BBG Watch Commentary
“Voice of America China Guo Wengui Part I” was the most viewed post on the BBG Watch site in 2017, getting 17,050 website views in addition to any views and engagements on social media. The second most viewed BBG Watch post was “Voice of America director cut short Guo Wengui live interview“ with 9,330 website views.
Senior leaders of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), VOA’s parent federal agency, and VOA’s own top executives seem still determined to fire three Chinese-born VOA journalists and to discipline others for disagreeing with the management’s unfortunate directives to shorten the April 19, 2017 live interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui. These journalists need your support. A phone call, an email or a post on social media could mean a lot to them.
For foreign-born VOA journalists deeply committed to reporting on corruption and human rights violations in their native countries, being prevented from working on the orders of the management of the U.S. taxpayer-funded and U.S. government-run organization, which they have loyally served for many years, is a horrific punishment. This is also especially hard to bear for their families during Christmas and other end of the year holidays. Let these journalists and their VOA colleagues know that you support them.
April 24, 2017
Asleep at the Wheel – A Commentary
The management of the government-funded Voice of America (VOA) was asleep at the wheel when enterprising China service journalists arranged for a rare, exclusive interview with a Chinese businessman Guo Wengui who had found refuge in the United States and offered to expose widespread corruption within the Chinese Communist Party leadership. After the arrangements for a live three-hour mixed VOA TV and social media streaming interview had been completed and publicly announced by VOA, the Chinese government protested and demanded that the interview be canceled. At that point, two top-level VOA executives, both holdovers from the Obama administration and until then practicing hands-off management, suddenly realized that they were dealing with a news story of major importance. They did not see the interview as a major scoop for VOA journalists. After being asleep at the wheel earlier, they started to treat it as a potentially major crisis for themselves. It was already too late when they got involved in what appeared to be last-minute clumsy attempts to put pressure on VOA Chinese Branch journalists who had arranged the interview. They tried to get them to renege on their promise to Mr. Guo to conduct the interview live in three consecutive one-hour segments, the first hour live on satellite TV, followed by the next two hours live on social media platforms. The VOA journalists resisted.
The terms for an interview were admittedly unusual, but the interviewee himself was unusual. What he had to say was potentially of great informational value for the VOA audience in China. Before fleeing to the United States, he made a fortune in real estate and other business deals. He had direct knowledge of major corruption within the upper echelons of the Communist Party. He was blackmailed into working for China’s security services. He had information about their influence buying in the United States and was willing to disclose it.
Guo Wengui would only agree to a live interview with two VOA reporters whom he trusted, Mandarin Service chief Sasha Gong and Fred Wang, both with many years of journalistic and broadcasting experience. He offered to let them examine prior to the interview various documents in his possession allegedly showing that his claims about various corrupt Communist Party officials were true.
Soon after VOA announced that the interview with Mr. Guo would air in a few days, the Chinese government issued a warrant for his arrest. This showed that the Chinese officials certainly feared what he might tell VOA. At this point, a news organization that promised a lengthy live interview with such an individual had no choice but to deliver on its promise or be suspected of censorship. VOA risked tarnishing its reputation, not to mention disappointing its audience.
As it turned out, what could have been a major journalistic scoop and a source of great pride for Voice of America journalists, despite their best efforts turned into an embarrassment as information leaked out that VOA executives reportedly tried to prevent the interview from being broadcast live. Failing to stop the live broadcast altogether and thus killing the interview — which was only avoided due to strong resistance from VOA China Branch journalists — the pressure from the management succeeded in cutting the interview short as the second hour was being live-streamed on social media.
Those who watched the first part of the live interview said that it was not a successfully produced, well-flowing program with new information presented and the beginning, as it could have been if it were better planned and done under different circumstances without pressure from the top management. VOA China Branch journalists looked uncomfortable as if they had to work under great constraints. They did well, however, in providing plenty of balance through the pre-recorded Chinese government statement and pressed Mr. Guo to support his charges of political corruption in China. Despite their efforts, VOA’s reputation among its Chinese audience suffered a serious blow when the interview was suddenly cut short at the beginning of the second hour. The interview failed to live up to what was promised.
