Trump's Choice for Broadcasting Chief on Senate Hot Seat

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It’s taken nearly 16 months and two senators’ retirements for documentary filmmaker Michael Pack to hit the hot seat and answer senators’ questions about his plans to lead the nation’s taxpayer-funded global broadcasting operation.

But the painful waiting in the wings may not stop when Thursday’s hearing is over.

Pack could face new confirmation hurdles if Democratic senators and Obama-appointed officials in the organization continue to throw up roadblocks.

Early last summer President Trump nominated Pack to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the umbrella entity for the federal government’s radio and television service best known for its flagship Voice of America multimedia news shows.

Previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors before it was rebranded last year, the USAGM was originally founded to counter propaganda from repressive regimes by providing a more independent, reliable source of news promoting “freedom and democracy” around the world, according to the agency’s website.

The first sentence of the VOA charter, which dates to 1948, also unequivocally states that “the long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly back with the peoples of the world by radio.”

But critics argue that the agency, which has a $680 million annual budget, has lost its mission in a shifting global media and foreign policy environment and is in desperate need of reform after a recent spate of management scandals.

Anti-Trump Republicans and Democratic forces on Capitol Hill kept Pack’s nomination on ice for months last year. Now-retired GOP Sens. Bob Corker, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, and Jeff Flake, who sat on that panel, worked with Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, to stymie any progress and prevent Pack’s confirmation.

Corker and Menendez, with Flake’s help, also led a failed effort to pass a bill designed to undermine the power of the USAGM post and hamstring Pack’s ability to fire Obama holdovers if and when he takes the helm.

The committee now has a more Trump-friendly chairman in Sen. James Risch of Idaho, but other nominees and priorities managed to push Pack’s confirmation hearing into the fall.

On Thursday, the former Corporation for Public Broadcasting executive who most recently headed the conservative Claremont Institute (and still serves as a senior fellow there) will field long-awaited questions from the Foreign Relations panel.

While Pack’s nomination likely will have little trouble passing out of the GOP-controlled committee, Menendez and other Democrats are expected to strenuously oppose Pack during his hearing. They also could prevent the nomination from seeing the light of the day on the Senate floor. Any one senator can place a “hold” on a nomination, a parliamentary move that chamber rules allow to prevent a motion from reaching a floor vote.

Menendez’s office did not respond to a Wednesday RealClearPolitics inquiry into whether the senator planned to try to block or further delay Pack’s confirmation.

If confirmed, Pack would replace the outgoing CEO, John Lansing, whom Obama appointed to the board in 2015. Early this month National Public Radio announced that Lansing will become its CEO.

As soon as Pack’s name started circulating in the press as a possible Trump nominee to head the communications agency, critics on the left started mobilizing against him. Citing his ties to former White House adviser Steve Bannon — the two worked together on two documentaries — the critics openly worried that Pack would turn the Voice of America into a megaphone for the Trump administration.

In 2017, Pack wrote an article for the Federalist praising Bannon, arguing that he could help break liberals' “monopoly” on documentaries. He also took a shot at film schools in American universities, describing them as dedicated to liberal “indoctrination and grooming.”

“I have some bad news for this documentary establishment,” he wrote, “Trump, with Bannon’s help, campaigned against political correctness and self-dealing elites. And they won.”

Supporters now say that Pack wouldn’t be beholden to Bannon in any way, especially considering the latter’s exile from Trump world, a banishment that seems to have stayed largely intact despite some recent kind words from the president about his former close adviser.

But those assurances haven’t stopped the stream of negative stories warning that Pack would turn the USAGM and its various media outlets into state-run Trump TV and radio. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow early last year warned that a re-tooled VOA led by a Trump appointee could become a “state-run media operation” devoted to promoting the president’s policies abroad.

Conservative critics, including a VOA director during the George W. Bush administration, say the status quo is just as unacceptable.

These detractors argue that the USAGM has lost its way, and VOA coverage now reflects the same anti-Trump bias you would find in the New York Times, Washington Post or CNN, only in this case it’s taxpayer-funded and directed at an international audience. Its airwaves are dominated by stories covering liberal priorities such as climate change, LGBT issues and pro-immigrant causes, the critics say.

