Pompeo’s address to a small group of employees in the agency’s auditorium, limited because of coronavirus restrictions, was also broadcast around the world on VOA’s 47 foreign language channels and video streams, and on its website and social media.
After the planned speech was announced, a group of staffers wrote in an anonymous whistleblower complaint that the gathering posed a health risk, and that orders to broadcast the speech amounted to dictating “propaganda.”
The speech and the controversy surrounding it provided the latest skirmish between current and former employees of VOA and Michael Pack, appointed by President Trump in June to head the VOA parent agency.
Since then, Pack has fired longtime managers, installed loyalists, and asserted the right to dictate news coverage that employees assert should be left up to journalists, as indicated in the agency’s founding documents.
“I don’t think you’ll find anywhere in the [VOA] charter” that the service is “intended to promote American exceptionalism,” said Amanda Bennett, who resigned as VOA director, along with her deputy, within days of Pack’s appointment.
“It was intended to demonstrate the American value of a free press . . . to model one of our best freedoms, see what happens, and how good it is when you have it,” Bennett said.
One senior VOA correspondent still on the job called Pompeo’s speech “an awful embarrassment,” noting that the “fact that no journalist, let alone VOA journalists, were allowed to ask questions is inexcusable.” The correspondent spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
After his speech, Pompeo was interviewed onstage by VOA director Robert Reilly, whose qualifications for the job have been questioned by staffers and lawmakers.
In a letter last week to President-elect Joe Biden, five former presidents of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the sister network of VOA under the U.S. Agency for Global Media that Pack heads, called for Pack to be replaced by the new administration, saying that his “personnel and policy actions have sought to impose ideological coloration on programming and . . . political controls that risk destroying the credibility and effectiveness of all U.S. international broadcasting.”
Patsy Widakuswara, the agency’s senior White House correspondent, shouted questions at the secretary as he hustled out the door, asking, “Mr. Secretary what are you doing to repair the U.S. reputation around the world? Mr. Secretary, do you regret saying there will be a second Trump administration?”
In an appearance a week after the presidential election, days after Biden had been declared the winner, Pompeo said he was expecting a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
In his Monday remarks, Pompeo said that he was not proposing to ignore America’s faults. “But this isn’t the Vice of America, focusing on everything that’s wrong with our great nation. . . . It certainly isn’t the place to give authoritarian regimes in Beijing or Tehran a platform.”
“I read that some VOA employees didn’t want me to speak today,” he said. “They didn’t want the voice of American diplomacy to be broadcast on . . . the Voice of America.”
“This kind of censorial instinct is dangerous. It’s morally wrong. And it’s against your mandate. Censorship, wokeness, political correctness, it all points in one direction — authoritarianism, cloaked as moral righteousness,” Pompeo said, comparing it to Twitter and Facebook, which have banned Trump since his incitement last week of a mob invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s time that we simply put woke-ism to sleep,” he said.
Correction: This story has been updated to note that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a sister network of VOA under the U.S. Agency for Global Media.