New conservative media chief dismisses heads of US news agencies

  • >>Edward Wong, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-06-18 16:45:32 BdST

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Michael Pack in Washington, on Feb 9, 2006. The Senate on Thursday, Jun 4, 2020, confirmed Pack, a conservative filmmaker who President Donald Trump has said he hopes will dictate more favourable news coverage of his administration, to lead the independent agency in charge of state-funded media outlets. The New York Times

A conservative filmmaker who recently took over a US global media agency removed the chiefs of four news organisations under its purview Wednesday night, according to people with knowledge of the decision, in an action that raises questions about their editorial independence.

The filmmaker, Michael Pack, also dismissed the head of a technology group and disbanded the bipartisan board that helps oversee and advise those five organisations. He replaced its members largely with Trump administration political appointees, including himself as chairman. One board member works for a conservative advocacy organisation, Liberty Counsel Action.

The moves were criticised by congressional officials, including a leading Democratic senator, and former diplomats as an effort to turn the news organisations under the US Agency for Global Media into partisan outlets. The organisations receive funding from the US government but operate independently.

Pack is a close ally of Steve Bannon, the former campaign strategist and White House adviser to President Donald Trump who has urged Trump to take charge of the news organisations and reshape them to his purposes. Democrats in the Senate held up Pack’s nomination for years, but Trump urged Republicans in recent weeks to push through the confirmation.

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Pack this month in a party-line vote, despite the recent disclosure of legal problems surrounding him. Last month, the attorney general for the District of Columbia said his office was investigating whether Pack had illegally enriched himself by sending $1.6 million from the Public Media Lab, a nonprofit group he oversees, to his for-profit film production company.

The organisational heads dismissed Wednesday night were Bay Fang of Radio Free Asia; Jamie Fly of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Alberto Fernandez of Middle East Broadcasting Networks; Emilio Vazquez of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting; and Libby Liu of the Open Technology Fund.

Fang is expected to remain as executive editor at Radio Free Asia for now because of a condition set by the previous corporate board when she was appointed the agency’s president in November. Vazquez, who had been an interim director, will also stay at his organisation, according to one person. Both could be fired later by new permanent chiefs of the organisations whom Pack would appoint.

Fernandez, a former ambassador, wrote on Twitter late Wednesday that he was proud of his work at Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

“I accomplished ALMOST everything I wanted and you can’t say that too often in life,” he added.

Fly is a well-known foreign policy official who was a longtime adviser to Sen Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

A representative of the US Agency for Global Media did not return an email request seeking comment on Wednesday night.

Sen Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced Pack in a statement Wednesday night.

“The wholesale firing of the agency’s network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump’s political allies, is an egregious breach of this organisation’s history and mission from which it may never recover,” he said.

“This latest attack is sadly the latest — but not the last — in the Trump administration’s efforts to transform US institutions rooted in the principles of democracy into tools for the president’s own personal agenda,” Menendez added.

Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat and director of global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, pointed to the “long history of bipartisanship” of the news organisations in criticising Pack’s move. “They don’t present a Republican or Democratic voice to the world,” he said. “They have always put forward an American, a credible voice.”

“Pack appears to have tossed that hard-fought reputation out the window,” he added. “You don’t get it back in years or even decades. It’s gone.”

On Monday, Amanda Bennett, the director of Voice of America, and Sandra Sugawara, the deputy director, resigned. Voice of America, the largest American international broadcaster, is overseen by the global media agency, and it had come under extraordinary attack from the White House in recent months. Administration officials had falsely accused it of disseminating Chinese propaganda. In fact, Beijing has consistently criticised its reporting and imposed visa restrictions on its journalists.

Liu, the chief executive of the Open Technology Fund, which promotes internet freedom around the world, offered her resignation Saturday, and it was accepted by the group’s board that day. She had said she would stay until mid-July, but in replacing the board Wednesday, Pack asked for her immediate dismissal.

© 2020 New York Times News Service