A Voice of America crew reports in Manalapan, Florida on April 5, 2017 ahead of a visit by President of China Xi Jinping. VOA journalists are raising alarm bells about the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA and other outlets. (Reuters/Joe Skipper)

Former VOA staffer Al Pessin on VOA’s role amid the Trump-appointee shakeup

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At the end of August, journalists with the U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America (VOA) took the extraordinary step of ringing a public alarm bell about moves by the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees VOA and several other outlets. VOA broadcasts in 47 languages and employs both U.S. citizens and foreigners. It operates with a firm “firewall” to prohibit government interference and ensure journalistic independence. 

Michael Pack, who was nominated for the role by President Donald Trump, has taken steps to shake up the agency since he was confirmed in June: he ousted several USAGM executives; he declined to approve visa extensions for foreign reporters, potentially forcing some to return to their home countries where they could face retribution for their work; and he implied, in an interview with The Federalist podcast and with no evidence, that a USAGM news organization would be a “great place to put a foreign spy.” 

Pack’s behavior and comments endanger “the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as [threaten] to harm U.S. national security objectives,” wrote the VOA reporters in a letter to the acting head of VOA, Elez Biberaj. Pack’s recent attempts to root out alleged political bias at VOA was, they said, a witch hunt reminiscent of the Red Scare of the 1950s. (CPJ has also objected to his actions, with a letter of concern asking him to preserve the outlets’ editorial independence.)

In a show of solidarity with their colleagues still working at VOA, several retired news agency employees also signed the letter, including Al Pessin. Pessin spent his nearly 40-year career as a journalist at VOA in the United States and at bureaus abroad, including Islamabad, Beijing, Jerusalem, and London, before retiring five years ago. During his time at VOA, he observed as successive presidential administrations would occasionally try to influence VOA and other Congress-funded media organizations. Pack has taken these efforts to a whole new level, he said.  

Pessin spoke with CPJ via phone about why he decided to sign the letter and what Pack’s actions could mean for VOA and other U.S. Congress-funded media organizations. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Why did you sign the letter raising concerns about Pack? 

I thought it was important to stand with my colleagues on the issue of political interference at the Voice of America. Clearly every administration gets to have its impact on all federal agencies including the broadcasting agencies, but the extent of the changes and the apparent intention to interfere with editorial products, as well as an impact on the individuals with regard to the visas, it just seemed like some sort of statement was in order. When my colleagues who are still working there signed the statement, putting their employment status on the line, I felt it was the least I could do to stand with them. 

[Editor’s note: Pessin’s name is not on the publicly circulated letter; he signed via an online form.]

I have noticed that few VOA staff members have given interviews about their concerns with Pack, beyond what is written in the letter. Why do you think that is? 

It’s understandable for people who are working there to be reluctant to go public and on the record for a couple of reasons. First of all, it could impact their jobs, their assignments, especially in an environment where people are being fired or transferred or their visas are being cancelled or not renewed. That’s certainly a significant factor. If you’re there on the job, you don’t want to lose the job. 

Al Pessin, a former VOA staffer, reporting from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. (Al Pessin)

The other reason, I think, is that some of the journalists at VOA may feel that it’s not really right for them to get involved in something which is, in the end, a political issue. It runs counter to the brain of any journalist. We don’t want to be the story; we don’t want to be someone who is quoted as having an opinion on a situation. 

The letter specifically mentioned Pack’s comment that foreign countries could insert spies into the agency; that comment is especially risky given that VOA journalists are sometimes accused of spying when they report in countries with poor press freedom records, as CPJ has documented in Ethiopia specifically. Why do these accusations occur? 

VOA journalists and journalists at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and other affiliates are in a unique position in that they are U.S. government employees or contractors and they are also operating as independent journalists to the maximum extent possible. That is a dichotomy that is difficult for many people to understand and accept. 

When we’re out in the field, we are constantly dealing with this issue and trying to get people to accept us as legitimate journalists. We point them to our website or our broadcast and say, “Look, this is what we do—can you speak with me?”

We have difficulty both with foreign officials and foreign news sources of all kinds, as well as with American officials and news sources who really don’t understand what VOA is. When somebody like Mr. Pack insinuates that journalists could be spies, he’s allowing people to make the same insinuations and that completely undermines journalists’ efforts to establish their independence. 

If you’re sitting in a foreign country and you hear that the [person who oversees] Voice of America thinks there might be spies at the Voice of America — you might say to yourself, heck, if he thinks it, it’s probably true and I should probably believe it. Instead of doing everything possible to tamp down any such thoughts, here you’re giving voice to them. Maybe it’s beneficial in terms of domestic politics, but it’s disastrous in terms of international relations.

It takes a long time to build the credibility of a news organization and just a brief moment to destroy it. It’s just reckless and irresponsible for him to make comments like that, even if he was joking, even if he was talking about inserting spies the other way around by foreign powers into the Voice of America. It just shows a complete lack of understanding or disregard for the job that we have to do and potentially for the personal safety of the people trying to do it. 

[Editor’s note: CPJ reached out to a USAGM spokesperson via email for comment from Pack but did not receive a response.]

VOA was originally started as a way to combat Nazi propaganda during World War II and was later expanded as a way to combat Soviet influence through soft power. What do you see as the outlet’s role in the post-Cold War era, and what do you think VOA has become in the past 30 years? 

This is a question that’s been out there for 30 years and the answers have evolved over time. However, VOA has consistently served countries with significant restrictions on freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and so on. Some of those countries are the same ones that we served during the Cold War, and in some ways the target audience has grown to the Arab world, Iran, and China.  

I think there is still a mission for VOA in terms of the constituencies that we have always served. One is the audience overseas who needs independent and accurate information. The other is the American taxpayer who, I believe, still has an interest in footing the bill of an outlet like Voice of America that will spread accurate information about the United States and world events. 

Someone once said to me that VOA is “advanced patriotism.” The concept behind VOA is that if you’re honest and if you report the good news and the bad news about America and the impact of American policies overseas, on balance that will reflect well on America.  The American people are well intentioned and our government officials do the best that they can for the American people and for people overseas. 

If you believe that America needs an international salesperson to go out and say how great we are all the time, then that is not a defense of patriotism. Then that means that what we call the “warts and all” approach will reflect poorly on America. I think that’s why VOA is set up the way it is. That’s why if you go back and look at the very first transcript of our broadcast back in 1942 during World War II, the famous quote is “The news may be good, the news may be bad, we shall tell you the truth.” 

Some of VOA’s audience gets skewed information from their own government radio, TV, and websites. They want the straight story. That’s why VOA is the way it is. That’s why it has survived over the decades through various political whims that have blown across the organization.