USAGM WATCH COMMENTARY

Amanda Bennett @abennett·Apr 9·16.7K Followers: “At the @VOANews, we love facts. The fact is Wuhan has ended their lockdown and this video shows exactly that.”

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@Jessie201907· Apr 11·14.9K Followers: “VOA has become a propaganda tool of the CCP, can you give yourself some dignity?”

No Voice of America (VOA) director prior to current VOA chief Amanda Bennett has faced massive public criticism from immigrants who left their countries ruled by communist regimes. Bennett is the first U.S. government official since 1942 in charge of the Voice of America to become a target of frequent and unprecedented public rebukes by refugees from China, which has a communist regime, but also from Iran, which is ruled by an equally repressive theocratic regime.

Such an open conflict between a VOA director and major ethnic communities in the United States was not seen before Amanda Bennett came to VOA several years ago. During the Cold War, it would have been almost unthinkable, but had such a dispute with a major immigrant group occurred, it would have been never permitted to escalate by any U.S. administration, Republican or Democrat, much less allowed to fester for several years. The Voice of America English newsroom, controlled by Amanda Bennett and blamed by critics for at times repeating unchallenged propaganda and disinformation from Beijing, Tehran and Moscow, has not reported on her disputes with Chinese and Iranian political refugees.

Bennett’s unpopularity in two large and important immigrant groups in the United States which want the Voice of America to be effective in U.S. taxpayer-funded information outreach to their native countries has been largely overlooked also by mainstream U.S. media. They have focused on Trump’s effort to put his appointees in charge of VOA programming in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). These appointments are congressionally mandated but described in some media commentaries as alarming because Michael Pack, President Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, is a strong conservative. Mainstream media journalists are showing no interest in investigating whether current VOA programming is effective to China, Iran and Russia and whether Bennett is a competent manager.

American journalists who have not mastered foreign languages can’t easily tell what is contained in most VOA programs, but they can check on what appears on VOA English-language news website, VOANews.com. There has been, however, no major media investigation whether VOA is not already illegally used by some of its journalists and executives to influence U.S. politics under its current Obama administration-era management, although articles in a few conservative outlets have reported on unseemly partisan attacks on Trump by some VOA reporters working under Bennett’s watch. An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal written by an anti-communist Chinese-American journalist whom Bennett had fired over a programming dispute criticized the VOA director’s approach to China and her management style. The Voice of America has one of the lowest employee morale ratings in the entire federal government in addition to being now at war with anti-communist Chinese-American and anti-Islamist Iranian-American communities.

Media outlets such as The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN and Politico largely ignored management scandals and unprecedented violations of the VOA Charter under holdover Obama administration officials at the nearly $800 million U.S. Agency for Global Media which oversees the Voice of America with its annual budget of over $230 million (included in the USAGM budget). Under U.S. laws, the Voice of America must be accurate and perfectly politically neutral. It must stay out of U.S. politics and cannot target Americans.

American and immigrant critics say that all of these mandates have been repeatedly violated under Amanda Bennett’s watch despite her assurances to the contrary. She and her supporters vehemently disagree with such criticism, but Republicans complained that during the 2016 presidential election campaign and since then VOA has been posting one-sided partisan attacks on Trump–a pattern which can be easily confirmed through online searches and independent content analysis.

Partisan bias at the Voice of America has been not only anti-Trump and anti-conservative. A U.S. journalist reported in 2016 that VOA published a hit piece on Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders because VOA editors and guests were in favor of Hillary Clinton. The journalist, who was a Sanders’ supporter, called VOA “state media.” The Voice of America is funded by all U.S. taxpayers and U.S. laws governing its activities are quite specific that VOA content cannot be in favor or against any politician or group to influence U.S. politics.

Much of the Chinese and Iranian immigrant outrage against Bennett has been focused more on programming to China and Iran than on domestic politics, but Iranian critics in particular have accused Bennett of allowing a continuation of what they see as Iran regime propaganda formerly supported by the Obama administration–a charge confirmed by an independent study ordered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in 2017.

The agency’s name was changed in 2018 from the BBG to the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Former Democratic BBG Board Chairman Jeff Shell, the CEO for NBCUniversal who was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and was later named by him to chair the BBG Board, was reported to be doing substantial film and entertainment business with China while at the same time serving in his U.S. government media position.

While not illegal, business activities in China and in Russia by some of the past BBG Board Governors have worried human rights and media freedom activists because of their potential for conflicts of interest.

The Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for Global Media are now also more closely linked through past professional associations of their current and recent executives with some of the most liberal media outlets in the United States that it has ever been in its history. It was Jeff Shell who had recommended former  Bloomberg Media Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and NBC Universal executive Andy Lack to be BBG CEO, but only after a few weeks in in U.S. government job Lack departed when offered a much more attractive position as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, from which he has just resigned among several scandals. Next, Jeff Shell recommended John Lansing to become the agency’s CEO in 2015. The hiring of Amanda Bennett followed in 2016. Lansing resigned in September 2019 following his own multiple management scandals, some of them at VOA. Lansing was also a target of criticism by Chinese-American and Iranian-American journalists but not to the same extent as Amanda Bennett who is more closely linked with VOA. He left USAGM shortly after his chief strategy officer and close aide Haroon Ullah pled guilty to federal charges of stealing money from the agency. Lansing is now President and CEO at National Public Radio (NPR). Shell stopped being BBG chairman, as provided by law, after Donald Trump took office, but remained as one of BBG’s Democratic Governors. He left his BBG Board seat in September 2019 and continues in his private sector job as NBCUniversal CEO, but embattled Amanda Bennett still remains at the USAGM as VOA director. Her chief deputy, Sandy Sugawara, is also still at VOA. She had worked previously for The Washington Post and a digital news startup owned by The Washington Post/Graham Holdings Company. 

For years, Lansing, Bennett and Sugawara got to choose and promote administrators and journalists who agree with them, but Congress did not envision that they or any other group of government bureaucrats should be able to do this indefinitely. This is plainly not how the American system of government works in a democracy which holds regular free elections. The Voice of America may have already become a one-party enterprise with past and present links of its key leaders and journalists to NBC, CNN, The Washington Post and Democratic Party activists. Democrats would certainly not like it if Republicans tried to establish and maintain their control over the Voice of America over multiple election cycles regardless of their outcome and could potentially use VOA to influence domestic U.S. politics. It is a dangerous and unsustainable precedent, especially knowing that VOA is funded by all U.S. taxpayers. For one thing, it allows incompetent managers to stay in their positions permanently which is dangerous for national security in times of national and international emergencies such as the current coronavirus pandemic.

Under the old U.S. law, members of the bipartisan BBG Board of Governors were permitted to be partisan and to engage in business activities abroad, including business in countries such as China and Russia. A new bipartisan law on U.S.-funded international media, signed by President Obama in 2016, changed the previous arrangement which led to the current meltdown of good governance and accountability. A new agency CEO was supposed to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate and carry out management reforms. This has not yet happened four years into Trump’s presidency.

Business interests abroad of BBG Board members should be of slightly less concern now since they will only have an advisory role. They still, however, should be fully disclosed, and even better, carefully avoided. NBCUniversal’s corporate business activities in China while Jeff Shell served as in an executive role as the chief U.S. government official on the BBG Board totally escaped attention and scrutiny from mainstream U.S. media which focused its attention on Trump’s appointees and Russia.

Chinese-American journalists, however, have noted reports of Amanda Bennett’s husband’s business interests in China. Quite a few of their online comments referred to them in highly negative and sarcastic terms, but mainstream media have been uninterested in such family business links. One can only guess that if these were Trump appointees or their close family members doing business in China, such media interest would be intense.

It seems that for now only Chinese and Iranian immigrant communities and their refugee journalists have been paying any attention and expressing concerns about U.S. government-funded broadcasting to China and Iran and officials currently overseeing these broadcasts.

Immigrant criticism of Bennett’s performance as the VOA director came in the form of thousands of comments posted in foreign languages and in English on social media platforms over the last four years. The first major wave of public condemnations by Chinese immigrants started in late April and May 2017 after Bennett’s controversial decision to cut short a previously announced three-hour live interview with Chinese whistleblower businessman Guo Wengui, who was ready to disclose Chinese influence buying activities in the United States, and her subsequent move to punish several VOA Mandarin Service anti-communist journalists who disagreed with her decision on shortening the interview. Some of the journalists were later fired or received administrative punishment, which they are still appealing.

Bennett’s loyalists at the Voice of America did not support fired immigrant journalists while other VOA employees, especially those in foreign language services, seem too afraid to show open support for their punished Chinese-American colleagues. However, in 2017 one of the more courageous VOA Chinese women journalists who was not involved in the Guo Wengui controversy told Amanda Bennett to her face during a meeting in the VOA China Branch that Voice of America’s reputation was seriously damaged by her mishandling of the whistleblower interview.

I see the damage to our reputation. It’s unbelievable. I’ve been working here for 20 years and I have never seen such a PR crisis. Really. I have never seen anything like this. The anger and the frustration of our audience.