None of this had to happen if VOA top and mid-level management had been engaged and competent enough to handle a difficult situation from the very beginning. During the Cold War, VOA knew how to manage and conduct lengthy interviews with highly controversial figures, including at least one former East European communist secret service official and two ambassadors who had sought asylum in the United States. Conducting such interviews successfully requires that the agency in charge has officials with expert knowledge of foreign affairs who are capable of assuring a great deal of internal planning, coordination and supervision.
Why VOA director Amanda Bennett and VOA deputy director Sandy Sugawara were not involved in the initial planning for such a potentially explosive interview can only be explained by general mismanagement and chaos under their watch since they had been selected for their positions by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing. All three lack prior experience in managing U.S. government media, public diplomacy or foreign policy operations. At the very least, John Lansing should have made sure that VOA director and deputy director consult with their counterparts at Radio Free Asia (RFA) and other China experts to seek additional advice. We have found no evidence of Mr. Lansing’s involvement in managing the interview.
The official Voice of America and Broadcasting Board of Governors statement blamed the whole incident on “miscommunication,” but in reality it was the initial hands-off approach followed by extremely poor handling of the situation by the agency top officials and lower level managers. These BBG and VOA executives and managers should have been directly and intensively involved in the planning of such a critical interview from the very beginning. Some veterans of U.S. international Broadcasting observed that it might have been better if the interview were conducted by much better-managed Radio Free Asia, but Mr. Guo Wengui insisted on being interviewed live by the Voice of America. He may have feared that a recorded interview might be edited or never air. In the end, both he and the Chinese audience were let down despite the best efforts of VOA China Branch journalists to offer a first-rate exclusive interview with a controversial but formerly well-connected and highly knowledgeable figure.
Even more troubling is the appearance that the VOA director and the deputy director may have been responding to pressure from the Chinese government even though there is no direct proof that they did, only an appearance of succumbing to pressure. They both vehemently denied being pressured and told the VOA Chinese Branch staffers that their only concern was with upholding high journalistic standards. Ironically, these standards are being violated on a daily basis under their watch in VOA English news service output and in some VOA foreign language services. Recently, VOA conducted an interview and reported an explosive but unsupported allegation that Russia’s President Putin and Syria’s President Assad conspired to test new chemical weapons on civilians in Syria. VOA director and deputy director cannot hope to sleep walk as these potentially explosive interviews are being planned and hope that everything will turn out well in the end. That’s not how U.S. international media organization works or should work.
Internal e-mails and reports shared with BBG Watch by upset VOA China Branch journalists who are furious about the Guo Wengui incident, show that at the very least, these top VOA officials had a limited understanding of the issues and were unprepared to deal effectively with the crisis too late in the game. The mid-level VOA managers appear equally guilty of an initial lack of engagement and subsequent poor management of the crisis. They were trying to deal remotely from Washington with the situation in New York, where the interview was being conducted. It was all far too distant and far too late in what should have been a meticulous planning process but definitely was not.
While lower-level VOA China Branch managers and reporters can also be criticized for rushing into the interview without negotiating better terms with Guo Wengui and seeking more guidance, they were no doubt responding to Ms. Bennett’s strong advocacy for “investigative reporting.” It was she and her deputy who failed to provide proper leadership, supervision and effective communication channels. The VOA China Branch was not operating on its own. Mid-level managers were informed that the interview was being planned and extensive technical support was provided. VOA lower level managers and journalists fear that, as usual, they might be blamed for the “miscommunication” while the mid-level and upper-level managers and executives will continue doing business as usual.
BBG Watch has received a number of e-mails and reports showing how the incident developed and will present them in three parts, which we tentatively titled: “Asleep at the Wheel,” “All Hell Broke Loose in DC” and “Reputation Damaged.”
