Earlier this month, a Steve Bannon ally and conservative filmmaker appointed by President Donald Trump took over running the vast global network of news agencies funded and operated by the US government.
Within hours of introducing himself to employees, he’d purged four top officials — and critics are calling it a blatant effort to turn America’s state-run news organizations into Trump-friendly propaganda outlets.
But Steve Bannon, who was deeply involved with getting Trump to nominate his ally Michael Pack, sees the ousters as a reckoning for an agency that he believes has been too soft on covering China.
“We are going hard on the charge,” Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and executive chairman of Breitbart, told me. “Pack’s over there to clean house.”
Michael Pack was confirmed this month as the new CEO of the US Agency for Global Media, a government department that oversees five media organizations — Voice of America, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund — and is collectively one of the largest media networks in the world.
In an instant, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund were leaderless. The two chiefs of Voice of America (VOA), the most prominent outlet in the agency, resigned on Monday over Pack’s appointment.
VOA, in particular, was founded in 1942 mainly to combat Nazi disinformation campaigns. In later years, particularly throughout the Cold War, VOA and the other US-funded multilingual broadcasters would grow to reach hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Their mission then, as now, was to disseminate factual, unbiased news to people who live in countries where freedom of the press is either strongly curtailed or nonexistent.
Though the news agencies are funded and overseen by the federal government, they operate independently when it comes to all editorial decisions like what stories to cover and how to cover them.
That “firewall,” enshrined in US law, “prohibits interference by any US government official in the objective, independent reporting of news, thereby safeguarding the ability of our journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference,” according to the VOA website.
This serves a critical purpose in US diplomacy abroad: Showcasing America’s ability to report independently, without direct government interference in the editorial process, displays the US as a free society where freedom of the press is not only protected but valued.
It has also served more specific US foreign policy interests over the years, particularly during the Cold War. By beaming information into places where access to media is strictly controlled by repressive governments and where citizens’ views of both the US and their own leaders are heavily influenced by government propaganda, the US is able to combat misinformation about its actions and, ideally, help encourage democracy to grow.
Pack’s arrival, critics argue, threatens all of that.
That’s because it’s expected that Pack will replace the ousted chiefs with Trump administration loyalists — people whose allegiance is not to the principles of journalistic integrity and editorial independence but to Trump’s personal political interests and Bannon’s ideological agenda.
“This is the Breitbartization of U.S. government media,” Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics and a prominent Trump critic, tweeted on Thursday.
VOA and US government-funded media has long been a conservative target
Since even before Trump ran for president, Republicans have been trying to remake the US state-run media outlets less editorially independent and into more explicit propaganda arms of the US government.
As the New Republic notes, “In 2014, Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would turn the agency into an explicit instrument of American ‘public diplomacy,’ with a mandate to promote U.S. foreign policy.”
But those efforts ramped up big time once Trump declared his candidacy.
During the 2016 presidential election, many conservatives believed VOA actively reported anti-Trump stories. There was some truth to this: “BBG Watch, a watchdog web site started by a former VOA staffer, highlighted news reports in which the agency compared Trump to Lenin and Mao, criticized his immigration policies, and poked fun at his speeches,” the New Republic reported in 2017. (BBG stands for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the former name of the US Agency for Global Media.)
Amanda Bennett, VOA’s director at the time (and who just resigned this week), started anti-bias training soon afterward.
It’s no surprise, then, what happened after Trump won the election: In December 2016, just a month after his victory, Republicans in Congress changed the governance structure of VOA, replacing the bipartisan executive board with a CEO appointed by the president. And two young members of the administration in January 2017 were sent over to the news organization to monitor its operations.
“The priority is to make coverage fall in line with the president’s worldview,” said Brett Bruen, the director for global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, who had these US-funded media outlets in his portfolio.
The main conservative gripe since Trump took over is that VOA and its sister outlets have been too soft on China. In 2018, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution claimed in a report on Chinese influence in the US that VOA had “a pattern of avoiding stories that could be perceived to be too tough on China.”
That still seems to be the main issue today. Bannon rattled off how VOA specifically hasn’t gone after the Chinese government’s human rights abuses aggressively enough, and hopes Pack — whom he has previously called his “mentor” in documentary filmmaking — can change that.
Voice of America’s China coverage sparked Trump’s ire and spurred Pack’s confirmation
Bannon helped put Pack up for Senate confirmation in June 2018.
Pack isn’t completely devoid of experience within the government agency. During the George W. Bush administration, he directed Worldnet, a television sector of VOA, and also worked as a top television executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
He cited his inside knowledge of government media organizations as a reason why he should get the job in the first place, though he vowed not to shake things up too much.
