BBG – USAGM Watch Guest Commentary
Michael Pack, President Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which includes the Voice of America (VOA) and other taxpayer-funded media entities serving audiences overseas, testified Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs which needs to approve his nomination before it is sent to the full Senate for the final confirmation vote. In his testimony and in answering questions from U.S. Senators, Pack pledged to protect journalistic integrity of USAGM programs.
USAGM CEO nominee Michael Pack pledges to protect journalistic integrity
By Dan Robinson, former Voice of America journalist
Thursday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing which considered the nomination of Michael Pack to be new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) could be said to have gone as expected.
Pack, whose nomination was held up for more than a year – notably by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) – faced the expected questions from Menendez, and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) about how he would shield agency journalists from political interference.
Pack delivered, pledging to maintain journalistic integrity as a “bedrock principle” and support the independence of agency reporters, but also underscoring the need for steps to enhance the “impact” of an agency plagued by scandals and low employee morale.
Pack pointed to a need to “keep the work of this agency in line with “U.S. global interests and 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”
Pack used his prepared statement, with some minor changes, to make clear that during his long wait for the confirmation hearing, he had been paying close attention to the numerous scandals at USAGM and at Voice of America.
If confirmed, Pack said his first goal would be to improve employee morale, noting that USAGM consistently ranks at or near the bottom in surveys of mid-sized Agencies in terms of morale and job satisfaction.
His second goal would be to address scandals at USAGM including “accusations of bribery, anti-Antisemitism, and malfeasance by a senior official. I will make certain that the Agency is doing everything that it can to make sure such scandals cease and don’t occur in the future.”
These scandals played out under Obama-era appointee John Lansing, who it was recently announced has been chosen to head National Public Radio, and under VOA director Amanda Bennett.
Employees of VOA’s Hausa Service were found to have accepted bribes from a Nigerian official. VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) illegally targeted Americans with Facebook ads. At least one senior VOA reporter temporarily blocked American journalists from following his VOA tweets. Multiple VOA reporters posted highly partisan and sometimes offensive comments and memes on their personal Facebook pages. One VOA foreign language service translated and uploaded a partisan election campaign video on its official VOA Facebook account. An independent study found that VOA and RFE/RL repeated propaganda from the Iranian regime, often without any challenge. Critics point to Russian propaganda themes sometimes being repeated by VOA without balance or counter. Lansing was late in dealing with an anti-Semitic video produced by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. He also ignored early warnings about illegal Facebook ads and partisan bias and VOA programs. His spokesperson refused to answer questions from American journalists whether the VOA Russian Service has hired a journalist who in his previous career in Russia produced anti-U.S. propaganda videos with anti-Semitic themes. Haroon Ullah, a former senior official and aide to Lansing, faces sentencing in October after pleading guilty to a charge of stealing government funds.
Congress has never undertaken a thorough investigation of these and other scandals at the agency, which also include the controversy over the firing of employees in VOA’s Mandarin Service, and numerous technical breakdowns that impacted agency programs.
Lawmakers from both parties continue shoveling taxpayer dollars to USAGM because they see it as a tool to counter Russian, Chinese and other disinformation, a fact underscored by Senator Robert Menendez as he questioned Pack.
Menendez — who had blocked Pack’s nomination — cited Pack’s association with ex-Trump aide Steve Bannon and asked how Pack could be expected to support independent journalism without political interference.
Menendez cited a 2017 article by Pack titled “Will Steve Bannon Help Break the Left’s Monopoly on Documentaries?”
In that article, Pack pointed to what he called “bad news for [the] documentary establishment. Trump, with Bannon’s help, campaigned against political correctness and self-dealing elites. And they won.”
Based on this, Menendez asked Pack “how can we expect someone who has publicly embraced his role as a conservative documentarian to steward an agency that is charged with supporting independent, politically unmotivated press?”
Pack pointed to his “track record” including his time at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where he said he was required to assist programming and reflect the highest journalistic standards and a diversity of opinion.” At CPB, Pack said he did not try to impose his views on filmmakers.
Referring to his time as head of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, Pack said that role was very different from the one he was about to take on at USAGM.
Both before and after Pack’s nomination was formally announced by the White House a series of articles published by major media outlets warning of what was called a Trump “takeover” of the agency.
