New leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media is working to restore trust and credibility after a tumultuous time during the Trump administration.
Shortly after getting sworn in on January 20, President Biden requested that Michael Pack, CEO of the global media agency, resign, which he did. During seven months in office, Pack and his officials made sweeping editorial, personnel and operational changes at the agency and the networks it oversees. The Office of Special Counsel determined during its ongoing investigation in December there was a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing among top agency leadership. Acting U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Kelu Chao and others are now working to make changes.
“Former CEO Pack and his appointees damaged the agency’s global credibility, operations, relationships with key interagency stakeholders and grantees, and workforce morale,” Laurie Moy, the agency’s acting director of public affairs, told Government Executive in a statement. “It will take time for the agency to gather the facts of what former CEO Pack did and determine how to properly and legally disentangle them. Acting CEO Kelu Chao is committed to being responsive and transparent to Congress, [offices of inspectors general], and other oversight entities as this process unfolds.”
In November, Chao, previously Voice of America program director, joined a lawsuit with a group of top officials who were placed on administrative leave in August, then sued the agency alleging Pack interfered with editorial independence and the First Amendment rights of the journalists. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in late-November, which prevented Pack from getting involved directly in editorial operations, making personnel decisions about journalists, communicating directly with journalists and editors, and investigating any of their stories.
Moy noted that some of the steps Chao has taken to improve conditions at the agency since becoming acting leader include: reaffirming the “firewall” that safeguards journalistic independence at VOA (after Pack rescinded a regulation implemented right before he took office that clarified the protections); bringing back Jamie Fly and Bay Fang as presidents of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, respectively, who were fired by Pack; completely re-engaging with the Open Technology Fund (an independent nonprofit within the agency dedicated to internet freedom), from which officials claimed Pack withheld appropriations; and removing the block on visa requests for VOA journalists.
Chao also fired the Middle East Broadcasting Network president and the boards for all the networks that Pack brought on in early January (after firing the previous ones shortly after taking office in June 2020), NPR reported.
In August, Pack put a group of top officials on administrative leave and then hired an outside law firm (McGuireWoods) to conduct internal investigations that cost at least $1 million and were an attempt to justify the firings, according to the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group that has represented current and former global media agency staff. They have been reinstated, expect for one who decided to retire, Moy said.
The agency is also working to “rectify the fiscal mismanagement of former CEO Pack, including the above-mentioned substantial fees for outside legal counsel, which have severely impacted [the agency’s fiscal] 2021 budget,” Moy said.
New Acting VOA Director Yolanda Lopez is also working to restore employees’ morale and trust in leadership. She was previously director of the VOA news center.
In December, Pack installed Robert Reilly, conservative author and former government official during Republican administrations (including VOA director for a year under President George W. Bush), as VOA director, prompting much concern and criticism, including among current employees. He, along with his deputy Elizabeth Robbins, were fired on January 21, Biden’s first full day in office.
“For the first time in many months, we held a general town hall meeting and encouraged questions, providing answers on a wide range of issues from COVID-19 and reconstitution as the pandemic eases, to training initiatives and best practices,” said Lopez, in a statement to Government Executive. “I have relaunched the director’s initiative to meet directly with the journalists in each of our language services” and “had multiple meetings with our managers to discuss working toward common goals.”
She is also promoting mentorship and peer-to-peer programs and restored the VOA news standard and best practice editor who is bringing back regular training on the firewall for employees. Lastly, the agency “has renewed its commitment to funding for critical circumvention technology, which enables us to reach audiences in countries that block our journalism, such as Iran, Russia, China and North Korea,” Lopez said.
Steve Capus, a former USAGM adviser, tweeted, “Good news. The professionals are back,” upon the news about the top officials being reinstated last month. Chao “continues to rebuild the agency [networks] needlessly damaged by the Trump administration appointee.”
David Seide, senior counsel at GAP, praised Chao’s work thus far. Pack and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “and folks wanted VOA to be a propaganda arm of the Trump administration, which hurt its credibility with its audience,” Seide said. “There’s a lot of accountability that needs to be had” after the Trump era.
After Pompeo gave a speech at VOA headquarters to staff on January 11––which GAP raised concerns about on behalf of anonymous employees–– a VOA journalist was reassigned from the White House beat after trying to ask Pompeo a question on his way out. However, on January 22, she tweeted that she was brought back.
In October the journalist’s colleague Steve Herman, VOA White House bureau chief, “was investigated for the baseless accusation of bias against the administration – another example of politicization of our agency” under Pack, she tweeted. “I hope this ends the turmoil in our agency. We are excited [to] go back to covering the news the way [VOA] always [has]–comprehensively, with accuracy and balance. These standards we will protect and apply, no matter who is in office.”
Amanda Bennett, VOA director who resigned shortly after Pack’s confirmation, condemned the destruction that Pack and Reilly caused in a Washington Post opinion article in December. She also noted that under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which the House and Senate had recently passed at the time, “a VOA director can only be named or removed by a Senate-confirmed bipartisan board — a board that doesn’t yet exist,” which could allow Reilly to stick around “long after President-elect Joe Biden takes office and Pack himself is gone.”
However, the fiscal 2021 spending omnibus package, which was passed later that month, delayed the provisions from taking effect until 90 days after the bill was enacted, which is March 27. It also gave the Open Technology Fund 90 days to respond to submit a formal notice opposing any proposed debarments of federal funding.
Pack proposed a debarment for at least three years in a December 15 letter and initially gave them 30 days to respond. Before the extension, should it have gone through, “the debarment would take effect on Jan. 19, just a day before Biden is sworn in,” The Associated Press reported on December 18. “Shortly after assuming his position in June, Pack dismissed the OTF board, whose members sued and won a court order against their dismissals. The move to ‘debar’ it appears to be a way around the court decision and would effectively shut the OTF down.”
OTF did not immediately respond for comment on whether or not they submitted the response yet.
Both Pack and Reilly were unwavering in their views about their agencies upon their departures.
In his outgoing message to staff, obtained by The Washington Examiner, Pack disputed the characterization of his tenure at the agency. He said it was “disheartening” that Biden asked him to resign because he “sought above all, to help the agency share America’s story with the world objectively and without bias.”
In a Washington Times op-ed published on February 4, Reilly pushed back on Bennett’s article and said that while a free press matters, “VOA is supposed to promote all the freedoms necessary for democratic constitutional rule, not only one of them.” He wrote that now that Lopez and Chao have assumed leadership positions, “do not expect sanity to return to the asylum anytime soon.”