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