Two weeks ago, the preparations for the live Voice of America China Branch interview with Mr. Guo were moving forward, top VOA and BBG officials seemed blissfully unaware or unconcerned about any potential problems, VOA director Amanda Bennett was traveling on official business in Africa, and on air and online announcements about the interview were made. Then the Chinese government expressed its displeasure and everything changed.
On Monday, April 17, Bill Ide, the VOA English Newsroom correspondent in Beijing, was summoned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and later sent an e-mail to Jing Zhang, the chief editor of the East Asian Division. The e-mail was shared widely within VOA.
He met with Ma Yuanchun, director of foreign media relations and Luo Danzhu – a contact person for foreign journalists at the Foreign Ministry’s International Press Center. Ma expressed deep concern about the announced exclusive interview with Guo Wengui (Miles Kwok) and made it clear that they do not want it to air.
During the discussion, Ma cited a range of concerns and said that by airing the interview it gives them the impression that the Voice of America has some kind of hidden political agenda. She said it concerns them that VOA giving a man, whom she described as a wanted criminal in China, a podium without questioning the allegations that he is making. Both Chinese government officials also expressed concern that this is happening ahead of the 19th Communist Party congress.
Ma also said that this type of interview is seen as interference in China’s affairs. She said that if VOA goes ahead with the interview, they will respond seriously to this kind of reporting. She didn’t elaborate, but alluded to the impact it could have on the renewal process Chinese visas for VOA correspondents. She also highlighted the “conveniences” the Chinese government is providing VOA journalists who have recently visited China.
The VOA Beijing correspondent said that he did not make any promises told them that he would pass their concerns along. They have asked the Voice of America to get back to them as soon as possible.
After that, all hell broke loose among VOA executives and top managers who were previously asleep at the wheel.
MORE IN PART II
MORE IN PART III
READ MORE: POLICIES & POLITICS Plug pulled on US interview with wanted Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui, Robert Delaney, US correspondent, South China Morning Post, UPDATED : Thursday, 20 Apr 2017, 10:48PM
READ MORE: CUSIB Asks for Investigation About Why VOA China Service Cut Live-Stream Interview with Chinese Billionaire Guo Wengui, CUSIB, April 21, 2017
READ MORE: CUSIB concerned about partisanship and mismanagement at BBG and VOA, CUSIB, April 21, 2017
The following explanation of the abrupt termination of a Voice of America interview was provided 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 STATEMENT
While the BBG statement says that the live interview with Guo Wengui was conducted on Tuesday, it was in fact conducted on Wednesday, April 19.
The independent and nonpartisan NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) is asking for a congressional investigation. CUSIB points out that “miscommunication” at the U.S. agency charged with communicating with the world is in itself a troubling sign of continuing mismanagement.
CUSIB PRESS RELEASE
April 21, 2017
For Immediate Release
CUSIB Asks for Investigation About Why VOA China Service Cut Live-Stream Interview with Chinese Billionaire Guo Wengui
The Committee for US International Broadcasting (www.cusib.org) has released the following statement:
“In an effort to protect Voice of America China Service from being unfairly influenced or manipulated by outside political sources, the Committee for US International Broadcasting is asking for a thorough congressional investigation about what transpired on April 19, 2017 during a VOA live-stream broadcast of Chinese billionaire Gui Wengui as he spoke about corruption in China.
Guo Wengui was described by The New York Times as a “Chinese-born billionaire who in recent months has publicized allegations of corruption against relatives of high-ranking Communist Party officials is now a wanted man after Beijing asked Interpol to issue a global request for his arrest.” He was in New York doing an exclusive live interview with Voice of America.
CUSIB shares the concerns of Chinese viewers who tuned in to that interview and want to know why it was abruptly cut, thereby damaging the journalistic integrity and reputation of VOA among those viewers. The official explanation from the Voice of America and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), that it was a case of “miscommunication” is in itself troubling as it shows that the U.S. agency created to communicate with the world continues to be mismanaged.
Was VOA influenced by political powers to cut the live-stream broadcast, and if so, who was involved? More specifically, who in VOA gave the order to censor the broadcast of Guo Wengui, and who may have pressured VOA to censor this special live-stream broadcast?
