Trump's new head of US media agency under fire from both sides

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE’s new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is coming under fire from Democrats and conservatives alike following a rash of high-level dismissals at the international broadcasts it oversees.

Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker who took over as CEO of the agency this week, is facing pushback from congressional Democrats on the committees with oversight of the USAGM.

The criticism on the right has come from conservative commentators and foreign policy analysts, including those who supported his nomination two years earlier and are seen as Trump loyalists.

ADVERTISEMENT

Critics fear Pack will jeopardize the independence of the broadcast networks, which are charged with objectively reporting about the U.S. and its foreign policy to an international audience of 350 million people and in 61 languages.

David Ensor, who was director of USAGM’s Voice of America (VOA) from 2011 to 2015, said Pack has the authority to replace the staff but that the sweep of firings is out of the ordinary for positions that are apolitical.

“It’s a little bit surprising that the administration’s guy has decided to get rid of absolutely everybody in charge of one of the news organizations,” he said. “But certainly he’s within his rights to do so.”

On Wednesday, he dismissed the senior editors for news outlets broadcasting in Europe, the Middle East and Asia as well as the head of an internet freedom grantee organization.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara resigned on Monday ahead of Pack’s first day on the job.

VOA is the agency’s flagship broadcast.

The Democratic chairmen of the House Appropriations and Foreign Affairs committees said they were “outraged” to learn of Pack’s dismissals and staff appointments.

ADVERTISEMENT

The House chairmen, Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyTop House Democrats call for watchdog probe into Pompeo's Jerusalem speech With Biden, advocates sense momentum for lifting abortion funding ban Progressives look to flex their muscle in next Congress after primary wins MORE (D-N.Y.) of the Appropriations Committee and Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse panel halts contempt proceedings against Pompeo after documents turned over Engel subpoenas US global media chief Michael Pack The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (D-N.Y.) of the Foreign Affairs Committee, are demanding Pack provide documents related to the firings and criticized the CEO for putting his chief of staff on the advisory board of each broadcast.

“That Mr. Pack took this drastic measure in his first week on the job is shocking, and we have deep concerns that he takes the helm of a critical agency with the intent to prioritize the Trump administration’s political whims over protecting and promoting independent reporting, which is a pillar of freedom and democracy,” the House Democrats wrote.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Kasie Hunt to host lead-in show for MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report MORE (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Pack’s purge of staff risks compromising the independent broadcast outlets.

“As feared, Michael Pack has confirmed he is on a political mission to destroy the USAGM’s independence and undermine its historic role,” Menendez said in a statement. “This latest attack is sadly the latest – but not the last – in the Trump Administration’s efforts to transform U.S. institutions rooted in the principles of democracy into tools for the President’s own personal agenda.”

Menendez had criticized Pack's confirmation by the Senate even though he was under investigation for the misuse of funds, allegedly transferring money from his nonprofit organization Public Media Lab to his for-profit film company.

Menendez revealed in May that Pack was under investigation ahead of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on whether to advance his nomination. Pack’s nomination was advanced in a 12-10 vote along party lines.

He was then confirmed by the Senate in a 53-38 vote. Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe debate over the filibuster entirely misses the point Trump plans to pick Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg on court Day before Trump refused to commit to peaceful transition, Aaron Sorkin described how he would write election night MORE of West Virginia was the only Democrat to vote for him.

Trump had resubmitted Pack's nomination in February after it expired from the previous Congress. Last month, Trump said at a Senate GOP lunch that Pack's nomination was moving too slowly through the confirmation process.

Menendez said at the time that Pack's confirmation had been delayed for eight months because he "refused" to provide documents related to his nonprofit and for-profit ventures.

The USAGM did not return a request for comment on the investigation into Pack.

The conservative backlash, meanwhile, has been more focused on the ousting of the director of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Alberto Fernandez, and the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jamie Fly.

Fly, who is also a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, a think tank that promotes cooperation between North America and Europe, was a former adviser to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' Graham vows GOP will accept election results after Trump comments MORE (R-Fla.).

Fernandez, who joined the Middle East Broadcasting Networks in 2017, is a former U.S. ambassador and career foreign service officer with multiple tours in the Middle East.

Fernandez’s dismissal was criticized by David Reaboi, a national security analyst and professional acquaintance of Pack. Reaboi is a fellow at the conservative think tank The Claremont Institute, where Pack previously served as president.

ADVERTISEMENT

Reaboi wrote on Twitter that he had advised Pack to keep Fernandez while clearing the agency of “anti-American leftwing agitprop.”

“Michael Pack gets confirmed by the Senate and, rather than take stock and talk to people who know what’s happening, he fired everybody. Including [Alberto Fernandez]. Shameful,” Reaboi tweeted. “I sent Pack an email indicating my extreme disappointment.”

Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaSunday shows preview: Trump, lawmakers weigh in on COVID-19, masks and school reopenings amid virus surge Trump taps Gorka for national security advisory board Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence MORE, a former Trump adviser in the White House and conservative radio host, supported Reaboi’s tweet, writing on the platform that “Ambassador Fernandez was the greatest asset America had in foreign broadcasting.”

Gorka is reportedly under consideration for a USAGM post.

Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank supportive of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, said dismissing Fernandez and Fly was a “poor decision.”

Pack, in a statement released Thursday, defended the firings.

“Every action I carried out was – and every action I will carry out will be – geared toward rebuilding the USAGM’s reputation, boosting morale, and improving content,” he said.  

ADVERTISEMENT

In an introductory email to staff, Pack said he has three goals for the agency: to improve morale; to “examine some of the problems that have surfaced in the media in recent years,” adding that he wants to make sure there are no issues “getting in the way of your ability to report the news”; and to make more “effective” the impact of the broadcasting networks.

“Beyond these three goals, I am fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter, the missions of the grantees, and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world,” he wrote.

The VOA charter, a public law signed in 1976, is designed to protect the integrity of the organization and define its mission.

“Voice of America is an organization that tries to do, is supposed to do and it has a legal charter requiring it to do truthful journalism,” said Ensor, the former VOA director. “It also has a mandate to report about America to the world.”

Pack’s critics worry that he’s further influenced by his conservative ties, in particular his connections to Stephen Bannon, the former senior White House adviser and former executive director of the conservative media site Breitbart News.

“There’s going to now be, as there has been throughout much of VOA’s existence, a big debate to what extent will the new team be wanting to try to turn VOA into more of a propaganda organization less of a journalistic organization,” Ensor said.

“I hope that he’s going to keep the journalism strong, because that is what has built audiences and credibility for Voice of America,” Ensor added.

--Jordain Carney contributed to this report, which was updated on June 21 at 8:51 a.m.