COMMENTARY

By The Federalist

Is the Voice of America (VOA): “a service of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?” This question should never be asked, but it has been asked for quite some time in many comments posted by Chinese in China, by American Chinese and by US China experts. Many Iranians in Iran and abroad are also asking on Twitter if the Voice of America Persian Service is the voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. US Iran experts have asked the same question. One highly-respected US Russia expert observed on Twitter that the Voice of America employs some “cunningly pro-Kremlin reporters.” A US media report revealed that the Voice of America management employed until recently a TV contractor who prior to his hiring by VOA to host TV programs produced anti-US Russian propaganda videos with conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic overtones. In December 2017, VOA posted a number of raw footage videos showing burnings of US and Israeli flags without providing any balance or context in these propaganda videos. The Trump White House finally has had enough. In our view, much too late.

One of several Voice of america Raw Footage anti-US and anti-Israel propaganda videos produced and placed on social media by voa in December 2017.

In a rare but not unprecedented public rebuke of the Voice of America senior management, the White House did not say that VOA is a service of the PRC, because in its entirety it is not, but it pointed out in the official 1600 Daily White House newsletter that VOA has accepted and repeated without proper balance or challenge Chinese communist regime’s propaganda and disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

A White House Statement on foreign propaganda in voice of america programs. It was first published by the White House on April 9, 2020.

On the same day the White House issued its rebuke of the Voice of America, the VOA China Branch produced and put on the Internet at US taxpayers’ expense a two-minute video of pure Chinese communist government propaganda.

A Two-Minute Chinese government propaganda video produced by the china branch of the voice of america (VOA) in the $800 million (annual) U.S. agency for global media (USAGM) on April 9, 2020.

If nothing else, VOA Director Amanda Bennett, who was appointed to her position during the previous administration, has an uncanny knack for allowing herself to fall into a political pothole on almost anything having anything to do with the Chinese government. Some would point to an interview in April 2017 with Chinese businessman Guo Wengui who alleged corruption by Chinese government officials and wanted to expose to veteran anti-communist VOA Mandarin Service journalists Beijing’s influence buying operations in the United States. The live conversation with the whistleblower got cut off about midway, reportedly on orders from the VOA Director who claimed that the lengthy interview violated principles of good journalism.

Prior to the partial airing of the revelations of corruption and influence buying, the Chinese government made no secret that it took a dim view of the interview and the interviewee, leading to conclusions by many journalists and China experts that Beijing exerted pressure on the agency to kill or limit the interview. Amanda Bennett insisted that she was not acting under any pressure.

The VOA senior management’s subsequent reaction to its self-induced managerial fiasco was to fire and/or discipline some of the journalists in the VOA China Branch who wanted the interview to continue. Bennett accused some of them of insubordination, a charge these experienced journalists strenuously deny and continue to challenge firings and disciplinary actions taken against them. The Washington Post, the paper once owned by Bennett’s husband’s family, (he is reported to be doing now or until recently substantial corporate business in China) did not come to the defense of the fired and disciplined VOA Mandarin Service journalists as you would expect an American newspaper to do. To many critics, the treatment these journalists have received from senior Voice of America leaders was typical of a retaliatory response that appears to be a cornerstone of the agency’s management philosophy, especially when something blows up in the faces of its senior officials up on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.

Unavoidably, a perception has been created among many Chinese in China and in diaspora that the Chinese government “owns” VOA in ways both direct (banning VOA reporters from the country) and indirectly (causing VOA employees to be fired as a result of an unfavorable interview).

So now comes the COVID-19 virus which to all appearances originated in Wuhan Province in China at about the time of the Chinese Lunar New Year when Chinese in great numbers travel to and from the country. Like many others, VOA appears to have accepted the data coming from the Chinese government concerning the number of cases and the number of virus-related deaths. To be sure, VOA was not alone in this. In hindsight, the wiser course would have been to express each time a strong measure of skepticism, given the limitations, restrictions and isolation of Wuhan Province from outsiders and the inability to get independent confirmation. Instead, VOA even questioned Trump’s China travel ban, citing opinions of the World Health Organization (WHO) experts but without pointing out that the WHO and its Director have been under strong influence from Beijing.

Now, intelligence services are producing (or had already produced) analysis which indicates that the actual number of cases and deaths may in fact be substantially higher than numbers released by the Chinese government.

Coming as something of a surprise, the White House picked up on the VOA posting of an Associated Press (AP) story regarding the COVID-19 virus and its seeming buy-in to the public statements by the Chinese government. The White House characterized it as “Chinese propaganda.”

