts into Cuba.
Pack said Wednesday that his resignation came at Biden’s request. During the presidential campaign, Biden’s staff had indicated that he would replace Pack if Biden won election.
Pack, a former documentary filmmaker who has worked with former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, asserted the right to direct VOA’s newsgathering, despite a “firewall” designed to protect it from outside influence. Pack said he was acting to restore VOA’s tradition of nonpartisan reporting. But critics, especially those inside VOA, said his intention was to use VOA and its sister agencies to promote Trump’s policies.
In a staff memo announcing his resignation, Pack wrote, “I firmly believe that — thanks to your support, patriotism, and understanding — a great amount of much-needed reform was achieved in the past eight months.”
He added: “USAGM and the CEO position are meant to be non-partisan. As such, every single day, I was solely focused upon reorienting the agency toward its mission. I sought, above all, to help the agency share America’s story with the world objectively and without bias.”
One VOA journalist said Pack’s resignation triggered “sighs of relief and cheers” among employees. She called Pack’s resignation “a first step toward a return to normalcy.”
Among other actions, Pack declined to renew the expiring visas of foreign journalists who work for VOA, saying that they had not been properly vetted and that the agency could be harboring foreign spies.
He later ordered subordinates to investigate VOA’s chief White House reporter, Steve Herman, for alleged bias in his coverage of Trump. The investigation produced no disciplinary action, but VOA journalists said the investigation itself was an act of intimidation.
At one point, Pack issued a news release describing some of the reporting by the agencies under his control as “substandard.” He offered no examples.
According to a whistleblower complaint filed Tuesday on behalf of senior managers Pack suspended in August, Pack used about $2 million in taxpayer funds to hire a law firm to compile personnel dossiers on some of the managers he sought to remove. The dossiers were developed to support his decision to replace them, the complaint said.
Earlier this month, more than two dozen VOA employees objected to a directive, apparently from Pack and implemented by Reilly and Robbins, to broadcast a speech by Pompeo at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. The employees said the order from a political appointee amounted to government “propaganda” — the very thing VOA was established to counter in countries abroad. They demanded that Reilly and Robbins resign.
Reilly did not allow reporters to question Pompeo at the event. He later demoted the agency’s White House correspondent, Patsy Widakuswara, after she fired questions at Pompeo as he was leaving the building.
Pack did not respond to a request for comment, continuing a practice he has observed since his appointment began. Since June, he has given interviews only to conservative media outlets and to USAGM-supervised agencies.