Asked by Menendez how he would protect the so-called “firewall” guarding journalists at USAGM from political interference, Pack said “I’m not sure about all the journalistic practices and techniques inside the agency right now to do that, but I would look at those and try to strengthen them. I guess it comes down to we need to say no when you get a call from a political person telling journalists what to do.”
Asked if he is capable of saying no, Pack said “I think so, I have said no before.”
Menendez said Pack would likely face “enormous pressure”, whether from members of Congress or the president, to tell USAGM journalists to “tell this story in this way.”
“That is not what broadcasting is across the globe,” said Menendez. “If we have independent, free, balanced reporting then people in the world will listen to what we have to say. If we are just promoting somebody’s view then people in the world will very quickly….turn off and tune out.”
Pack said he sees his mission as being to make USAGM more effective and provide as Congress intended “the leadership and vision to help ramp up the impact of the five broadcasting entities and to create a more effective U.S broadcasting effort on the world stage.”
“Fulfilling that hope won’t be easy or fast,” Pack said, adding that he intends to confer extensively “with the talented and dedicated men and women of USAGM and with “all stakeholders most definitely including here in Congress.”
In other remarks, Senator Menendez said that some questions had arisen since their one-on-one meeting, and he hoped to have additional answers from Pack, who pledged to respond in writing.
Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) Cardin noted that Pack would be the first confirmed CEO of the agency (John Lansing was appointed by the former Broadcasting Board of Governors but never faced Senate confirmation).
Cardin referred to the balance Pack would be required to maintain as CEO to “respect the professional independence and integrity of the agency, first and foremost your reporters [but also] the integrity of presenting the facts and the news but on the other side this is a government supported function and we are countering propaganda that is out there that is anything but factual and is clearly aimed at a political objective.”
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.”
At the same time, Pack pointed to the need to “make some decisions that keep the work of this agency in line with what the U.S. global interests are. However, he added that “the first principle has to be the editorial independence of journalists in the field, and no one should be telling them what to report or how to shade the news.”
In his formal statement to the committee, Pack said America’s adversaries have “stepped up their propaganda and disinformation efforts [and are] aggressively promoting their very different visions of the world.”
Pack cited a quote from Abraham Lincoln in his first debate with Senator Stephen Douglas: “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces judicial decisions.”
In today’s connected age, said Pack, “molding global public sentiment matters. As Lincoln would have counseled, we need to counter lies with the truth. We need to make clear to the world the ideals America strives to live up to. That is the mission of the USAGM.”
END OF DAN ROBINSON’S COMMENTARY
Testimony of Mr. Michael Pack Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO Nominee before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
September 19, 2019
Good Morning Chairman Risch, Ranking Member Menendez, and distinguished Members of the Committee. It is an honor to be with you today as the President’s nominee to serve as CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, recently re-named the U.S. Agency for Global Media. As you all know, this is a new position, and I want to thank the Committee for having had the foresight and vision to create it.
With me today is my wife of soon to be 33 years, Gina Cappo Pack; she is my business partner and my closest confidant. Our anniversary is tomorrow.
The oldest of my three sons, William, is also in the audience. I want to thank Gina, William and my entire family for their support and encouragement. Let me also thank my good friend Ambassador Paula Dobriansky for making time to introduce me today.
I have a long love affair with international broadcasting. In 1992, my wife and I were living Los Angeles and running our independent film company. We had recently bought a new home in the Hollywood Hills with a lovely view. My wife was eight months pregnant with our first child, William. Our life was very much on track.
Then, I received a call from the U.S. Information Agency asking if I would serve as Director of Worldnet, which is now the television component of the Voice of America. The biggest event of my life – the end of the Cold War – was recent history, and the VOA had helped bring that about. Now, I could be part of this storied institution and help it bring free media and fact-based reporting to the now newly-liberated states of the former Soviet Union, and rest of the world. Without hesitation, my very pregnant wife and I rerouted our lives, sold our home, moved to DC, and never looked back.
Since then, I have been a participant, an observer, and a fan of international broadcasting. I have never wavered in my admiration and support of its mission and the men and women who work so hard to fulfill it.
