Biden Restores Journalistic Leadership at the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM)

Democracy Examined

Ukraine War

On Wednesday, after President Biden’s inauguration, the incoming administration forced out Michael Pack, the Steve Bannon ally appointed by former President Trump to lead USAGM. Replacing Pack, Biden named Kelu Chao as acting CEO of USAGM. Chao is a career journalist who has spent 40 years in public service at Voice of America (VOA), a USAGM program. She had previously joined a whistleblower lawsuit against corruption at USAGM under Pack’s leadership.

USAGM, which oversees VOA and its sister agencies, broadcasts in 62 different languages to 350 million viewers around the world every week. Many of its programs were founded during the Cold War to provide a free press as a public service to those nations which, due to totalitarian state control or lack of resources, had none. 

Pack’s departure comes as the Biden administration attempts to return journalistic integrity and impartiality to the agency. Part of this effort includes ferreting out all the political appointees Trump had “burrowed” into civil service roles in government agencies before leaving. Every administration does this to a certain extent, but the Trump administration burrowed a larger number of allies than its predecessors, and did so in unprecedented ways, which the next section will discuss.  

1. What did Pack do at USAGM?

When Pack took office as CEO in June 2020, he immediately began firing career journalists as the heads of the organization’s news services. He described his mandate as to “drain the swamp” at USAGM and refused to renew visas for some foreign journalists, saying that journalism is “a great cover for being a spy.” 

Pack also fired the bipartisan boards of several news agencies under the USAGM umbrella and appointed partisan activists to replace them. These partisan hires included a former GOP state chairman turned lobbyist for the governments of Taiwan, Qatar, Morocco, and Ukraine, a columnist for the Falun Gong-founded The Epoch Times, and State Department officials with no journalistic backgrounds.

After the 2020 election, Pack tried to burrow his political hires into USAGM by offering civil service contracts that would protect them from being fired for at least two years into the Biden administration, and even then, only with cause. More than two dozen regional editors and national service directors within Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) protested, saying that this “is precisely the kind of political power maneuver that RFE/RL regularly witnesses in places like Russia, Hungary, Belarus, and Tajikistan. We never thought we’d see it from our own oversight agency.”

Perhaps most egregiously, in early January, Pack forced USAGM to broadcast a speech by Mike Pompeo at VOA headquarters. Only the Pack-appointed director of VOA was allowed to ask questions. When one VOA reporter, Patsy Widakuswara, asked a question, the VOA director responded, “You obviously don’t know how to behave.” Widakuswara was demoted twice in 24 hours and reassigned. In addition, Pack demoted Yolanda Lopez, who was Widakuswara’s editor. In an open letter, 30 VOA journalists called Pompeo’s speech “a propaganda event.”

2. What has the Biden administration done so far?

In a Friday memo, sent two days after taking her new office, acting CEO Chao reasserted the importance of the fundamental “firewall” between journalism and state supervision as well as maintaining “the highest standards of professionalism and the sacred editorial independence and journalistic integrity…”

Chao promoted Lopez to be acting director of VOA. Lopez then restored Widakuswara to her original position. Additionally, Chao fired a number of Pack’s partisan appointees. Those hires have pushed back, pointing to the contracts Pack gave them. Legal challenges may ensue. 

The congressional charter founding VOA during World War II charged the organization with providing independent news as a public service to the world. Once again under the leadership of career journalists, not partisan activists, USAGM is closer to achieving that mission today.