Trump appointee sparks bipartisan furor for politicizing media agency

The top Democratic and Republican lawmakers with oversight of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) on Tuesday criticized a move by the agency’s head Michael Pack to rescind a firewall safeguard that protects the organization’s journalists and broadcasts from political influence. 

In separate statements, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the ranking Republican, criticized Pack for being “opposed to journalistic objectivity.” 

“Mr. Pack has taken his rampage on America’s international broadcasting to another level,” Engel said in a statement. “He’s trying to tear down the legally mandated firewall that protects USAGM broadcasters from outside interference. But Congress created that firewall by law and although Mr. Pack can huff and puff, he can’t blow that wall down. The rule he rescinded yesterday clarified the legal protections. The firewall remains.”

The criticism follows an announcement late Monday from Pack, who was appointed by President Trump, that he had rescinded the “firewall rule,” codified in U.S. law to protect the professional independence and integrity of journalists and broadcasters.

Pack in his announcement criticized it as “based on flawed legal and constitutional reasoning” and infringing on his responsibilities as CEO for “engaging in managerial and editorial oversight, which Congress mandated the CEO to conduct to ensure that the agency carries out its proper governmental mission.”

Lawmakers blasted the decision as an extreme overreach of the independence of the networks under the USAGM’s mandate, which include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and the Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom grantee program that helps media in other countries fight back against disinformation. 

These networks are considered an essential tool of the soft power of U.S. foreign policy and as a factual counter to misinformation by autocratic and repressive governments. The firewall, codified in 1994 and 2016, is meant to ensure the integrity of the broadcasts by protecting it from interference from the secretary of State or the CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which changed its name to the USAGM in 2018. 

“It is unclear why CEO Pack is opposed to journalistic objectivity at ⁦@USAGMgov and its networks,” McCaul said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Without it, the mission and effectiveness of the agency is undermined.”

Pack, who was confirmed by the Senate in June, has come under scrutiny for dismissing heads of most of the international broadcasts, failing to renew visas for international journalists working for the Voice of America in the U.S. and attempting to cut off funding for the Open Technology Fund.

In September, Politico reported that six senior officials with the USAGM filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Department inspector general’s office and the Office of Special Counsel alleging political retaliation for raising concerns over Pack’s leadership.

NPR reported earlier this month that two political appointees at the USAGM were investigating Voice of America White House bureau chief Steve Herman for potential bias against Trump.

Jamie Fly, former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who was dismissed from his position by Pack in June, wrote on Twitter that Pack’s latest move is putting journalists at risk. 

“As I testified in front of [the House Foreign Affairs Committee], Michael Pack is undermining audience confidence in [RFE/RL] and the other [U.S. Agency for Global Media] networks. He is not just laying the groundwork to politicize their journalism, he is putting the journalists at risk.”

Fly was retweeted by Amanda Bennett, former director of Voice of America, the USAGM’s premier news network, who resigned from her position in June in anticipation of Pack’s takeover of the agency. 

Bennett said maintaining the firewall is essential to protect journalists at the USAGM networks. 

“After his wholesale firing of USAGM’s network leaders, abrupt dissolution of their boards, and forced reassignment of editors, Michael Pack’s rescinding of the agency’s editorial independence firewall crystalizes his commitment to atrophying the USAGM into a right-wing media ecosystem funded by American taxpayers,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. 

“Mr. Pack has proven he is nothing more than a Trojan horse for those who wish to undermine U.S. efforts in support of free, fair, and independent journalism. All of my colleagues in Congress need to stand with us to stop this nonsense and ensure that the reporters, editors, and producers at all of USAGM’s grantees can continue their critical work without political influence from this White House or anyone else.” 

Pack has refused to appear before Congress for a hearing over his actions at the USAGM, prompting Engel to issue a subpoena in September for his testimony.

Engel on Tuesday said “legal action against him is piling up and he remains in defiance of a duly authorized subpoena” and encouraged journalists under the USAGM “to continue carrying out their important work and to ignore illegal interference from Mr. Pack and other administration officials. The law remains on your side.”

Engel also called for Pack “to resign or be fired.”

“Though his tenure will hopefully soon come to an end, I worry what additional damage he can do in the meantime,” the chairman said. “It will be critical for the next Congress to repair the damage he’s done and to enact protections that will prevent an ideologue like him from attempting to destroy the agency again.” 

Tags Donald Trump Eliot Engel Michael McCaul Radio Free Europe Robert Menendez U.S. Agency for Global Media Voice of America
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