Voice of America, affiliates in turmoil as controversial Trump pick takes over, clears house

Michael Pack's first steps have left some employees uneasy.

The Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded media outlets have been hit by waves of turmoil, uncertainty, and attacks after President Donald Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees them, started his job this month.

Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker who's worked closely with Steve Bannon and is reportedly under investigation by the D.C. Attorney General for alleged self-dealing, was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month to lead the agency which runs VOA, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets.

Hours after sending his first message to staff seeking to reassure them, Pack fired the heads of RFA and RFE/RL Wednesday night, with the Middle East Broadcasting Network's chief's termination expected soon.

Their ouster comes two days after the VOA's two top executives resigned, as the outlet faces unfounded charges from the White House and a reported blacklisting by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over the weekend, the head of the Open Technology Fund, a USAGM subsidiary that helps support technologies to promote a free internet like Signal, also resigned, according to a source familiar with her departure and other turmoil inside the agency.

Critics worry that Pack will alter the content of the VOA and its affiliates to promote the Trump administration in violation of their charter, which says they will remain editorially independent from the U.S. government, which provides its funding.

Late Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees USAGM, warned that Pack was "on a political mission to destroy the USAGM's independence and undermine its historic role."

"This latest attack is sadly the latest -- but not the last -- in the Trump administration's efforts to transform U.S. institutions rooted in the principles of democracy into tools for the president's own personal agenda," he added.

None of the heads of the agency's media outlets had heard from Pack from the time he started until Wednesday, according to the source and a senior USAGM official.

Pack has removed everyone from the agency's front office and implemented a total hiring and spending freeze, according to the official and the source.

Those steps have left some employees uneasy.

Pack tried to reassure his new work force earlier on Wednesday, writing his first all-staff email and stating his commitment "to maintaining the agency's independence and adhering to VOA's charter and the principles guiding all the grantees."

VOA's director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara both resigned Monday, saying in a joint letter that Pack "has the right to replace us with his own VOA leadership."

USAGM has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Concerns over the agency's direction have been fueled in part by Trump, who tweeted that Pack's confirmation is "a big victory... for America" after "a big battle in Congress for 25 years."

It's unclear what battle the president was referring to, but USAGM, previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was established in 1994 with the International Broadcasting Act.

"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," VOA director Amanda Bennett said in a note sent to staff on Monday before she resigned.

Bannon, who served as Trump's chief strategist, told the conservative newspaper Washington Times, "After decades of kowtowing to (China), Amanda Bennett resigned before being summarily fired."

"Now patriots can begin the process of cleaning up the mess she leaves behind," he continued.

VOA has also been blacklisted by the CDC, according to internal guidance obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the Knight First Amendment Institute. Amid its reporting on the pandemic in 47 languages and nearly 100 countries, VOA has been singled out by the CDC, which issued internal press guidance to deny any interview requests to VOA and specifically its anchor Greta Van Sustern.

That guidance, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the Knight First Amendment Institute, cites the White House's attacks on VOA. Trump himself has gone after the outlet, but specifically, the CDC cites an April 10 White House statement that accuses the outlet of promoting Chinese propaganda and "speak(ing) for America's adversaries -- not its citizens."

It's an unfounded charge, particularly because the VOA has tackled Chinese propaganda with fact checks, reconstructed timelines and a report that estimated the real death toll in Wuhan, China -- once the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak -- which several senior Trump officials cited.

After the White House statement in April, Bennett pushed back, defending VOA's "factual unbiased reporting" and providing links to their extensive coverage.

It's unclear if the CDC blacklisted the VOA at the White House's request or if other U.S. agencies have done so as well.

On Sunday, one day before her departure, Bennett also condemned the CDC's guidance and called on the agency to reverse course.

"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 -- including in China and Russia," she said.

In a statement Monday, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thanked Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara for their service, but expressed "alarm" at the attacks on VOA by Trump and his allies "presumably because VOA has abided by the legal requirement that it be an independent news source and not a propaganda outlet for the administration."

In his statement Monday, Engel called on Pack to defend the VOA and condemn the CDC guidance, which Pack's email Wednesday did not do.