Michael Pack, the new chief executive of the agency that oversees Voice Of America and other government-funded broadcast outlets, said Wednesday that he is implementing new policies to ensure that editorials that reflect the views of Donald Trump’s administration are given greater prominence and placement.
The move comes amid concerns that Pack will try to transform VOA and other outlets in ways that threaten their independence. Much of the wariness comes from Trump’s scathing criticisms of VOA and recent public push for the Senate to confirm Pack. His nomination languished for two years before he was confirmed earlier this month.
In his announcement, Pack, the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, said that the editorials, produced through the agency’s Office of Policy, will remain distinct from VOA’s news and featuring programming, and that the editorials are part of the mission of the broadcast outlet as stated in the International Broadcasting Act.
“Editorials, by their very nature, are meant to express the views of their house institution,” Pack said in a statement. “In this case, the house institution is the U.S. government, of which VOA — a federal public service media organization — is a part. As such, it has been invested with both the trust and the funding of the American people.”
In the announcement today, the agency said that it would establish a streamlined process for clearing the editorials, a process done in consultation with the State Department that they described as too slow. The editorials also will be placed at the top of the VOA’s homepage, rather than be housed on a separate website, and they will appear in Google searches alongside news content.
The agency also said that VOA language services would resume their carriage of the editorials, and their usage would be reported to the agency. The agency said the VOA is required by law to run the editorials, but their usage has not been tracked “for years” to ensure compliance.
Some Capitol Hill lawmakers have criticized Pack’s moves last week to quickly remove leaders of a number of the outlets, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Open Technology Fund. The director and deputy director of Voice of America also resigned.
Pack has been a documentary filmmaker, having produced the recent documentary Clarence Thomas: In His Own Words for PBS, and two projects with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who once led Breitbart.com.
On Tuesday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he had asked the State Department’s acting inspector general to investigate whether Pack violated a federal regulation when he fired the heads of the broadcast networks and dissolved their boards.
Four of the former members of those boards, including Ryan Crocker, Karen Kornbluh, Ben Scott and Michale Kemper, filed a lawsuit against Pack on Tuesday, contending that he lacked the authority to perform what they called the “Wednesday night massacre.” They contend that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Open Technology Fund “are private, nonprofit organizations with their own leadership and independent boards of directors.”
In their lawsuit, they said that the outlets “can only be effective in countering disinformation and censorship if they are rightly perceived as independent, professional, and fact-driven—not as official mouthpieces for some partisan agenda.
“To ensure the integrity and credibility of this vital work, their independence from political interference is protected by a strict ‘firewall’ embodied in statutes, regulations, and binding contract provisions. Mr. Pack’s actions this past week constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history,” the lawsuit stated.
They noted that the International Broadcasting Act mandates a firewall between the executive branch and the broadcast entities.
During his confirmation hearings, Pack said that he would preserve the broadcast outlets’ independence, telling lawmakers, “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. “Without that trust, I think, the agency is completely undermined.”
In his statement Wednesday, Pack said that the VOA editorials are being given more prominence in a way that they once were, stretching back to the Cold War. He said that they will “assist the broader effort to confront the disinformation and censorship campaigns of America’s adversaries.”