In early May 2017, Chinese-Americans and recent Chinese immigrants organized a demonstration in front of the Voice of America headquarters building in Washington, D.C. against Bennett and her decision to cut short the Guo Wengui interview and to punish VOA Mandarin Service anti-communist journalists. She claimed in public statements that her decision was not made under any pressure from the Chinese government and said that it was motivated only by her desire to uphold high journalistic standards. When Bennett said that “there was no pressure from China,” she was responding to a Chinese-American journalist who previously had worked for the New York Times bureau in Beijing and is a former political prisoner. Mainstream U.S. media have not done any follow ups on this story even after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The second wave of social media comments came after Bennett defended herself on Twitter from recent criticism by the White House and President Trump.

On April 9, 2020, the White House accused VOA of promoting Chinese regime propaganda and mentioned specifically one video played by VOA which showed the celebration in Wuhan, China, after what Chinese regime officials described as the end of the coronavirus epidemic in the city. VOA has posted also in recent weeks multiple raw footage videos featuring anti-U.S. propaganda and disinformation statements by Chinese government officials without adding to them balance or context. The other videos were not mentioned in the White House document, but using raw footage videos, including some from the Middle East showing burnings of American and Israeli flags, has been a common practice at VOA since Bennett became director in 2016. VOA has also been using Chinese government’s official COVID-19 data and presenting it in graphs and tables without any disclaimers.

Bennett responded in a tweet on the same day, “At the @VOANews, we love facts. The fact is Wuhan has ended their lockdown and this video shows exactly that.”

A U.S. based Twitter user, @ding_gang, with over 157 thousand followers, who posts tweets in both Chinese and English, wrote sarcastically in Chinese on April 10, 2020, “阿曼达居然说中共的宣传是事实,” “Amanda actually said that the CCP’s propaganda is a fact!”

Another Twitter user with over 14 thousand followers, @Jessie201907, who is listed as based in New York and also tweets in Chinese and English, commented on April 11 on Amanda Bennett’s Twitter account, @abennett, “VOA has become a propaganda tool of the CCP, can you give yourself some dignity?”

A Chinese protester at a mock funeral on May 8, 2017 at the Voice of America (VOA) headquarters building in Washington, DC.

With only a handful of exceptions among thousands of comments between 2017 and now, Chinese and Iranian immigrants have not come to Bennett’s defense. Frequent and harsh criticism from political refugees may be especially painful for Bennett who at the time of her appointment to her VOA job in 2016 announced to staff that “together with her husband, Donald Graham, she is a co-founder of TheDream.US, which provides college scholarships to the children of undocumented immigrants.”

Her statement included in her official Voice of America and USAGM bio–a public declaration of support by VOA director for a social and political cause which some Americans view as controversial and polarizing–was also unprecedented in VOA’s history, as was her 2016 e-mail to staff quoting an undocumented immigrant calling Donald Trump’s immigration policy plans as showing his “hate and prejudice” against immigrants.

Previous VOA directors refrained from making similar statements which might influence news coverage by VOA reporters. Also unprecedented for any VOA director prior to Bennett is the number of programming and management scandals uncovered and reported since she was appointed to her job in 2016 during the Obama administration, including multiple instances of VOA journalists making disparaging and sometimes obscene public comments about President Trump, his wife and his children. The language in some VOA programs produced under Bennett’s watch to describe a U.S. politician, including a video in which a Hollywood actor called Trump  “PUNK,” “DOG,” “PIG,” “CON,” “BULS**T ARTIST,” “MUTT,” “IDIOT,” “FOOL,” “BOZO,” AND “BLATANTLY STUPID,” has never been used without a clear explanation, a mandatory counter-argument and some balancing context under any VOA director before Bennett. The video, which was eventually removed by VOA after outside criticism, also condoned physical violence against an American political figure–yet another unprecedented change during Amanda Bennett’s tenure at VOA.

The extent of VOA’s partisan influence on U.S. elections, among English-speaking native-born Americans (much of online traffic for VOA English programming comes from the United States) and within ethnic communities which have U.S. voters who follow VOA programs in foreign languages has not been yet fully analyzed by any congressional committee or reported by any U.S. or foreign media. Attempts by VOA’s government official and employees to influence U.S. voters would be illegal under U.S. laws but proving it is practically impossible.

While intent to interfere with U.S. politics may not be easy to prove, even a simple search of the VOA English website for controversial political topics and figures shows that VOA is heavily biased against conservative U.S. politicians, mainstream conservative organizations and media, and conservative American voters. They get multiple times fewer quotes on the VOA website than their critics. Before leaving Congress in January 2019, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, revealed results of his staff’s investigation showing that VOA, at that time already under management by Amanda Bennett, was targeting Americans with illegal Facebook ads, but this congressional investigation did not look into domestic political impact of VOA programs on the web, including social media.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett meets Albanian President Ilir Meta in Tirana, September 2017.

