Voice Of America Journalists Protest Trump Appointee's Actions

Sep 1, 2020
Originally published on September 2, 2020 4:20 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A group of journalists at the Voice of America signed a letter this week protesting President Trump's appointee to lead their parent agency. Since taking office, Michael Pack has turned that agency upside down. And the organization's journalists warn he may be tainting VOA's news coverage with a pro-Trump agenda. NPR's David Folkenflik reports Pack appears to have violated legal protections intended to guard against exactly that kind of meddling.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Michael Pack took over the U.S. Agency for Global Media in early June. The Voice of America lies at the agency's core. Its mission is a form of soft diplomacy; it is to embody democratic principles through fair reporting and to replace a free press in those countries where there is none. Together, Voice of America and its sister networks reach more than 350 million people abroad each week in 61 languages. Since arriving, Pack has fired the network's leaders, pushed out agency executives, refused to approve allotted budgets and refused to renew visas for foreign employees.

GRANT TURNER: Well, maybe this is their strategy.

FOLKENFLIK: Grant Turner was ousted as USAGM's chief financial officer several weeks ago.

TURNER: 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. And that will be, you know, a job well done in their mind.

FOLKENFLIK: Pack has declined NPR's detailed requests for comment. In an interview last week for the pro-Trump news site The Federalist, here's how Pack described his mission.

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MICHAEL PACK: 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Interviews with 18 current and former staffers at the agency and the Voice of America suggest Pack would very much like to influence the reporting there. Most of those who spoke for this story declined to be named, saying they feared for their jobs. They say Pack has been seeking evidence of anti-Trump bias. Shawn Powers was, until recently, the agency's chief strategy officer.

SHAWN POWERS: 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Powers was among those officials sidelined last month by Pack.

POWERS: What's at stake is the entirety of the credibility of the Voice of America, credibility that has been built up over decades and has ensured that VOA is a well-respected institution around the world for objective and balanced news - and in particular in countries and markets where there are no objective sources of information.

FOLKENFLIK: In late July, Pack pounced on a story broadcast by the Voice of America's Urdu language service, primarily aimed at people in Pakistan and unlikely to reach many American voters.

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JOE BIDEN: I will end the Muslim ban on Day 1.

FOLKENFLIK: It was a short video piece on Joe Biden, replaying excerpts of his outreach to Muslim voters.

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BIDEN: Hadith from the Prophet Muhammad instructs, whomever among you sees a wrong, let him change it with his hand.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's be clear - by almost all accounts, the story was flawed. It lacked context or analysis and sounded like it was just boosting Biden. Normally, newsroom editors and experts are asked to review coverage when there's a serious problem. That's not what happened here. Pack had the agency announce he was launching an investigation and proclaimed the story may have broken election laws. Voice of America's journalistic review was stopped cold.

According to five people with knowledge, the review was instead conducted by a lawyer who now works for Pack as a political appointee. His name is Samuel Dewey. He previously conducted investigations for Republicans in Congress and frequently tweets in favor of Trump. Again, former executive Shawn Powers.

POWERS: Sam was very active in leading the investigation. It's my understanding that he took control over the investigation from Voice of America and put it into the USAGM's front office.

FOLKENFLIK: Sam Dewey declined comment. Four contractors for the Urdu service were terminated, and an editor was placed on leave. Beyond that, Dewey also repeatedly pushed to be involved in planning further coverage of the political season. Think about it - a political appointee who favors the president investigated a story about the president's chief political foe and sought to help steer future campaign coverage. That would appear to violate legal protections against political influence over the network's reporting. By contrast, on the first night of the Democratic convention, VOA's Spanish language service for Latin America sent out a tweet that was simply an 18-second video of a Trump senior adviser warning Hispanics against voting for Biden.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FOLKENFLIK: The tweet was taken down later, after journalists inside Voice of America raised objections. It, too, had no context but, unlike the Urdu video, led to no investigation and no repercussions.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

KELLY: And we need to note that NPR's CEO, John Lansing, previously served as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. No corporate executive or senior news executive at NPR reviewed this story before broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.