Democracy, the Free Press and Whistleblowers

On April 17, 2024, the National Press Club featured David Seide of Government Accountability Project, Libby Liu of Whistleblower Aid and Dr. Kate Wright of the University of Edinburgh in a panel event entitled “The Way Forward for Preserving Journalistic Independence at USAGM News Outlets.” Though the discussion highlighted Trump-era abuses of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), it also served as a warning about how future threats to independent journalism could easily be replicated next year.  

The US Agency for Global Media – and Voice of America, one of its subagencies – focuses on providing objective, nonpartisan news internationally over radio and television across the world, with a special focus on Asia (Radio Free Asia), Cuba (TV [and Radio] Martí), Europe (Radio Free Europe) and the Middle East (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa). These regions have a clear need for unbiased media in their languages outside the strictures of official state ideologies, thus allowing the free flow of information.  

Thus, the attack on USAGM is not a trivial issue, even if its name does not have household recognition in the US. The influence of USAGM, and not just Voice of America (VOA), cannot be underestimated. In highly propagandized regions like Pacific countries threatened by China, USAGM surrogates can be a counter against official lies and opportunistic misrepresentations. More than 350 million people internationally serve as an audience for USAGM stories. This work is also tailored to local audiences—their cultures, preferences and languages spoken by native speakers rather than a top-down endeavor. 

Michael Pack, nominated for USAGM CEO by former President Trump towards the end of his Administration in 2020, sought to turn that process upside down, using the agency as a propaganda tool by broadcasting false or exaggerated narratives. Pack was not unusual for the Trump administration in terms of management approaches or ideology. He was, and is, a staunch right-leaning documentary filmmaker with few instances of mainstream journalism under his belt, with close ties to the conservative Claremont Institute, and who also cavorted with Breitbart writers—including Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and political strategist. Pack’s strategy involved politicizing and centralizing the agency to control the content of the U.S. broadcast service in advancement of the interests of the then-Trump administration. Centralizing here meant taking power away from local affiliates (“surrogate media”) and their ability to report with journalistic integrity and independence. Politicization goes hand-in-hand (or forcing the hand) of journalists and other professionals to report inaccurate or slanted information in favor of the president at the time—or to the detriment of the opposition. This meant a sharp dampening on reporting because of fear of reprisal, censorship, and even self-censorship. 

Pack fired journalists who pushed back against his changes and interference with independent reporting, ultimately causing such an outcry amongst his staff that more than 30 whistleblowers came forward. Government Accountability Project’s Of Counsel, David Seide, filed whistleblower disclosures about Pack’s abuse of authority with the Office of Special Counsel, with widespread coverage by the mainstream press regarding the political interference at VOA and USAGM. The wake of scandal and official censure behind Pack eventually drove his forced resignation on the first day of President’s Biden term in January 2021, with the Office of Special Counsel referring the whistleblowers’ disclosures for an independent investigation, the results of which validated that USAGM leadership, including Pack and his advisors, abused their authority, engaged in gross mismanagement and waste, as well as violated laws, rules, and regulations including the Privacy Act and distributing investigative materials on six senior executives to non-government individuals.   

The attempt by Michael Pack and the Trump administration to turn USAGM into a vehicle for state propaganda rather than independent journalism was ultimately thwarted by several whistleblowers whom Government Accountability Project represented. But it forewarns of the dangers of state-controlled media content that can be weaponized not only from specific politicians or appointees alone but the movements behind them. For example, Project 2025 of the Heritage Foundation seeks to attack “wokeism,” a loosely defined accusation of bias towards the political left on behalf of civil servants, bureaucracies and politicians for acknowledging the double standards that racial, gender and sexual minorities face. But an “anti-woke” agenda, rather than championing freedom, may have a chilling effect on what and how reporters cover. And this is just one threat that a controlled media would have on advancing anti-democratic policy goals. The Project 2025 policy agenda also includes election denialism; climate denialism; and restructuring Schedule F, a hiring mechanism, to enable countless political appointees and erode the civil service protections of thousands of federal employees—which would also include gutting their whistleblower rights. 

If Heritage-Foundation loyalist political appointees take control of USAGM, steering state media in ideological directions will not be on their conscience: it will be their goal. Worse, even if balanced journalists are still part of the newsroom, they may have to engage in false equivalences (one example is airing “both sides” of the climate debate) or alter their stories to fit a false narrative. 

Indeed, Dr. Kate Wright, one of the panelists and author of Capturing News, Capturing Democracy: Trump and the Voice of America, argued that having, or not having, an editorial firewall is not a dichotomy. Instead, it is a continuum between autocracy and full democracy. Currently, American democracy is sliding towards autocracy not only because of a lack of editorial firewalls (or editorial independence between state, political ideology or narrative, and a given individual journalist alone). It could worsen with the threat of a slow creep into various “flavors” of agency capture – and ideological capture – of the mainstream media at large following a second Trump Administration. One alarming threat, and potential future analogue, was the far-right takeover by the Polish Law and Justice Party, which transformed the larger press into a propaganda outlet in the 2010s. The Law and Justice party had its own anti-woke, “family values” agenda for eight years prior to Poland’s 2023 historic election rejecting the ultra-nationalist party in favor of democratic governance. 

The urge to seek the truth and understand current affairs is a nearly universal one, both within and between nations. We cannot let that noble impulse slide. Thus, the preservation of USAGM is not just a diplomacy issue. It is paramount to the preservation of press freedom, the push against false propaganda, and the establishment of trust in a global order of democracy and integrity—as fragile as that trust may be. Government Accountability Project is committed to protecting these values via our Democracy Protection Initiative (DPI), and protecting whistleblowers who, like the USAGM employees, choose to speak up against abuses that threaten democracy. This program protected dozens of whistleblowers during USAGM’s darkest days and, if necessary, will do so again.