President Donald Trump's head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media faced growing calls for his ouster on Wednesday after announcing earlier this week the repeal of a "firewall" regulation insulating journalists working for publicly-funded news outlets overseas from the editorial dictates of political appointees, with critics warning the move could help turn U.S. taxpayer-supported international broadcasters into the president's "Ministry of Propaganda."
Michael Pack, a close ally of Steve Bannon, became the chief executive officer of the USAGM in June after being hand picked by Trump and approved by the Republican-led Senate, as Common Dreams reported earlier this year.
The Voice of America (VOA), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Open Technology Fund fall under the purview of USAGM.
Prior to Pack's attacks on the USAGM, media workers in these newsrooms—collectively reaching more than 350 million people around the world each week—were protected from political interference in their publicly-financed work abroad.
As NPR explained, USAGM journalists have historically provided "balanced coverage of news events and robust political debate, regardless of how it reflected on current government officials." In addition, "the broadcasters are also intended to serve the citizens of nations which do not allow journalists to operate freely."
The public service provided by the USAGM endured yet another attack from its CEO when Pack announced late Monday night that he was rescinding, effective immediately, the "firewall rule" prohibiting politically appointed officials like himself from meddling in the editorial decisions made by agency affiliated journalists.
In a statement released Tuesday, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that by "trying to tear down the legally mandated firewall that protects USAGM broadcasters from outside interference," Pack "has taken his rampage on America's international broadcasting to another level."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) echoed Engel's comments. In a tweet on Wednesday, Warren stated that "Trump stooge Michael Pack is eliminating the legally required editorial independence of U.S.-funded news outlets abroad so they can act like Trump's Ministry of Propaganda."
"This is the stuff of tinpot dictatorships," she added.
Trump stooge Michael Pack is eliminating the legally required editorial independence of US-funded news outlets abroad so they can act like Trump’s Ministry of Propaganda. This is the stuff of tinpot dictatorships. Pack should resign.https://t.co/a5xo050VVp— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) October 28, 2020
In an attempt to justify his scraping of the "firewall rule," Pack argued that the regulation preventing the CEO from intervening in the editorial direction of the agency's newsrooms—based, he claimed, on "flawed legal and constitutional reasoning"—was "harmful to... the U.S. national interest" and "threatened" the fulfillment of the agency's "mission to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy" as well as the nation's "broad foreign policy objectives" as defined by the president.
The USAGM CEO, who accused China, Russia, and Iran of "spending enormous resources spreading disinformation to undermine freedom and democracy," is being criticized for repressing critical thought in taxpayer-funded newsrooms and adopting a heavy-handed editorial approach resembling the highly politicized management of news organizations by some authoritarian regimes.
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The U.S. diplomats' union warned that Pack was attempting to turn VOA and other overseas broadcasters into "vehicles for 'government propaganda,'" as The Guardian reported Tuesday.
"This action runs counter to the tradition of independence and non-partisanship of U.S. public broadcasting... and tarnishes America's tradition of a free press that goes back to the founders," the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) said in a statement.
"Government propaganda has no place in official U.S. news reporting," the AFSA added. "Truth is the best antidote to foreign disinformation."
Amanda Bennett, former director of VOA, told NPR that she was "stunned" by the move. She explained that by rescinding the "firewall rule," Pack had removed "the one thing that makes VOA distinct from broadcasters of repressive regimes."
"The key to the credibility of any news organization," David Kligerman told NPR, "is editorial independence and adherence to the professional standards of journalism."
In addition to being the main author of the regulation repealed by Pack, Kligerman—whom the CEO suspended as the USAGM's general counsel in August—is one of "a half-dozen whistleblowers who have come forward to challenge Pack's actions since he arrived in June," NPR noted.
"The firewall protects the networks by insulating their editorial decisions from political interference," Kligerman added. "That is what differentiates VOA and the other USAGM-funded networks from the state-sponsored propaganda of Russia, China, Iran, and others."
Engel noted that Pack lacks the authority to undue the "firewall rule," which was legislated by Congress. In his statement, Engel encouraged journalists working for the agency "to continue carrying out their important work and to ignore illegal interference from Mr. Pack and other administration officials."
Both Engel and Warren called for Pack's resignation.
"Though his tenure will hopefully soon come to an end," Engel said, "I worry what additional damage he can do in the meantime."
"It will be critical for the next Congress to repair the damage he's done and to enact protections that will prevent an ideologue like him from attempting to destroy the agency again," Engel added.