Former heads of the U.S. agency for global media met with members of Joe Biden’s transition team to discuss what happened at the federal media agency under President Donald Trump – and what to expect for the organization under the new regime.
Biden’s USAGM transition team leader is Richard Stengel, a political analyst with MSNBC and former senior editor of Time Magazine. He was also Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs while a member of President Barack Obama’s administration.
These agency review teams “are responsible for understanding how each agency operates, ensuring a smooth transfer of power, and preparing for President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris and their cabinet to take the first step on day one,” Biden said Transitional website says.
“By Tuesday close, the agencies’ review teams were in contact or meeting with over 50 agencies and commissions, including key offices in the president’s executive office,” Jen Psaki, a Biden transition adviser, told reporters on Wednesday.
A Biden interim spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Stengel did not respond to a request for comment through his NBC email.
Preliminary talks suggest Biden is trying to undo much of what was done to the agency in the final stages of the Trump administration. The president-elect previously pledged to remove Michael Pack, Trump-appointed USAGM CEO.
Stengel and other members of Biden’s USAGM review team have spoken to some of the former agency executives who Pack has reportedly ousted from people with direct knowledge of the matter. Shortly after his Senate approval this summer, Pack deleted the members and executives of the USAGM network on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and Radio Free Asia.
Those who refused to be named did so to speak freely.
The way the agency has been run under both Pack and the CEOs before him has surfaced in those discussions, these people added. The focus on Pack has in part turned to the importance of bringing back the so-called “firewall” that Pack has lifted. The “firewall” legislation was intended to “protect journalists from interference that could undermine their credibility,” according to the USAGM network Voice of America.
Aside from removing USAGM’s key leaders, Pack has been besieged by critics since he became the agency’s leader. National Public Radio recently compiled a detailed list of the issues the agency faced, including lawsuits and allegations of anti-Trump bias against the head of the VOA White House office.
Trump himself has publicly targeted VOA. Prior to taking the helm at USAGM, Pack was a Conservative filmmaker and had ties with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon when the two were working on two documentaries together.
Another issue related to the pack brought up to the Biden team is the in-depth management “interest in restoring stability”, according to one of the people with direct knowledge. Among the names slated to replace Pack that were passed down to members of the Biden Agency Review, Grant Turner, who was once the acting CEO of USAGM. There was also discussion about bringing back many of the other media heads that were removed from Pack during the initial cleanup, this person added.
Stengel himself could also be the next USAGM leader after leading the Transition Review team.
Former USAGM CEO John Lansing, who is currently President of National Public Radio, is one of the people who looked into Stengel’s team, according to people. Lansing left before Pack arrived. The Biden team also spoke to Steve Capus, a former senior advisor at USAGM who was fired from Pack early in term.
Prior to the agency, Capus had a 20-year career with NBC, including serving as President of NBC News and Executive Producer of NBC Nightly News for Tom Brokaw. He later became an executive producer for CBS News, according to its LinkedIn page.
An NPR spokeswoman did not deny that Lansing spoke with Biden’s transition team and declined to comment further. Capus did not respond to repeated requests for comments.
One of the documents given to Stengel’s team was titled “VOA Transformation,” explained another person. It describes, among other things, the morale at Voice of America shortly before Pack took over the agency. The document verified by CNBC suggests morale on the network skyrocketed ahead of Pack’s confirmation.
One person familiar with the reach of the Biden transition argued that morale, something Pack had promised to take to new heights, had hit new lows.