Trump Appointee Removes ‘Firewall’ Preventing Administration From Meddling In VOA Reporting

Earlier this month, it was reported that the "rule of law" Trump administration was (yet again) violating the law. In this particular case, Trump appointee Michael Pack -- the CEO of the US Agency for Global Media -- was breaching a codified "firewall" to target Voice of America reporters he believed were too critical of Trump and his actions.

The "firewall" was erected to prevent exactly what Pack was doing. It was supposed to allow VOA reporters to act independently, rather than be subjected to the whims of presidential administrations. Breaching the firewall allowed Pack and the White House to control the narrative by sidelining or targeting journalists who expressed anti-administration sentiments elsewhere. Specifically cited were "retweets" and "likes" of social media posts criticizing Trump, as well as certain VOA pieces that highlighted the negative aspects of administration efforts.

Apparently, the problem was the law, not the lawbreaking. As NPR reports, Michael Pack has removed the law that prevented him from meddling in the day-to-day operation of Voice of America. It was done like most unseemly moves by governments are done: late in the day during a very busy news cycle.

A regulatory "firewall" intended to protect Voice of America and its affiliated newsrooms from political interference in their journalism was swept aside late Monday night by the chief executive of the federal agency which oversees the government's international broadcasters.

Michael Pack, a Trump appointee who assumed leadership of the U.S. Agency for Global Media in June, wrote that he acted to eliminate policies that were "harmful to the agency and the U.S. national interest." And Pack argued they had interfered with his mandate "to support the foreign policy of the United States."

[...]

Pack's bold move was taken in the dark of night — announced at 10:18 p.m. Eastern Time in a note to all of USAGM's several thousand employees, on the same night as the swearing-in of a new U.S. Supreme Court justice, and just eight days before Election Day.

Pack's late night memo says the law needed to go because it was preventing him from directly meddling in VOA affairs. According to Pack and his "extensive legal analysis," the VOA was always supposed to be a potential propaganda mouthpiece for sitting presidents and their administrations.

In its final hours of existence, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) issued a so-called “firewall rule,” instituting a significant misinterpretation of the 1994 International Broadcasting Act (IBA). I rescinded that rule based upon extensive legal analysis of the regulation and its conflict with Congress’s statutory mandate for USAGM – BBG’s successor – to support the foreign policy of the United States.

The “firewall rule” created a barrier between USAGM and the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasters and grantees under its management: the Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and the Open Technology Fund. The rule prohibited the CEO from engaging in managerial and editorial oversight, which Congress mandated the CEO to conduct to ensure that the agency carries out its proper governmental mission.

I'm sure the FOIA requests have been sent out for copies of the "extensive legal analysis" supporting Pack's unilateral removal of the firewall. And I'm sure no one will be seeing any responses any time soon, especially when it's certain the USAGM will claim it's a "deliberative" document that's also shielded by attorney-client privilege… even if it contains little more than Pack talking himself into doing something he was already doing.

No one who represents the Administration should be directly steering the editorial direction of the Voice of America, least of all this particular appointee.

[Pack] has embraced Trump's talk of a so-called "deep state" thwarting the president's priorities at USAGM, and Pack echoed White House immigration policies in denying visa extensions for foreign employees. Pack also instigated investigations of the Urdu language service, the French-to-Africa service and VOA's White House bureau chief over perceived anti-Trump bias in stories involving Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, or their wives, as NPR previously revealed.

Pack truly seems to believe Voice of America should be a cheerleader for the Administration. His own bio page links to a Washington Examiner article with the headline "New foreign broadcasting chief cleans house, pushes pro-America reporting." The article discusses Pack's firing of every VOA radio director and his feeling that VOA should be pushing "American ideals," along with "responsible criticism." This housecleaning -- and Pack's latest actions -- appear to be the end result of the Administration's criticism of VOA earlier this year, just as the pandemic was taking hold in the United States.

Now that the firewall is gone, so is the language on the USAGM's site touting the firewall's guarantee of journalistic independence. This part of the USAGM's "Myths and Untruths" FAQ has been memory-holed.

An essential guarantee of the journalistic credibility of U.S. global media content is the firewall enshrined in USAGM’s enabling legislation, the U.S. International Broadcasting Act.

The firewall prohibits interference by U.S. government officials, including the USAGM’s Chief Executive Officer, in the objective, independent reporting of news by USAGM networks (VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN, and Radio and TV Martí), thereby safeguarding the ability of USAGM journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference.

There won't be any more of this apparently useless "journalistic credibility," not with Pack in charge. The VOA belongs to the Administration now. And if Pack's rollback sticks, future presidential administrations will be able to steer the VOA towards more favorable reporting on their activities.

 

With thanks to our Friends over at : Techdirt.

 

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