WASHINGTON (AP) — The director of Voice of America and her deputy resigned Monday following recent clashes with the Trump administration that have sparked fears about the independence of the U.S. government-funded news organization.
Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara announced they were leaving the organization as Trump ally and conservative filmmaker Michael Pack takes over leadership of the agency that oversees VOA.
Bennett and Sugawara told the staff in an email obtained by The Associated Press that Pack should be able to choose the leadership of the organization, which was created to promote democracy and American values abroad.
Trump and his supporters have been sharply critical of coronavirus reporting by the outlet that ran counter to the administration narrative on China's response to the outbreak. The White House went so far as to blast VOA in a press statement and directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to not cooperate with its journalists, an unusual attack on a venerable organization that has sought to be an objective source of news despite its government ties.
In their farewell email, Bennett and Sugawara praised the VOA staff for its "rapid, can-do response to the Coronavirus crisis" and expressed hope that the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media would not interfere with its mission, as some fear.
"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," 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."
Democrats objected to the nomination of Pack, a one-time associate of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, in part for his refusal to answer questions about past business dealings. That didn't stop his confirmation by the Senate in a 53-38 vote.
The Agency for Global Media, which runs VOA, also oversees its sister outlets Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Cuba-focused Radio Marti.
VOA confirmed the resignations of the director and co-director in a statement that summarized Bennett's email to staff but did not address the clash with the administration.
Trump and his allies have long viewed VOA with suspicion, regarding it as an element of a "deep state" trying to thwart their policies. That hostility burst into the open on April 9, when Trump communications adviser Dan Scavino posted a VOA story about China to his official Twitter account with the comment, "American taxpayers—paying for China's very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!"
The story that VOA posted was actually a report by the AP about the lifting of a lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus first emerged. The following day, the White House released a statement that accused VOA of using taxpayer money "to speak for authoritarian regimes." Trump weighed in several days later, calling its coverage "disgusting" and demanding that the Senate confirm Pack.
An April 30 email obtained and initially published by the Knight First Amendment Institute showed that the CDC directed its press staff to rebuff all interview requests from anyone affiliated with VOA, including Greta Van Susteren. The cable news veteran hosts a weekly VOA program.
Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasted the CDC ban, noting Monday that the law requires VOA be a news source and "not a propaganda outlet for the administration."
"That decision should be reversed at once and whoever is responsible should face consequences," the New York Democrat said.
Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and investigative journalist who was appointed to the position in March 2016, responded to the criticism at the time by highlighting the role of the VOA.
"One of the big differences between publicly funded independent media, like the Voice of America, and state-controlled media is that we are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter," she said.
She and Sugawara, who came to VOA from The Washington Post, attached to their farewell email a lengthy document highlighting their efforts to modernize the organization over the past four years and said they also sent it to Pack. They include links to their coverage of the virus in various languages along with many other subjects and detailed metrics on audience engagement.
"You are remarkable people with a remarkable mission," they wrote. "We are so proud to have been a part of that mission."
AP Diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.