UPDATE: A Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing that included consideration of Michael Pack’s nomination to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, was postponed as multiple members asked for a hold on agenda items.
A committee spokesperson said that Chairman James Risch (R-ID), “received requests from his members that collectively resulted in the full agenda for [Thursday’s] meeting being held over. The chairman has honored these requests and will schedule a business meeting for these items in the near future.”
Democrats already had raised concerns in a letter to Risch last month, including what they called unresolved questions over Pack’s nomination. There was complaint that Risch was trying to jam through an extensive agenda of items, particularly in the midst of a pandemic when there already are worries over potential exposure to the virus on Capitol Hill.
PREVIOUSLY, MAY 13, 4:14 PM PT: When President Donald Trump complained last month that Senate Democrats were holding up his nominees in the midst of a global pandemic, he singled out Michael Pack as one of the figures whose confirmation had stalled.
Pack was his choice to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees a number of government-backed broadcasting outlets including the largest, Voice of America, along with other entities like Radio Free Europe and Alhurra.
The choice to single out Pack left reporters puzzled, until Trump took the opportunity to single out VOA for scathing attacks. Trump’s complaints appear to have triggered the scheduling of a vote on Pack’s nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even as Democrats continue to hold misgivings and others fear that the agency will become a conduit for Trump TV.
Pack does come with government credentials. He served as the director of Worldnet, the United States Information Agency’s global satellite network, which has since been folded into VOA, and he also has experience in public media, having held positions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and as a member of the National Council on the Humanities.
He’s also well known in conservative filmmaking circles for documentaries that he has made, including projects he did in collaboration with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former senior adviser who led Breitbart.com. Pack’s most recent movie is Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in his Own Words, which will air on PBS stations this month.
At his confirmation hearing last year, Pack said that his goals were to improve morale and to clean up scandals that have beset the agency, which was formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He also said that he wanted to “create a more effective U.S broadcasting effort on the world stage.”
But Trump’s attacks on the media, and his suggestion of the U.S. starting “our own worldwide network,” raised concerns of whether Pack would maintain independence from the administration. At his confirmation hearing last September, he was questioned about his collaboration with Bannon and whether he would be able to stand up to demands from the White House.
“The whole agency rests on the belief the reporters are independent, that no political influence is telling them how to report the news and what to say,” Pack said at his hearing in September. “Without that trust, I think, the agency is completely undermined.”
Yet those concerns over independence have lingered as Trump has touted the idea of having a government-run global network. The month after Pack’s confirmation hearing, Trump criticized VOA and touted the idea of starting a global news network.
The White House’s criticisms escalated last month, when it accused VOA of spreading Chinese propaganda in its coverage of the coronavirus, claiming that it “spends your money to speak for authoritarian regimes.” Among the criticisms was a VOA tweet of a light show in Wuhan to mark the end of a months long lockdown.
In response, Amanda Bennett, the director of the VOA, issued a lengthy defense of the news outlet and its journalistic credentials. She said that “one of the big differences between publicly-funded independent media, like the Voice of America, and state-controlled media is that we are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976.”
“We are thoroughly covering China’s dis-information and misinformation in English and Mandarin and at the same time reporting factually – as we always do in all 47 of our broadcast languages – on other events in China,” she wrote.
But the attacks continued. At an April 15 press conference, Trump complained that Pack’s nomination has “been stuck in committee for two years, preventing us from managing the Voice of America. Very important.”
“And if you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting… Things they say are disgusting toward our country.”
After the Foreign Relations committee, led by Sen. James Risch (R-ID), scheduled Thursday’s hearing, Democrats objected to convening members given concerns over gatherings amid the pandemic.
In a recent letter to Risch, Democrats also called for a chance to question Pack again, pointing to what they said were unresolved issues over his taxes. According to CNBC, the ranking member of the committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has raised concerns over the award of a contract to Pack’s production company, Manifold Productions, while he led the Claremont Institute. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Brett Bruen interacted with the agency, then known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, when he served as director of global engagement for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. He said that there is a reason that Pack’s nomination, first made in 2018, has lingered. That year, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who was Risch’s predecessor as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, showed little interest in advancing Pack’s nomination.
“There was not interest on the Republican side to undo what they did at the end of the Obama administration,” Bruen said. He was referring to a restructuring of the agency so that it was led by a CEO with a board of governors in an advisory role. But Bruen said that Pack was such a partisan choice that he undermines the effort to reform the agency.
If Pack is confirmed, Bruen said there is the potential for VOA “to really transform into a mouthpiece for any administration. There is a real risk that this goes from being a real news outlet that is somewhat credible, to one that is really a production studio for advancing the president’s point of view.”
But Bruen believes that the government broadcast entities are not that effective in a much different media environment. He notes that they were set up at a time when they could project information to countries where there was an absence of news sources outside of government propaganda, when now the problem is the avalanche of content competing for attention.
“I think the U.S. should get the heck out of the business of producing news,” he said. “No one thinks they are independent, other than the folks in the Cohen building.” The latter is a reference to the VOA’s Washington headquarters.