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The ‘Wednesday Night Massacre’ in U.S. International Media

On his first day on the job, Michael Pack fired the heads of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and other U.S. international media outlets. Here are six theories for what’s going on.
June 19, 2020
The ‘Wednesday Night Massacre’ in U.S. International Media
Michael Pack (courtesy Voice of America)

Late Wednesday, Michael Pack—the new CEO of U.S. international media—cleaned house. Pack oversees taxpayer-funded media outlets Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia, Cuban broadcasting, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), and my former company, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—RFE/RL. (I was CEO of the Prague-based group, with its bureaus in two dozen countries, from 2007 to 2011.) In short order, Pack saw to it that all top executives were gone.

Voice of America’s Amanda Bennett came first, but there was no surprise here. She was an Obama holdover, a presidential appointee from the last administration, and Bennett actually resigned at the beginning of the week. How bizarre it has been, to hear the White House whine about VOA. “Disgusting,” moaned President Trump at one point. Most of us wondered why he left a Democrat there in the first place. He could have replaced Bennett any time in the last three and a half years. Most of us were also relieved, of course, that this president never noticed.

The heads of Cuban broadcasting and RFA were chopped off, too.

But the truly bewildering part of this week’s purge, though, was Pack’s dismissal of Alberto Fernandez at the helm of MBN and Jamie Fly, the CEO of RFE/RL. Both are loyal Republicans (Fernandez having been a clear supporter of President Trump). Both men are exceptionally qualified and competent.

I know Fernandez, and by all accounts he has done a superb job since becoming president of MBN in June 2017. Fernandez speaks fluent Arabic (and Spanish), previously having held posts with the foreign service in Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. He has been a desk officer for Yemen, Egypt, and Sudan, and served as the coordinator for the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.

Jamie Fly (a good friend, I disclose) is top-notch, too. Fly has run a think tank, worked on Capitol Hill (for Senator Marco Rubio), served on the staff of the National Security Council, and been associated with smart and effective initiatives at the German Marshall Fund. Fly was but ten months on the job—already making a mark—when Pack relieved him of his duties, “effective immediately;” with notice given by email (nice touch). RFE/RL rank and file remain stunned.

U.S. international media, which trace their origins to World War II and the early Cold War, have been a chiefly bipartisan affair. Not now. Michael Pack was confirmed by the Senate along party lines—53 to 38 on June 4—getting across the finish line with the help of some decidedly unenthused Republicans. There were concerns on both sides of the aisle about the agency Pack now leads becoming a Trump mouthpiece. There were also legal questions surrounding Pack’s nonprofit work yet to be clarified.

In the saddle, Pack has been busy consolidating power. He has disbanded grantee boards and installed himself as chairman in each case, and has started stuffing Trump loyalists of dubious qualification into vacancies. He has also alienated the State Department, leaving Secretary Pompeo’s office in the dark about his plans, and even provoked Trump supporters. “Ambassador Fernandez was the greatest asset America had in foreign broadcasting,” wrote former White House staffer Sebastian Gorka on Twitter. Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, a former National Security Council and State Department official, tweeted that Fernandez’s firing was “asinine.”

I know Michael Pack. He’s never been what my liberal friends think, even if he worked on this or that documentary with Steve Bannon. He’s a conservative documentary filmmaker—thoughtful, cerebral, and curious. All I can say is on this one Michael is completely missing the boat. Or maybe pirates have taken over his ship.

I have a half-dozen theories for what’s going on:

1) Theory one is incompetence—that Pack is being steered by goofball sherpas in the White House who know nothing of good management practice, judgment, or decent behavior. Pack ought to know better and assert himself. If this sort of malpractice were to continue, Pack might find himself following the footsteps of Anthony Scaramucci, who vacated his post as White House Communications Director after just 10 excruciating days in July 2017.

2) Theory two holds that either Pack or White House personnel have promised jobs to people and vacancies had to be created. Five CEO jobs are now waiting to be filled.

3) Theory three is that Steve Bannon is somewhere in the background. Bannon once told Ron Radosh “I’m a Leninist.” Some pretty fast, shrewd, and single-minded power consolidation is going on here. “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” as Vladimir Ilyich is supposed to have said.

4) Theory four follows from three. Perhaps it’s the vision for a second Trump term that existing U.S. international media are gutted, with assets rolled into a single, unified communications agency under White House control. To set this up, you’d want top-down command and control leadership and the vigorous suppression of dissent.

5) Theory five is that a good deal of what we see happening is part of the wider Trump war on the “deep state.” East European friends, recalling Communist culture, are asking me if experts and expertise are the enemy here (in which case, poor Fernandez and Fly for knowing stuff). Communists in the day always placed party hacks in key posts. Ideological reliability and unwavering loyalty were everything. “Die Partei, Die Partei, die hat immer Recht”—“the Party, the Party, the Party is always right” comes to mind from the East German Communist Party’s anthem.

6) Theory six. Pack has been drinking far more of the Trump Kool-Aid than I imagined. If so, though, he has nonetheless managed to alienate Trump supporters. In addition to Gorka and Doran, here’s David Reaboi:

So we’re back to theory one—simple incompetence. Consider the press release put out by Pack’s own people this week. Talk about self-inflicted wounds. It sounds like Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu or Chinese President Xi Jinping:

CEO Michael Pack implemented critical changes on his first day. . . . Addressing the staff through an introductory email . . . . Pack’s message was met with an overwhelmingly positive response by staff and grantees, who personally reached out and candidly congratulated him. One noted, “you emphasized that we all have a mission that unfortunately some have forgotten in recent and past years, to the disgrace of all.” Another said, “I am sure that with your arrival we will be able to rejuvenate our agency . . . .” Hours later, Pack effected a series of significant and long-overdue actions to keep assurances to restructure the agency, fully in accordance with the law. As in every transition, Pack brings a leadership team that is committed to eradicating . . . . We will press ahead now as that is the charge with which we have been bestowed by all stakeholders.”

I thought to quote for this article from the many messages I’ve been receiving from Michael Pack’s employees. But I’ve noted Pack and comrades have banned for staff all outside communication. There are even reports of trash cans being sifted through and wanded for listening devices. No stringing up counterrevolutionaries, though; not yet.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin is the editor of The American Interest. He was the CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from 2007 to 2011.