BBG Watch Commentary,
Former Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director Ted Lipien has posted a comment in response to Ms. Martha Bayles’ article, “Don’t Kick VOA When It’s Down” published on the website of the Public Diplomacy Council. Lipien, who is one of the co-founders of BBG Watch and co-director of independent and non-partisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), applauds Ms. Bayles for her accurate and honest presentation of facts about the mishandling of the Guo Wengui interview by VOA’s senior leaders. He agrees with Ms. Bayles conclusions that VOA has an important mission abroad that needs strong public support at home. He concludes, however, that in order to protect the mission of U.S. international media outreach, senior leaders of the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Broard of Governors should resign and be replaced by more experienced individuals willing to carry out major reforms. Any new leadership should also be willing to protect the agency from ugly domestic partisanship which is contrary to the tenets of the VOA Charter and the BBG mission statement.
READ MORE: Don’t Kick VOA When It’s Down, Martha Bayles, Public Diplomacy Council, May 18, 2017.
Ted Lipien: I applaud Martha Bayles for posting an honest and accurate chronology of events surrounding the shortening of the Voice of America Mandarin Service Guo Wengui interview. As BBG Watch reported earlier, it was VOA director Amanda Bennett who had ordered the live interview to be shortened, despite previously aired VOA promos that the live interview would last three hours. Her decision was resisted by VOA Mandarin Service journalists who knew that it would lead to damaging VOA’s reputation and credibility in China. They were forced to carry out her decision but did so under protest.
Judging by thousands of angry and sarcastic social media comments, VOA’s reputation in China’s was indeed seriously damaged. What happened next, however, is even more disturbing. The VOA director ordered five Mandarin Service journalists to be put on administrative leave with pay “pending full investigation.” It was a humiliating and profoundly unfair move designed to protect the senior management from accepting responsibility for the negative consequences of their initial inaction and later overreaction.
In her order for placing journalists on administrative leave, Ms. Bennett did not include herself or other senior staffers who together with her had made the critically wrong decision to shorten the interview. The official VOA explanation produced even more sarcastic comments from the audience and protests by Chinese Americans who staged a mock funeral in front of the VOA building in Washington, DC. The official VOA statement was both confusing and misleading. It said that no one had ordered the live interview to be cut short while it was being aired. Technically, it was true. The order to shorten the live interview was issued by the VOA director before it was started. It was a bureaucratic explanation that could have originated from any government trying to cover up its mistakes. Ms. Bennett, her deputy, and their boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing, however, happen to be Obama administration holdover appointees. Shame on them for communicating with Americans and foreign audiences in such a way. I expected something better from them.
The bottom line is this. While Ms. Bayles is right on the facts of the incident and on the importance of VOA’s mission if it were to be carried out right by a competent management team, her conclusion as to what should be done to reform the agency is somewhat vague. If she is suggesting that the VOA director, her deputies, and their boss, BBG CEO John F. Lansing, should not be held accountable for this and many other previous management failures, it would be an argument for maintaining the untenable status quo. Perhaps that is not what Ms. Bayles is suggesting, but her analysis seems to avoid stating what remedies should be used to save VOA and its important mission.
Senior leaders currently in charge of BBG and VOA may be well meaning individuals, but they have shown themselves to be lacking requisite experience and skills to manage the agency. They should resign.
Individuals with substantive experience in government operations, international news media outreach, intercultural communications, public diplomacy and foreign policy should be put in charge of BBG and VOA and immediately carry out major management and programming reforms.
One of the lasting but unfortunate legacies of the Lansing-Bennett agency tenure has been the unprecedented politicization and partisanship of Voice of America programs, which urgently needs to be reversed. The Guo Wengui interview scandal was yet another proof that the senior agency leaders lack proper experience and skills to run a U.S. international communications agency and media outreach according to the VOA Charter and the BBG mission of supporting freedom and democracy. They should step down.