New VOA chief seeks to ease fears of any Trump propaganda

The new chief of U.S.-funded international broadcasting is seeking to play down fears that he intends to turn the Voice of America and its sister outlets in Trump administration propaganda machines

WASHINGTON -- The new chief of U.S.-funded international broadcasting sought Wednesday to play down fears that he intends to turn the Voice of America and its sister outlets into Trump administration propaganda machines.

Pack is a conservative filmmaker and one-time associate of Trump’s former political adviser Steve Bannon. He began his role as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media just last week after a contentious Senate confirmation process during which Democrats questioned his fitness for the post. In his job, he oversees VOA, along with Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Cuba-focused Radio and TV Marti.

“I am fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter, the missions of the grantees, and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world,” Pack wrote in the mail, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

“I think we all agree the agency has an important mission, and we are being called on to perform it at an historically important time,” he said. “My goal is to provide leadership that will help each of you further that mission.”

That mission has been made more critical as “America’s adversaries have stepped up their propaganda and disinformation efforts. They are aggressively promoting their very different visions of the world,” he wrote.

Pack had previously worked for the agency under earlier incarnations as well as the PBS parent Corportation for Public Broadcasting and reminded his new employees of those experiences during which he said he had “learned the importance of building a team that works toward a common purpose.”

Pack said his first priority is to raise employee morale, which has taken a hit in recent months with attacks from the White House and came to a head on Monday when VOA Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara announced their resignations, saying that Pack is entitled to have people of his choice in important positions.

Trump and his supporters have been sharply critical of coronavirus reporting by the outlet that ran counter to the administration narrative on China’s response to the outbreak. The White House went so far as to blast VOA in a press statement and directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to not cooperate with its journalists, an unusual attack on a venerable organization that has sought to be an objective source of news despite its government ties.

While not unexpected, the departures of Bennett and Sugawara sparked fears of a significant purge of USAGM management. Late Tuesday, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Commitee Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., warned Pack publicly against targeting career officials.

“My fear is that USAGM’s role as an unbiased news organization is in jeopardy under (Pack's) leadership," Engel said in a statement. “USAGM’s mission is ‘to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy’—not to be a mouthpiece for the president in the run up to an election... And Mr. Pack needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information.”

Officials said Engel released the statement after learning that Pack intended to force out eight senior AGM executives at a meeting on Wednesday morning. People familiar with that meeting said afterward that no dismissals were announced but that Pack had suspended some of their authorities, potentially leaving their jobs in limbo.

Shortly after taking office last week, Pack instituted a hiring and spending freeze across the agency.