BBG Watch Commentary
The Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service, whose chief Sasha Gong has been placed on administrative leave with pay along with four other journalists over the Guo Wengui interview on orders of VOA director Amanda Bennett, has posted online in full the official VOA management’s explanation of the incident which attracted numerous angry comments from Chinese readers.
Several hundred comments under the VOA Mandarin Service post are almost uniformly critical of the VOA director and upper management, accusing them of lying, siding with the Chinese Communist Party officials, and expressing fears that the Voice of America has been infiltrated with Chinese agents of influence. The Voice of America management denies lying or being influenced by the Chinese government.
Many of the comments posted under the VOA official statement include sarcastic humor, such as one written in English, “Amend Bennte (sic) [Amanda Bennett], you might have taken a historical opportunity from Chinese people and you ruined a chance to get Pulitzer Prize for VOA.” Others simply say in Chinese “Shame” or “Despicable.” Prior to coming to VOA, Amanda Bennett was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor.
One of the VOA Mandarin Service journalists Ms. Bennett has put on administrative leave pending an investigation, service chief Sasha Gong, is herself an experienced journalist and scholar able to attract millions of readers in China for her personal blog posts. She is the author of “Born American: A Chinese Woman’s Dream of Liberty,” a book about her life in America after leaving China.
Ms. Bennett reports to Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing who has also denied that pressure from the Chinese government was behind the decision to cut short the live VOA interview with Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese businessman turned whistleblower on corruption within the ranks of the Chinese government and the the Chinese Communist Party. Their denials have been met with derision in comments from readers posting on the VOA Mandarin Service website. Both Ms. Bennett and Mr. Lansing, as well as VOA deputy director Sandy Sugawara, are Obama administration holdovers in charge of the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG also includes Radio Free Asia (RFA). It also suffered a loss of reputation in China as a result of the VOA Guo Wengui interview, even though RFA was not involved in the incident in any way and is believed to be well-managed.
Another comment in Chinese under the VOA Mandarin Service article with the VOA management’s statement said: “That being the case, Voice of America management should also be suspended, why only the frontline staff suspended? Is [this] the Voice of America? Or CCTV-voa?”
CCTV is China government’s official television channel.
During a meeting with the Mandarin Service on Tuesday, one of the still working journalists told Ms. Bennett that due to the cutting short of the VOA Guo Wengui interview, the Voice of America suffered a catastrophic loss of its former credibility with the audience in China. The journalist described the damage to VOA’s reputation as “unbelievable.”
VOA MANDARIN SERVICE JOURNALIST TO VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT: “For the past two weeks, we were flooded with angry posts from our audience, asking VOA to provide an explanation. …I really think we owe our audience an explanation. I understand that the PR Office had a statement, but a lot of people considered that as insufficient. I think we owe our audience an apology or an explanation. But at this point, I think, it’s already too late. Still, something is better than nothing because I see the damage to our reputation. It’s unbelievable. I’ve been working here for 20 years and I have never seen such a PR crisis. Really. I have never seen anything like this. The anger and the frustration of our audience.”
READ MORE: Damage to Voice of America reputation in China is ‘unbelievable,’ VOA director was told, BBG Watch, May 3, 2017.
VOA MANDARIN SERVICE
在进行全面调查期间，美国之音中文普通话语组主任龚小夏(Sasha Gong)和另外四名普通话语组员工被要求行政休假。美国之音非洲部总编辑斯科特·斯特恩斯（Scott Stearns）担任普通话语组的代理主任，直至另行通知。
与采访郭文贵有关的决定是由美国之音台长阿曼达·贝内特（Amanda Bennett）领导下的几位高层领导作出的，其中包括副台长桑迪·苏加瓦拉（Sandy Sugawara）、节目总监赵克露（Kelu Chao）和东亚部主任诺姆·古德曼（Norm Goodman）。在决策过程中，管理层从未考虑过不进行采访，亦未考虑因任何原因缩短进行中的采访。相关决定是基于核实、平衡和公平的新闻原则，这些原则是新闻行业的标准做法，并普遍适用于美国之音的所有语言组。任何语言组都必须采取同样做法，没有特例。
END OF VOA MANDARIN SERVICE REPORT
VOA Mandarin Service Chief Sasha Gong and four other Mandarin Service employees have been placed on administrative leave pending a full investigation. Scott Stearns, managing editor in the VOA Africa division, will be the acting Mandarin Service chief until further notice.
The decisions regarding the interview with Guo Wengui were made by a group of senior VOA leaders led by director Amanda Bennett and included deputy director Sandy Sugawara, language program director Kelu Chao, and East Asia division director Norm Goodman. At no time during this decision-making process was there any management consideration of not doing the interview, nor of cutting short an ongoing interview for any reason. The decisions were based on the journalistic principles of verification, balance and fairness that are standard industry practice and apply universally to all VOA services.
