VOA Director receives achievement award as complaints of poor leadership and censorship multiply

BBG Watch Commentary

As Amanda Bennett, director of the Voice of America (VOA), was receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award Thursday, April 26 at the 5th Annual Washington Women in Journalism Awards, complaints are multiplying about her work at the U.S. taxpayer-funded and government-run outlet from journalists inside and outside of VOA. Her critics accuse her of having poor people and leadership skills and blame her for incidents of censorship at VOA, particularly in VOA’s Chinese and Iranian services. “Voice of America Persian service should be resuscitated from its deplorable state,” Mariam Memarsadeghi, a 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar, an outspoken advocate for the principles of liberalism, women’s rights, civic education and internet freedom, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last January. This week she tweeted that the VOA Persian Service continues to censor her statements.

The annual awards, which VOA Director Amanda Bennett received last week her Lifetime Achievement Award, are co-sponsored by Story Partners and Washingtonian Publisher Cathy Merrill Williams. They recognize excellence in reporting and honor women journalists in Washington, D.C. This year’s awards celebrated “the vital role female journalists play in covering the most important issues of the day,” the VOA press release said.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor, Bennett was named Director of the Voice of America in March 2016 by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing, an Obama administration era appointee who himself is under heavy criticism for managerial chaos, programming failures, keeping failed managers and poor employee morale. The VOA press release was quoting Amanda Bennett as saying, “I am so fortunate to be director of VOA during these busy and fascinating times.”

VOA journalists, many of them women, who have sent complaints about the VOA director and the BBG CEO to various outside groups, including BBG Watch, do not see Bennett’s work at the Voice of America the same way as Story Partners and Washingtonian Publisher Cathy Merrill Williams.

One VOA journalist who does not want her name used said that women in the organization are afraid to complain to the management for fear of retaliation.

Some women were reported to be particularly upset when they saw Ms. Bennett and Greta Van Susteren working closely with a male manager previously accused of bullying women. They were also upset and reluctant to complain to the management when they noticed that Ms. Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, as well as several other key VOA managers, were listed as followers of a Twitter account belonging to a longtime VOA broadcaster in which he was posting erotica content they considered degrading to women. VOA women broadcasters complained anonymously to outside journalists who made an inquiry. The Voice of America responded that none of the VOA and Broadcasting Board of Governors managers who were followers of the VOA employee erotica Twitter account saw any of the offensive tweets, of which there were many over a period of several years. The Twitter account has since been closed.

The most recent public criticism of Ms. Bennett and her management of the Voice of America Chinese service, particularly her decision to cut short April 19, 2017 live interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui was voiced at a 2018 World Press Freedom Day at the George Washington University (GWU) event in which she participated. An independent Chinese journalist asked her questions about the interview and her decision to suspend five VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters who tried to prevent the interview from being shortened.

 

 
 

At the event on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, Amanda Bennett astounded the audience when she denied there was pressure from the Chinese government on VOA to cancel or shorten the live Guo Wengui interview conducted over a year ago.

Her denial ran contrary to multiple media reports and accounts from VOA journalists and even some VOA managers who said that the Chinese government used heavy-handed pressure against VOA over the Guo Wengui interview.

Bennett’s denial came during the Q & A portion toward the end of the panel. Mr. Zhao Yan, former New York Times Beijing Bureau employee, a Chinese journalist and political commentator who spent three years as a political prisoner in China, took the floor and asked Bennett to explain why VOA management cut the Guo interview to one hour and eighteen minutes despite its earlier commitment to the audience that the interview would be broadcast live for three hours, one hour live on TV and two hours live on social media platforms. He also asked why the management intends to fire three Mandarin journalists who were involved in the interview.

Bennett answered:

“I want to point out that there was no Chinese government pressure, there was no US government pressure. All the decisions made inside the Voices of America were made in the service of high journalistic integrity. And unfortunately I am sorry we can’t tell you anything because of privacy and labor issues, and we cannot tell you the reasons why things are happening, but I’d like to assure you that….first of all, talking about censorship, you just mentioned something that’s very important–an hour and 18 minutes. The Guo Wengui interview appeared on Voice of America for an hour and 18 minutes. Every decision that was made regarding that –every management decision that was made regarding that interview was made in the service of journalistic integrity.”

Her new claim that “there was no pressure from the China government” flabbergasted many VOA Mandarin Service staffers.

VOA Mandarin Service journalists could not understand why Bennett would say that.