CUSIB urges VOA’s audience to remain vigilant about this very serious matter and to demand for VOA to remain true to its mission statement to be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”
For further information, please contact Ann Noonan at (646) 251-6069 or Ted Lipien at (415) 793-1642.
END OF CUSIB PRESS RELEASE
May 1, 2017
BBG Watch EXCLUSIVE
BBG Watch has seen evidence that Voice of America (VOA) Director Amanda Bennett, who is one of several Obama administration holdovers in the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), interrupted her two-week official tour of Africa to send a word to Washington ordering VOA Mandarin Service to cut short their planned three-hour live interview with Guo Wengui, a Chinese businessman turned whistleblower on government corruption in China. One of the justifications given by the VOA director for cutting the live interview short was to limit the risk of Mr. Guo making allegations of corruption against Communist Party government officials in China which later might turn out to be unfounded.
When Ms. Bennett’s order was carried out despite multiple and vigorous protests from VOA Mandarin Service journalists, VOA suffered a major blow to its reputation among its Chinese audience. Many saw it as caving in to pressure from the Chinese government which earlier had expressed its strong opposition to the planned VOA interview and quickly issued a warrant for Mr. Guo’s arrest before the scheduled interview. It was a clear proof that the Chinese government greatly feared what Mr. Guo might tell VOA. Ms. Bennett categorically denies that she was motivated by fear of how the Chinese government might react if VOA presented the live interview as it was initially promised in TV and online promos.
Ms. Bennett reportedly justified her order to shorten the live interview by arguing that Chinese Communist Party officials must be given an opportunity to respond “in advance” to any accusations of corruption. She was supported in her view by her deputy, Sandy Sugawara, also an Obama administration holdover, who was at the time in Washington. Ms. Sugawara put pressure on resisting Mandarin Service journalists to carry out Ms. Bennett’s order.
Both Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sugawara insisted that getting Chinese Communist officials to respond to any allegations first before they would be expressed on the record by Mr. Guo in an interview was good journalistic practice. They vehemently denied to incredulous VOA Mandarin Service journalists that their decision represented in any way caving in to pressure from Beijing.
VOA Mandarin Service reporters argued that the Chinese government had already responded to Mr. Guo’s accusations and that the official Chinese response would be presented during the interview while any unsupported allegations from Mr. Guo, if there were to be any, would be vigorously challenged. Ms. Bennett reportedly said that this is not enough and that she herself as an experienced journalist would never conduct an interview with someone making serious allegations of corruption even against government officials the way VOA Mandarin Service journalists were planning to conduct the interview with Mr. Guo. Chances of Chinese government officials agreeing to respond to specific accusations of corruption in advance are believed, however, to be practically nonexistent. VOA Mandarin Service reporters were insulted by her doubts in their ability to conduct a fair and balanced interview, inside sources told BBG Watch.
Evidence seen by BBG Watch shows that Ms. Bennett ordered VOA Mandarin Service journalists to reduce the length of the interview both on live one-hour TV program and in a live two-hour Facebook broadcast in order to reduce the possibility of Mr. Guo making reckless or impulsive charges. VOA Mandarin Service originally had promised one hour of live TV and two hours of live Facebook interview with Mr. Guo. Ms. Bennett ordered VOA Mandarin Service not to allow Mr. Guo to make allegations about Chinese communist officials even in the course of a shortened interview. She did not explain how this should be accomplished.
Reaction to VOA director’s order among Chinese viewers was swift and almost uniformly negative. Here are three typical comments and a meme created by outside critics of VOA management’s actions:
When I heard Sasha Gong and Fred Wang say: “because of special reasons we must stop our interview…”, my feeling was exactly as same as when I heard the announcement of the Chinese communist government on the eve of 04.06.1989 [the Tienamen Square Massacre]. Tears were in my eyes. I just don’t know if it was for Mr. Guo’s fate, the deaths of 04.06.89, or for the death of VOA –because VOA was my beacon through all the dark nights when I was in China.
