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CEO of Voice of America’s parent agency defies subpoena despite bipartisan concerns

Corrections: An earlier version of this story reported that Michael Pack fired Amanda Bennett, who ran Voice of America. In fact, Ms. Bennett and her deputy resigned after Mr. Pack received congressional confirmation. The story also misstated Ms. Bennett’s title; it was director, not president, of VOA. Finally, Rep. Tom Malinowski was originally misidentified as a member of Congress from Connecticut. Mr. Malinowski represents the 7th District of New Jersey. The NewsHour regrets these errors.

Michael Pack, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, ignored a congressional subpoena over concerns he has politicized and mismanaged media outlets that helped the U.S. win the Cold War. One of those outlets is Voice of America. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Jamie Fly, formerly the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who was fired by Pack. He is now at the German Marshall Fund.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, in the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing room, there was an empty chair for Michael Pack, the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

    Pack ignored a subpoena from lawmakers, who today expressed bipartisan concern that he has politicized and mismanaged media outlets that helped the U.S. win the Cold War, including Voice of America.

    Nick Schifrin begins our report with another action by Pack, foreign VOA journalists being forced to leave the U.S.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Valdya Baraputri's career at Voice of America ended with a one-way ticket. She didn't want to leave the U.S., but she and fellow VOA Indonesia journalist Rafki Hidayat had to take a plane home after VOA wouldn't extend their visas.

  • Valdya Baraputri:

    Being thrown out of a country in the middle of a pandemic feels very cruel.

  • President Donald Trump:

    If you heard what's coming out of the Voice of America, it's disgusting.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump has made it clear he's unhappy with what he calls VOA bias, as has the new CEO of VOA's parent company, the United States Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, Michael Pack.

  • Michael Pack:

    Ronald Reagan apparently said that, if you let go of the wheel of the car, it veers left. And there's something to that. The media, undirected, goes left. It has a left-wing, leftward bias.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In audio interviews, Pack also cites national security. He says the foreign journalists on U.S. visas weren't properly vetted, leaving the organization vulnerable to espionage.

  • Michael Pack:

    Journalism — to be a journalist is a great cover for a spy. It's just a great cover. And from the beginning, from the Cold War and even earlier, they have been penetrated.

  • Jamie Fly:

    These are the same slurs that are hurled at them by the Kremlin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jamie Fly Led Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by USAGM, before he was fired by Pack.

  • Valdya Baraputri:

    It was incredibly dangerous for the USAGM head to start basically writing a press release that the Kremlin can then turn around and use the next week about USAGM journalists.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    "PBS NewsHour" spoke to a half-dozen of the more than 70 VOA journalists whose visas weren't renewed. None would go on the record, but one provided this document, confirmation they filled out a standard U.S. government background check used for many administration officials. It's more than 100 pages' long.

  • Grant Turner:

    Mr. Pack is making it seem like national security is at risk here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Grant Turner was the c.f.o. Of USAGM until he was fired by Pack.

  • Grant Turner:

    I think it's really just sort of pretext and a good cover for taking some abhorrent actions.

  • Announcer:

    The courier, a ship without guns, goes into battle with the greatest weapon of all: truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Voice of America was created by the U.S. government to broadcast behind the Iron Curtain to promote American ideas by presenting objective news.

  • Announcer:

    This is Radio Liberty.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Alongside VOA, USAGM provides grants to independent corporations that are supposed to be independent media outlets, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcast Network, and Open Technology Fund, which funds tools that help evade government censorship and surveillance.

    Pack fired their leaders and replaced their bipartisan boards with partisan ones. Today, the witnesses said that degraded the media organizations' credibility.

  • Amanda Bennett:

    The very fact that our news is provided outside the control of any party in power gives VOA its own power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, VOA and the other agencies broadcasts in more than 60 languages to an audience of more than 350 million.

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    I will end the Muslim ban on day one.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    VOA's Urdu service came under fire for broadcasting, without context, a campaign ad from Joe Biden. Senior VOA journalists later removed the video from its platforms.

    But, if that shouldn't have aired, here's what aired more recently on VOA's Spanish channels, before journalists called for its removal.

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    (SPEAKING SPANISH) Joe Biden.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's Trump campaign official Mercedes Schlapp telling viewers the Joe Biden campaign will destroy Hispanic families.

    There has been past criticism of USAGM funding, morale, and structure. Even some Republicans criticize Pack.

    Top House foreign affairs Republican Mike McCaul:

  • Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas:

    Make no mistake, I believe there is some reform that needs to be done. But I don't think we should throw out — the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski:

  • Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J.:

    If China, Russia, North Korea, or any of our adversaries had in fact infiltrated USAGM, they could have not possibly done more harm to America's interests than Mr. Pack has in fact done on his own.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And joining us now is Jamie Fly, former foreign policy adviser to Marco Rubio, former defense official under George W. Bush, and, as you just saw in that piece, was the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, until he was fired by Michael Pack.

    Jamie Fly, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    You're a Republican. Do you believe that what Pack is doing is partisan?

  • Jamie Fly:

    I'm not even sure it's partisan.

    I think what we learned today at the hearing is that there appears to be just a lot of gross mismanagement of the agency under way right now. There were Democrats and Republicans fired en masse.

    And he's putting these national security tools, these tools of American soft power at risk. And I don't — I'm not even sure it has a lot to do with politics.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why does it matter that an organization like yours, RFE/RL, Voice of America, these other organizations are seen perhaps as not independent under Michael Pack?

  • Jamie Fly:

    Over the decades, they have gained a loyal following in closed societies, in places like Russia, China, Iran, Belarus, which is incredibly relevant right now, as the Belarusian people are out in the streets trying to topple Lukashenko.

    And their credibility stems from their independence and their adherence to the highest professional standards of journalism. And that's really what is being threatened right now by Mr. Pack's actions, by the removal of the network heads, by some of his attempts and the people who are working with him to influence the coverage of networks like Voice of America.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned Voice of America, which is the federal news service you mentioned, USAGM, of course, which is a federal entity.

    RFE/RL, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is a little different, known as a grantee, because those federal agencies give money, grant money to your organization, the organization that you used to lead.

    What are you worried about these supposedly independent organizations moving forward under Michael Pack?

  • Jamie Fly:

    Well, Mr. Pack has used his powers not just to remove the network heads like myself, but he also replaced the corporate boards. He made himself chairman of the corporate board. He appointed his chief of staff to the corporate board, and he's filled the rest of the board slots with mostly Trump administration officials.

    It just de facto federalizes these entities, which, for decades, in the case of RFE/RL, have operated as nongovernmental organizations and have been able to be truly independent in their reporting in ways that start to become threatened once you have federal officials sitting on their board.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jamie Fly, thank you very much.

  • Jamie Fly:

    Thanks, Nick.

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