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Politics & Government

Trump Appointee Michael Pack Leaves Trail Of Shattered Careers At VOA

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

There's been so much controversy at the Voice of America and its parent agency that it's easy to forget the human toll - executives fired, reporters investigated, reputations shattered - all part of an ideological civil war begun by former President Trump's appointee to the agency. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The U.S. Agency for Global Media oversees the Voice of America and other federally funded international broadcasters. Last Monday, just two days before he resigned, Michael Pack defended his record on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL PACK: I've been head of the agency for about seven months, and my only goal has been to get it to fulfill its legally mandated mission, its charter, which is to present objective, balanced, comprehensive news, tell America's story to the world.

FOLKENFLIK: Others who worked under Pack tell NPR a different story.

PACK: (Laughter) It was actually one of the most surreal times of my career in federal government.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Dan Hanlon, a senior adviser to the CEO when Pack took office. Hanlon joined the Trump White House team during the transition in 2016 and stayed throughout. Hanlon says he figured his loyalty to the administration would never be in doubt. He was wrong. Pack decided almost immediately that Hanlon and an aide weren't to be trusted, and he banished them to the far corners of the agency headquarters.

PACK: And we found a foosball table. And since they weren't talking to us, we'd come in, you know, 9 o'clock and stamp out at 5 o'clock. And we'd play foosball all day and we'd just sit there and comment about how absurd this whole thing was.

FOLKENFLIK: Hanlon says it was a sign of worse to come.

DAN HANLON: I don't think he had a plan other than to just blow the place up.

FOLKENFLIK: Voice of America's two top officials resigned. Pack fired the presidents of all the other networks. Pack also suspended six top agency executives and paid private law firms millions of dollars to investigate them. And he also refused to extend visas for any foreign employees, implying they could be spies. Here's former general counsel David Kligerman. He was among the executives suspended.

DAVID KLIGERMAN: Because he believed that we were disloyal to him. It perceived us as being part of this cabal, and it was very troubling.

FOLKENFLIK: Kligerman says Pack embraced Trump's fight against the media and against the professionalism of government employees.

KLIGERMAN: You know, at one point, he even quoted Leviticus to me, a provision that talked about bearing false witness.

FOLKENFLIK: Kligerman resigned in December after months in limbo.

KLIGERMAN: You have to stand up to bad actors like my colleagues and I have done, and we've paid the price for it.

FOLKENFLIK: Pack pursued investigations of journalists for perceived anti-Trump bias. On Fox, Pack renewed allegations against a video segment on VOA's Urdu language service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PACK: And it was essentially a repackaged Biden ad. It was not targeted as the Urdu service that's supposed to be to Pakistan, but really to Michigan and appeal to Michigan Muslims to flip the state for Biden.

FOLKENFLIK: VOA staffers say Pack's charges are ridiculous. Very few people in the U.S. consume or even know of its coverage. Social media promotions of VOA Urdu are blocked here. Plus, there are only about 15,000 Michiganders who even speak Urdu. Multimedia journalist Benazir Sarmad had her contract terminated.

BENAZIR SAMAD: We were fired because they thought it was, you know, against - it was, like, biased towards Trump.

FOLKENFLIK: VOA cut loose three colleagues, too. Samad came to the U.S. from Pakistan on a Fulbright journalism fellowship. She went to work for the Urdu service in 2019. She's now one of many who lost their jobs under Pack who are seeking to get them back.

SAMAD: It has threatened to turn my entire life upside down permanently through not a fault of my own. So I'm very worried about my visa situation, my job and everything.

FOLKENFLIK: Samad says she has drained much of her savings since last summer - her career the collateral damage of ideological warfare. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW HALSALL'S "CHERRY BLOSSOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.