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Report says Trump appointee tried to destroy VOA
How Grassley and Ernst helped
(The Trump indictment news broke after I wrote this column Thursday. A few thoughts on that at the end of the piece.)
A new federal report details how a Trump appointee did everything in his power to destroy the journalistic independence of the agency that controls Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti and other US-run broadcasters who provide unbiased information to parts of the world hungry for real news.
According to NPR, the new report from the Office of Special Counsel found that Michael Pack, a Trump appointee, repeatedly abused his power of office, broke laws and regulations, and engaged in gross misconduct.
Trump nominated Pack to head the U.S Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees VOA, RFE and other broadcast entities. The US Senate confirmed Pack’s nomination in June of 2020, with only months left in Trump’s term. Iowa’s two US Senators, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, voted to confirm Pack.
That unleashed a reign of terror at these government-run news organizations, which operate under a statutory firewall to protect their journalistic independence. Pack immediately went to work to root out employees he viewed as not sufficiently loyal to Trump. Pack fired the heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Office of Cuba broadcasting. The two top editors at Voice of American resigned.
Pack then gave a no-bid contract to an outside law firm to investigate employees he saw as anti-Trumpers. The bill for that investigation came to $1.6 million – paid for by US taxpayers.
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He replaced board members of the various agencies with his own ideological appointees and tried to change the rules so they couldn’t be removed unless convicted of a felony.
The new federal investigation found that Pack, among other things,
· Violated the independence of journalists working for VOA newsrooms
· Retaliated against employees who filed whistleblower complaints against him
· Engaged in “gross mismanagement and gross waste” by giving the no-bid contract to a conservative law firm
Does this all sound familiar? Pack was doing exactly what President Trump wanted him to do. It’s a continuation of his war on the media, his war on what he perceives as the “deep state”, and his war on anyone anywhere who isn’t loyal to Trump.
Senators Grassley and Ernst – Grassley in particular – like to champion themselves as strong defenders of the First Amendment, yet where were they when the guy they voted to confirm was tearing apart this important government agency? Where were their investigations? Where were their news releases? Not one tweet about this attack on journalistic independence?
It’s exactly what we can expect if Trump gets a second term. It might be tame compared to what we would see in a second term – all of it backed by his enablers Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, who don’t appear to put much study into their confirmation votes.
Michael Pack’s reign of terror was mercifully brief – about eight months. He was one of the first people President Biden fired when he took office in January 2021. Most of the scorned employees have been absolved. The whistleblowers have been vindicated. A tall firewall between VOA journalists and their government overseers has been restored.
Last September, the Senate confirmed President Biden’s nominee of Amanda Bennett to run the USAGM. She’s one of the VOA editors who resigned under Pack. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Senators Grassley and Ernst voted against her. We need to know why and they need to tell us.
As the Trump indictment news broke Thursday night, like many of you, I sat down to flip through the news channels and read online accounts with a sick feeling in my stomach.
With no “official” information to go on, the media and the country, were already racing to their corners, lacing up the gloves and getting ready to fight. This is going to be a real test for ALL of us.
Republican members of Congress, including Iowa’s US Senator Charles Grassley, were already tweeting “What about Hunter Biden?” Fox “News” had on a steady stream of Trump apologists who think what the Justice Department is doing is so “unfair”. MSNBC defended the Justice Department.
And there was CNN – maybe not right in the middle, but at least offering a respectable mix of Trump critics and defenders. One day after CNN’s CEO Chris Licht was fired for not only a litany of unforced errors but also because his vision to pull CNN back to a partisan middle ground seemed wrong for these polarized times – there was CNN at least trying to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway on an important story.
The times just got a LOT more polarized. There will be plenty of opportunities in the coming months and years to consider how the media should responsibly cover this story. For now, let’s all concentrate on the facts. What are the specific indictments? What is Trump’s response beyond “it’s a hoax”, which is getting awfully tiring to hear on every allegation. What do judges rule? What do juries decide? Everything else is speculation. Fasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a bump ride.
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