Newly installed Voice of America leader Michael Pack, who purged most of the organization’s leadership on the evening of June 17, is also a longtime conservative documentarian whose work has been seen most widely on PBS — but is also known as an acolyte of right-wing activist Steve Bannon.
The VOA has been run by filmmakers before. While most of its directors have been journalists or scholars, the founding director of the public broadcaster dedicated to sharing American news and culture was Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-winning screenwriter, and President Roosevelt speechwriter Robert Sherwood. (He also coined the organization’s name.) Following Sherwood was John Houseman, a longtime Orson Welles collaborator who went on to become a respected film producer and production executive in addition to his work as an actor.
Pack has a longstanding relationship with PBS — like VOA, a public broadcasting outlet. From 2003 through 2006 he oversaw programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees PBS. Among his films broadcast on the network are “The Fall of Newt Gingrich” (2000), “Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton” (2010), and “Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power” (2014), a film funded in part by the Sloan Foundation.
Most recently, he wrote and directed “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.” Before its PBS premiere last month, it opened theatrically in January through Packer’s own Manifold Prods. It grossed $282,000 over six weeks, when theaters closed, and saw 53 theaters at its widest.
While Pack’s work doesn’t favor the firebrand methodology that made Dinesh D’Souza the right-wing Michael Moore, it’s not without controversy: Pack is also the founder and director of charitable non-profit Public Media Lab, which is now under investigation by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine as to whether Pack unlawfully directed all PML funds to Manifold.
More concerning is that Pack is a political appointee, and Trump has long made his displeasure known regarding the VOA. Last month, he attacked its coverage of COVID-19, including claims that its interpretation of China’s role was the equivalent of Chinese propaganda. CNN sources indicate that post-urge, Pack’s VOA will be led by Trump loyalists who include a board member from Christian fundamentalist group Liberty Counsel, and Jeffrey Shapiro, who once said he wanted to turn the VOA into “Bannon’s legacy.”
If that’s the case, this would be the first time that the VOA has been operated by a filmmaker as ideologue — something that runs directly counter to the VOA charter.
In 1939, the FCC defined the VOA’s work with this policy: “A licensee of an international broadcast station shall render only an international broadcast service which will reflect the culture of this country and which will promote international goodwill, understanding and cooperation. Any program solely intended for, and directed to an audience in the continental United States does not meet the requirements for this service.”
The VOA presents the country in a positive light, as with any government-sponsored agency, but it gained global trust with a reputation for credibility and non-partisanship. This was codified into its charter in 1976, which states:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts.
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
Past VOA heads, including both the recent Bush and Obama administrations, were experienced journalist and broadcast heavyweights with few strong partisan ties. The VOA has been widely regarded around the world as similar to the U.K.’s BBC World Service, which under government control has maintained standards of fairness and accuracy.
Pack’s overnight purge found a variety of objections, not just from Democrats and past VOA employees but also from some conservatives including activist and sometime Trump official Sebastian Gorka and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). An article in U.K.’s The Week by Brigham Young University professor and former Rudy Giuliani speechwriter Damon Linker asked “Is Trump putting fascists in charge of the Voice of America?,” comparing the moves to far-right movements in Hungary, Brazil, and France that aim to create and control propaganda and create a unified message with multinational conservative operators.
This is a political appointment, and thus lasts as long as whoever is president wants. But even short term, ridding an agency of long-term staff members has a lasting impact. And the reputation of the VOA, carefully nurtured for decades by administrations of both parties, now seems at risk with this filmmaker at the helm.