Andrew Harnik / AP

Watchdog: Congress Should Consider Legislation Spelling Out Protections for Global Media Agency’s Journalistic Integrity

While current leadership has worked to rectify changes from the previous administration, the boundaries of the firewall “are not specifically laid out in legislation,” GAO said. 

Congress should consider legislation that would define the global media agency’s “firewall” to better protect its editorial independence, a watchdog said on Wednesday. 

The U.S. Agency for Global Media was restructured from the Broadcasting Board of Governors in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Michael Pack was confirmed as the agency’s first CEO in June 2020 and that led to sweeping editorial, personnel and operational changes at the agency and the networks it oversees. The Office of Special Counsel determined during its ongoing investigation in December 2020 there was a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing among top agency leadership. President Biden asked Pack to step down in January, and new leaders under the Biden administration quickly worked to restore morale and credibility in the agency. 

“According to officials, some actions taken by [the media agency’s] previous leadership did not align with [the agency’s] firewall principles,” said a Government Accountability Office report published on Wednesday. “Current [Agency for Global Media] leadership has emphasized editorial independence and taken steps to strengthen the firewall. However, the parameters of [the agency’s] firewall as they relate to networks’ editorial independence are not specifically laid out in legislation. According to various [agency] and network leaders, this lack of specificity continues to present a vulnerability that can hinder their ability to effectively fulfill their mission.” 

Some of the ways the previous leadership at the agency violated the firewall, GAO said, include repealing a regulation clarifying protections for journalistic integrity; transferring and terminating those in two positions “critical to editorial independence;” trying to be involved in network meetings ahead of the 2020 presidential election; and, investigating and disciplining journalists alleged to have violated ethics and editorial standards. Over the summer the global media agency welcomed the State Department inspector general’s decision to clear six top officials targeted under former CEO Pack of any malfeasance.

The 1994 International Broadcasting Act has provided the basis for the firewall, but the protections are “only defined in the agency’s Broadcasting Administrative Manual and training modules, which agency leadership can interpret and implement differently,” GAO said. As a result, the watchdog recommended that Congress consider legislation to define what is and is not allowed. 

Following Pack’s repeal of the firewall regulation, the joint explanatory statement for the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act “stipulated that ‘[t]he application of this requirement shall be done in a manner that is, at a minimum, consistent with the statutory firewall, journalistic independence and best practices, and the highest standards of professional journalism set forth in any applicable regulation during fiscal year 2020,’ ” the watchdog noted. “Several other similar provisions concerning the firewall regulation were proposed in bills or amendments to bills put forward in the 116th Congress, but did not become law.”

Kelu Chao, acting CEO, said in a response letter she agreed with the recommendation. The firewall “is central to the credibility and mission of [Agency for Global Media] networks” and will “address the risk of unchecked actions by a future CEO,” she said.