While some of the individual programming and management scandals under Amanda Bennett’s watch, including more than a dozen VOA journalists being fired for allegedly taking bribes from a foreign government official, were briefly noted by a few mainstream media outlets at the time they happened, they were not mentioned in recent Washington Post, Politico, and Los Angeles Times reports and editorials about President Trump’s first public criticism of the Voice of America’s management. Bennett fired the alleged bribe takers, but continued to have meetings with controversial foreign politicians, which sent mixed signals to her staff. In their most recent coverage, media outlets ignored prior scandals associated with Bennett’s tenure at VOA and failed to take note of Chinese and Iranian political refugees’ unprecedented critical comments about the VOA director.

Also unprecedented in VOA’s history is public defense of any VOA director by his or her spouse. Amanda Bennet’s husband Donald E. Graham posted comments on Facebook praising his wife’s journalistic credentials and asserting that in her previous commercial media career she had done investigative reporting critical of the Chinese communist regime. He pointed out that the day before their wedding in 2012, Bennett published an unflattering report on the family of Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping which the regime did not want her then employer, Bloomberg, to publish. Graham is the majority owner and chairman of Graham Holdings Company, was formerly the publisher of The Washington Post (1979–2000), and later was the lead independent director of Facebook‘s board of directors (2009–2015). One of Graham Holdings Company’s sub-units, Kaplan, Inc., is reported to be doing an educational business in China. Graham wrote that his wife “has been a truthful reporter and editor, willing to stand up to the Chinese government (as the family of Xi Jinping will attest), at Bloomberg and at VOA.” It would have been more significant if Graham could point to any of his wife’s investigative reporting on China after they got married and after the Chinese government took revenge against Bloomberg.

Also unprecedented is public defense of the VOA director by a family friend. Colbert I. King, who identified as such, wrote in a Washington Post column that President Trump’s criticism of the Voice of America under Amanda Bennett’s watch “reeks of McCarthyism.” However, in his critical remarks on April 15, 2020, Trump did not mention Bennett by name. Some of Chinese and Iranian immigrants criticized Bennett in much harsher terms than those used by Trump. Also, the 2016 VOA-produced election campaign video attack on Trump posted online by VOA under Bennett’s directorship used much harsher expressions, more characteristic of McCarthyism, and much more hard-hitting than what Trump said about VOA. Bennett-Graham family friend may not have known that the first chief Voice of America news writer and editor was Howard Fast, future (1953) Stalin Peace Prize Winner, Communist Party USA activist and editor of the party’s newspaper The Daily Worker. He was recruited for his job by first VOA director John Houseman. Both were quietly forced to resign, not by Senator McCarthy, but by the liberal Roosevelt administration. Left-wing extremism at the Voice of America was far greater than any Right-wing influence in VOA’s history. Both should be avoided, as well as any managerial incompetence that would allow them to take hold within the U.S. government information agency.

Massive criticism of Director Bennett by Chinese and Iranian immigrants does not appear to be a phenomenon which can be only attributed to the emergence of social media because other VOA directors who already served in the era of the Internet had not experienced anything like the level of criticism she has received from not just one but at least two important immigrant and refugee communities. It also does not appear to be a single centrally coordinated online campaign against her. While many Chinese and Iranian Twitter users who criticize her cannot be easily identified, others post their real names and in some cases show tens of thousands of followers. It is possible that some of the negative comments may have come from friends and family members of the anti-communist VOA Mandarin Service journalists who were fired over their dispute with Bennett in 2017 or from supporters of Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui, but that would not explain all of the thousands of critical social media posts from members of some of VOA’s most important foreign and immigrant audiences.

Historically, Voice of America has been frequently criticized, especially by members of Congress of both parties, but no Voice of America director prior to Amanda Bennett who has been in her job since 2016, has been accused publicly in writing by any significant number of political refugees of allowing communist propaganda in VOA broadcasts, in this case to China, and also blamed for what these critics say is pro-regime propaganda in VOA programming to Iran.

In another first, refugees and immigrants from both groups posted their criticism in a single forum, which happened to be a series of Amanda Bennett’s own tweets in April 2020 defending her performance as the VOA director in media outreach to China. Although the vast majority of critical comments were from Chinese speakers, a few Iranian speakers also posted their criticism of her performance in this particular Twitter thread focused on China. While a few of the critics appear to be U.S. born Americans who are Trump supporters, the majority seem to be immigrants who may or may not be American citizens. Otherwise, Bennett’s tweets usually get practically no audience engagement.

