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Aug. 31, 2020, 4:25 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   August 31, 2020

Of all the ways the Trump administration has attacked the free press — the “enemies of the people,” remember — the past few months at the Voice of America have featured some of the most vexing.

Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and buddy of now-indicted Steve Bannon, was nominated to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media — parent agency of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and several other state-owned, international-facing broadcast outlets — back in June 2018. But his nomination was controversial, even with Republican control of the Senate, and he was not confirmed until June 2020.

Since then, he’s been taking a flamethrower to the place. He has fired a huge swath of top management, halted global internet freedom projects, disbanded boards, refused to renew its employees’ work visas, installed Trump loyalists, and issued Juche-style Dear Leader press releases. He’s faced lawsuits and bipartisan pushback from Congress.

But now Pack has taken a step some of his agency’s journalists find unacceptable: joking about spies being embedded in its newsroom. Here’s NPR’s David Folkenflik:

A group of veteran journalists for the Voice of America delivered a letter of protest Monday denouncing their parent agency’s new CEO, Michael Pack, and alleging Pack’s remarks in a recent interview prove he has a damaging agenda for the international broadcasters he oversees. Pack’s comments and decisions “endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives,” the letter to VOA Acting Director Elez Biberaj read.

The protest was triggered by Pack’s interview with the conservative and pro-Trump website The Federalist but came after a long line of sweeping changes and purges at the federally funded networks overseen by Pack, an appointee of President Trump. During the half-hour conversation, Pack joked with The Federalist’s host, senior editor Chris Bedford, about deporting his own employees and forcing them to adopt unsafe workplace practices that could expose them to COVID-19. Pack said the agency was ripe for espionage and possibly rife with spies.

It’s a great place to put a foreign spy,” Pack said, citing what he contended were severe security lapses by previous leadership.

Oddly, journalists tend to get a bit touchy about being accused of being spies — given that such a suspicion delegitimizes their journalism and can merit harsh treatment from the countries they report in. Daniel Pearl and James Foley were both accused of being spies by their captors before they were beheaded. Just not a good thing to joke about.

From the letter of protest:

Just as concerning are Mr. Pack’s public comments, including bantering with a podcast host about turning off the air conditioning and banning masks inside VOA’s headquarters, as part of his effort to “drain the swamp.”

Mr. Pack has made a thin excuse that his actions are meant to protect national security, but just as was the case with the McCarthy ‘Red Scare,’ which targeted VOA and other government organizations in the mid-1950s, there has not been a single demonstrable case of any individual working for VOA — as the USAGM CEO puts it — “posing as a spy.”

Many of us have repeatedly put ourselves in harm’s way abroad for our audiences of several hundred million people in nearly 50 languages. In line with strictly upholding the VOA charter, which was signed into law in 1976, we insist on competent and professional oversight for VOA and our sister media organizations, including the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio/TV Marti.

Given these concerns we fear that the current USAGM leadership is failing not only the news organizations of USAGM (one of the world’s largest broadcasting entities) and our audiences, but also our stakeholders, including the American public.

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