In short order, The Washington Post pounced, producing an editorial by its editorial board rushing to the defense of the VOA and its hapless director, decrying what it viewed as an attempt by the Trump administration to control VOA content.

In a separate news report, which besides the charges in the White House newsletter failed to quote any outside critics of the Voice of America management, The Washington Post quoted Amanda Bennett. The report did not mention that she had previously written for the paper.

Bennett defended VOA’s independence and categorically denied any favoritism.

“We have never promoted propaganda for anyone,” she said. “We cover stories from all different sides. That’s part of the reason we are so trusted by people around the world.”

“We have never promoted propaganda for anyone,” VOA Director Amanda Bennett said. “We cover stories from all different sides. That’s part of the reason we are so trusted by people around the world.”

Looking at this latest uproar in a broader view:

The VOA has become very reliant upon third party news items for its online content including this one which originated with the AP and was reposted by VOA on its English language website. VOA also posted on social media without balance, comment or context propaganda videos originated by third-party sources, in some cases by foreign governments.

That is part of the problem: origination. Appearing as it does on a VOA website, which we should be reminded is an agency of the US Government, inexorably creates a credibility linkage between these foreign sources and the agency. This can create a problem as it did in this case. It’s a ripple effect: elevating a story to higher visibility within the workings of the Federal Government.

Both BBGWatch and VOA (by way of Ms. Bennett), amplified their respective positions with links to various articles. A battle of opposing positions is on. Having the Post come to the defense of the agency’s position and role would seem to lend some weight to the VOA. But it doesn’t really. What it does is indirectly make the Post “played” by supposedly defending lofty journalistic ideals but otherwise ignoring a jaded record in an agency with serious underlying problems and officials insufficiently capable of dealing with them and failing to disclose their past links to the paper or any issues crying out for similar disclosure.

For any organization that purports to be reporting the news, a top priority should be source checking. And double checking. In recent years, VOA has drifted away from this and has become somewhat complacent with third parties filling up space on its websites. This sloppy journalism under the watch of Ms. Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, who also has past professionalisms links to The Washington Post, has already resulted in a rebuke from a foreign head of state, the President of Serbia.

Serbian president VUCIC criticized the voice of america for spreading false news. VOA apologized.

While himself being close to both Russia and China, he happened to be right in his accusation that the Voice of America produced false news about coronavirus deaths in his country. He complained that VOA helped to create panic and interference with the responses of government and medical emergency personnel. VOA apologized, which did not prevent Ms. Bennett in continuing to produce PR showing that she has been doing an outstanding job.

The United States and China have an estranged relationship. It manifests itself in one way by declaring “journalists” from either country as “foreign agents:” meaning, representing a foreign government.

And it applies just as much to what information shows up in AP reports. We’re not suggesting that AP is a mouthpiece for the Chinese government; but like VOA, it is just as difficult for the AP to get independent confirmation or rebuttal of information supplied by the Chinese government. However, the standard for taxpayer-funded Voice of America is much higher than it is for AP. The Voice of America must operate in all of its reporting according to the VOA Charter, which is US law.

Unfortunately, it seems that one thing that slips out of consciousness is that China is ruled by a communist government that does not subscribe to transparency.

In today’s world verify with multiple source confirmation or suffer the consequences.

The “Other Issue”

Amanda Bennett is a holdover appointment from the Obama administration. Some sarcastically characterize Ms. Bennett as “VOA director for life,” having far outlived politically the Obama administration under which she was appointed. Too long in the position in the view of some. It now looks like one party rule.

Sitting in the wings cooling his heels is Michael Pack the individual twice nominated by the White House to be the next chief executive officer of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM or U-SAG-M as I like to call it) of which VOA is a part.

The Washington Post editorial opines that Pack intends to “clean house.” We don’t know what Mr. Pack specifically has in mind but one might surmise the probability that the Bennett regime may be on the list heading for the exits of the Cohen Building. The editorial said nothing about the earlier finings in the VOA Mandarin Service. Did Ms. Bennett “clean house” as well and continues to hire employees who agree with her? The Washington Post did not ask such obvious questions.

There have been numerous examples of VOA running into trouble under Bennett’s tenure, often reported in the posts by BBG Watch. That would be reason enough to want to make a change. It would be clearly within Pack’s authority to want to make a fresh start and find someone untainted by an embarrassing and spotty record at best.

