WASHINGTON – The new chief of U.S.-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, who defended his personnel moves, is unusual because it’s coming from supporters of President Donald Trump who had backed his controversial nomination to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media over staunch Democratic objections.
Trump allies, including former adviser Sebastian Gorka, have offered public support for the ousted 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 onetime associate of Trump adviser Steve Bannon, sacked both of them late 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.
“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 new agency's new public affairs staff.
The statement called the moves “significant and long-overdue” and said Pack and his team are “committed to eradicating the known mismanagement and scandals that have plagued the agency for decades."
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 an AGM employee, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Capus, who was previously president of NBC News for nearly eight years, did not respond to a query sent to an AGM work email address.
And, he ousted the head of the Open Technology Fund, a non-broadcast arm of the AGM that works to provide secure internet access to people around the world. Last week, Fund chief Libby Liu submitted her resignation, effective in mid-July, but she was removed with the others.
There was no public explanation of why Pack would dismiss any of the officials, let alone those favored by conservatives beyond the general statement of improving the agency.
The firing of Fernandez, in particular, has raised conservative hackles. A former career diplomat fluent in Arabic, 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 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 “shameful." “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.“
“Michael Pack gets confirmed by the Senate and, rather than take stock and talk to people who know what’s happening, he fired everybody," Reaboi 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 Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also attracted criticism, including from Mark Dubowitz, a well-known advocate of the Trump administration's hawkish policies on Iran. “Poor decision to fire (Fernandez) and (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.
Juan Zarate, a Republican former NSC and Treasury staffer, agreed, calling the two dismissals “incomprehensible." “I’ve watched both for years work with integrity to promote US interests abroad," he wrote.
In addition to Fernandez and Fly, Pack also removed the head of Radio Free Asia, Bay Fang, and the acting chief of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting on Wednesday. He replaced each outlet's corporate board of directors with allies and installed himself as chairman of each.
One of the people added to the board of Radio Free Asia, Jonathan Alexandre, attracted particular concern from Democrats who noted that he is also director of public policy for the conservative Liberty Counsel, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group for opposing gay rights.
The director and deputy director of the Voice of America, Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara, resigned from their positions on Monday. Taken together, top House Democrats who oversee AGM funding said Pack's moves were dangerous.
“That Mr. Pack took this drastic measure in his first week on the job is shocking, and we have deep concerns that he takes the helm of a critical agency with the intent to prioritize the Trump administration’s political whims over protecting and promoting independent reporting, which is a pillar of freedom and democracy," said Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, 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.