BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary
The Washington Free Beacon reported that two more VOA Mandarin 5 award-winning veteran journalists were fired by the senior management of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and the Voice of America (VOA) over the Guo Wengui interview incident. The article was written by Bill Gertz who is senior editor of the Washington Free Beacon.
Both fired VOA journalists are men in their 60s who are political refugees from communist-ruled China. Each has worked for the Voice of America Mandarin Service for close to 30 years trying to bring uncensored news to the Chinese who are deprived of press freedom. Both have received multiple VOA, USIA, and BBG awards for their reporting and dedication. USIA and BBG were the former names of VOA’s parent federal agency. Both of the fired journalists are U.S. Federal employees. The management also fired earlier the VOA Mandarin Service chief.
Neither of the two recently fired journalists had any known disagreements with any previous VOA or agency directors.
VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters deny charges of disobeying orders and insist that they were only trying to prevent VOA’s senior management from making a mistake in cutting short the 2017 interview with the Chinese whistleblower.
USAGM CEO John F. Lansing and VOA Director Amanda Bennett have shown the two veteran VOA Mandarin journalists no mercy. The firing letter was signed by the agency’s chief accountant who is not known to have experience in journalism.
Bennett, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and whose husband is reported to have substantial business interests in China, claims that by ordering the shortening of the Guo Wengui interview she was only trying to uphold the highest journalistic standards at the Voice of America and was not caving in to pressure from the Chinese government.
Both Lansing and Bennett also insist that they strongly support free press. Several days before the two VOA Mandarin Service journalists were informed that they were fired, Lansing and Bennett participated in World Press Freedom Day observances.
The true idiocy here is that the interview never should have happened in the first place – at least, not under the conditions in which it was conducted. Guo demand for 3 hours of live, uninterrupted, unedited airtime was outrageous and never should have been agreed to Even US presidents don’t get that kind of free time. This is incident is all the more troubling because of questions that have been raised about his veracity and activities in the NY Times, The Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal. He may not be the altruistic whistleblower that he paints himself to be. I do not say that he should not have been interviewed; he is of legitimate news interest. However, the error was in not subjecting him to normal journalistic practices and caving in to unprecedented demands. In so doing, he was given a soapbox. There was plenty of incompetence to share around in this sorry episode.
You are right that the interview was not properly set up, but this raises the question where were top USAGM and VOA executives when the middle management and some of the senior managers approved all the logistical arrangements for the interview? This would not have happened under previous VOA directors and USIA. Such an important interview would have been carefully planned ahead of time in every detail. For the senior executives to lash out against frontline journalists is truly unforgivable since the upper management failed to do its job when the scandal could have been easily avoided.
I agree. What is hazy is who “negotiated” the interview conditions? (It was really a capitulation to Guo’s imperious demands.) Who signed off on it? Did the 3rd floor know of these conditions? If so – and I can’t believe they wouldn’t have known about giving 3 hours of live unedited airtime to anyone – then they committed an incredible journalistic breach, as did the Mandarin service. There’s a lot unknown here, which is why painting this only as management caving in to Chinese pressure is a simplistic and incomplete characterization of an incomplete and contradictory narrative. As I said, plenty of blame on all sides.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists most certainly did not cave in to pressure from the Chinese government when Beijing made threats to the VOA management and demanded that the interview be canceled. According to our information, as reflected in various media reports, the decision to shorten the interview was made by VOA’s senior managers including VOA Director Amanda Bennett after Beijing had issued its threats. What the most senior managers knew about the planning for the interview is not completely clear, but the VOA management had to approve VOA Mandarin Service reporters’ and VOA technicians’ travel to New York and logistical arrangements for one hour of live TV interview plus two hours of live interview on social media. These arrangements certainly had to be approved by mid-level VOA division management. In the digital age, a lengthy live interview on social media with a high-profile guest for whom social media users can pose questions is not common but it does happen, especially if there is no other way to get and present important new information. There is no question that the interview required much better planning, but if mid-level and senior managers and executives did not realize that this was a high-profile interview that called for careful planning, they have themselves to blame and should not blame and punish frontline VOA Mandarin Service journalists. VOA Mandarin reporters rightly concluded that after the interview was already scheduled and pre-announced and the Chinese government made its threats, shortening the interview was the wrong thing to do. The interview was arranged after VOA Director Amanda Bennett made numerous statements to staff how important it is for VOA to do investigative journalism. According to news accounts, Guo Wengui was willing to agree only to a one-shot lengthy live interview because of fears that a pre-recorded interview might be later censored. According to reports, he promised to reveal highly sensitive information on government corruption in China and China’s influence buying and spying activities in the U.S. According to news reports, he was not going to be given an uninterrupted platform by VOA Mandarin Service but rather he was going to be questioned by VOA reporters who did in fact challenge some of his claims and presented at the outset the Chinese government’s counter-claims. It was also revealed that before the shortened on-air interview, VOA Mandarin Service reporters conducted for several hours a pre-interview with Guo Wengui and reviewed documents that he provided in support of his allegations. Of course, the senior management should have been part of this planning considering the sensitivity of the interview. This would be normal procedure at VOA under previous VOA directors and management teams. It may have been unwise for the Mandarin Service to agree to a three hour live interview, but it may have been take it or leave it proposition. Whether better terms for the interview could have been negotiated is not clear. Mid-level and upper management should have certainly been part of the discussion. If they were not but approved the logistics of the interview, it would be their fault for not being engaged and being in charge as managers and executives. Once the decision to do the interview was made and announced, the senior management’s attempts to shorten the live interview after the Chinese government made its threats was a disaster waiting to happen. At that point, senior managers should have flown to New York and made sure that the live interview was properly conducted. According to reports, they tried to manage the situation by phone and e-mail and gave changing and imprecise instructions. In the end, the journalists were punished while mid-level and senior managers and executives escaped responsibility and accountability. What is most tragic is how the agency’s senior management treated VOA Mandarin 5 journalists who may have been responding to repeated calls from the VOA Director for engaging in more daring investigative reporting. If VOA Mandarin Service journalists did anything wrong, their mistakes pale compared to the lack of engagement and failures of the upper management.
For these senior VOA and USAGM executives to fire journalists, all of them in their 60s, who have worked for VOA for decades without any such prior incidents with prior VOA management teams and who thought they were doing the right thing for VOA and their audience in China, was an incredibly cruel decision.
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