“I’m not sure about all the journalistic practices and techniques inside the agency right now to do that, but I would look at those and try to strengthen them,” he said during his confirmation hearing last year. “I guess it comes down to, we need to say no when you get a call from a political person telling journalists what to do.”
But concerns over Pack’s close ties to the former strategist and an investigation into his nonprofit compelled the Republican-led Senate to delay his appointment.
According to records seen by CNBC last year, about $1.6 million went from his nonprofit, Public Media Lab, into his production company, Manifold Productions. DC Attorney General Karl Racine is looking into the matter.
The stalemate over Pack’s nomination broke earlier this year for two reasons.
First, Trump and the White House complained — without evidence — that the Voice of America was parroting Chinese talking points during its coronavirus coverage. “Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda,” read an April White House article titled “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda.”
“This week, VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world — and then tweeted out video of the Communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s alleged end,” it continued.
However, the story in question wasn’t actually written by VOA — it was a piece from the Associated Press that VOA hosted on its site. Regardless, Trump soon after blasted VOA’s coverage of China and the coronavirus: “What things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”
The president also privately complained during an April lunch with Senate Republicans that the VOA was really “the Voice of the Soviet Union,” according to the New York Times.
Out in the open, the administration started castigating the media outfit, such as threatening to bar a reporter from Vice President Mike Pence’s plane or having the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blacklist VOA’s media requests.
Second, Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, seemingly bowed under all that pressure. “This has been investigated back and forth,” he said in early June during a panel meeting to confirm Pack, referencing the DC investigation. “Keep in mind this is all politics. And if you see the kind of work that he’s done, he makes America proud when he makes a documentary.”
The full Senate confirmed Pack by a 53 to 38 vote on June 4 — and he’s wasted little time getting to work.
Pack could ruin one of America’s best foreign policy tools
Bannon said the new chief’s main goal is to produce harder-hitting news on the Chinese government. He claims the agency has softened its reporting on China over the years.
Under Pack, Bannon said taxpayer-funded news outlets will now forcefully highlight many of the regime’s human rights abuses, namely its detention of over a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps.
Yet critics of Pack’s appointment, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remain very worried about his partisan leanings.
“As feared, Michael Pack has confirmed he is on a political mission to destroy the [agency’s] independence and undermine its historic role,” he said in a Wednesday statement. “The wholesale firing of the Agency’s network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump’s political allies is an egregious breach of this organization’s history and mission from which it may never recover.”
A current VOA employee unauthorized to speak on the record told me “nothing that has occurred so far is a shock” and the state-funded news organization is waiting to see who Pack will appoint. Rumors have swirled that Trump ally and former White House official Sebastian Gorka may get the nod.
Regardless of who is in charge, the VOA employee told me that “if the firewall is breached, a number of VOA correspondents will speak out publicly. Until then we’re doing our jobs, so far unhindered.”
But it does appear the firewall — at VOA and other agency-based media organizations — may soon come crashing down.
If that’s the case, the risk won’t just be that millions of people around the world lose a vital, trusted source of information. It’ll be that those same people see the US as simply another country spewing skewed stories for the benefit of an ideologue in power.
“[Pack] has taken a rocket-propelled grenade and started shooting it off at various parts of the organizational chart,” said Bruen, and he’s turning into “something much more similar to the North Korean Ministry of Information.”
Any perceived campaign to disseminate Trump’s worldview “will stink up the place,” he continued, “and that stench is going to spread to anything that carries the label of a US international media agency.”
Pack’s play, then, could backfire and harm US foreign policy in the process.
Former VOA Director Geoffrey Cowen gave a 2015 speech in which he said the outlet and others like it are “a vital part of what is now known as public diplomacy or soft power — our non-military arsenal of democracy.”
“Part of the goal is to tell America’s story — in an accurate and balanced way — that will help people understand us better and hopefully learn from our experiences, institutions and values,” he continued. “In the process, we hope that listeners will also gain a greater understanding and respect for our people, our country, and our way of life” and “that listeners will learn that the press has the right and the responsibility to criticize its own government when the facts warrant it.”
Bruen, however, noted that US-funded media organizations need substantial reform, especially since they haven’t changed much since World War II and the Cold War. But the outlets have at least maintained a decent amount of independence over a “better part of a century to develop an audience and credible independent voice so people would listen to the information that the US wanted to share.”
Without that independence — or even the appearance of it — that powerful tool ceases being helpful to US foreign policy efforts.