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Citing Scandal, Senator Proposes Stronger Protections For VOA Newsroom

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has proposed legislation to outlaw political tampering with the newsroom coverage produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and other U.S. government-funded broadcasters.
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Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has proposed legislation to outlaw political tampering with the newsroom coverage produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and other U.S. government-funded broadcasters.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, is proposing new legislation to outlaw political pressure on journalists at the Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded networks.

Murphy said the bill was inspired by NPR's reporting on an investigation of VOA's White House bureau chief, Steven Herman, by two senior aides hired by Michael Pack, the new leader at the networks' parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

While there are legal safeguards intended to insulate the networks' newsrooms from ideological or partisan influence, Murphy said the statute can be stronger.

"My legislation that I'm introducing today just adds some specificity to the statute to make it totally crystal, 100 percent clear that you cannot from the White House or from any other political position, try to infuse politics into the reporting of folks who are doing work at agencies like VOA," Murphy told NPR.

Since assuming his role in June, Pack has instigated a series of investigations of how the newsroom has covered the race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Pack, a Trump appointee, has echoed his boss's criticisms of the press, generally, and VOA in particular. In addition to Murphy's proposed legislation, Pack is also facing a series of legal challenges, inquiries from the State Department's inspector general, and increasing unrest among the employees who work for his agency.

"[Pack] was put there in order to turn it into an arm of the White House to obliterate its independence and its objectivity," Murphy says. "I don't know that I thought he would go to the lengths of targeting specific journalists, investigating them, trying to intimidate people like Steve Herman into becoming propagandists for Donald Trump."

The investigation of Herman for alleged anti-Trump bias relied, in part, on what the journalist had relayed in his social media feeds. The two political appointees concluded by urging the acting director of Voice of America to sideline Herman from any political coverage. To date, Herman remains in his position.

Those actions and other investigations of journalists working for Voice of America's Urdu language service and French-to-Africa service, as NPR has reported, appear to violate regulations and language in existing laws affirming a "firewall" between the newsrooms and political officials. Herman was one of 15 current Voice of America journalists who signed a letter protesting Pack's actions to the acting VOA chief, Elez Biberaj.

Pack and USAGM did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Pack has maintained that all his actions and those of his deputies are lawful. He also recently publicly denounced his own journalists for "substandard" reporting.

After taking over in June, Pack moved to suspend his top executives, fired chiefs of all the networks other than Voice of America, accused his predecessors of broad security lapses, and made clear in a series of interviews with conservative outlets that he thought the journalists there were biased. (The two top officials at Voice of America resigned days before he started.) He also said the networks would be perfect target for foreign spies.

Five of the suspended executives filed a lawsuit claiming Pack's actions have been unlawful; earlier this week they submitted a motion seeking a preliminary injunction from a federal judge that would temporarily bar Pack from further intrusion into the networks' newsrooms.

Pack is expected to hold a town hall meeting with all staff next week, according to several people with knowledge.

Disclosure:This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and technology editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.