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Voice Of America director, deputy director resign after Donald Trump-selected CEO takes over at global media agency

Tuesday June 16, 2020


New York (CNN Business) Two top officials at Voice of America resigned on Monday as an appointee of President Trump prepares to take control of the international network and other US federally-funded media operations. The resignations were long in the making.

The Trump administration had been trying to get its nominee, Michael Pack, through the Senate confirmation process for two years.

Earlier this month, after Trump applied additional pressure, the Republican-controlled Senate voted Pack through, adding to a sense of apprehension at Voice of America, VOA for short, about what comes next.

VOA director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara, both veteran journalists, bid farewell to the staff on Monday morning.

Referencing Pack, they said, "as the Senate-confirmed CEO, he has the right to replace us with his own VOA leadership. We depart with the gratitude and joy that has marked our time together, with a dedication to our mission and admiration for each one of you."

Some journalists at VOA fear that Pack — best known for making films with a conservative bent -- will interfere with the organization's independent newsroom and turn it into a pro-Trump messaging machine.

Trump has repeatedly railed against VOA and accused it of disseminating Chinese propaganda — charges that Bennett strongly denied.

Bennett defended the newsroom staff and, in a series of recent memos, emphasized the organization's traditional journalistic values.

In Monday's memo, Bennett and Sugawara reiterated some of the same points. "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 VOA's independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us. 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."

Monday's resignations renewed concerns that Pack, an ally of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, will attempt to clean house at VOA, which is part of the US Agency for Global Media, USAGM for short.

A well-placed VOA employee said there are internal discussions about a sizable shakeup coming to the agency that may include former White House official and conservative radio host Sebastian Gorka taking on a leadership position. Given Gorka's partisan background, such an appointment would send a major message about VOA shifting to become a mouthpiece for the administration.

A source close to the White House said there is some discussion among the president's advisers about making Gorka a USAGM board member.

The previous board of governors was disbanded after Pack's confirmation earlier this month. Obama-era legislation consolidated power in the CEO role -- now occupied by Pack -- and called for just an advisory board to support the CEO.

It is unclear if the administration is close to making appointments to the advisory board.

White House officials have yet to comment.

A VOA employee, who requested anonymity, said there are concerns among agency employees that Pack will attempt to tear down the "firewall" between the VOA director position, which is now vacant, and the newsroom's editors and correspondents.

"That certainly is unlikely to hold with a Trump appointee running VOA," the employee said.



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