US international broadcasting: The demolition of credibility
Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, was installed in June 2020.
In November, I wrote that if Joe Biden is elected president, then he “might decide to be a benign, if uncooperative, caretaker until the new management comes in. Or he could impose personnel changes and alterations in content that could diminish the credibility of the USAGM entities, a situation that could take years to repair.”
Pack has decided on the latter. The most consequential prerogative of the USAGM CEO is to name the heads of USAGM’s “entities”: the directors of its two agencies, Voice of America and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio Martí) and the presidents of its three nonprofit corporations, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra and Radio Sawa).
In his choices, during what is likely the last weeks of his leadership, Pack deployed the equivalent of grenades to destroy the credibility of the U.S. international broadcasting before and, to some extent, after the Biden administration takes over.
Credibility is all-important because audiences seek international media to obtain news and information that is more comprehensive, reliable, and objective than what they get from their government controlled domestic media.
Pack named Robert Reilly as director of Voice of America (VOA). Reilly served briefly in the same role 2001-2002. In his note to VOA employees on Dec. 15, Reilly wrote, “VOA should not be an echo chamber for American domestic media, which is already largely available overseas on the internet.” Actually, the comprehensive and independent news service that VOA presently provides in 47 languages is not available from American domestic media. Audiences abroad where the media are state controlled can benefit from the same type of journalism to which Americans have access. As such, VOA is the multilingual echo chamber of U.S. journalism. Such a news and information service allows people in other countries to form their own opinions about current events.
In February 2017, Reilly wrote that VOA’s mission is to further the American interests while “undermining” the opponents.’ This was very successful during the Cold War. Why not implement a refashioned version of the strategy today?”
The answer is that during the Cold War, the BBC had a larger audience than VOA, despite a smaller budget. Approaches to international broadcasting can be seen as a continuum from the BBC’s independent approach to journalism to the old Radio Moscow, which extolled the achievements of the USSR and repeatedly pointed out the evils of the West. It was the BBC that had the audience, because it provided audiences the news they are seeking. Radio Moscow served no useful purpose because it was basically the same fare every day. Reilly seems to be nudging VOA to the Radio Moscow side of the spectrum.
Reilly is controversial especially because of two of his books, “The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis,” and “Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything.” In his note to VOA employees, Reilly wrote that most of his articles and books “are irrelevant to my duties as VOA Director.” In other words, pay no attention to the words he wrote or uttered in the past. Nevertheless, that stuff will be mentioned, over and over, in the news, commentaries and histories about VOA. It will be etched to VOA’s reputation.
Pack also named Ted Lipien to be president of RFE/RL. Lipien is a former chief of the VOA Polish Service and director of VOA’s Eurasia Division. His main project since leaving VOA has been the website USAGM Watch. USAGM Watch has devoted much space to bitter criticism of senior managers of U.S. international broadcasting appointed during the Obama administration.
USAGM Watch also contains many accusations of liberal bias at VOA. But Lipien exhibits his own biases. His website repeatedly cites the conviction of a USAGM official who was hired under the agency’s previous CEO, John Lansing, as evidence of corruption during Lansing’s tenure. But Lipien never mentions the conviction — for failure to report gifts — of the chief of staff of Reilly during Reilly’s 2001-2002 stint as VOA director.
For a sense of what Lipien might have in store for them, RFE/RL journalists can also peruse his commentaries. For example, he writes how VOA journalists made “fools of themselves” in their letter protesting the dismissal of VOA contract journalists. Or that under Biden, the agency will be a threat to conservative America.
In recent decades, RFE/RL has overcome its murky history of covert CIA funding to become a formidable source of reporting about its target regions. All the hard work that has contributed to RFE/RL’s ascendancy can be undone by one RFE/RL president.
The other three Pack-appointed USAGM entity heads are Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Steven Yates, president of Radio Free Asia and Victoria Coates, president of Middle East Broadcasting Networks. All are Trump loyalists.
After he is inaugurated, Biden will probably be able to fire Pack, as he has promised. Because of legislative provisions and bureaucratic maneuvers, Biden may not so easily be able to remove the five entity heads. These executives could stay long enough to do significant damage to the credibility of U.S. international broadcasting, at which point it may need to be rebuilt from the ashes.
Kim Andrew Elliott is a retired Voice of America audience research analyst and media journalist.