In late 2016, an amendment was quietly inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act that would have a devastating effect on the U.S. government’s globe-spanning system of foreign-language media. The provision — spearheaded by Ed Royce, then a U.S. representative of California and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — did not appear to raise any objections from congressional Democrats, either because they didn’t understand the likely consequences or because they were still reeling from the results of the 2016 election. Neither the press nor the public took much notice.
Royce’s amendment abolished the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a nine-member bipartisan body that governed a system of five media networks, each with its own distinctive history and culture. Two of those networks — Voice of America (VOA, founded in 1942) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (founded in 1985) — are federal entities. The other three — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (founded in 1950), Radio Free Asia (founded in 1996), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (founded in 2004) — are non-profit “grantees” that receive federal funds but are, or have been until very recently, governed by independent bipartisan boards. A fourth grantee, the Open Technology Fund, was set up in 2012 to support citizen efforts to counteract digital censorship, propaganda, and surveillance in authoritarian countries. According to the International Broadcasting Act of 1994, the overriding purpose of this system is “to promote the right of freedom of opinion and expression…in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The BBG suffered from several structural flaws, but none that justified abolishing it and granting a single individual, especially a political appointee, unlimited discretionary authority in its place. Yet that is what Royce and his allies did. Renaming the system the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), they placed it under the direct command of a plenipotentiary CEO who, despite being confirmed by the Senate, is by law appointed by, and answerable to, the president alone.
At almost any other time, such drastic reform would have triggered an outcry. But the move received little attention, in part because President Trump waited 17 months before nominating Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker, to this new position, and another two years before asking the Senate to confirm him.
During those three and a half years, people throughout USAGM wondered and worried about what sort of leader Pack would be. The answer came right after his June 2020 confirmation, when he abruptly fired every grantee board member, grantee president, and USAGM senior manager who had not already resigned. He then filled the grantee boards with Trump loyalists and made himself chair of them all…
[LONG article continues, subheadings:]
THE BIRTH OF SURROGATE NEWS
THE CASE OF CAMBODIA
DEBASED PRACTICE, LOFTY IDEAL
THE THREE MISSIONS OF VOA — AND USAGM
Martha Bayles is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Her most recent book is Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad (Yale, 2014). She teaches humanities at Boston College. (via David Cole, LA via WOR io group)