“The Trump agenda keeps getting slammed left and right,” a government official told RealClearPolitics. “Why is the VOA acting like it’s part of the resistance and opposition to Trump? That is not part of the VOA’s charter or mission.”

Case in point: The lead story on the VOA’s website Wednesday carried this headline, alongside a photo of seemingly distraught or angry woman in a hijab: “Polarized Politics Deepens Divide Over Who Is a ‘Real’ American?”

“The promise of the American dream, where all immigrants can assimilate into a diverse cultural melting pot, is complicated by questions of loyalty, legality and racism,” the subhead reads.

After Trump’s State of the Union address last year, the VOA’s coverage featured a large photo of a “Dreamer” immigrant with her hand over her mouth, accompanied by the headline: “Trump Promotes Immigration Reforms; Democrats Reject His Policy as ‘Heartless.’”

Pack’s more than year-long confirmation delay has partisan tensions within the USAGM boiling over as critics argue that top officials at the agency are hiring or promoting more anti-Trump officials in order to undermine Pack should he become the CEO.

“They’re in a hiring rampage of like-minded friends – it’s a frenzy of activity,” one administration source told RCP. “They’re trying to put a straitjacket around Pack so he can’t really make the changes he wants when he gets there.”

Pack, through a Claremont Institute spokeswoman, declined to comment “out of respect for the hearing and the confirmation process.”

Conservative critics of the VOA’s coverage blame VOA Chairman Amanda Bennett, who they argue has wrongly focused too closely on expanding a domestic U.S. audience despite the agency’s mission to counter propaganda in Russia, China, Iran and other U.S. adversaries.

Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter and former top editor at the Oregonian and columnist at the Washington Post. She is married to Donald Graham, the former owner and publisher of the  Post and the son of legendary publisher Kay Graham. She was appointed VOA director by President Obama in April 2016.

Last fall, Bennett stoked additional partisan turmoil over the future of the USAGM and VOA by penning an op-ed taking Trump to task for suggesting in a tweet that the United States should create its own "worldwide network to show the World we really are – GREAT!"

Bennett placed the op-ed in the Washington Post. In the piece she claimed that the 77-year-old VOA is a powerful force for good in the world because it provides news and coverage of Washington and international events free from any administration's meddling.

"We export the First Amendment," she argued.

"We cover the toll of the opioid crisis and how people combat it," she wrote. "We show troops massed near the U.S. border and migrants throwing rocks. We interviewed people both shocked and elated by Trump's election. We cover killings by white supremacists and marches by #MeToo protesters."

"Our audiences see a country strong enough to criticize itself — a nation struggling openly with its problems," she said.

Bennett didn’t touch on a series of recent scandals at the USAGM under her and Lansing’s leadership.

Haroon Ullah, the former chief strategy officer for the agency, who worked closely with Lansing, pleaded guilty on June 27 in federal court to stealing nearly $40,000 in government property during his tenure. He faces sentencing Oct. 11.

In another recent scandal, Tomas Regalado Jr., a reporter for TV Marti, which broadcasts into Cuba, and a cameraman were recently suspended after being accused of faking a mortar attack on Regalado while broadcasting from Nicaragua last year.

Last fall, the VOA fired 15 of its employees in Africa after discovering that they were accepting bribes passed to them by a Nigerian official.

Also last year, three VOA employees were suspended and threatened with firing for conducting an interview with a controversial Chinese dissident. The chief of VOA's China division, one of those suspended, said VOA leadership in Washington was caving to pressure from the Chinese government.

A three-month House Foreign Affairs Committee investigation, released late last year, uncovered new evidence of a series of USAGM management failures. 

The report cited “insufficient management” for the allowing the VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty (RFE/RL) to run Facebook ads that illegally targeted audiences in the United States.

late-November report by Stanford University's Hoover Institution cited concerns about Chinese officials' influence on American institutions, including specific details about its "charm offensive and tougher tactics" on VOA and Radio Free Asia employees working in China, including details about the Chinese officials meeting annually with leaders of VOA’s Mandarin service to express their opinions about the content disseminated by the outlet.

The report cited what it called a "pattern" by the VOA Mandarin Service of avoiding stories that could be perceived to be too tough on China and detailed activities by Chinese security officials it said amount to "a campaign of intimidation against some VOA and RFA staffers and their family members."

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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