The resignation of Amanda Bennett as director of the Voice of America began a slew of developments that have captured news headlines. Bennett resigned as Michael Pack, a film-maker, was confirmed as the new Chief Executive Officer of VOA’s parent organization, the United States Agency for Global Media. Pack has since fired the directors of the other media organizations under USAGM and dissolved their boards.
Here’s a perspective from a former Deputy Director of the VOA and senior diplomat, Robert Chatten. A disclosure: Bob is a mentor and friend of mine. Read below his Open Letter to Amanda Bennett.
I’ve read the Washington Post and New York Times accounts of the Voice of America’s unaccustomed newsworthiness with sadness and concern. My dismay peaked when I watched Robert Gates’ defense of the Voice and USIA on Rachel Maddow’s show Tuesday night, lamenting that VOA’s journalistic professionalism and its devotion to its Congressional charter once again are under fire. VOA’s role in what Gates called America’s strategic communication with the world has been and remains truly important, as its coverage of China and the coronavirus attest.
As a former Deputy Director of the Voice, who also served there before in the sixties, I’ve been proud of Amanda Bennett’s leadership and expansion of the institution and of her stewardship of the charter’s mandate for truthful, thorough and unbiased news reporting. Without equating the VOA Director’s resignation with my own early departure from the building, there are lamentable political overtones to both, from mine in the eighties to her more serious ones today.
I took retirement from the Senior Foreign Service in 1986 after a 27-year career in USIA, which had put me in the front office of its giant radio service. VOA Director Gene Pell had departed unexpectedly to head RFE/RL and a conservative former broadcaster from San Diego was named interim chief, pending a search for a director politically acceptable to the White House personnel people. They rejected several before a deal was made to give my job to a Republican congressman’s senior staffer in exchange for a Director to be named. I had read of this in the right wing press and was told I had to go but that another post in USIA headquarters across Fourth Street could be mine. Meanwhile, NBC’s John Chancellor, a former VOA Director, got wind of it and, on network air, viewed with alarm an “attempted politicization of the Voice.” I was called back to USIA HQ, where leadership was unwilling to take the heat, and told I had to stay. A week’s deliberation and family consultation led to my, “Life’s too short for this. I quit.”
Failing the return of a John Chancellor with that kind of clout or a leader who recognizes Ms. Bennett’s important contributions to an important institution, the Voice of America remains a target in a partisan political swamp.
Robert Chatten 6/19/20
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More