When I saw the sudden cutting short of the 3 hour direct broadcasting which VOA announced for several days in advance and promised before and during the program , I said VOA is done for! They are scared to death by the Chinese government !
What made me more scornful of the decision makers was their next day’s explanation read by the lady wearing a white flower . The explanation is a typical lie ! It’s wording is very similar to the speeches of those disgraceful spokesmen/spokeswomen of Chinese Foreign ministry!
Shame on VOA!
[…]It is very sad to see this event happened. When I watched the live VOA Guo Wengui interview program, the program was suddenly cut off. I felt Democracy died in America. Voice of America was the symbol of freedom and democracy. It represented the values of United States: freedom of press and freedom of speech. The cut-short program stopped the Voice of Freedom and Democracy. Today’s VOA is not the VOA I listened to during my youth years in China. It has become the Shame of America: Voice of Silence.
A group of Chinese Americans, former Chinese dissidents and protested last week against censorship in a demonstration staged in front of the Voice of America building in Washington, DC.
Ms. Bennett and her boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing have argued that an hour long live interview with Mr. Guo was enough and that the next two hours would have been recorded and any further allegations of corruption made by him against Chinese officials would be checked and presented by VOA to the Chinese government for a response.
The cutting short of the interview, however, meant that it could not continue because Mr. Guo would only agree to being interviewed live.
What Mr. Lansing, Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sugawara also apparently failed to understand was that the act of cutting short the interview alone would raise widespread suspicions and accusations in China that Mr. Guo was being censored by VOA in response to pressure from the Chinese government. VOA and BBG executives apparently did not anticipate that the decision to cut short the interview after promises of a three hour live conversation had already been made to the audience would have a major negative impact on VOA’s credibility and reputation in China. Mr. Guo has a widespread following in China on social media. His tweet about the interview being cut short produced a storm of online criticism directed against VOA.
Neither Ms. Bennett, Ms. Sugawara nor Mr. Lansing has any prior experience in U.S. international broadcasting, managing of government employees and government organizations or in managing U.S. public diplomacy.
Ms. Bennett’s order to cut short an important interview had a negative impact not only on the Voice of America but also on Radio Free Asia (RFA) which had no role in the controversy. Judging from comments on social media, after the VOA incident some Chinese also suspect RFA of caving in to pressure from the Chinese government and suspect the Trump administration of the same thing even though Ms. Bennett, Ms. Sugawara, and Mr. Lansing were appointed to their positions during the Obama administration.
There is no indication that any Trump administration official had a role in the Guo Wengui VOA interview scandal.
Speaking Monday, May 1, 2017, at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the George Washington University (GWU) School of Media & Public Affairs panel in connection with the World Press Freedom Day, BBG CEO John F. Lansing said in answering a question from former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno that neither he nor anyone at the Voice of America was responding to pressure from the Chinese communist government when the live VOA interview with Guo Wengui was suddenly shortened on April 19. Mr. Lansing stressed that VOA would never be pressured by Beijing.
It appears, however, that VOA director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara took action to shorten the live interview with Guo Wengui only after the Chinese government issued its protest. Before that VOA was moving full speed with the interview as it was originally planned by the Mandarin Service in agreement with Mr. Guo. VOA and BBG top executives all deny that they were responding to any pressure and justified their decision by their concern about protecting high journalistic standards.
Mr. Lansing told Mr. Sesno and the audience that he is “still gathering facts on this situation,” but added that in his view a one hour-long live TV interview was more than enough. Many in China disagree, but Mr. Lansing did not seem to understand why.
Neither Mr. Lansing nor Ms. Bennett realized that the shortening of the interview, whether in response to pressure or not, would still be a major blow to VOA’s reputation among its audience in China because it would create an appearance of submitting to pressure. If nothing else, this unfortunate incident shows that both of them, as well as managers advising them, do not understand the impact of VOA’s journalism abroad and have limited understanding of U.S. international broadcasting and U.S. public diplomacy.