Some past VOA directors were sometimes criticized for failing to make Voice of America programs sufficiently effective against communist propaganda, but we have not found any criticism of former VOA directors that even comes close to the intensity with which Chinese and Iranian immigrants attacked Amanda Bennett. Many of the comments blamed her for not only allowing VOA to repost Chinese propaganda videos but also for seeing nothing wrong with this practice and defending it with her tweets. Some of the critics appeared to be from Hong Kong. Past criticism from ethnic groups usually focused on VOA foreign language services and their chiefs, not VOA directors, but even then few if any VOA language chiefs were accused of reposting communist propaganda. Past criticism was usually about VOA being less than fully effective in opposing communism rather than being duped by communist disinformation.

The Trump White House specifically accused the Voice of America of promoting foreign propaganda, although Amanda Bennett’s name was not mentioned in the White House document or in President Trump’s comments about VOA. When she defended herself, some of the critical comments from Chinese and Iranian immigrants were far harsher than even President Trump’s remarks in which he said that some of VOA’s content about America is “disgusting” and “a disgrace.”

While Chinese and Iranian immigrants and refugees, as well as U.S.-born Chinese-Americans and Iranian-Americans have posted multiple comments highly critical of the VOA Director, they did not criticize the Voice of America as an institution. They understand that properly guided and managed, VOA has an important role to play in bringing information and hope to those who fight from freedom. It is not done by showing them Chinese government propaganda videos or posting online long quotes from Iranian clerics. Several expressed sadness saying that in their view that VOA stopped being a supporter of democracy. Some said that they used to follow VOA news about China but will no longer do so because of how VOA programming changed under Amanda Bennett’s watch.

Comments defending Bennett, such as the two we found among among several hundred negative ones in the latest Twitter thread, are extremely rare. She has been almost universally condemned by Chinese and Iranian immigrants who posted their comments.

Nearly all other comments are harshly critical of VOA Director Amanda Bennett. We have not reposted those with obscenities. Many Chinese and Iranian immigrants and refugees have called for her resignation as VOA director, which is another unprecedented development in VOA’s history. There have been no such previous massive calls from any immigrant groups for the resignation of a VOA director. Some of those who have called for her her resignation in the last few years include well-known Iranian and Chinese dissident refugee journalists, writers and poets.

New York, USA, 14.8K Followers

#براندازم ~ activist, analyst, public speaker, social entrepreneur ~ for a democratic Iran, 8,316 Followers

2,169 Followers

Translation: I am also from China. I know the CCP regime better than you. You have also betrayed your basic values. I started to pay attention to your programs and videos since I could cross the wall. But now I am going to give it the pass. You are no longer objective and independent for your own private interests.

69K Followers

TRANSLATION:Chinese Communist government exposed a plan on February 18th, The content says: At the beginning of March, the country had zero growth; At the beginning of April, Hubei grew by 0; In mid-April, Wuhan grew by zero. Everything is planned by the Communist Party #ccpvirus 0 growth. Director of Voice of America, if you believe you are the Communist Party of China!

On December 13, 2019, Mahtab Farid, an Iranian-born American journalist, well respected in Washington, DC, where she works as a journalist, posted her highly critical comments on Facebook about the Voice of America Persian Service, calling the current VOA leadership “corrupt.” She is one of many Iranians in Iran or in exile who have posted highly critical comments on social media about VOA’s coverage of the recent unrest in Iran.

In a comment addressed to Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, Farid wrote: “Your poor coverage of the protests in Iran have been beyond embarrassing.”

“When I joined U.S. Agency for Global Media – USAGM in 2001, as a young reporter, I was proud that I worked with editors who not only checked the accuracy of the news, they also checked the accuracy on policy and translation. Every news package was precise and backed with respected sources. Unfortunately, the current corrupt leadership at VOA has tarnished and destroyed the most effective public diplomacy tool of the US government in the absence of a diplomatic relation between the US and Iran. Watch this translation and you decide. If we censor the news in the US, how could we criticize the Iranian government?? This is all paid by your tax dollars. My opinions are my own and not the media outlets I work for.”

On November 27, 2019, the same Iranian-American reporter posted another critical comment in response to VOA Director Amanda Bennett’s video condemning the Iranian government for harassing journalists:

With all due respect Ms. Amanda Bennett, the Persian Service reporters haven’t left their desks for the recent unrest in Iran, so no need to worry. Your poor coverage of the protests in Iran have been beyond embarrassing. Please stop acting as if Persian service did something extraordinary.

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