June 22, 2020
Last Wednesday, the new CEO of the US Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack, purged four top officials from the media organizations the U.S. government funds to provide factual, unbiased news to world populations that do not have access to a free and independent press.
The US Agency for Global Media oversees Voice of America, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund. These organizations have a budget of almost a billion dollars, and make up one of the world’s largest media networks. The two women in charge of the fifth organization—Voice of America—had resigned in anticipation of Pack’s arrival.
By law, the news agencies are independent of political influence, with editors calling the shots of what to cover and how to cover it. The law “prohibits interference by any US government official in the objective, independent reporting of news.” The idea is that the US media stations will exhibit the democratic value of a free press in form as well as in function. Listeners will not only hear a wide range of stories, but also see a nation where politicians keep their hands off the information that goes to the people.
Since at least 2014, Republicans have sought to rein in the independence of the US network to make it reflect official policy more closely. After Trump was elected, Republicans consolidated control of the VOA by replacing a bipartisan executive board with a CEO appointed by the president. In 2018, Trump nominated for the position Michael Pack, a documentary filmmaker with close ties to Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Bannon took over Breitbart News after its founder, Andrew Breitbart, died of a sudden heart attack at age 43. Bannon gave what was already a right-wing outlet a hard-right turn.
Senators were in no hurry to confirm Pack, both because of his ties to Bannon and because his film company is under investigation by the Washington, D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office for financial improprieties. But VOA has been critical of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and he got angry enough at the organization that he called VOA the “voice of the Soviet Union” and “communists” at a private lunch with Senate Republicans. The administration ordered staff at the Centers for Disease Control not to speak with any VOA reporters.
Under pressure from Trump, the Senate approved Pack on June 4. On June 15, before his anticipated arrival, the heads of VOA resigned. The day after his arrival, he fired the heads of the other four agencies and replaced them with Trump loyalists. The firing drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, for one of the heads had been an aide to Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). There is deep concern that, with Pack's help, Trump plans to turn the US Agency for Global Media into the sort of state media he admires in countries run by autocrats.
But, so far, reporters at VOA say nothing much has changed in their daily routine. If it does, and American overseas media outlets become the US version of a Ministry of Information, the USAGM will no longer be a powerful tool of American soft diplomatic power; it will be the opposite. As Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said, the agency might never recover from such a political transformation. “Once the credibility is gone, no one will ever trust a report from Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti, nor trust the tools of the Open Technology Fund.”
Trump's packing of positions at USAGM, and the FBI, and the DOJ, and the State Department—crucial positions all—threatens to destroy our non-partisan civil service, made up of smart, experienced people whose loyalty is to the Constitution and the country rather than to any individual. The administration’s actions recall the worst days of the 1890s, when party loyalty was paramount and corrupt party cronies had the skills to pocket money but not to govern.
But the American people turned against that government, and it increasingly looks as if that sort of rejection is happening now.
Today, in an interview, Trump accused former President Barack Obama of treason, based in the debunked story that the president had illegally spied on Trump’s campaign. Although Trump had previously declined to cite the crime he repeatedly attributes to his predecessor, today he spoke up: “Treason. Treason. It’s treason,” he said. This claim is so utterly preposterous it feels desperate.
And Trump has reason to worry that his power is waning. News broke tonight that shortly before Attorney General William Barr fired interim U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, Berman refused to endorse a Department of Justice letter attacking New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for imposing restrictions on religious gatherings but not protests. “The message to the public from New York City’s government appears to favor certain secular gatherings and disfavor religious gatherings,” the letter said. Berman dismissed it as a political stunt.
What role Berman’s refusal played in the weekend’s standoff is unclear, but it is clear that Barr and Trump did not gain their point—Berman’s replacement with a more pliable official—and instead heightened scrutiny of any future interference in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. It is only the latest in a string of losses: the disappointing turn out for Trump’s Tulsa rally, the distribution of John Bolton’s book, criticism from U.S. military and national security officials.
There was another sign tonight that the popular mood in America is turning from Trump’s divisive vision of the nation. Over the weekend, a member of Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s team found a noose in Wallace’s garage stall, and Sunday night, as the Talledega [Alabama] Superspeedway track reopened, a plane flew overhead dragging a Confederate flag banner that read “Defund NASCAR.”
Monday, 82-year-old racing legend Richard Petty, who is the co-owner of the company which runs Wallace’s car, said: “I’m enraged by the act of someone placing a noose in the garage stall of my race team. There is absolutely no place in our sport or our society for racism…. This filthy act serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go to eradicate racial prejudice and it galvanizes my resolve to use the resources of Richard Petty Motorsports to create change…. The sick person who perpetrated this act must be found, exposed, and swiftly and immediately expelled from NASCAR. I believe in my heart this despicable act is not representative of the competitors I see each day in the NASCAR garage area. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bubba, yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day forward.”
Tonight, Petty returned to the track for the first time since the pandemic broke out, and stood beside Wallace for the National Anthem. A long parade of NASCAR drivers and crews pushed Wallace’s car to the front of the grid before the night’s race, in front of fans wearing T-shirts that said “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Wallace, NASCAR's only Black full-time driver, had recently gotten NASCAR to prohibit Confederate flags. Tonight he said, "the sport is changing."
Back in Washington, Secret Service asked reporters to leave the White House grounds tonight. They gave no reason for the unusual request. Lots of speculation about what prompted it, but we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out more.
Berman and letter: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-justice-berman-letter-idUSKBN23T36F