Sugawara Resigns as VOA Deputy Director

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Departure of top staff follows confirmation of Trump nominee to oversee government media agency.

Sandy Sugawara is sworn in by VOA Director Amanda Bennett as VOA’s new deputy director in May 2016. Kelu Chan, associate director for language programming, holds the U.S. Constitution. (Voice of America)

WASHINGTON — Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett on June 15 announced her resignation and that of VOA Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara after more than four years leading the nation’s largest congressionally funded international broadcaster.

According to NPR, the executives stepped down following Senate confirmation of President Trump’s pick to run the agency that oversees VOA. Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and supporter of the president, was set to take over as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).

Trump is a frequent critic of VOA. At an April 15 news briefing he said, “If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting. What – things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”

Pack, who is close to Steve Bannon, former top Trump aide and former executive chairman of the right-wing Breitbart News, was approved to lead USAGM on a nearly party-line vote, with only one Democrat joining Republicans in support of the nomination. The vote was delayed because of an ongoing investigation into whether Pack misused funds at Public Media Lab, a nonprofit he ran.

Pack replaces John Lansing, who left in October to become CEO of NPR.

During Bennett and Sugawara’s tenure, VOA’s radio, television, and online audience grew by nearly 109 million people to 280.9 million a week, according to annual surveys commissioned by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and its sister networks.

“We depart with the gratitude and joy that has marked our time together, with a dedication to our mission and admiration for each member of the VOA workforce,” said Bennett. “We will always be grateful for the chance we were given to work with such a remarkable team and we are so proud to have been a part of VOA’s incredible mission.”

Under their leadership, VOA refocused on its core mission of bringing objective news and information to those without a free press, telling America’s story, explaining America’s government and policies to the world and representing all of the U.S.

The agency adopted a new tagline, “A Free Press Matters,” opened a Silicon Valley bureau to expand technology reporting, launched an investigative journalism unit and fact-checking team (Polygraph.info), created a dedicated blog and website for international students (Student Union) and established VOA’s first-ever press freedom beat.

They launched new programming in all six language divisions, including new refugee- and women-focused television and radio shows, initiated simultaneous translation for major events like the State of the Union, and introduced bridge editors across the agency to foster content sharing.

On the technology front, they oversaw a major revitalization to studios and digital systems, including the development of an artificial intelligence program that provides transcriptions and translations across VOA’s 47 language services in minutes.

“There are so many brave, heroic journalists at VOA who believe passionately in the power of a free press, because they have seen the impact around the world,” said Sugawara. “It has been inspiring to work with them and learn from them.”

Prior to joining VOA in April 2016, Bennett served as an executive editor at Bloomberg News, the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and editor of The Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky. She also served for three years as managing editor/projects for The Oregonian in Portland and was a Wall Street Journal reporter for more than 20 years. She has also been a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

A graduate of Harvard College, Bennett shared the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with her WSJ colleagues, and in 2001 led a team from The Oregonian to a Pulitzer for public service. In October 2019, Bennett was honored by the National Press Club Journalism Institute with the Fourth Estate Award, which recognizes individuals that have made significant contributions to American journalism.

Before Sugawara came to VOA, she spent more than three decades in journalism, starting as a UPI reporter and rising to senior management positions at The Washington Post. Most recently, she served for more than three years as managing editor for Trove, a digital news startup owned by The Washington Post/Graham Holdings Company.

A graduate of Wellesley College, Sugawara also served at The Washington Post as assistant managing editor for business. As a reporter for that newspaper, Sugawara spent several years as a Tokyo-based correspondent and covered the Securities and Exchange Commission, telecommunications, government contracting and local politics.

In a farewell message to the VOA workforce, Bennett said, “Nothing about you, your passion, your mission or your integrity changes. 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.”

Sugawara praised the “many brave, heroic journalists at VOA who believe passionately in the power of a free press.”

Although VOA is a government agency, its charter requires it to be “accurate, objective and comprehensive” and reflect the nation as a whole. Critics fear that Pack will push more favorable coverage of the Trump Administration.

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