The man in charge of a network of government funded news outlets announced late Monday that he was eliminating the so-called “firewall” between journalists and their political management.
Michael Pack, the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) — which includes Voice of America (VOA), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) — said the rule made it too difficult to prohibit “biased reporting” and prevent the reporting of classified information, among other things.
Pack is a conservative filmmaker and ally of former Trump campaign chair Steve Bannon. Upon taking office in June, he purged or sidelined much of the agency’s senior leadership and was accused of meddling in editorial matters.
“No agency run by a CEO, or another type of head, has any kind of ‘firewall’ between himself and the rest of his agency,” Pack wrote in a blog post justifying the change. “An organization, especially a large one, cannot be successful if senior management is limited in overseeing and managing personnel below it.”
The decision was issued as a “final rule” and therefore had no formal comment period, and took effect immediately. It repealed a rule instituted by the agency’s governing board just before Pack took over at USAGM, which had codified in writing practices that had been in place for years.
The change comes after months of VOA employees’ complaints that management under Pack’s leadership has involved itself in editorial choices and pursued frivolous investigations against reporters perceived to be biased.
Former Voice of America director Amanda Bennett told NPR Tuesday that she was “stunned” by the change.
“It removes the one thing that makes Voice of America distinct from broadcasters of repressive regimes,” Bennett said.
Earlier this month, five suspended USAGM executives sued Pack and the agency alleging that its leadership had systematically and intentionally violated the firewall in order to interfere with journalistic decisions. They also pointed to federal law requiring USAGM’s leadership to “respect the professional independence and integrity of” Voice of America and the other USAGM networks.
“Since Defendants took power in June, they have engaged in a pattern of gross mismanagement — making arbitrary and insidious decisions designed to choke the USAGM networks, send a message about their ability to control the networks, and — ultimately — to coerce, intimidate, threaten, and pressure these organizations into agreeing to Defendants’ journalistic control,” the suit alleged.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Theodore Boutrous, told TPM in a statement Tuesday that Pack’s attempt to repeal the firewall regulation was “unlawful,” but said it confirmed his clients’ allegations: “rather than protecting these cherished media outlets, their independence, and their credibility, Mr. Pack is trying to break the firewall down brick by brick.”
“At the very least, Mr. Pack is now being honest with the public about what he has been doing along, taunting independent journalism and violating the First Amendment. His actions are sad and outrageous and plainly violate the Constitution,” Boutrous said.
“Plaintiffs also invoke the so-called ‘Firewall Regulation’ that was promulgated during Plaintiffs’ leadership of USAGM, just before CEO Pack assumed office,” the filing read.
“USAGM has since rescinded this regulation.”