The White House is pushing back against Senate Democrats’ efforts to block the long-stalled nomination of President Trump’s choice to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the umbrella organization that oversees the Voice of America and related taxpayer-funded media outlets.
The VOA, Radio Free Europe, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting — all outlets that fall under the USAGM banner — were originally designed to break through repressive governments’ information censors and provide more reliable sources of news in those nations. But critics say that the agency, which has a $680 million annual budget, has lost its way and is in desperate need of reform.
With Chinese media censorship and misinformation on stark display during the coronavirus pandemic, key lawmakers and administration officials say new leadership at the USAGM is long overdue. Michael Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker and former vice president for content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, they argue, has the background and commitment to break through the agency’s bureaucratic gridlock and shift resources to confront the media manipulation coming out of China, Russia, Iran and other authoritarian regimes.
Trump tapped Pack to head the USAGM nearly two years ago, and his nomination, along with many others, has been languishing as key Democrats and anti-Trump Republican forces on Capitol Hill have blocked it. Opponents have repeatedly sounded the alarms about Pack’s work on two documentaries with controversial former White House adviser Steve Bannon. A stream of media reports has claimed Pack will try to transform the USAGM outlets into state-run Trump TV and radio, an argument Pack and his supporters vehemently reject.
The nomination gained new life last week when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch scheduled a Thursday vote on it by his panel. The move comes after the president personally intervened and pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance the nomination.
Trump also mentioned Pack last month at a press conference in which he groused about senators dragging their heels on confirming nominees to several key administration posts. “Michael Pack, he would do a great job but we’ve been waiting for two years because we can’t get him approved,” Trump said. “If you heard what’s coming out of Voice of America, it’s disgusting.”
In agreeing to move Pack’s nomination, Risch rejected several arguments from ranking Sen. Bob Menendez to stall the vote, including the latest – that holding it would draw too many senators and aides to the committee room amid the COVID-19 threat.
The New Jersey Democrat also has tried to hold the Pack nomination by questioning the structure of his business dealings when he headed the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, though without demonstrating any illegal activity.
The White House on Tuesday said Pack had repeatedly answered Menendez’s detailed questions and denounced the latest stall tactics as a way to run down the clock on the nomination until the November election.
A White House spokesman told RealClearPolitics that Pack “fully addressed” Menendez’s concerns in a March 19 letter. “The fact that Sen. Menendez now repeats himself for a 5th time with questions that have been asked and answered is disappointing and has the appearance of partisan stalling of a well-vetted and respected nominee,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told RCP.
Deere also brought up a six-year ethics scandal Menendez faced in which the senator was accused of corrupt dealings to benefit a political donor. The criminal prosecution ended in a mistrial in early 2018, allowing Menendez to claim exoneration. But the Senate Ethics Committee, which is evenly divided along party lines, severely admonished Menendez, ordering him to pay back extravagant gifts, including the cost of 2010 trips aboard the donor’s private plane, access to a Caribbean villa, a Paris hotel stay and golf outings.
“As someone who has claimed to be a victim of politically motivated investigations himself, Sen. Menendez should know better than to play games with one of the Senate’s highest constitutional responsibilities,” Deere said. “When will do-nothing Democrats in the Senate realize the American people demand votes on President Trump’s qualified nominees?”
Risch strongly defended Pack’s explanation of his business dealings, noting that he had answered three rounds of questions from the committee and repeatedly responded to Menendez’s queries. “In every instance, Mr. Pack has responded in a timely manner,” Risch told RCP. “We have all the information we need to make an informed decision on this nomination, and I will be supporting Mr. Pack’s nomination into this committee later this week.”
“As the agency charged with coordinating and supervising all U.S. international broadcasting in furtherance of promoting free, open, and democratic media around the world, this is an important position for a vital organization whose agencies are on the front lines of journalism, exposing Russian, Chinese, and Iranian disinformation campaigns, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Risch said.
Menendez’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Before Risch became chairman of Foreign Relations Committee in 2019, Menendez had worked with now-retired GOP Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, two ardent Trump foes, to stymie progress on Pack’s nomination. Corker and Menendez, with Flake’s help, also led a failed effort to pass a bill designed to undermine the power of the USAGM post and hamstring Pack’s ability to fire Obama holdovers if and when he takes the helm.
Pack and his supporters, including such prominent conservatives as former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese and former Heritage Foundation President (and U.S. senator) Jim DeMint, have tried to reassure critics that the nominee has no plans to radically shift news coverage in a partisan direction.
They point to Pack’s time leading Worldnet, the television side of VOA, as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, his service on the National Council of the Humanities and his co-chairmanship of the International TV Council – all positions they say he conducted in a professional manner adhering to the organizations’ missions.
During Pack’s confirmation hearing, he pledged to protect the independence of all USAGM journalists.
The real threat is more of an institutional one, Pack’s backers say. The agency’s website notes that the USAGM, previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors before it was rebranded in 2018, was originally founded to counter the propaganda of repressive regimes and to promote “freedom and democracy.” But Trump and others say the USAGM has strayed far from that mission and remains rudderless. In recent years, the agency has faced a series of embarrassing management failures and internal turmoil and currently lacks a leader.
John Lansing, who began serving as USAGM CEO and director in 2015, left the post in late September to head National Public Radio. Last fall, a federal judge sentenced one of Lansing’s hand-selected top officials at USAGM to three months in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to stealing more than $40,000 from the agency.
Over the years, the USAGM has faced criticism from lawmakers on the right and left. In 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed disappointment with the agency’s abandonment of radio and television broadcasting as a means of reaching audiences abroad and countering propaganda from dictatorships.
“We have basically abdicated, in my views, the broadcast media,” she said. “…If we don’t have an up-to-date, modern, effective Broadcasting Board of Governors, we shouldn’t have one at all.”
But there has been little progress since then. In late 2018, the House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded after a three-month investigation that the USAGM management must be strengthened in order to fix what the report deemed a “broken agency” beset by internal problems that have allowed the Russians, Chinese and other U.S. adversaries to gain the upper hand in the information warfare sphere.
A late 2018 report by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution cited concerns about Chinese officials’ influence on American institutions, including specific details about China’s “charm offensive” and tougher tactics on VOA and Radio Free Asia employees working in China. The report cited what it called a “pattern” by VOA Mandarin Service of avoiding stories that could be perceived to be too tough on China and detailed activities by Chinese security officials it said amount to a “campaign of intimidation against some VOA and RFA staffers and their family members.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Pack is the former head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He was the vice president of content.