Let me tell you a little about myself. I was born and raised in New York City, where I started my film company – Manifold Productions – in 1977. As I said, we moved to LA in 1988, and then to DC in 1992. I have produced more than 15 documentaries which have been nationally broadcast on PBS, all received favorable reviews and excellent ratings.
Our films tell America’s story – also one of the goals of international broadcasting. The stories we’ve told range from history to politics to culture. We’ve made films about our nation’s founding fathers, the entertainment industry, the history of America’s political parties, Congress, great engineers and scientists, and much more.
In addition to my documentary filmmaking, I have served as a senior executive in media companies, gathering experience managing journalists, writers, professors, staff and others. Often, I have had to restructure and move these organizations in new directions.
I’ve already mentioned my time serving as Director of Worldnet under President George H.W. Bush. I reported to both the Director of the U.S. Information Agency and the Director of the Voice of America and managed a staff of 291, mostly civil servants but also contractors and foreign service officers. During my time there, we were able to more fully integrate Worldnet with the VOA, producing their first ever collaboration, a weekly public affairs television series for Ukraine. And, I forged life-long friendships that continue to enrich my life today.
After leaving Worldnet, I took what I had learned about international broadcasting to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and launched, with Paula Dobriansky, the International TV Council, geared to arranging co-productions between American producers and their counterparts in the former Soviet Union, to aid in their transition to independent, free media.
Years later, in 2003, I returned to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the Senior Vice President of Television Production. Part of my mission was to launch new programming initiatives, which CPB had not done in many years. The first was America at a Crossroads, a series of prime-time documentaries examining challenges facing America after September 11th, from a variety of perspectives. The second was the History and Civics initiative, employing all media, from traditional TV to video games, to address middle and high schoolers’ declining knowledge of our nation’s past. Both these initiatives, in their way, focused on telling America’s story.
In between my stints at CPB, I was nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate to serve on the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Most recently, I was the President and CEO of the Claremont Institute, a think tank based in Southern California. The Institute is dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to the rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. I opened the Institute’s first Washington, D.C. office and its first communications department, which significantly raised the profile of the Institute. And under my direction, we launched a website based on its flagship publication, the Claremont Review of Books.
My many years running Manifold Productions, in between these other professional opportunities, has provided varied and relevant management experience. Each film produced is like launching a mini-company, with 50 to 75 associates, from journalists and historians to film professionals and other experts, all working on it at one time or other over several years. In addition to the creative work, my wife and I are responsible for all business functions, from raising and managing the finances to marketing and development and we have run this successful small business for over 30 years.
Although making documentaries is very satisfying work, I feel called back to international broadcasting again, just as I was originally called in 1991, though this time my wife is not pregnant, and we don’t have to move three thousand miles.
America’s adversaries have stepped up their propaganda and disinformation efforts. They are aggressively promoting their very different visions of the world. Consider this famous quote from Abraham Lincoln’s first debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces judicial decisions.”
Although Lincoln had democratic America in mind, in today’s connected age, molding global public sentiment matters. As Lincoln would have counseled, we need to counter lies with the truth. We need to make clear to the world the ideals America strives to live up to. That is the mission of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. I would be honored to assist in that noble effort.
If confirmed, I have would have three goals: The first is to raise employee morale at the Agency. USAGM consistently ranks at the bottom in surveys of mid-sized Agencies in terms of morale and job satisfaction. I will make it a priority to improve morale. . The second is addressing the scandals besetting USAGM. In recent years, the Agency has been rocked by a series of scandals including accusations of bribery, anti-Semitism, and malfeasance by a senior official. I will make certain that the Agency is doing everything it can to make sure such scandals cease and put processes in place to prevent such situations in the future. Third, and most importantly, my mission will be to make the Agency more effective. There was bi-partisan support to create this new CEO position and to replace the existing Broadcasting Board of Governors. The hope was that a CEO would provide the leadership and vision to help ramp up the impact of the five broadcasting entities and to create a more effective U.S broadcasting effort on the world stage. Fulfilling that hope won’t be easy or fast. I will confer extensively with the talented and dedicated men and women of USAGM and will consult with all stakeholders, most definitely including here in Congress. So, you will be hearing from me often.
Thank you for your time this morning. I look forward to answering your questions.