The new chief of the United States-funded global media is facing a conservative backlash over his decision to fire the heads of two international broadcasters, adding to concerns about the direction of the agency, which oversees the Voice of America and other outlets.
The criticism of Michael Pack is unusual because it is coming from supporters of President Donald Trump who had backed his controversial nomination to run the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) over staunch Democratic objections.
Trump allies, including former adviser Sebastian Gorka, have offered public support for the removed head of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Alberto Fernandez, while others have taken issue with the firing of the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jamie Fly.
Pack, a conservative filmmaker and one-time associate of Trump adviser Steve Bannon, sacked both of them late on Wednesday in a purge of USAGM’s outlets, which also include Radio Free Asia and the Cuba-focused Radio/TV Marti. Those moves have alarmed Democrats who fear Pack intends to turn the agency into a Trump administration propaganda machine.
There was no public explanation of why Pack would dismiss any of the officials, let alone those favoured by conservatives. Neither Pack, his chief of staff, nor his spokesman immediately responded to requests for comment.
The firing of Fernandez, in particular, has raised conservative hackles. A former career diplomat, Fernandez had been hailed by conservatives for bringing what they saw as balance to the Arabic-language outlets Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa.
“Ambassador Fernandez was the greatest asset America had in foreign broadcasting,” Gorka, a noted far-right media personality, wrote on Twitter shortly after the dismissals became public.
The tweet appears to have been removed.
David Reaboi, a conservative national security analyst who used to work at Pack’s former employer, California’s Claremont Institute, was even more critical, calling Fernandez’s removal “shameful”.
“Michael Pack gets confirmed by the Senate and, rather than take stock and talk to people who know what’s happening, he fired everybody,” he wrote. “Michael Pack destroyed that because he was too dumb to listen – or too dumb to be able to figure out the difference between friends and enemies.”
The dismissal of Fly, a former staffer for Senator Marco Rubio, also attracted criticism, including from Mark Dubowitz, a well-known advocate of the Trump administration’s hawkish policies on Iran.
“Poor decision to fire @AlbertoMiguelF5 [Fernandez] and @jamiemfly [Fly] whose exemplary leadership of MBN and RFE/RL respectively, made America’s public diplomacy more effective, more persuasive and more consistent with American interests and values,” he wrote on Twitter.
Poor decision to fire @AlbertoMiguelF5 and @jamiemfly whose exemplary leadership of MBN and @RFERL, respectively, made America’s public diplomacy more effective, more persuasive and more consistent with American interests and values.
— Mark Dubowitz (@mdubowitz) June 18, 2020
Pack’s confirmation by the Senate in a 53-38 vote on June 4 originally drew criticism over fears of politicisation of the US news agency.
Trump and his allies have long viewed VOA with suspicion, regarding it as an element of a “deep state” trying to thwart their policies.
Members of the Trump administration have even accused the VOA of supporting authoritarian governments.
Tensions between the administration the US-funded news source burst into the open on April 9, when Trump communications adviser Dan Scavino posted a VOA story about China to his official Twitter account with the comment, “American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”
American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!! https://t.co/mng8oYwz4l
— Dan Scavino Jr.🇺🇸 (@Scavino45) April 9, 2020
Trump and his supporters have been sharply critical of coronavirus reporting by the outlet that ran counter to the administration narrative on China’s response to the outbreak.
The White House went so far as to blast VOA in a press statement and directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to not cooperate with its journalists, an unusual attack on an organisation venerated by many in Washington, DC.
An April 30 email obtained and initially published by the Knight First Amendment Institute showed that the CDC directed its press staff to rebuff all interview requests from anyone affiliated with VOA, including Greta Van Susteren, a former Fox News presenter, among other outlets.
The cable news veteran hosts a weekly VOA programme.
The firings came after Pack had tried to allay mounting concerns about his intentions at the agency in an email to staff in which he said he is “committed to maintaining the agency’s independence and adhering to VOA’s charter and the principles”.
The director and deputy director of the VOA, Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara, resigned from their positions on Monday.
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, denounced the firings as an “egregious breach” of the agency’s mission. Menendez had led an unsuccessful fight to block or at least delay Pack’s confirmation.