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VOA Director Steps Aside Amid White House Criticism

Former VOA Director Amanda Bennett.
Former VOA Director Amanda Bennett.

Voice of America’s leader for four years, Amanda Bennett, resigned Monday after defending the U.S. taxpayer-funded news organization’s journalistic independence against attacks from the White House that VOA spread Chinese propaganda.

In a farewell message to staff, Bennett and her deputy, Sandy Sugawara, who also resigned, avoided the issue of tensions with the Trump administration. Instead, the two wrote that Michael Pack, a Trump appointee recently confirmed to lead VOA’s parent agency, has “the right to replace us” and that it was now time to leave.

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

The question of VOA’s independence – and worries that the administration might reshape government news agencies into a public relations tool ­– rose to the forefront in recent months as the president pushed for action on Pack’s stalled Senate confirmation.

The VOA charter requires the agency’s reports, which are aimed at foreign audiences in Russia, Iran, China and other countries where there is censorship and repression, to be “accurate, objective and comprehensive” and to “represent America, not any single segment of American society.”

White House offensive

In April, the White House website accused VOA of regurgitating Chinese propaganda by posting a video about the reopening of Wuhan after the coronavirus epidemic subsided there. “V.O.A. too often speaks for America’s adversaries — not its citizens,” it said.

The president’s social media manager, Dan Scavino, promoted the idea on Twitter, saying, “American taxpayers — paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”

No matter that the video was not by VOA but by the Associated Press, or that statistics VOA cited — and the White House criticized — about China's coronavirus deaths were reported from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine and widely considered the most reliable tallies available.

Bennett vigorously disputed the propaganda accusation and provided a list of VOA stories that challenged China, but Trump weighed in at a White House news conference.

“If you hear what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting,” he said. “The things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”

CDC blacklist

On Sunday, VOA reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had effectively blacklisted its journalists, according to an internal CDC memorandum that became public. As its rationale for the decision not to accept interview requests from VOA journalists, the CDC memo cited the White House website’s accusations about China.

Bennett issued a statement calling on the CDC to “immediately withdraw” the policy, saying it was “based on a White House opinion statement” and “troubling.”

By midday Monday, Bennett and Sugawara had submitted their resignations, although their email to staff did not specify if the White House or Pack had requested them.

Citing Pack, they wrote, “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.”

Pack, a conservative filmmaker and associate of former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, leads the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which also includes Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. VOA is the largest entity in the agency, reporting in 47 languages to a weekly audience of more than 280 million.

On Sunday, Libby Liu, the CEO of the Open Technology Fund, another USAGM subsidiary, also resigned after a conservative guest on Bannon’s YouTube talk show argued that she should be fired, The New York Times reported.

'We don’t do propaganda'

Bennett was appointed by President Barack Obama and started in the spring of 2016. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor who has worked for a number of leading news organizations, including Bloomberg News, as editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal.

She was lauded for career achievement last year by the National Press Club. In her remarks at the event, she reflected on the importance of press freedom and the challenge of VOA’s mission to model journalistic independence for countries it serves.

“Think of a world where you can believe nothing of what you see or read. A world where there is no free press is where I and my colleagues work every day,” Bennett said. “No, we don’t do propaganda. ... Never will.”

Bennett’s top deputy Sugawara has also spent decades in journalism as a UPI reporter and with The Washington Post.

Pack was confirmed June 4 over the objections of most Senate Democrats. Responding to the resignations, his office issued a statement saying, “The U.S. Agency for Global Media appreciates the service of VOA Director Amanda Bennett and VOA Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara and wishes them both the best in their future endeavors.”

Test of independence

The news that the CDC has adopted a blanket refusal to advance VOA interview requests presents an early test of Pack’s commitment to journalistic independence.

The CDC policy was revealed in a document retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act made by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“As a rule, do not set up interview requests for Greta Van Sustren [sic] or anyone else affiliated with Voice of America because of this,” the document states, referring to the White House critical posting about Wuhan.

The Voice of America building, June 15, 2020, in Washington.
The Voice of America building, June 15, 2020, in Washington.

Van Susteren, a lawyer and veteran broadcaster for Fox News and now Gray Television, hosts the weekly “Plugged In” news show for VOA audiences.

“The thing that's stunning to me is that it's VOA and I'm specifically named and nobody at the CDC, or the White House, or anyplace else has ever said that my reporting on the coronavirus or anything else has been unfair or inaccurate,” Van Susteren told VOA.

Van Susteren said it was “absurd to blackball a person.”

In a statement Monday praising Bennett and Sugawara for their service, Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called the CDC policy “outrageous” and said it “should be reversed at once.”

“I would expect Mr. Pack, USAGM’s new CEO, to stand up for VOA’s journalists and independence. His failure to do so, so soon after being confirmed for this position, raises questions about whether he’s focused on advancing USAGM’s independent journalistic mission,” Engel said.

Pack’s office did not provide a comment when asked Monday evening.

Al Tomkins, who teaches journalism ethics at The Poynter Institute, called the CDC’s policy toward VOA “harmful” and said it could potentially prevent the vital information about the pandemic from reaching countries “where there's so much misinformation.”

During her tenure, Bennett was confronted by two significant scandals. In 2018, she fired or disciplined 15 journalists from the Hausa language service for accepting bribes from a visiting Nigerian official.

That same year, she also discharged the chief of VOA's Mandarin language service for allowing a billionaire Chinese in exile to make unsubstantiated charges against officials in Beijing during an extended live broadcast.