Michael Pack is a man on a mission.
Now head of the 4,000-employee strong U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees such organizations as Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia, Pack is tasking himself—and his agency—with restoring American public diplomacy through international broadcasting, in line with its original mission.
“All the broadcasters … are committed by law to present fair, objective, balanced news … and I want to hold them to that,” Pack said.
VOA, in particular, has come under criticism in recent years that it has bowed to pressure from countries such as China and Iran to present the views of their regimes rather than those of the United States.
On the contrary, “balance means reflecting the range of opinions in the United States,” Pack said.
“When the VOA covers the election or covers the pandemic or covers the Black Lives Matters demonstrations, or riots, they need to cover them in a way that reflects a variety of U.S. opinions,” he said.
“It’s a hard thing to achieve … in a polarized world,” but “these broadcasters are legally and morally” required to ensure that their broadcasts reflect American viewpoints, he said.
The guiding principles for VOA emphasize the requirements “to represent America” and to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.”
Standing for American Ideas and Institutions
In a wide-ranging interview with The Epoch Times, Pack also talked about allegations that Voice of America has been compromised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); his road to the top spot of American public broadcasting and the criticism leveled at him as an appointee of President Donald Trump; and who his real heroes are.
But key to his stewardship of USAGM, which broadcasts to 100 countries in 62 languages and boasts an audience of 350 million listeners around the world, is “the overarching goal of the whole agency.”
“American taxpayers spend $800 million a year” on the agency, Pack said.
That money has one purpose.
The agency must “advance America’s broad foreign policy goals, [which] includes fighting for American ideas and institutions against … views from China and Iran,” Pack said.
“We need to … stand for American values, not [Democrat] values or Republican values, but American values like democracy and human rights.”
The broadcasters also need to “explain our system,” particularly at a time when regimes such as China’s are “doing a very good job touting” the Chinese system, Pack said.
“We need to meet that challenge.”
Pack referred to the demonstrations in Beijing in the spring of 1989 that led to a massacre of civilians in and around Tiananmen Square by the People’s Liberation Army on June 4, 1989.
“Tiananmen Square is a case where a vast amount of people were inspired by the American system,” Pack said, so much so that the demonstrators erected their own statue of liberty, the Goddess of Democracy.
“American ideals have been inspiring to the world since the country was founded. And rightly so. We should remain that beacon of freedom around the world and the agency is really part of that. So that’s my overarching goal.
“Everybody in this agency … actually knows what the mission is, and so I’m holding them to that.”
They believe in it, Pack said, though some “may have wandered from it.”
“Their mission is different than the mission of a commercial broadcaster, so they know it, all of them know it,” he said.
However, “obviously, there are some bad actors who need to be pushed aside.”
Countering Chinese Communist Party Influence
The Hoover Institution, in an October 2018 report on Chinese influence in America, highlighted the Voice of America as a media organization that has come under CCP influence since the early 2000s. The report details the collaboration of Voice of America Mandarin Chinese Service with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, suggesting that a cozy relationship existed between VOA Mandarin Service staff and embassy officials.
The report also states that VOA Mandarin Service staff have allowed the Chinese Embassy to “voice their opinions about VOA’s content.”
Pack reiterated the position he laid out in his confirmation hearing.
“I’m going to look at all of these allegations,” he said.
“I am very concerned about these allegations about the VOA Mandarin Service and … I am totally committed to getting to the bottom of it. … I’m shocked and appalled.”
The CCP’s influence over broadcasting targeting its citizens doesn’t stop at its attempts to influence the broadcasters themselves, however. It extends to draconian control over internet access in China.
“China’s internet firewall is like the Berlin Wall: It has to come down,” Pack said.
China’s firewall effectively cuts off access to the world outside of China, giving the CCP virtually complete control over and access to all web traffic available inside Chinese borders.
Part of USAGM’s mission is to circumvent that firewall so Chinese citizens have the unfettered ability to listen to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia broadcasts.
That is easier said than done, with controversy over what the best approach is.
The Open Technology Fund (OTF), a nonprofit that receives its funding through USAGM, is charged with developing internet-circumvention technologies. It has insisted on open-source applications, which have included Signal and Tor.
But critics say the OTF has been ineffective at breaching China’s firewall.
The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice complains in a June 23 article on its website that OTF has had “a lack of follow through on support for some of the most effective circumvention tools currently available.”
In seeking effective tools, the Lantos Foundation urges the use of “both open and closed source technologies.” Lantos Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation, has urged funding for the programs Freegate, Lantern, Psiphon, and Ultrasurf.
Pack, without specifying a particular preference, said he is open to considering the best firewall circumvention strategies available.
That could even include shortwave transmission, a technology that has seen a steep decline in usage with the ubiquitous rise of the internet.
But, said Pack, “we have shortwave infrastructure that the United States has invested in.”
“We have the infrastructure, we have the towers, we have the knowledge base.”
“Shortwave can be a powerful tool. With shortwave you can broadcast at long distances without the host country supporting you, so shortwave has some real advantages,” he added.
“I think it would be a mistake to give it up. On the other hand, young people, especially … are past shortwave, so it varies, but I’m certainly going to look into that.”
‘Heroes’ at Voice of America
Asked about the intimidation that some VOA journalists and their families face in their home countries, such as China and Iran, Pack said that “the courage of a lot of these journalists is very impressive.”