One thing that recently stands out in our mind more than this latest China debacle is a horrid YouTube video appearing to show various VOA personnel attempting to film reports from their homes in rudimentary production efforts while quarantined because of the COVID-19 virus. One wonders who came up with this bright idea. Was it a production of an outside PR company and was a PR company hired to target American media with this video? One also wonders who reviewed the piece before uploading it to YouTube. Clearly, there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking about how this video would be perceived by a host of international broadcasters like the BBC, Deutsche Welle, RT and others, including the Chinese! It makes the VOA look like marginal operation even considering the current emergency and various restrictions, with no real professional guidance or leadership. Rather than honoring, it mostly embarrasses the agency employees. It has been and continues to be painful to watch.

In short, for an award-winning professional documentary producer like Pack, this may be an absolute rock bottom made worse by featuring Bennett herself from her library.

But let’s return to The Washington Post for a moment:

It’s no secret that the Post has a Leftist-leaning anti-Trump bias. There are also media outlets with a Rightist-leaning pro-Trump bias. Very few media outlets are truly objective and guard against all forms of bias and partisanship. Begin with a line just below The Washington Post’s masthead. Between the weather report for the day and the price of the newspaper, there is the line, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” appearing on the paper about the time Trump assumed the presidency…as if the Post is the sole determiner of how “democracy” dies and what constitutes “darkness.” In my view, it is a not-so-subtle bit of fear-mongering. The other side on the political spectrum does this as well.

As we have seen in previous Post stories about VOA, it is quick to drum up anti-Trump hysteria along the lines as seen in this story: that Trump would turn the agency into a propaganda ministry for his administration. The National Public Radio (NPR) report on the White House newsletter charge against VOA was somewhat more balanced, quoted an outside critic of VOA’s senior management, and included a disclosure.

DISCLOSURE: NPR CEO John Lansing is the former CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. No NPR executive had prior knowledge of this story or reviewed it before it was publicly posted. It was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR technology and media editor Emily Kopp.

The Post offered no disclosures and referred to VOA as a congressionally funded agency. However, the Post neglected to point out that the agency is part of the Executive Branch of US government, not the Legislative Branch: which means the agency falls under the White House on a US Government organizational chart. 

To an observer, nearing the end of a first term the Trump administration has shown little urgency in doing anything with this agency. Its dismal record and dysfunction have largely been ignored. The White House has its own Internet and social media operation independent of and not dependent at all upon VOA. But the AP report appearing on the VOA English language website was something that the White House chose not to ignore.

In commenting on the White House reaction, VOA director Bennett stated, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you what prompted it…I don’t actually know. It just came out of the blue.”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you what prompted it,” said Amanda Bennett, VOA’s director. “I don’t actually know. It just came out of the blue.”

If one chooses to single out a wholly disingenuous statement regarding the agency, this Bennett comment would have to be close to the top. There are plenty of reasons and this may have been a final straw in cumulative effect.

The Post, and others, conveniently ignore the agency’s record before Trump assumed the presidency. It has consistently been ranked as one of the worst agencies in the Federal government. It has been described as “dysfunctional and practically defunct” and that coming from a Democrat, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And as the Bennett era has shown, the agency apparently intends to expand and build upon this legacy helped in large part by a wholly incompetent and inept bureaucracy which wears its record like a badge of honor.

It should also be noted that VOA established its anti-Trump bias before Trump was elected. As BBG Watch has pointed in its watchdog commentaries, Trump was crudely pummeled in a video featuring actor Robert DeNiro appearing on a VOA website during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Voice of america ukrainian service video with ukrainian subtitles produced during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. the Video was eventually deleted by voa after it was criticized for violating the voa Charter.

Trump was also depicted by a VOA News reporter on a public personal Facebook page featuring the reporter’s VOA work with the Nazi swastika superimposed on his image and in another instance, pictured as the male genitalia. It should also be remembered that VOA newsroom employees viciously lampooned Trump, Mrs. Trump and their family during its annual “VOA Follies” production before Trump was sworn in…something which observers remark would never have been done with the Obama administration. All of this happened under Ms. Bennett’s watch.

Seen in its entirety, one can legitimately question why the same agency leadership is still in charge. While the agency’s mission as codified under the VOA Charter remains valid, its performance under Bennett is wholly off the rails.

Thus, the Washington Post editorial should be seen for what it is: a sterling example of propaganda for the failed leadership of an agency with a growing reputation for being less of an asset to the United States in quite a few of its news operations and much more of a liability.

The Federalist

April 2020

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