Mr. Qiao Mu, a dissident Chinese academic, previously a professor at the Beijing University and a contract employee at VOA Mandarin Service from November 2017 to January 2018, challenged Bennett during the Q & A session on whether there is press freedom at VOA. When he was working in the Mandarin Service, he said, two managers asked him to stop tweeting on certain topics which he believed had nothing to do with his work. In January, he said, his contract was terminated because in one of his tweets he showed sympathy for the Mandarin journalists who were put on administrative leave.

Mr. Qiao’s question was cut short by Greta Van Susteren, one of the panelists who also works as a non-paid VOA TV host for VOA. Amanda Bennett said “there is” [freedom of the press at the Voice of America, but neither she nor anybody else, including BBG CEO John F. Lansing, tried to react to his comments about censorship at VOA China Branch. Greta Van Susteren kept insisting there was no more time left. The panel was hurriedly wrapped up. Both John Lansing and Amanda Bennett are Obama administration holdover appointees who were not required to be vetted or confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Any new BBG CEO nominated by the President would require a Senate confirmation. The co-sponsors of the event-the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and the Committee to Protect Journalists-also ignored the plight of administratively suspended VOA Mandarin Service journalists and did not comment on the VOA Guo Wengui interview controversy and charges of censorship at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Bennett denies caving in to pressure and insists she was protecting universal journalistic standards.

Bennett’s other recent remarks also offended many of VOA’s Chinese American staffers at VOA.

Announcing to the Chinese American staff the appointment as China Branch Chief of a non-speaker of Chinese (does not speak Mandarin or Cantonese) and lacks any significant experience in China reporting or analysis, Bennett asked in reference to the ability to speak fluent Cantonese or Mandarin, “What good is that gonna do? … someone with big language fluency but no leadership,” and proceeded to laud the new non-Chinese, non-Asian American China Branch Chief for being instead “a leader” and “a mover.”

Many Chinese American VOA journalists interpreted her remarks as implying that there are no persons among them with leadership qualities sufficient to lead the China Branch and were deeply offended when they heard her say: “Why would I hire someone to do what all of you guys are able to do? [speak Mandarin and Cantonese] What we need is a leader.”

We were told that some of the other candidates for the VOA China Branch Chief position were native Chinese speakers with many years of experience as journalists and managers at VOA.

Shortly after the Guo Wengui incident last spring, the management of the Voice of America and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, put five VOA Mandarin journalists on forced administrative leave with pay. Of the so-called VOA Mandarin 5 Chinese-speaking managers, editors and broadcasters, three are still unable to return to work and were reportedly threatened with firing.

Those who were present during Amanda Bennett’s meeting with the China Branch staff this week said that VOA journalists appeared uncomfortable and were reluctant to ask questions. When asked by the new Branch Chief “why in the world she would hire or transfer a guy who does not speak Cantonese or Mandarin” and has limited China-related experience, Ms. Bennett attempted to be humorous.

“You don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin?,” Ms. Bennett reportedly remarked.

Those who were present said that there was nervous laughter in the room after her rhetorical question followed by more of her comments:

VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT: “You know, you know what. We, the skill set that we need here right now is excellent journalism, experience, ah, collaborativeness, and fearlessness. And I think, you know, you can see that Ernie has got all of those things. And, you guys are going to, you guys are going to be able to help him make up that. You know, if you’re weighing something, you know, we’ve got a lot of candidates that came in who are super fluent in Mandarin, you know. But that was it. What good is that gonna do? You guys all speak Mandarin, you know, and Cantonese, you know. Why would I hire someone to do what all of you guys are able to do? What we need is a leader. Right? And Ernie is a leader. Ernie has proved over and over again that he’s a leader. And so when you’re weighing things — you know, language fluency, leadership — and, you know, you get someone with big language fluency but no leadership. You know, he’s a mover. Really strong leadership. We can figure out, and you guys already proved you can figure out, how you make up for that. So, that’s my answer.”

In commenting on these reported remarks by Ms. Bennett, Ann Noonan, executive director of the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), said that it’s hard to imagine another U.S. Government official or an American executive in a major U.S. media company speaking in such a way to native-born American journalists.

Ms. Noonan called the Voice of America director’s reported comments to the VOA China Branch staff “more of a disappointment than most could have imagined.” Ms. Noonan also called for a congressional investigation of Upper Management’s responsibility for the 4-19-2017 Guo Wengui incident and the plight of the rank and file VOA Mandarin Service journalists.

