USAGM Watch Commentary

By Former Voice of America Reporters

The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted to confirm Michael Pack to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the $800 million a year agency that that runs Voice of America (VOA) and numerous other U.S. – government funded international media.

The vote was 53 to 38 to confirm Pack in the Republican-run Senate.  His nomination had languished for two years amid strong opposition from Senate Democrats, notably Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who in his floor statement called Pack “a blatantly flawed nominee”.   Opposition to Pack’s nomination also came from some now-retired anti-Trump Republicans. Today, all voting Republicans were in favor of Pack’s nomination. Pack got one vote from a Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin from West Virginia.

Pack is a documentary filmmaker and a political conservative who headed Worldnet, the U.S. government’s former television service that existed under President Ronald Reagan.  Pack also has had close ties with Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist for President Donald Trump.

Critics, including major media organizations that have been critical of Trump, opposed Pack’s nomination asserting that if he were to head the USAGM he might weaken its credibility and threaten the ability of its journalists to report in an unbiased way on U.S. and global events.  

Negative articles in major U.S. media began just after Trump’s election win in 2016, citing fears Trump wanted to use VOA and other USAGM outlets as his personal media network, and later raising concerns that Pack could be the tool Trump would use to accomplish this.

However, in his nomination hearing in 2019, Pack pledged, in response to questions on this subject, that he would maintain journalistic integrity as a “bedrock principle” and support the independence of agency reporters, while taking steps to improve employee morale.  USAGM has been ranked at or near the bottom of U.S. government employee satisfaction ratings for decades.

In his nomination hearing, Pack underscored the need for steps to enhance the “impact” of an agency plagued by scandals and low employee morale and pointed to a need to keep the work of this agency in line with U.S. global interests.  He vowed stronger steps against “America’s adversaries…[that] have stepped up their propaganda and disinformation efforts”…and said USAGM must do more on “molding global public sentiment”.

USAGM (formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors) has seen multiple management and programming scandals, which were especially frequent and serious at the Voice of America under executives appointed during the Obama administration.  A key aide to former CEO who was appointed during the previous administration and resigned last year, was sent to prison for 3 months for stealing money from the agency. 

Some of them, including VOA Director Amanda Bennett, are still in charge.  The Trump administration in its third year has so far no key executives at VOA or within the agency’s bureaucracy in Washington.

The current VOA management team under Bennett’s leadership has alienated Iranian-American and Chinese-American communities by allowing VOA to repeat propaganda from authoritarian regimes in Iran and China. Bennett strongly denies these charges. President Trump spoke critically about VOA’s current management and the White House issued highly critical statements.

In his statement Thursday opposing Pack’s confirmation, Senator Menendez said President Trump’s effort to “ram through” the nomination was the “nail in the coffin” of comity [cooperation] in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he noted Republicans had refused to allow a live video stream of the committee vote on Pack. Republicans had said earlier that the lack of a video recording was due to technical difficulties and pointed out that an audio recording was made available.

Menendez listed ongoing concerns about Pack’s “serious background problems” including an ongoing investigation by the District of Columbia attorney general into how Pack used donations to his non-profit organization for his for-profit television production company, Manifold Productions.  That company recently released a documentary on conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. 

In his floor statement, Menendez said such behavior was “not normal” and said Pack for years failed to disclose that one of his companies was doing business with the other.  Menendez renewed charges that Pack had made false statements to Congress and the Executive branch of government, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). 

But a recent report  by RealClearPolitics noted that “filmmakers and television producers on the left [of the political spectrum] have also used nonprofits to collect contributions from donors, and then set up a for-profit company to make the films.”   That report noted that Pack has denied any wrongdoing and cited supporters who pointed to Pack’s past positions in public service, including for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The RealClearPolitics report also noted that critics had pointed to a $40,000 donation to a legal defense fund that defended Menendez against ethics charges.  The donation came from a former member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the former name for the USAGM.  Menendez was eventually acquitted of those charges.

In his statement before the Senate confirmed Pack, Menendez again implied that Pack might allow damage to the “firewall” that is supposed to prevent presidents and their administrations from interfering with the journalistic work of the agency.  

While USAGM in the past had “made some serious mis-steps” Menendez said these had always been “worked out” between a bipartisan board that runs the agency and former heads of the agency.  

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch (R-ID) said Thursday that Michael Pack “is uniquely qualified to hold this position” and praised him for having done “an outstanding job,” including his latest documentary on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “There’s been a political battle fight over him for two years and one day – today is the moment of truth,” Senator Risch said shortly before today’s vote in the Senate.

In his confirmation hearing in 2019, Pack said nothing to indicate he would seek to undermine journalistic firewall.   

The entire agency, Pack said, “rests on the belief that the reporters are independent, that no political influence is telling them how to report the news and what to say.” Without that trust, said Pack, “I think the agency is completely undermined. So, I think that is a bedrock principle.”

Pack would assume control of USAGM only months away from the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and could make changes in key agency leadership positions, notably at VOA where Obama-era officials have served for years.

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