V.O.A. Directors Resign After Bannon Ally Takes Charge of U.S. Media Agency

WASHINGTON — Two veteran journalists in charge of Voice of America, Amanda Bennett and Sandra Sugawara, resigned on Monday as a result of the recent congressional confirmation of a conservative activist and filmmaker to be the head of the agency that oversees the government broadcast organization.

President Trump has in recent months placed extraordinary pressure on Voice of America by personally denouncing its work and pushing Republicans in the Senate to confirm Michael Pack, the filmmaker. Mr. Pack, who is a close ally of Stephen K. Bannon, the former campaign strategist and White House adviser for Mr. Trump, was confirmed on June 4 by the Republican-controlled Senate. Democratic leaders had opposed Mr. Pack’s confirmation.

Many journalists at Voice of America and other organizations overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which Mr. Pack now leads as chief executive, have been nervous about Mr. Pack taking the reins and have asked whether he intends to maintain editorial independence from the White House and other parts of the government.

Voice of America is the largest American international news media broadcast organization and receives funding from the U.S. government, but it is supposed to remain editorially independent of any federal agency. It was founded in 1942 to combat Nazi propaganda with straightforward news coverage and carried on its mission through the Cold War, when the U.S. government was most concerned about countering Soviet messaging. Authoritarian governments, including that of China, have denounced V.O.A. and often accuse it of being a propaganda arm of Washington.

On Monday morning, Ms. Bennett, the director of V.O.A. since 2016, and Ms. Sugawara, the deputy director, emailed a letter to employees saying they had just submitted their resignations to Mr. Pack. The letter did not say whether Mr. Pack had asked them to resign.

“As the Senate-confirmed C.E.O., he has the right to replace us with his own V.O.A. leadership,” they wrote.

“Nothing about you, your passion, your mission or your integrity changes,” they added. “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.

“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,” they wrote.

On Sunday, Libby Liu, the chief executive of the Open Technology Fund, which promotes internet freedoms globally and is also overseen by the agency that Mr. Pack now heads, resigned from her position. Ms. Liu had been denounced the previous day by a guest on Mr. Bannon’s talk show: Michael Horowitz, an advocate for the Christian right.

Though Mr. Horowitz accused Ms. Liu of helping the Chinese Communist Party’s internet censorship policies, Ms. Liu oversaw news coverage that was extremely critical of the party during her 14 years as the president of Radio Free Asia, a position she held before her most recent post.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media also oversees Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, among other organizations.

The confirmation of Mr. Pack took place under unusual circumstances. The attorney general for the District of Columbia said last month that his office was investigating whether Mr. Pack had illegally enriched himself by sending $1.6 million from the Public Media Lab, a nonprofit group he oversees, to his for-profit film production company. Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pushed the confirmation of Mr. Pack through the chamber in a 53-38 vote that split along party lines.

Democrats had argued that the process should be suspended, given the criminal investigation into Mr. Pack and questions about his ability to maintain the firewall for the U.S.-funded news agencies that guarantees their editorial independence.

At a private lunch in May with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump complained about Mr. Pack’s stalled nomination and referred to Voice of America as the “voice of the Soviet Union,” according to people familiar with the conversation. Before Democratic lawmakers made public the D.C. attorney general’s investigation, Mr. Trump had privately called Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and pressed him to speed the nomination. Mr. Trump had also publicly criticized the delay.

“If you hear what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference in April. “The things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”

Right before that, in early April, employees of the White House media team posted an attack on Voice of America on an official website, accusing it of parroting Chinese propaganda. The post was viewed as sufficiently odd that some observers wondered whether hackers had broken into the White House digital operations. But Dan Scavino Jr., Mr. Trump’s social media director, amplified the attacks on Twitter.

He wrote: “American taxpayers — paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”

But the Chinese government has consistently criticized V.O.A. reports and delayed approvals of visas for its journalists.

In March, after the Trump administration designated five Chinese state-run news organizations with U.S. operations as government functionaries similar to diplomatic entities, Beijing retaliated by applying a similar label to five American news organizations, including V.O.A. and The New York Times, and expelling reporters from three of groups. (The Times operates completely independently of the United States government.)

Mr. Bannon has also publicly urged Mr. Trump to take control of V.O.A. and overhaul its operations, saying it is “a rotten fish from top to bottom.”

On Saturday, Ms. Bennett, a former executive editor of Bloomberg News, used her Twitter account to point out tweets by Voice of America employees revealing that a veteran reporter for the organization, Greta Van Susteren, and colleagues had been placed on a blacklist by press officers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of the recent White House campaign against V.O.A.

Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Pack in June 2018 for the position. Democrats immediately raised a furor, and even some Republicans, including former Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, delayed moving forward with the nomination.

Mr. Pack served as the director of Worldnet — now the television component of the Voice of America — under President George W. Bush and worked at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as a senior executive in its television production division.

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

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