Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended a controversial shake-up at the Voice of America and other U.S.-funded broadcasters Monday, lavishing praise on a new CEO who has been rebuked by judges and accused by lawmakers of trampling on journalistic independence.
In a speech to VOA staff members carried live on the network, Pompeo said the broadcaster had lost touch with its original mission to tell America's story to a foreign audience and instead had denigrated the U.S.
"Its broadcasts became less about telling the truth about America and too often about demeaning America," Pompeo said, without offering examples.
"Voice of America has lost its voice, but it's on the road back," he said.
Michael Pack, the CEO named by President Donald Trump last year to run the VOA's parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, has faced scathing criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for his sweeping moves, with press freedom groups warning that he was putting the broadcasters' editorial independence at risk.
But Pompeo expressed gratitude to Pack, a conservative filmmaker who once collaborated with former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon.
"Michael, thanks for your leadership of these incredibly important institutions," Pompeo said.
Members of Congress and current and former employees at the VOA and other U.S.-funded broadcasters, including Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, say Pack has launched investigations of journalists and sought to turn the outlets into propaganda vehicles for Trump.
A federal judge ruled against Pack in November, effectively banning him from making personnel decisions or interfering in editorial operations. A Superior Court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in October that Pack did not have the authority to oust the management of a U.S.-funded nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund, which develops anti-censorship software and apps used by civil society groups and journalists in repressive countries.
Since he took over in June, Pack has fired all the heads of the four news outlets under his agency, as well as the members of the bipartisan boards that governed them. Pack replaced the boards mostly with political appointees and named himself chairman. He reassigned an editor for standards at the VOA and fired the executive editor of Radio Free Asia.
Pompeo's speech, his latest defense of Trump's tenure, portrayed the overhaul at the U.S. Agency for Global Media as long overdue.
While other Cabinet members and senior officials have clashed with Trump over the past four years and an array of top figures in recent days stepped down and accused him of inciting followers to storm the Capitol last week, Pompeo has remained loyal.
"The Trump administration isn't trying to politicize these institutions. We're trying to take politics out," Pompeo said. "That's a pretty good feature story for whoever wants to write it up."
Calling the VOA "the tip of freedom's spear," Pompeo said it should note America's shortcomings but not overstate them.
"It's not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation the world has ever known," Pompeo said. "I'm not saying ignore our faults. Acknowledge them. But this isn't the Vice of America, focusing on everything that's wrong with our great nation."
He added: "Your mission is to promote democracy, freedom and American values in the world."
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A group of employees recently filed a formal complaint, saying that the live broadcast amounted to a propaganda exercise and that it jeopardized the health of employees attending and working at the event in a closed auditorium during the coronavirus pandemic. Outside media were not given access, as officials cited public health concerns over Covid-19.
"You cannot use the COVID-19 pandemic's public health risks to outside reporters as an excuse for excluding them and then 'invite' your employees to attend," the complaint said.
The letter was sent to Pack, lawmakers on the House and Senate Foreign Relations committees, the State Department's Office of Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog.
"A broadcast speech by the outgoing Secretary of State on topics on which he has been widely covered should be seen for what it is: the use of VOA to disseminate political propaganda in the waning days of the Trump administration," the letter said.
Pompeo dismissed the criticism, saying it represented an attempt to censor speech and ran counter to the broadcaster's mission.
"They didn't want the voice of American diplomacy to be broadcast on ... the Voice of America. Think about that," Pompeo said.
Pompeo, a former House member from Kansas, compared the complaint to recent actions by social media and tech companies to ban Trump after last week's violent storming of the Capitol. The companies said Trump's posts could incite yet more violence.
Pompeo portrayed the moves as part of a leftist "woke" politics that he suggested was an effort to silence critics.
"This is not who we are as Americans. It's not what Voice of America should be. It's time to put woke-ism to sleep," he said.