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CEO Of US Agency For Global Media Under Fire


There's more upheaval at the organization that manages the nation's international broadcasters. The U.S. Agency for Global Media oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other government news outlets that are supposed to provide independent information abroad. Now there's increasing concern that President Trump's newly appointed CEO is undermining that independence. I'm joined now by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: The new CEO, Michael Pack, forced out several top news executives at various outlets, and he says reforms are needed. What has happened now, and what explanation does he offer?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, as you suggest, he started out by basically icing the tops of all these various government broadcaster entities. And now he's forced out a number of the top officials at what's called the U.S. Agency for Global Media. He forced out the chief financial officer named Grant Turner, who also served for a time as the interim CEO of the agency. He forced out the general counsel. These are among about seven people who were shown the door.

In recent days, it's come to light that he named a former right-wing talk show host, who's shopped around in his previous life conspiracy theories about President Obama, called the current speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi - gave her the nickname Nazi Nancy Pelosi. This appears to be sort of an extreme consolidation of power by Michael Pack, the CEO named by President Trump.

SIMON: And his actions have certainly triggered a reaction.

FOLKENFLIK: They sure have. You have heard from the fired general counsel and the fired CFO, chief financial officer. They say that this is a retaliation because they tried to hold Pack accountable for actions that they said were improper or that they disagreed with. You've heard a denunciation from Amanda Bennett. She was the director of the Voice of America, in some ways the core and the heart of this agency, you know, broadcast to so many countries abroad and has done so since World War II. And she originally resigned just before Pack took over. And she said he deserved to be able to name somebody. She articulated the values of independent journalism for people abroad but - as sponsored by the federal government - but, you know, said he deserved a chance to name someone. She has held her fire until now. And she's basically, you know, accused him of doing propaganda harms, like you'd expect under Chinese regime or the Russian authorities.

SIMON: Well, and these are government-funded broadcasters basically under the purview of the State Department. And so what about the agency - that any president, any administration ought to be able to shape the agency as they want, like many foreign information services do?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, the power of this has always been a soft diplomacy and soft power, which is it's projecting American values. But the soft power is projected because we show dissent. We show life in its complexities through journalism. And the journalism has been always said to be insulated to significant degree to be independent. Otherwise, this becomes propaganda for the U.S. government. Otherwise, there's the question of whether - you know, raised in the Trump era, whether the president would use this to provide propaganda for himself in the way in which so many government officials have been pressured to laud and praise the president as being wise in ways.

All of this appears to the critics of Michael Pack to be designed to undermine the credibility of the agencies. What Pack says is he's remedying long-standing inappropriate practices and lapses that finally are being cleaned up. But you're hearing from the president's critics otherwise.

SIMON: I've had the sensation, David, as many reporters have, of being overseas in a totalitarian state and listening to the Voice of America because you could trust you would hear the news.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. You know, look; people during World War II turned to Voice of America because in German-occupied lands, they knew they could get reputable information. People in Afghanistan sought out Voice of America in various forms during the Taliban's regime because they could learn about public health issues from Voice of America. People under Soviet regimes for the decades would turn to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and find out about what was actually happening in the world because they couldn't trust media in their own lands. These are the kinds of services that Americans, broadcasters provided abroad, and did so with a measure of independence from political meddle (ph).

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much.


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

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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