State-Media Relations at the Voice of America News Network

Photo of Michael Pack from Wikimedia

 

The 1994 International Broadcasting Act is meant to protect state-funded international media in the US from government interference, via what is known as the statutory ‘firewall’. There have long been debates about how the various media organisations which sit under the umbrella of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) should be aligned with the diplomatic objectives of the US government, especially the US State Department.

However, the explicit attempts to interfere in the running of state-funded international media by Michael Pack, the USAGM CEO appointed by President Trump, shocked many journalists, scholars and media freedom organisations. Pack is often described as an ally of Steve Bannon, the chief executive of the far-right media outlet, Breitbart News.   

Upon taking up office, Pack immediately rescinded the government rule, clarifying how the statutory ‘firewall’ between the US government and state-funded media organisations should work in practice. He also “purged” the heads of four of the state-funded news organisations: the others resigned. He then removed senior USAGM executives from office and hired a private law firm to investigate them. At Voice of America, the largest US-funded media network, the head of editorial standards – effectively the guardian of the ‘firewall’ - was reassigned to other duties.

In November 2020, a US judge issued an injunction to prevent Pack and his aides from interfering in the running of VoA and other US-funded international media, ruling that they had "violated and continue to violate [journalists'] First Amendment rights [to freedom of speech]”. Yet the problems experienced by VoA and other state-funded media organisations continued. The aides Pack placed in charge of USAGM would not approve contracts, including refusing to renew the  visas of VoA’s foreign reporters. VoA’s White House correspondent was demoted after she asked challenging questions of the Secretary of State: the Central News Director was suddenly reassigned.

In the final days of the Trump administration in Jan 2021, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was still insisting that his speech be broadcast live by VoA, arguing that the network should serve to ‘promote’ rather than ‘demean’ America. This, along with other actions, was the subject of a formal complaint by internal whistle-blowers, working together with the Government Accountability Project.

Pack and his aides were fired shortly after President Biden’s inauguration. Many of these who were suspended or reassigned under Pack’s leadership have also been reinstated. However, concerns remain amongst journalists at US-funded news organisations about their structural vulnerability to government interference.

The project

Using an archive of internal documents and rare interviews with journalists and senior media executives, this research project seeks to explore the relationship between the US government and the largest US-funded news organisation, the Voice of America.

In particular, the PI, Dr Kate Wright (Edinburgh), together with co-investigators, Dr Mel Bunce (City) and Dr Martin Scott  (UEA) will explore how these news executives and journalists experienced increased pressure from Pack and his aides, what this pressure meant for their everyday practice, and what shaped their responses to it. This includes the decision of some staff to work with other journalists, lawyers and thinktanks to try and resist.

In so doing, we will inform discussions within USAGM, and between USAGM and the current US administration, about the measures which might better safeguard the independence of US-funded international media organisations in future.