USAGM Watch Commentary
While President-Elect Joe Biden has been a strong longtime supporter of U.S. international broadcasting, especially Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) which is incorporated in Delaware, his home state, and is expected to continue to support U.S. media outreach abroad, he was apparently not impressed in 2017 by the former senior management of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the pre-2018 name for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) now headed since June 2020 by Trump-nominated and U.S. Senate confirmed Michael Pack. Biden’s article on Russian propaganda published in December 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs did not mention even once the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty or the $800 million agency which runs these U.S. taxpayer-funded and U.S. government-managed media outlets. With some exceptions for some foreign language services, and not necessarily those targeting some of the major countries without free media, there is no verifiable proof of the agency’s effectiveness as there was during the Cold War. There are self-generated claims of audience grown, but those cannot be verified and have been questioned even by a former agency expert who otherwise supports the way the agency operated under its former management. In the case of the Voice of America, these questionable audience estimates may also include audiences in the United States which are being exposed to biased and partisan content from VOA — not at all in favor of Trump and Republicans, as liberal media outlets have claimed without bothering to check the actual VOA output before and during Michael Pack’s tenure, but strongly against them.
In December 2017 when Joe Biden had his article about Russian propaganda published in Foreign Affairs, the senior management of BBG (later USAGM) and the Voice of America (VOA) was led by John F. Lansing and Amanda Bennett. Just how bad their leadership was one needs to look no further than at the man former USAGM CEO Lansing picked as his top aide and chief strategic advisor who later went to federal prison for stealing money from the agency. Lansing then moved to lead National Public Radio (NPR). Under Bennett’s watch, more than a dozen journalists in the VOA Hausa Service were fired for allegedly taking bribes from a Nigerian politician. Lansing and Bennett, both appointed during the Obama administration, had left the federal agency, Lansing in September 2019 and Bennett in June 2020, but they had managed to serve for several years under the Trump administration because Michael Pack’s Senate confirmation was delayed.
Regardless of what happens to Michael Pack, the reform of the agency should be a top priority for President Biden if the U.S. wants to stand up to the Kremlin, China and Iran in the information sphere. Otherwise, close to one billion dollars the U.S. Agency for Global Media gets each year from U.S. taxpayers is going to be wasted on the agency’s vast bureaucracy and mostly ineffective programs.
We do believe in and support the right of new U.S. administrations, to replace senior agency personnel at USAGM, especially the periodic replacement of the agency’s CEO with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. The USAGM CEO can in turn replace other top administrators. This is a welcome change thanks to the 2017 technical amendments to the International Broadcasting Act. Without such periodic changes of leadership and replacement of senior officials prior to now, USAGM, VOA and other media entities have started to resemble one-party systems run by entrenched government and semi-private bureaucracies. Such a system promotes nepotism, corruption and in some cases, especially at VOA, extreme partisanship. We also support periodic changes of Voice of America’s senior and mid-level managers, including key managers in the VOA newsroom, as well as constant monitoring and evaluations of agency programs by independent experts.
It was unfortunate that Michael Pack had to wait three years to be confirmed by the Senate and that many failed agency officials and managers were able to hold on to their jobs far longer than they should have. Because his confirmation was delayed, he did not have time to carry out all personnel and administrative reforms. In our view, he could either be allowed to finish his three year term or he could set a good precedent by resigning when President Biden is sworn-in. As long as these periodic changes of leadership and transitions occur, there is a slight chance, if everything goes well, that the agency and the media outlets it manages can be spared being run indefinitely by a one-party elite according to a single and never changing ideological blueprint. The agency has already become irrelevant in many countries because of its stifling and self-perpetuating bureaucracy and its ideologically uniform corps of journalists, especially in the VOA newsroom.
But according to at least one media report, Biden apparently does not want Michael Pack to continue in his current position. Once Biden is sworn-in as president, he may try to fire the Trump appointee who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate only last June for a three-year term unless Pack choses first to resign on his own.
