Government information agencies don’t usually get much attention. But the U.S. Agency for Global Media has been in the news in recent weeks as President Donald Trump angrily pushed for Senate confirmation of Michael Pack as its CEO — even as the conservative filmmaker was under investigation for possible misuse of funds from a nonprofit he runs.
Coverage intensified last week when one of Mr. Pack’s first acts upon gaining confirmation was to fire the officials in charge of four organizations under his control in what was described as a “Wednesday night massacre.” Like Mike Pompeo at the State Department and William Barr at the Department of Justice, Mr. Pack appears intent on showing his White House boss how ruthlessly efficient he can be in carrying out marching orders.
The scope of what those marching orders might be concerns me. I have been reporting since 2016 about the right-wing domestic messaging machine the Trump White House put in place with Fox News on cable TV, Breitbart News in digital, the Sinclair Broadcast Group in local news and an army of social media operatives. Putting Mr. Pack in charge of the global media agency offers Mr. Trump a worldwide, taxpayer-funded messaging machine for hard-core Trump propaganda and disinformation in an election year. It also gives the president a bargaining tool with corrupt foreign leaders as to the kinds of information America sends their way.
“My fear is he’ll try to make it (Voice of America) like the worst side of Fox News,” Sanford J. Ungar, head of VOA from 1999-2001, said of Mr. Pack’s possible agenda in an interview this week. Mr. Ungar now directs The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University. His resume also includes stints as president of Goucher College and as a Washington Post reporter and NPR host.
Attempts have been made in the past by presidents to politicize VOA, the most widely known and respected of the government information organizations. It has been “compromised” before, Mr. Ungar said, but “never completely.”
I expect “completely” is just where this president intends to go now that he has Mr. Pack in place.
“I think it took him about a year to discover VOA, and then another year to figure out what it was,” Mr. Ungar said of President Trump.” And then, the third year to decide he hated it ― on the basis of nothing whatsoever. So now he wants to destroy it. The evidence is that nobody gets hired by this president unless he or she is willing to commit to the Trump crusade. And the Trump crusade has no place at the Voice of America.”
In April, the White House issued an official statement accusing Voice of America of carrying Chinese propaganda in connection with its COVID-19 coverage, among a series of attacks that Mr. Ungar called ”totally and blatantly false.”
“If you hear what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting,” Mr. Trump said at that time, voicing his anger about VOA pandemic coverage and roadblocks to Mr. Pack’s confirmation. “And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job, but he’s been waiting for two years.”
The U.S. Agency for Global Media did not respond to requests for comment this week. I interviewed Mr. Pack in May in connection with a film he made on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that aired on PBS. Mr. Pack declined to comment on his nomination during that interview.
There are several prisms through which to view Mr. Pack’s potential to bend the U.S. Agency for Global Media to Mr. Trump’s will. None of them are good for democracy.
Ultimately, I view Mr. Pack’s new job as yet another instance of how the president has debased government since taking office.
The arc of that decline can be measured by this comparison: In 1961, President John Kennedy appointed Edward R. Murrow, the great CBS journalist, as head of the United States Information Agency, which then oversaw Voice of America. Today, President Trump puts a right-wing propagandist in charge of our nation’s global news and information organizations.
This is one arc that isn’t bending toward justice.
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David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.