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.”
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.