Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

At Voice of America, Trump Appointee Sought Political Influence Over Coverage

U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack may have breached a firewall meant to insulate Voice of America journalism from political meddling.
U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack may have breached a firewall meant to insulate Voice of America journalism from political meddling.

At the Voice of America, staffers say the Trump appointee leading their parent agency is threatening to wash away legal protections intended to insulate their news reports from political meddling.

"What we're seeing now is the step-by-step and wholescale dismantling of the institutions that protect the independence and the integrity of our journalism," says Shawn Powers, until recently the chief strategy officer for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA.

Voice of America's mission is a form of soft diplomacy: to embody democratic principles through fair reporting and to replace a free press in countries where there is none. VOA and its four sister networks together reach more than 350 million people abroad each week.

Since taking office in June, Pack has upended the agency. In a podcast interview last week with the pro-Trump website The Federalist, Pack said he had to take action because many executives and journalists were disregarding the agency's ethical standards.

"My job really is to drain the swamp, to root out corruption and to deal with these issues of bias, not to tell journalists what to report," Pack told host Chris Bedford. Pack has declined NPR's repeated and detailed requests for comment.

But it appears that Pack is, in fact, interested in influencing which stories get told, and how. The senior news editor who oversaw VOA's standards and practices was reassigned to a corporate position earlier this summer and has since played no role in guiding coverage or scrutinizing stories flagged as problematic.

And journalists say they are being second-guessed more frequently than they had come to expect. In two cases, stories were removed from VOA's websites after questions were raised. NPR has uncovered an additional instance in which the Voice of America's legal assurance of journalistic independence — known as a "firewall" — appears to have been explicitly violated by Pack and the team he has brought in.

'Unprecedented' involvement of political appointee

"It's unprecedented in the agency's modern history," says Powers. "It seems to contradict all the major norms as it relates to the integrity of the editorial process."

Officials and journalists aware of the episode say it deeply troubled them because it involved VOA's Urdu-language service's coverage of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — which is to say, Trump's chief political rival.

According to five current and former staffers with knowledge of what happened, a political appointee at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Samuel E. Dewey, conducted a formal review of a video story about Biden's outreach to Muslims after Pack publicly denounced the story. The Urdu-language service is primarily intended to reach audiences in Pakistan, so it is unlikely that many American voters saw the video.

That said, the reporting was widely conceded to have been flawed: It presented Biden's appeal without offering greater context or outside analysis of Biden's claims about Trump. (For example, Biden referred to Trump's travel "ban" on Muslims but the report did not note the administration's policy barred people traveling from certain Muslim-majority nations.)

Typically, such reviews would be conducted by journalists well versed in the profession's standards and ethics as well as by some experts in the subject covered. Dewey has no such background. He is a lawyer who has led committee investigations for Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to his bio on LinkedIn. He frequently tweets out pro-Trump sentiments and memes.

After Dewey's review, several contractors were dismissed and an editor was placed on leave.

And yet some journalists were struck by a tweet from the account of VOA Noticias, the network's Spanish-language service. It simply conveyed a video from a Trump campaign adviser warning Latinos against voting for Biden. Like the Biden report, it had no added context. The tweet was later removed, but no formal reviews or repercussions ensued.

An agency spokesman, Jonathan Bronitsky, said USAGM would not reply to questions posed about the Biden video and the aftermath.

Dewey has raised concerns about other VOA stories as well. He has repeatedly pushed to participate in planning for election reporting and overarching news coverage, according to colleagues, which VOA staffers resisted. Dewey declined to comment to NPR.

This story is based on interviews with 18 current and former executives and journalists at the U. S. Agency for Global Media and the Voice of America. Citing the tumult and firings at the agency, most would not speak to NPR on the record, saying they feared for their jobs or professional reputations.

VOA Acting Director Elez Biberaj, an historian and veteran of the news service, declined to comment.

A staff purge and a toilet paper shortage

Pack took office in June and quickly upended the federal broadcasters. Already, he has fired or suspended most of the executive staff and nearly all the heads of his agency's networks, which include Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia. He has withheld approval of visa extensions that foreign employees need to continue working for those networks. A return home without U.S. protection could leave some employees and their families vulnerable to regimes hostile to the U.S. government.

President Trump first nominated Pack, a filmmaker who has previously collaborated with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, in 2018. The nomination languished in the Senate until this year. It found new life after Trump and the White House attacked the Voice of America in the spring for its coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an unusual statement, the White House condemned VOA for failing to blame the Chinese sufficiently for the pandemic's spread, claiming it had fallen for the regime's propaganda.

In response, VOA's director at the time, Amanda Bennett, pointed to numerous stories critical of China. She resigned immediately following Pack's confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

By sweeping knowledgeable staffers away and even refusing to approve standard budgets, eight current or former staffers for USAGM and Voice of America said, the agency under Pack had in many ways broken down. Officials say they were unable to fulfill orders for toilet paper for a transmitting facility, or a cleaning contract for a shortwave broadcasting center in Kuwait.

"Maybe this is their strategy," says Grant Turner, the USAGM former acting CEO who was suspended as chief financial officer in August. "Maybe they think they only have a short amount of time here and the best thing they can do is fire as many people as possible, break as many things as possible, starve folks of resources."

Publicly, Pack accused executives of severe and systemic security failures, though former officials say the agency's stringent security standards exceed those of most federal divisions that are not part of national security. They say he inflated the severity of problems at the agency.

Journalists at Voice of America and some of Pack's colleagues at the agency headquarters say he started with a desire to root out what he sees as anti-Trump bias. And they say reporters are now finding themselves far more frequently second-guessed over coverage with political choices. The brief introduction of a piece about Jill Biden, which was broadcast a day after a similar piece on first lady Melania Trump, has prompted a formal review of French-to-Africa service anchor Salwa Jaffari by USAGM's human resources division.

On Monday morning, a group of journalists at Voice of America signed a letter of protest, saying Pack was harming U.S. strategic interests and imperiling the lives of their colleagues who are foreign citizens by refusing to extend their work visas. That afternoon, the acting director, Biberaj, issued a statement in response to his staffers' protest saying he valued a free press, the safety of his journalists and the firewall that protects their work.

On Tuesday afternoon, USAGM tweeted out a thread saying that the letter of protest was inappropriate and that it would therefore not respond. Instead, it suggested those who signed could be subject to disciplinary response, calling it an "administrative issue."

Several executives who left or were suspended by Pack tell NPR that the CEO openly broods over questions of loyalty and sidelined them because they were willing to push back against his instincts. Turner described Pack's outlook as "paranoid."

Indeed, some of the people Pack sidelined had joined the agency just months or even days before he did. His newly appointed top legal official, Michael Williams, left voluntarily, telling colleagues that he could not stomach the risks staffers who were not U.S. citizens could face without visas.

Many of the people who were leading the agency when Pack arrived already held sterling conservative credentials in Washington: Turner first joined the federal government under President George W. Bush. Powers had previously been an aide to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Jamie Fly, the fired chief executive of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, had been an adviser to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. And two junior Trump White House aides assigned earlier this year to USAGM to help ease Pack's transition in office were quickly exiled. They took up shop at cubicles abandoned by Voice of America's Spanish-language services so they could use a neglected foosball table, according to former USAGM staffers.

None of those political ties seemed to matter.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and technology editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 3, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misstated Marco Rubio's first name as Mario.