Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., requested an investigation.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., requested an investigation. Senate Television via AP

Senator Asks Inspector General to Investigate Global Media Agency Firings

The new U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO has sparked fears over politicization of employees’ journalism. 

On Tuesday, a top Senate Democrat asked an inspector general to investigate the recent spate of firings at the U.S. Agency for Global Media following the installation of conservative filmmaker Michael Pack as agency head. 

Last Wednesday night, shortly after the new chief executive officer introduced himself to employees, the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund were removed and the boards of each network were dissolved, as CNN reported. Two days prior, the director and deputy director of Voice of America, a division of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, resigned, although the reason was not entirely clear. President Trump had claimed VOA is promoting Chinese propaganda during the coronavirus pandemic and was anticipating Pack’s arrival at the agency. Pack’s confirmation on June 4 fueled concerns over a politicization of the agency’s journalism and some of those worries have been brought to a head already. 

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked acting State Department IG Amb. Stephen Akard to look into whether or not the removals violated a new rule that went into effect on June 11. The new rule clarifies the “critical” role of the firewall between the government and the agency’s independent journalism. 

“While the rule states that the ‘firewall does not prevent a USAGM CEO or Board from undertaking the same type of direction and oversight that those in equivalent leadership positions in an organization overseeing other reputable news organizations may provide, in a manner consistent with the highest standards of professional journalism,’ that exception does not appear to apply to Mr. Pack’s actions on June 17,” Menendez wrote. “He presented no cause for firing the network leaders, dissolving their boards, and reassigning the standards editors. Instead, these actions appear to be entirely inconsistent with the highest standards of professional journalism.” 

When asked about the firing last week, the media agency directed Government Executive to a statement about Pack’s intended reforms, which included praise from anonymous staff members. While it did not address the removals explicitly, it said:

“Addressing the staff through an introductory email, Pack focused on his three goals: making the agency more effective; ensuring that nothing interferes with the ability to report the news; and improving agency morale. He reinforced his commitment to honoring the VOA’s charter, missions of the grantees and independence of the heroic journalists around the world...As in every transition, Pack brings a leadership team that is committed to eradicating the known mismanagement and scandals that have plagued the agency for decades.”

The State Department inspector general’s office said it received the letter seeking an investigation, but declined to comment further. 

Also on Tuesday, the law firm Gupta Wessler filed a lawsuit on behalf of Open Technology Fund (an independent nonprofit within the U.S. Agency for Global Media dedicated to internet freedom) and the advisory board members alleging Pack broke the law with the firings. “Pack’s short, tumultuous tenure has already vindicated his critics’ worst fears,” the lawsuit alleged. “It is hard to conceive of a more serious breach of the organizations’ legally protected independence than the wholesale decapitation of their leadership by an ideologically-oriented maker of political films, installed by the president for the stated purpose of altering the organizations’ content.” 

Nevertheless, Pack is forging ahead with his plans to revamp the agency. On Wednesday he outlined a plan to “restore VOA editorials to [their] former prominence.” This includes: streamlining the clearance process, featuring them on the top of the website and resuming VOA language services’ use of editorials, among other things. Editorials, unlike news articles, are opinion pieces that reflect the views of an outlet’s editorial board. In VOA’s case they are “the only place in all of U.S. international broadcasting where administration policy, set by the president, is communicated directly in the name of the U.S. government to audiences abroad in various languages.”

Pack is the first CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media following the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ restructuring and renaming in 2018. Trump tapped Pack for the position in June 2018 and then resubmitted the nomination in February when the first one expired.  Democrats tried to delay his confirmation hearing when Menendez revealed in May the D.C. Attorney General launched a probe into Pack’s possible misuse of funds from his nonprofit Public Media Lab at his for-profit company, Reuters reported. However, the Republican-majority confirmed him on June 4.

Pack is an ally and former colleague of Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News executive and White House chief strategist. “We are going hard on the charge,” Bannon recently told Vox, regarding the agency’s coverage of China that he believes is too soft. “Pack’s over there to clean house.”