Take, as an example, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees international broadcasting, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and separate operations for the Middle East, Cuba and Asia. Though many Americans are barely aware of them, these organizations have played an essential role in promoting U.S. influence and values in the rest of the world. Their calling card — what distinguishes them from their better-resourced Russian and Chinese counterparts — is their commitment to professional, unbiased journalism, including their coverage of the U.S. government.
That has made them a target for Trump, who has been infuriated that the Voice of America doesn’t echo his unhinged rhetoric about the “China virus,” or that its White House reporter would dare to report on Vice President Pence’s failure to wear a mask. Taking advantage of a 2016 “reform” that unwisely gave the White House authority to directly appoint a chief executive of U.S. international broadcasting, Trump named Michael Pack, an associate of his former aide and alt-right propagandist Stephen K. Bannon.
For two years, the Senate resisted Pack’s confirmation. But last spring, Trump finally succeeded in bullying Republican senators into installing his loyalist into USAGM’s top job. The immediate result was an assault on the professional staff, funding and journalistic integrity of the agency so sweeping and reckless that even some of those GOP senators have come to regret it. But it may be too late.
Pack started by firing the heads of four of the organizations; the two top editors of the fifth, the Voice of America, resigned as he arrived. He ousted the diplomats and media professionals on oversight boards and replaced them with low-level Trumpists from other government agencies. Two of the top editors he fired, Jamie Fly of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Alberto Fernandez of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, are Republicans. Not good enough: They were not MAGA militants. Pack said he was on a mission to “drain the swamp” and combat the “deep state.”
It soon became clear what that meant. Having driven off the American media professionals at VOA, Pack went after the more than 70 foreign journalists who work for the organization, refusing to support the renewal of their U.S. visas as they came up. He claimed to be acting for security reasons and insinuated, on no evidence, that some of the staff were spies.
This was slander against highly capable journalists, many of them exiles from autocratic countries who came to VOA so they could report honestly on their homelands. Now, they are being forced to repatriate, in some cases at personal risk. A VOA report in late August said 15 were returning home and another 20 had visas that will expire by the end of the year.
They weren’t Pack’s only targets. He attempted to fire the board and cut off the funding of the Open Technology Fund, an organization that supports Internet freedom initiatives, such as tools to circumvent firewalls. A court blocked the firings, but the fund was forced to suspend 49 of its 60 projects. Among those affected were journalists and activists resisting government crackdowns in Hong Kong and in Belarus.
When senior officials objected to Pack’s purges or pointed out that he was violating a law prohibiting interference in the outlets’ journalism, he sidelined them. Six of the officials have since filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Department’s inspector general. It makes for chilling reading: Pack, they allege, illegally diverted funds, ignored congressional reporting requirements, and sought to investigate the voting histories of USAGM employees.
Then there’s the case of Steve Herman, the VOA White House bureau chief who reported on Pence’s disregard for masks. As David Folkenflik of NPR reported last week, Pack ordered two political operatives he installed as his aides to conduct an investigation of Herman’s journalism. The 30-page report they delivered to VOA’s acting director last month recommended that the veteran reporter be banned from covering presidential politics because of an alleged “conflict of interest,” based on his tweets and social media “likes.”
No action has been taken against Herman as of yet, and Pack’s purges have triggered a bipartisan congressional backlash — particularly after he ignored a subpoena to appear at a House hearing. But given three more months, he could eviscerate what have been some of the most professional and effective organs of U.S. soft power.
And if Trump is reelected? Expect the Voice of America to become just another channel for authoritarian propaganda.