BuzzFeed Beats Back Subpoena

And VOA gets a bigoted new boss

I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

This is the 61st issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at sgnover@gmail.com.


Voice of America’s Frightening New Boss

Voice of America, the editorially-independent-but-state-run media outlet, has been under assault all year. Since this newsletter has closely followed the Trumpification of VOA, I don’t think I need to rehash all that’s happened. (You can read about the most recent episode here).

But, as Trump’s tenure is coming to a close, there was a troubling new development: While a judge recently blocked conservative filmmaker and U.S. Agency of Global Media head Michael Pack, from breaching VOA’s editorial firewall, Pack seemingly found a workaround.

Last week, Pack pushed out VOA’s interim director and appointed Robert Reilly as the new VOA director, which happens to be an editorial position.

Reilly, a onetime VOA director is also an ideological extremist and bigot. He’s the author of the brazenly homophobic book “Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything” and the Islamophobic tome “The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.” Not only has the firewall been breached, but Trumpism has found a way to infiltrate one of America’s best foreign policy tools.

Former VOA director Amanda Bennett, who resigned in June after Pack’s appointment, wrote a damning op-ed in The Washington Post about her successor this week.

“Expecting to be fired, I resigned as VOA director in June. Normally, I never would — and never have in previous positions — spoken out against my successor. A new administration has the right to a new director, even one with whom I might disagree.

But this is not normal. Reilly is a dangerous choice. His views are not conservative — they are extreme. As head of one of America’s most powerful voices to the world, he risks causing reputational damage that will be hard to repair.”

She then brought up his book and asked a harrowing question:

“Imagine how Reilly’s views will be greeted by governments in countries that ostracize or even murder gays.”

On his Islamophobia, she said:

“Reilly has every right to hold and even promulgate such views — just not at the head of America’s news organization.”

Joe Biden has pledged to replace Michael Pack when he takes office in January, but there might be additional challenges in removing Reilly. A new amendment in the defense spending bill, the NDAA, requires the USAGM chief to get the approval of a not-yet-established board in order to remove the VOA director.

Writing in The Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan cast some skepticism that bolstering the USAGM will be a top priority for Joe Biden when he assumes office.

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated that he’ll replace Pack… But will repairing VOA and its sibling organizations really be a top priority for the Biden administration? Given the range of problems Biden is inheriting, that’s hard to imagine. And the broken pieces won’t be so easy to put back together, given everything that’s gone on.”

One of the most impressive signs that VOA has thus far resisted its rightward lurch is that it is still steadfastly covering its own scandal. And it’s not censoring any of the unsavory details about its new director.

Perhaps, that’s how we’ll know when the whole thing’s gone bad. Pay attention to how VOA covers itself, which will surely be in the news for months to come.


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BuzzFeed Beats Back ICE

Earlier this month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), issued a subpoena to try to get BuzzFeed News to divulge one of its sources. BuzzFeed turned around and reported the extraordinary step as news:

"BuzzFeed News emphatically rejects any requests for information about possible sources and methods of our reporting,” BuzzFeed’s top editor Mark Schoofs said in a statement. “We do not confirm or discuss confidential sources, and this subpoena is an outrageous overreach by the federal government. It's fundamentally at odds with the US Constitution and will not have any impact on our journalism." CPJ called the subpoena “disgraceful.”

But luckily, the agency backed off last week, alerting BuzzFeed it would not enforce the subpoena. Still, BuzzFeed is calling on DHS to fully rescind the order.

“Until ICE withdraws its subpoena completely, its stance toward the free press remains the same: anti-American, unconstitutional, and grossly inappropriate,” BuzzFeed News spokesperson Matt Mittenthal said.


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