Former leaders of the U.S. Agency for Global Media have been meeting with members of Joe Biden’s transition team to discuss what has taken place at the federal media agency under President Donald Trump — and what’s to come for the organization under the new regime.
Biden’s USAGM transition team leader is Richard Stengel, an MSNBC political analyst and former managing editor at Time magazine. He also served as under 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 the operations of each agency, ensuring a smooth transfer of power, and preparing for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris and their cabinet to hit the ground running on Day One,” the Biden transition website says.
“By the close of business on Tuesday, agency review teams made contact or met with over 50 agencies and commissions including each of the major offices within the executive office of the president,” Jen Psaki, a Biden transition advisor, told reporters on Wednesday.
A Biden transition spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Stengel did not respond to a request for comment through his NBC email.
The preliminary conversations suggest that Biden is looking to reverse much of what was done to the agency in the latter stages of the Trump administration. The president-elect has previously committed to removing Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed USAGM CEO.
Stengel and other members of Biden’s USAGM review team have spoken with some of the former agency heads who were ousted by Pack, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. Shortly after he was confirmed by the Senate this summer, Pack purged the USAGM’s network board members and leaders at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and Radio Free Asia.
Those who declined to be named did so in order to speak freely.
The way the agency has been run, both under Pack and CEOs before him, has come up in these 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 moved to repeal. The “firewall” legislation, according to USAGM network Voice of America, was “designed to shelter journalists from interference that could undermine their credibility.”
Beyond the removal of key USAGM leaders, Pack has been under siege by critics ever since he became the agency’s leader. National Public Radio recently put together a detailed list of problems that the agency has faced, including lawsuits and claims of anti-Trump bias against VOA’s White House bureau chief.
Trump himself has publicly taken aim at VOA. Prior to taking the helm at USAGM, Pack was a conservative filmmaker and had ties to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, as the two worked on two documentaries together.
Another Pack-related concern that was brought up to the Biden team is the “interest in restoring stability” by the incoming administration, according to one of the people with direct knowledge. Names to replace Pack that have been floated to Biden agency review members include Grant Turner, who was once USAGM’s acting CEO, this person said. There has also been discussion about bringing back many of the other media heads who were removed during Pack’s initial purge, this person added.
Stengel himself could also be the next USAGM leader after heading the transition review team.
Former USAGM CEO John Lansing, who is currently president of National Public Radio, is among the people who engaged with Stengel’s team, according to the people. Lansing left before Pack arrived. The Biden team also conferred with Steve Capus, a former senior advisor at USAGM, who was ousted at the start of Pack’s tenure.
Before his role at the agency, Capus had a 20-year career at NBC, with stints as the president of NBC News and as an executive producer of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. He later was an executive producer at CBS News, his LinkedIn page says.
A spokeswoman for NPR did not deny that Lansing spoke to Biden’s transition team and declined to comment further. Capus did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
One of the documents that was given to Stengel’s team is titled the “VOA Transformation,” another person explained. It details, among other things, the morale at Voice of America just before Pack took over the agency. The document, reviewed by CNBC, suggests that morale was skyrocketing at the network prior to Pack’s confirmation.
A person familiar with the outreach to the Biden transition argued that morale, something Pack promised to raise to new heights, has hit new lows.