“That makes them, in my book, heroes,” he said. Some VOA journalists or their families have even been imprisoned.
Recently, on July 15, VOA reported that Alireza Alinejad, the brother of New York-based VOA Persian TV host Masih Alinejad, was given an eight-year prison sentence by the Iranian regime.
The report went on to say that the sentence represents “continued efforts by Iran to silence journalists who report the truth by punishing their family members.”
Pack believes it’s his responsibility to help journalists who face “the horrible process” inflicted upon them by their regimes, referring to the self-censorship that many journalists from repressive regimes feel they must practice in order to keep both their families and themselves safe.
“Those that are in our language services actually in-country, and those that have fled communist China or their families have fled, understand it in a deep way, deeper than I myself understand it, I would have to say,” he said, referring to the depth of repression and threat of imprisonment risked by those who don’t self-censor.
“They want [us] to come back to [VOA’s] true mission. There’s something fundamental there that I think will enable us to make progress.”
Pack has come under recent criticism for reports that the agency may not renew visas for 100 of its foreign journalists, forcing their return to home countries whose regimes may punish them for their journalistic work in the United States.
An agency spokesman told The Epoch Times: “This is not out of the ordinary. Visas are reviewed. … This is a regular process.”
The VOA itself reported that “VOA and other government agencies routinely scrutinize J-1 visa renewals, which are filed by the employer and submitted to the State Department,” and that “it’s unclear how the USAGM process this year differs from past practice.”
Path to USAGM
Pack’s early beginnings didn’t suggest an obvious career path toward conservative filmmaking, nor the role he holds today as CEO of America’s international broadcasting.
“I grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City. My parents were liberal Jews. I assumed the politics of everyone around me were right,” Pack said.
After attending Yale University and then University of California–Berkeley, he went on to attend one semester of film school at New York University.
That’s when his perspective began to change, Pack said.
“My colleagues there were all making these radical films,” he said.
“Their films were … anti-American, anti-capitalist, very critical of America and its history and role in the world.”
The 1970s and 1980s saw a spate of documentary films portraying America in overall decline, and critical of the U.S. role in Vietnam and Latin America. Such films included 1982’s “The Killing of America,” 1974’s “Hearts and Minds,” and 1982’s “When the Mountains Tremble.”
“I thought everything they were doing was wrong,” he said.
Leaving film school, Pack partnered with a friend and founded Manifold Productions.
“The idea was we would counter these anti-American, anti-capitalist films,” he said.
“I felt strongly in my 20s that it wouldn’t take long.” He also believed that taking a pro-America posture would give the company much greater access to “resources, funds, and people” than his opposition on the left.
“So my partner and I naively thought that we would demolish the opposition in a matter of years,” he said. “Now you know many decades have gone by.”
Today, however, “there’s nearly nobody on my side of the documentary film world.”
Pack’s film company went on to produce such films as “Hollywood vs. Religion,” “Inside the Republican Revolution,” “Rediscovering George Washington,” “The Fall of Newt Gingrich,” and “The Rodney King Incident.”
“We were a little group that thought, well, our group was correct, because we spoke for America.” The election of Ronald Reagan seemed to suggest that he and his colleagues were on the right track, he said.
“But in the documentary world and in the media in general, that did not happen.”
Pack Answers His Critics
Asked about criticism that he will be a mouthpiece for the Trump administration and a tool of the Trump reelection campaign, Pack said that if Biden wins, “then that person will be a Democrat political appointee. That’s what happens in politics.”
Noting that there are people who accuse him of “trying to turn this agency into Trump TV,” Pack said the power of the USAGM and its broadcasters lies in its independence as a “fair source of news and information.”
“I would never want to destroy that,” he said. “To bring it back to its mission is hard enough.”
And to do what critics suggest may happen—attempting to transform the agency and get journalists who aren’t sympathetic to Trump to write “the Trump line”—would be nearly impossible. “It would be a superhuman task,” he said, adding that even if he wanted to, “I could never get away with it; the media would expose it as soon as I made a turn in that direction.”
“So, I feel that it’s sort of a way to attack me, but it doesn’t have any plausibility to it.”
Pack said he took the job at USAGM because he supports an unbiased perspective.
“The law requires that these broadcasters not be biased either for or against Trump,” he said. “It’s been a big struggle. I mean, I had a long and arduous confirmation process.”
In fact, Pack’s confirmation came only after more than two years had passed from his nomination.
“It took a long time, and if I wasn’t committed to the mission, I wouldn’t have gone through all that,” he said.
Asked if he had ever considered withdrawing his name, Pack answered affirmatively. “Yes, I considered withdrawing my name periodically. I did consider it, but I felt that it was worth it. This is a chance to do something that I think is of historic importance for the American people and for the world. You don’t get that opportunity too much in life. At least I don’t,” he said.
“I think that it’s really … more important than ever before to have these organizations. We’re in another generational battle with other ideas.
“It’s important that the American world view … be fought for.”
He said his goal is to bring the agency back to its original mission. “I hope that in the end, people will recognize that that’s what I’m doing, including my critics. I hope that the proof will be in the actions, and that they will recognize those actions,” he said.
“I will clearly put this agency on a path that everybody recognizes … is in America’s interest.”