After four years and two months of innovative leadership at the Voice of America, Ms. Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara issued a statement on June 15 saying: “It’s time for us to leave. This morning, we sent our resignations to Michael Pack, the newly-arrived CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
In their departure note to the staff, Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sugawara added: “As the Senate-confirmed CEO, Mr. Pack 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 of you… Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn, plays the most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us.”
Mr. Pack responded on June 17, with words to the staff that appeared to concur with this assurance: “I am fully committed to honoring VOA’s Charter, the missions of the grantee networks, and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world… I look forward to the day when we can have face-to-face communication and give-and-take listening sessions. I want to consult with you and learn more about your ideas to improve our performance.”
The new CEO previously served as the head of Worldnet TV under the administration of George H. W. Bush in the late 1980s, and in 2003, served in the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. Over the years, Mr. Pack also headed Manifold Productions and produced 15 TV documentaries that aired nationally on PBS, the most recent one only last month. As he put it: “Although making documentaries is very satisfying work, I was eager to return to broadcasting at this critical juncture in our history.”
The USAGM is charged with supervising five government-funded, editorially objective networks. In addition to the largest, VOA, with 280,900,000 weekly users, the others are: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) in Arabic, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba. Collectively, they reach 350,000,000 users each week.
Mr. Pack was confirmed by the GOP-majority U.S. Senate on June 11, 53-38. He was immediately sworn into office. President Trump had urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to act swiftly on the confirmation, held up for nearly two years due to changes in Congress and a still ongoing investigation by the District of Columbia’s attorney general of what the Washington Post described as “alleged financial improprieties in Mr. Pack’s non-profit film production company.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Mr. Pack by a 10-8 party line vote before sending his nomination to the full Senate
There have been impressive VOA gains in attracting readers, listeners, and viewers of social media during the leaderships of both Ms. Bennett and that of her predecessor as Voice director, David Ensor, since 2011. During Mr. Ensor’s tenure, VOA’s users increased almost 40 percent, and he co-founded with RFE/RL a daily around the clock program called Current Time, the first collaboration between two U.S.-funded international networks since RFE was launched in 1949.
EMPOWERING THE 21ST CENTURY VOA
In a 130-page summary of accomplishments since 2016, Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sugawara noted their substantial recent expansion of programming about the U.S, including the establishment of a VOA bureau in Silicon Valley, and expanded “outside the Beltway” on-scene coverage of America. New series in Russian included Small Town America, America: The Big Road Trip, America 101: How It’s Done in America. In Ukrainian: View from Washington. In Mandarin to China: programs on American life and policy were significantly expanded.
In Persian to Iran and the Iranian diaspora: The Achievers, was hosted by Max Amini, an Iranian-American comedian. In that program, VOA highlighted Iranian-American celebrities including:
—Firouz Naderi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
—Alex Mehr, CEO and founder of Mentorbox
—Shar Poordanesh, Washington Redskins
—Barry Navidi, CEO of Barry Navidi Productions, and
—Jimmy Delsha, former mayor of Beverly Hills
VOA’s technical and translation teams also grew during Amanda Bennett’s tenure. Simultaneous translations included the President’s inaugural and State of the Union addresses, the Presidential candidates’ debates, and this past year, the impeachment hearings and President Trump’s daily task force briefings on the coronavirus. These, and some Congressional debates and hearings were carried live by VOA, simultaneously translated the past four years in two dozen languages.
Also new at the Voice, creation of a fact-checking program called Polograph.info, which performs thorough research to expose and correct disinformation on Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran broadcasts. Ms. Bennett added that there has been expanded staff training and leadership stressing the necessity of neutral language in all international broadcasts.
Over the past four years, there has been a renewed focus on the needs of 70 million people around the world who are displaced, migrants or refugees. VOA commissioned special news coverage to benefit them, assigning teams of journalists to cover their situation here and abroad. The Voice’s documentary on the plight of the Rohingya who fled Myanmar (Burma) to neighboring Bangladesh entitled Displaced won several national awards. This was the first-ever Rohingya language news program, a daily half hour broadcast to more than a million refugees in eastern Bangladesh.
VOA AUDIENCES THEN AND NOW
Global audiences, the Bennett-Sugawara fact sheet concluded, had expanded greatly under previous VOA leaders because of the identification and addition of TV partnerships in many continents. Yet VOA’s total worldwide audience — radio, TV and digital— grew by nearly 19 percent between 2016 and 2019, to 280.9 million viewers, listeners or readers. “Tellingly,” the fact sheet summary concluded, “that increase includes VOA’s digital audience which during those four years grew by 153% to include 87.1 million digital users.”
“A New York Times editorial June 16 noted: “Founded in 1942, the Voice of America was never meant to be a megaphone for the American government. The concept was the opposite: a federally funded broadcaster would showcase American values around the world by offering unbiased news and a true picture of American life. That mission is enshrined in what the V.O.A. calls its “firewall,” which prohibits interference by any U.S. government official in the objective, independent reporting of news.
“So it’s worrisome that the Senate confirmation of the Trump administration’s pick to head the V.O.A, and several allied broadcasters was followed by the resignations of the two top V.O.A. executives, both experienced, respected and independent journalists. The people who listen to the news service around the world — more than 280 million in 40 languages and on every media platform — are, for the most part, people who cannot abide by the propaganda of their rulers and turn to the world’s premier democracy to hear the truth. If they thought V.O.A. was also feeding them propaganda, they’d change the station, and probably their image of the United States.
“The spectre of turning V.O.A. into a propaganda tool of the White House should be frightening to all Americans, regardless of political leanings. America’s image abroad has already been battered under this administration, making an independent global broadcaster all the more essential as a voice of the integrity and fairness that are still at the core of American values.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More