US broadcast chief fires heads in major shakedown

US broadcast chief fires heads in major shakedown
Don Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post, and his wife Amanda Bennett — who recently announced her resignation as director of The Voice of America — attend an event in the US state of Idaho. (File/AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2020

US broadcast chief fires heads in major shakedown

US broadcast chief fires heads in major shakedown
  • The shakeup added to existing fears, many from among conservatives, that news outlets in the US were being politicized

DUBAI: On his first day at work on Wednesday, Michael Pack, CEO of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), fired the heads of four organizations — Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund, according to CNN. 

The shakeup added to existing fears, many from among conservatives, that news outlets in the US were being politicized and that Pack, an appointee of US President Donald Trump, is seeking to end the editorial independence of the outlets under USAGM, a government funded agency structured to operate with editorial independence to serve countries lacking a free press.

Voice of America (VOA) Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara, both veteran journalists, announced their resignations on Monday, just two days before Pack’s arrival.

In addition to the agency chiefs, Pack dismissed veteran broadcast news executive Steve Capus, who had been a senior adviser to the organization and its leadership, according to two congressional aides and a USAGM employee who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press (AP).

Capus, who was previously president of NBC News for nearly eight years, did not respond to a query sent to a USAGM work email address.

Pack also ousted the head of the Open Technology Fund, a non-broadcast arm of the USAGM that works to provide secure Internet access to people around the world. Last week, the fund’s chief, Libby Liu submitted her resignation, effective mid-July, but she was removed on Pack’s arrival in post.

No public explanation for the dismissals was given beyond the general statement of improving the agency.

The firing of Alberto Miguel Fernandez, head of Middle East Broadcasting, in particular, has raised conservative hackles. A former career diplomat fluent in Arabic, Fernandez had been hailed by many on the American right for bringing what they saw as balance to Arabic-language outlets Radio Sawa and television channel AlHurra.

“Ambassador Fernandez was the greatest asset America had in foreign broadcasting,” Trump’s former deputy assistant, Sebastian Gorka, wrote on Twitter shortly after the dismissals became public.

Michael Doran, a former National Security Council and State Department official during President George W. Bush’s administration, called Fernandez’s ouster “asinine” and said that without him, “Pack will be as effective as a drugged bug in a bottle.”

David Reaboi, a noted conservative national security analyst, was even more critical, calling Fernandez’s removal a “shameful” move. 

“It was unusual for the pro-American side to get represented, and Alberto always made sure it did,” he told the AP. 

“It was a model for recapturing territory from the far left and righting the ship.”

Fernandez wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night: “I will miss the great digital and creative work of our talented team, the investigative news unit, the great op-ed page @AlhurraOpEd, the excellent digital platforms like @IrfaaSawtak. I accomplished ALMOST everything I wanted and you can’t say that too often in life.

“Wish the incoming people at @USAGMgov well. I hope they know what they are doing. They have an immediate opportunity to make a difference. Yesterday the Iraqi government shut down Radio Sawa transmitters in Baghdad, Basra and Karbala and threatened to seize USG property.”

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Eliot L. Engel, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, issued a joint statement which said: “We were outraged to learn that Michael Pack, the new head of the US Agency for Global Media, fired top officials of broadcast networks for foreign audiences in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and replaced their advisory boards with new boards comprising himself, his chief of staff, Trump administration appointees.”

Responding to an AFP query, the agency said Pack intended to “steer the agency back toward its mission: ‘to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.’” In an email to employees, Pack said he was “fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter,” as well as the missions of the other news outlets.

“Every action I carried out was — and every action I will carry out will be — geared toward rebuilding the USAGM’s reputation, boosting morale, and improving content,” Pack said in a statement released by the agency.

 The statement called the moves “significant and long-overdue” and said Pack and his team were “committed to eradicating the known mismanagement and scandals that have plagued the agency for decades.”