The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top Voice of America editors resign amid strife with White House, arrival of new Trump-appointed director

An anchor for Voice of America’s Persian News Network, Setareh Derakhshesh, delivers a broadcast for Iranian television viewers in June 2009. (Marcus Yam/The Washington Post)

The top two editors at Voice of America resigned Monday amid White House criticism of the government-funded but editorially independent news agency and as a new overseer loyal to President Trump was about to take office.

It wasn’t immediately clear why VOA Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara submitted their resignations. In a memo to staff on Monday, they jointly wrote, “It is time for us to leave,” but cited no specific reason other than the arrival of Michael Pack, a Trump appointee who will head the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA. Pack is an ally of Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.

They added, “As the Senate-confirmed C.E.O., he has the right to replace us with his own VOA leadership.”

Their departure comes amid concerns within the agency that the Trump administration is seeking to exert greater control over what and how VOA reports.

The organization’s relationship with the Trump administration was already fraught, but over the weekend, a new rift developed. After news emerged that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had instructed its communications staff to deny interviews to VOA reporters — a policy prompted by the White House’s criticism of the agency — Bennett issued a strongly worded statement condemning the policy.

“Efforts such as those outlined in the CDC memo can result in the kind of chilling effect on our journalism that we regularly see in the markets we broadcast to that have no free press,” she wrote.

The White House in April launched an extraordinary public attack on VOA, accusing it of promoting Chinese government propaganda in its reporting on the coronavirus outbreak. It also said VOA advanced the views of regimes of countries hostile toward the United States, such as Iran.

White House attacks Voice of America, claiming it promoted Chinese propaganda

Bennett defended the agency’s independence then, citing numerous news reports that debunked the Chinese government’s claims about its handling of the virus outbreak and its false statements about American involvement.

In fact, China’s government has at times branded VOA’s reporting American propaganda and has ordered the expulsion of VOA journalists.

According to documents obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute, internal guidance at the CDC specifically cited VOA host Greta Van Susteren, the former cable news host. “NOTE: as a rule, do not send up requests for Greta Van [Susteren] or anyone affiliated with Voice of America,” the warning stated.

Earlier this month, the Senate confirmed Pack, a conservative filmmaker and President Trump’s pick to run the agency that oversees VOA.

Trump has publicly praised Pack, but his nomination had been held up in the Senate for more than two years, with Democrats raising questions about alleged financial improprieties in his nonprofit film production company. He won confirmation even though his company is still under investigation by the D.C. attorney general’s office.

In addition to attacking the agency on the White House’s official blog, Trump, in a private lunch with Senate Republicans last month, pushed for lawmakers to advance Pack’s nomination, calling Voice of America the “voice of the Soviet Union” and “communists.”

People at VOA saw the White House’s attack on VOA as part of an effort to jump-start Pack’s nomination.

VOA, with 1,100 journalists and an annual budget of $250 million, is one of the world’s largest news operations. It was founded in 1942 to tell “America’s story” and to counter Nazi propaganda.

It produces audio, TV and digital news in 47 languages, distributing them around the world, particularly in countries where authoritarian governments suppress independent media. Although funded by Congress, it is officially independent of the U.S. government in its reporting.

Bennett is the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader who shared in a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for her reporting at the Wall Street Journal. She also led a Pulitzer-winning investigation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service as an editor at the Oregonian in Portland. (She is married to Donald Graham, the former publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post.)

Sugawara formerly worked as a reporter and editor at The Post. They began working at VOA in 2016, remaking the agency’s reporting operations and technology.

No successors have been named.

This story has been updated.

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