“Everyone remains surprisingly quiet about it. After the 4/19 incident [Upper Management’s shortening of the Guo Wengui interview and placing five VOA Mandarin Service journalists on forced administrative leave], they learned the consequences of speaking up,” one VOA China Branch reporter who wants to remain anonymous because of fear of reprisals was quoted as saying.

There is reportedly quiet outrage about the plight of the VOA Mandarin journalists among some VOA and BBG employees but surprisingly very little reporting on the VOA troubled China and Iran services and BBG/VOA’s Upper Management by mainstream U.S. media or media freedom organizations except for CUSIB and occasional columns in The Washington Times, The Washington Examiner, The Washington Free Beacon, The Wall Street Journal and a few other media outlets.

In response to a request by four members of Congress, there has been an investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Guo Wengui incident and an OIG report is expected to be issued. There are also reports that a least one member of Congress may want to call for a congressional hearing to investigate why and how the VOA management ordered the interview to be shortened and how it treated the journalists who disagreed with their decision.

The most recent criticism of the management of the Voice of America under Ms. Bennett’s watch, this time with regard to the VOA Iranian Service, was voiced in a tweet by Mariam Memarsadeghi who is co-founder and co-director of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, a virtual institute offering secure democracy and human rights educational opportunities. A 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar, she is an outspoken advocate for the principles of liberalism, women’s rights, civic education and internet freedom, particularly in Islamic contexts. Mariam Memarsadeghi wrote that she is being censored by the management of VOA Persian programs to Iran. Anti-regime protesters in Iran have been calling the Voice of America the “Voice of the Ayatollahs” because of alleged censorship and VOA’s focus on the so-called regime “reformists.”

Ms. Memarsadeghi tweeted:

“Am I surprised? No. Is it shameful? Yes. @VOAIran censors my talk (& @MehrangizKar) in report on our @HudsonInstitute panel. I’m on their blacklist. Didn’t help that I (again) criticized their severe mismanagement & fecklessness ir.voanews.com/a/4367814.html (minute 10) @BBGWatch”

We repost her tweet and several other tweets about VOA programs to Iran and China, some of them highly critical of VOA Director Amanda Bennett.

VOA PRESS RELEASE

Lifetime Achievement Award for VOA Director Amanda Bennett

April 27, 2018

VOA Director Amanda Bennett (center) at awards ceremony.

Washington, DC – Amanda Bennett, director of the Voice of America (VOA), received the Lifetime Achievement Award Thursday, April 26 at the 5th Annual Washington Women in Journalism Awards. The annual awards, co-sponsored by Story Partners and Washingtonian Publisher Cathy Merrill Williams, recognize excellence in reporting and honors women journalists in Washington, D.C. This year’s awards celebrate the vital role female journalists play in covering the most important issues of the day.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor, Bennett was named Director of the Voice of America in March 2016. “I am so fortunate,” she says, “to be director of VOA during these busy and fascinating times.” In citing an example, she added “With the upcoming historic meeting between the United States and North Korea leaders, VOA’s Korean news and information is ever more important, so we’ve been steadily increasing the amount of content we provide.”

Voice of America is the largest U.S. government-funded international multimedia broadcaster, producing content in 45 languages that reaches people in 85 countries.

Initiatives at VOA under Bennett’s direction include shaping and accelerating VOA’s focus on digital distribution and social media; groundbreaking cooperation with sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on the Russian-language projects Current Time and Polygraph.info; diaspora outreach within the U.S.; introducing bridge editors to boost the amount of original content-sharing among VOA’s 45 language services; creating a women’s project designed to boost the contributions of women in news and news stories; and establishing the Extremism Watch Desk, where a select team of journalists monitor news related to terrorism and take an in-depth look at the stories behind the headlines, providing audiences with insight that most Western media do not offer.

Prior to leading VOA, Bennett’s work included creating and overseeing a global team of investigative reporters and editors as executive editor at Bloomberg News; editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer; editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky; managing editor for projects at The Oregonian in Portland; and Wall Street Journal reporter. Her awards include a 1997 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting shared with her Wall Street Journal colleagues, and a 2001 Pulitzer for her team at The Oregonian for Public Service, among others.

Ms. Bennett joins three other distinguished women journalists receiving awards this year: Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times (Outstanding Journalist in Print); Audi Cornish of NPR (Outstanding Journalism in Broadcast Radio); and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report (Outstanding Journalism in Broadcast Television).

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