In our view, Pack would do well if he offered to help with the transition and later resigned. The Biden transition team would do well by agreeing to such an arrangement. The worst thing that the Biden team could do would be to bring back to the agency some of the failed managers who had brought USAGM to the point of near irrelevancy in many foreign countries and have introduced unprecedented levels of domestic interference in partisan politics in the United States.
But ultimately, it is not at all clear that Michael Pack has to resign because of the change in the White House. It is also not entirely clear whether Biden or any other U.S. President has sufficient authority to fire him from his position as the first agency CEO during his first three-year term if he does not want to resign on his own. Any new president has the power to fire political appointees left over from the previous administration, but Pack’s case may be unique because of a vaguely-worded provision in the bipartisan law signed in December 2016 by President Obama. Pack has not commented so far whether he plans to stay or resign.
According to an article in VOX, quoting Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the former vice president’s campaign, Biden definitely wants to fire Michael Pack, but this statement was made during the pre-election campaign when partisan passions run high and partisan former agency officials had the ear of the Biden campaign staffers and may have provided them with misleading accusations.
According to VOX, Biden believes Pack is trying to turn one of the world’s largest media networks into something akin to Breitbart or Trump TV, but this claim is not supported by evidence or any such programming changes under Pack. He has spoken about some of the management scandals which had occurred under the Lansing-Bennett team, including alleged improper security vetting of VOA and other agency employees.
Pack does not appear to be at all a radical right-winger that most liberal media outlets and some of the former agency officials present him to be. He appears to be a soft-spoken moderate intellectual conservative while some of his critics appear to suffer from McCarthyite obsessions they accuse him of possessing. Pack has chosen longtime agency manager Elez Biberaj to serve as acting VOA director even though he knew that Biberaj had worked closely with the former Obama-appointed management team and even took former VOA director Amanda Bennett to meet with a Balkan politician who openly interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections against Trump. No one at VOA considers Biberaj to be a Trump supporter. Biberaj had posted in the past on social media about his family’s links to Democratic Party politicians, including his family members, Biden and former President Obama.
Contrary to most reports in liberal media, critics say that it was under the former management team led by John Lansing and Amanda Bennett that unprecedented violations of the VOA Charter and politicization of the Voice of America took place, including running of VOA-produced videos which may have harmed Trump and helped Hillary Clinton during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. Such abuses were not seen at VOA prior to 2015-2016 when Lansing and Bennett took over.
Even during initial weeks of Pack’s watch in June 2020, the Voice of America Urdu Service posted a pro-Joe Biden political video ad which may have helped Biden win some votes from Muslim Americans, especially in Michigan.
Nothing even remotely similar in pro-Trump content or other violations of the VOA Charter and the VOA journalistic code were reported since Pack took over in June 2020 as USAGM CEO.
While Biden may have been told and may believe incorrectly that Pack is introducing pro-Trump programming, Biden may have also been told previously that the Voice of America was not performing well against Russia and China and that former BBG governors were doing corporate business in these two countries while overseeing the agency’s budgets and media programs.
In writing his 2017 article for Foreign Affairs, Biden either completely forgot about the agency, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, or he was not impressed by the agency’s work in standing up to propaganda from the Kremlin and omitted to mention it.
Such an omission would have been unthinkable during the Cold War when RFE, RL and VOA played a critical role in the information war with the Soviet Union. But as Hillary Clinton, who in 2013 was Secretary of State and herself a member of the BBG Board, observed in her congressional testimony, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has become “practically defunct.”
“Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back into it,” Clinton said.
The 2017 Foreign Affairs article on Russia’s propaganda and disinformation against the West, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies,” co-written by Joe Biden and Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center who had served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2017, failed to mention any role in exposing and countering the Kremlin’s anti-U.S., anti-EU and anti-NATO narrative with any kind of help from U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the Voice of America in what was then the Broadcasting Board of Governors. RFE/RL and VOA were not even mentioned once in the Biden-Carpenter article.
READ MORE: How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies. By Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter. Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2017.
Biden’s former chief of staff, Edward E. Kaufman, who later took over Biden’s U.S. Senate seat in Delaware from 2009 to 2010, served on the Broadcasting Board of Governors from 1995 until 2008. Ted Kaufman may be someone who will be advising President Biden on USAGM matters.
