Voice of America Directors Resign, Urge Staff to ‘Guarantee’ Broadcaster’s Independence

June 16, 2020 Updated: June 16, 2020

The director of Voice of America (VOA) and her deputy tendered their resignations on June 15 to Michael Pack, the newly confirmed head of the government agency that oversees the broadcaster.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandra Sugawara announced in a press release that “after more than four years leading the nation’s largest congressionally-funded international broadcaster,” they were stepping down.

Bennett, in the release, called on VOA staff to “guarantee” the broadcaster’s journalistic independence under new leadership.

Pack, a conservative backed by President Donald Trump to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees VOA and other U.S. government-funded international broadcasters, was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month almost entirely along party lines, with one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), voting in favor of his nomination.

Trump has been a vocal critic of VOA, lambasting the network’s coverage as pushing propaganda for America’s adversaries.

“If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting. What—things they say are disgusting toward our country,” Trump said at an April 15 White House news briefing. “And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”

Opponents to his nomination have called into question whether Pack, a one-time associate of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, would maintain VOA’s independence.

Bennett urged VOA staff to stay professional and maintain their journalistic integrity.

“Nothing about you, your passion, your mission or your integrity changes. Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us,” Bennett said.

“We know that each one of you will offer him all of your skills, your professionalism, your dedication to mission, your journalistic integrity and your personal hard work to guarantee that promise is fulfilled,” Bennet said, referring to Pack’s vow to maintain the agency’s journalistic independence, which he made at his confirmation hearing.

“The whole agency rests on the belief the reporters are independent, that no political influence is telling them how to report the news and what to say,” Pack said. “Without that trust, I think, the agency is completely undermined. So, I think that is a bedrock principle.”

Pack said at the nomination hearing that there is a need to “make some decisions that keep the work of this agency in line with what the U.S. global interests are,” but added that “the first principle has to be the editorial independence of journalists in the field, and no one should be telling them what to report or how to shade the news.”

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The Voice of America building in Washington on June 15, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

Pack, a filmmaker and former educator, will serve for three years as the USAGM’s first Senate-confirmed CEO—a position created with bipartisan support. Besides overseeing VOA, the agency Pack now heads operates Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Cuba-oriented Radio and Television Martí.

“Congratulations to Michael Pack! Nobody has any idea what a big victory this is for America,” Trump wrote on Twitter on the day of Pack’s nomination.

“Why? Because he is going to be running the [Voice of America] and everything associated with it,” the president continued. “Michael is Tough, Smart, and Loves our Country. This has been a big battle in Congress for 25 years. Thank you to our Great Republican Senate!”

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President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on June 1, 2020. (Patrick Semansky, File/AP Photo)

Trump and his allies have long viewed VOA with suspicion, regarding it as an element of a “deep state” trying to thwart their policies. A White House statement claimed that the taxpayer-funded global news network “too often speaks for America’s adversaries—not its citizens.”

“Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda. This week, VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world—and then tweeted out video of the communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s alleged end,” the statement said, claiming that while the guiding charter of the organization says “VOA will represent America,” the broadcaster “is promoting propaganda instead—and your tax dollars are paying for it.”

At the time, the White House cited two examples in which VOA had allegedly promoted Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda about the CCP virus, the novel coronavirus that emerged from China and causes the disease COVID-19.

VOA later released a detailed statement in response to the White House allegations, pointing out that the outlet has regularly exposed Chinese disinformation related to the CCP virus.

“We depart with the gratitude and joy that has marked our time together, with a dedication to our mission and admiration for each member of the VOA workforce,” Bennett said in the release. “We will always be grateful for the chance we were given to work with such a remarkable team and we are so proud to have been a part of VOA’s incredible mission.”

“There are so many brave, heroic journalists at VOA who believe passionately in the power of a free press, because they have seen the impact around the world,” Sugawara said in the release. “It has been inspiring to work with them and learn from them.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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