“It is time for us to leave you,” Bennett and Sugawara wrote in an email to the VOA workforce obtained by POLITICO, revealing they had sent their resignations earlier Monday morning to Pack.
“We depart with the gratitude and joy that has marked our time together, with a dedication to our mission and admiration for each one of you,” they wrote.
On Sunday, VOA reported that a top communications official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had directed staffers to ignore media requests from the broadcaster.
That mandate came in an April 30 email sent from the CDC official, Michawn Rich, which detailed in part the process for approving interview requests before they are forwarded to the Department of Health and Human Services or Office of the Vice President.
“NOTE: as a rule, do not send up requests for Greta Van Sustern [sic] or anyone affiliated with Voice of America,” the email states. Van Susteren is a longtime news anchor and attorney who now works as a host for VOA.
The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the VOA report.
POLITICO previously reported in March that Rich, who was named communications director at the Agriculture Department last year, had been detailed to the CDC to assist with communications related to the coronavirus.
The newly disclosed correspondence between CDC employees, released as part of the agency’s response to a Freedom of Information Act filing from the Knight First Amendment Institute, represented an attempt to effectively spurn VOA’s requests shortly after the White House’s attack on the news outlet.
President Donald Trump and his allies have expressed outrage in recent months over VOA’s coronavirus coverage as the administration sought to cast blame on China for the pandemic.
The president’s social media manager Dan Scavino Jr., specifically homed in on a story about the lifting of a lockdown order in Wuhan, China, tweeting in April: “American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”
“If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting,” Trump added days later during a White House coronavirus task force briefing. “What things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in, and he’d do a great job.”
Two weeks ago, the White House was successful in shepherding Pack’s confirmation, despite an open civil investigation by the D.C. attorney general’s office into discrepancies in tax returns related to a nonprofit organization Pack runs.
In their all-staff message Monday, Bennett and Sugawara did not reference the White House’s accusations against VOA or the internal CDC email, but they did allude to concerns regarding Pack’s objectivity and ability to transform the broadcaster into a political organ of the administration.
Those anxieties have existed since Trump’s election in 2016, when critics feared the incoming president and Bannon would move to weaponize VOA as a conservative-leaning version of state TV.
Bannon previously blasted Bennett in an interview with POLITICO as a “classic ‘useful idiot’ who kowtows to Beijing’s Party Line.”
And although Pack has described Bannon as his “mentor” in documentary filmmaking, Bennett and Sugawara reassured VOA employees that “nothing about you, your passion, your mission or your integrity changes" after their departures.
“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,” they wrote.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.