There are no special exemptions for individual services to follow different practices. There was no input whatsoever from the U.S. government, nor would the firewall permit any such input. Pressure from the Chinese government played no role in any decision-making. VOA and the BBG have decades’-long histories of producing full fair and balanced journalism in the face of even the most extreme pressures.
END OF VOA STATEMENT
Four of the five suspended VOA Mandarin Service journalists have issued their own statement calling for an independent outside investigation of the Guo Wengui interview. They said that such an impartial investigation should also cover the decisions and actions of the VOA’s upper management.
Statement of Sasha Gong, Dong Fang, Bao Shen, and Su Li
We, the four Voice of America journalists who have been placed on administrative leave pending a VOA internal investigation, believe that the incident regarding Guo Wengui’s interview has seriously undermined VOA’s integrity and credibility as a US media outlet, and damaged the US national interests.
We request the following:
An independent, fair, and comprehensive federal investigation on the incident of the interview with Guo, the Chinese businessman-turned whistleblower who intended to expose how Chinese state security agencies control huge sum of financial assets for ruling the country and injecting influence around the world.
We request the investigation by authorities independent from Voice of America to cover all parties involved in the incident, including the VOA top management.
The issues to be investigated should be:
Has the VOA top management caved in to the Chinese government’s threat and demand to cancel VOA’s original interview and broadcast plan. If so, how?
Is there a possibility of the Chinese government being able to exercise influence within VOA, especially the East Asia Division?
The Guo interview incident is only the latest example of a series of events and changes happened in the VOA Chinese Branch in recent years that have systematically undermined the effectiveness of VOA broadcasting to China and demoralized the staff in the Branch.
END OF STATEMENT
The following profile of the suspended VOA Mandarin Service Chief Sasha Gong when she was the VOA China Branch Chief in 2012 can still be seen on the Voice of America Public Relations website. The VOA article says that after coming to the United States in 1987 she studied at Harvard and obtained her PhD in sociology. In a 2013 post, “Dreamy VOA Blog Post Goes Viral in China,” VOA Public Relations Office touted one of Sasha Gong’s blog posts that was seen by millions in China: “When China Branch Chief Sasha Gong posted a thought-provoking observation on a Chinese micro-blog recently, she had no idea it would go viral and get more than 16 million views. But it did.”
VOICE OF AMERICA PUBLIC RELATIONS
Sasha Gong with Intern Dan Shen
“VOA means a lot to me. To some extent, it changed my entire life. When I was a teenager, I always used shortwave radio to listen to VOA secretly in China. You can’t imagine; at that time, listening to ‘enemy radio’ was an offense punishable by imprisonment, but I did it anyway. VOA provided me with a new way to see the U.S. and this world. Since then, I feel like exploring the truth and broadcasting it freely is really important and this is what pushed me to be a journalist. I love my team and I always spend time with them because I want to learn every step of their process. Speaking of management philosophy, I think inspiring people is the key to success. You should make people feel they are important. Miscommunication is the biggest challenge. It’s always better to talk about things rather than being silent. My expectation for VOA’s China
Branch is for it to become the most reliable source of Mandarin news all over the world.”
Sasha Gong is not only VOA’s China Branch Chief, but also a historian, sociologist, blogger, and writer. Born and raised in Guangzhou, China, she came to the United States in 1987 to seek freedom. She studied at Harvard and obtained her PhD in sociology. Before Sasha came to VOA, she worked as a manger of Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese Service for several years. Moreover, she ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2009. She wrote about her experiences and thoughts in her book “Born American: A Chinese Woman’s Dream of Liberty.”
END OF VOA PUBLIC RELATIONS ARTICLE
The following explanation of the abrupt termination of the Voice of America Guo Wengui interview was provided earlier to various media organizations by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency in charge of VOA:
BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS / VOICE OF AMERICA
“On Tuesday VOA interviewed Guo Wengui. Guo reacted to an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest issued the day before. He talked about the mistreatment of his family, about being coerced by national security people to work for them, and about his relationship with a senior official who is now in custody. The one-hour interview was simulcast live via TV, radio, web and social media. We had multiple plans to conduct additional interviews with the subject for social media and later in the day made the editorial decision to record this material, edit, and post it in the coming days. In a miscommunication, the stream was allowed to continue beyond the first hour. When this was noticed the feed was terminated. We will release content from these interviews and will continue to report on corruption issues.
The original one-hour interview can be viewed on the VOA Mandarin website:
Guo Wengui is a Chinese real estate tycoon currently living in the U.S. Guo is reported to have irregular business dealings involving senior government officials. On Tuesday Interpol issued a Red Notice for Guo after a local Chinese government issued a warrant for Guo’s arrest.”
END OF BBG / VOA STATEMENT
While the BBG statement said that the interrupted live interview with Guo Wengui was conducted on Tuesday, it was in fact conducted on Wednesday, April 19.