Even though Kaufman had left the BBG in 2008, he may have subsequently become aware of the agency’s management and programming problems vis-a-vis Putin’s Russia and China, including VOA’s recent repeats under Amanda Bennett’s watch of several Chinese government’s propaganda videos without any challenge or balance.
Problems at the agency started well before the Lansing-Bennett period, but they intensified under these two former officials. In 2011, when the agency had different top leaders but some of the same recent senior and mid-level managers, an independent Russian journalist warned about a “pro-Putin” bias of the Voice of America Russian Service. Media scholar, Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy, was hired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors to evaluate the VOA Russian website. In his report, Dr. Rudenskiy concluded that the Russian Service had a “pro-Putin bias” and downplayed human rights reporting. He wrote in 2011 that “the site provides little if any unique information or bright and perceptive comment, it appears rather mediocre in terms of journalistic quality or design, and it lacks focus on the topics where it potentially could excel.”
Now, my impression is that VOA has been too careful in avoiding anything that might look like ‘anti-Russian’ bias. A telling example of this attitude can be found in the coverage of Vice President Biden’s  visit to Moscow. The reporting focused on Biden voicing support for Medvedev’s “modernization,” traveling to Skolkovo etc., all of which was amply covered by national TV channels. But Vice President’s speech in Moscow University, in which he criticized Russia’s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event (http://www.voanews.com/russian/news/russia/Biden- students-2011-03-10-117738384.html [link is no longer active]) was titled “Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours”; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia’s “legal nihilism” — an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of “pro-Russian” (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.Dr. Nikolay rudenskiy, “VOICE OF AMERICA RUSSIAN WEBSITE EVALUATION QUESTIONNAIRE,” Broadcasting board of governors, 2011
While some of the earlier VOA Russian Service program problems may have been addressed, new scandals emerged, such as the fake 2012 VOA interview with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who was a target of a recent poisoning attack in Russia. Until recently, the VOA Russian Service employed a TV reporter who prior to his employment by VOA produced anti-U.S. Russian propaganda videos with anti-semitic conspiracy theories, but when Michael Pack cited the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) July 2020 report about years of improper security vetting of some of the agency’s new employees, he was ridiculed by 14 VOA central English newsroom reporters, The Washington Post, The New York Times and NPR.
As to Michael Pack’s future at USAGM, it remains unclear. His critics, including former VOA Director Amanda Bennett, would no doubt like him to depart as soon as possible. In the meantime, he reportedly approved rehiring of three Chinese American journalists from the original group of “VOA Mandarin Five” broadcaster–a move we strongly applaud. The three were fired from the Voice of America after their dispute with Amanda Bennett over her decision in April 2017 to shorten a live interview with a Chinese anti-communist whistleblower. Pack may still take similar steps to repair the damage done by the former Lansing-Bennett team unless some of his decisions are reversed by a court ruling, he decides to resign, or he is successfully fired by President Biden once he takes office. It is therefore hard to predict what will happen at USAGM in the coming weeks and months.
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Public Law 114-328, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on December, 23, 2016, in Sec. 1288 Modification of United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994 (22 U.S.C. 6201 et seq.; Public Law 103–236) amended section 304 (22 U.S.C. 6203) and established the initial term of the first Chief Executive Officer for three years.
Despite of this provision, at some point in the near future, Michael Pack should offer his resignation and President Biden should appoint his own official to run and, hopefully, further drastically reform the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
We doubt that President Biden will let Michael Pack stay too long, but perhaps he should, at least for a while, if only to prevent the former failed managers from returning to the agency. USAGM needs to be protected from radical partisanship from the left and from the right. We will have to wait to see what happens. These days nothing in U.S. politics can be predicted with any great certainty.
2. Term.—The first Chief Executive Officer appointed pursuant to paragraph (1) shall serve for an initial term of three years.U.S. Agency for Global Media, Legislation, Technical amendments to the International Broadcasting Act, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017
Public Law 114-328