BBG Watch Commentary
Senior management of the Voice of America (VOA) and its parent agency, the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) still run by Obama Administration holdover appointees, VOA Director Amanda Bennett and USAGM CEO John F. Lansing, confirmed today its earlier decision to fire VOA Mandarin Chief Dr. Sasha Gong over a dispute on the handling of April 19, 2017 interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui. The decision can still be appealed to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
A letter from the agency to Sasha Gong, dated November 29, 2018, informing her of the management’s decision to fire her, was signed by Grant Turner, Acting Deputy Director, U.S. Agency for Global Media. His official USAGM bio says that he also serves as Chief Financial Officer but does not show any prior experience in journalism or on China.
Mr. Turner’s letter to Dr. Gong, copy of which BBG Watch received from inside the agency sources, stated in part:
“After a careful review of all available information and consideration of relevant legal precedence, I have decided to sustain your removal from your position as Supervisory International Broadcaster “Mandarin”, GS-101-14, and from the Federal Service. Your actions were intentional, unforgettable [sic] and harmful to the well-being of the Agency. A Federal agency cannot function or carry out its mission if its supervisors ignore or refuse to hear instructions given by the uppermost and most senior employees of the agency.”
In his letter, Mr. Turner refers to “unforgettable” [sic] actions allegedly taken by Dr. Gong. BBG Watch was told that Dr. Gong categorically denies all the charges and that she and her lawyer are preparing a response and consider holding a press conference in Washington in the next few days.
BBG Watch also learned that Mr. Guo Wengui was not surprised by today’s decision by VOA management against Dr. Gong. Guo Wengui reportedly sees it as being characteristic of VOA senior management’s earlier censorship of him and his live interview. VOA Director Amanda Bennett denies that Mr. Guo was censored or that pressure from the Chinese government played any role in the senior management’s editorial decisions regarding Mr. Guo’s interview.
BBG Watch also learned from inside the agency sources that the VOA English newsroom requested an interview with Sasha Gong who responded that she has to consult with her attorney.
VOA English newsroom suffered another debacle today when it failed to report promptly on President Trump’s decision to cancel his planned G-20 meeting with Russia’s President Putin over Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine. The Kremlin media, RT and SPUTNIK, had the news almost immediately after President Trump’s tweet about the cancelation of the meeting.
VOA and USAGM have been plagued by numerous scandals under the watch of Amanda Bennett and John Lansing.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett sent out today the following message to staff:
From: Amanda Bennett
Sent: Thursday, November 29, 2018 11:32 AM
To: VOA Notices; IBB Notices Admin; BBG Networks
Subject: VOA MANDARIN SERVICE
Voice of America has today removed one Mandarin Service employee and given a period of suspension to another. Both actions relate to the April 19, 2017, Mandarin service interview with Guo Wengui—a Chinese business tycoon who later became a political activist—that was abruptly terminated.
The actions follow four independent investigations that all concluded the interview’s termination was a result of VOA leadership’s attempt to enforce previously agreed-upon journalistic standards. The investigations found no evidence to support allegations that pressure from the Chinese government, purportedly driven by “spies” within VOA, had caused the termination.
Rather, the investigations upheld the actions by VOA leadership, concluding that the unprofessional abrupt termination resulted from a series of apparent failures to follow explicit instructions from management and good journalistic practices.
The failure to comply with leadership’s instructions during the Guo interview “was a colossal and unprecedented violation of journalistic professionalism and broadcast industry standards,” concluded one outside report by Professor Mark Feldstein, Richard Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a journalist with decades of experiences as an award-winning television investigative reporter.
In this era of so-called “fake news” and interference by authoritarian governments into the workings of the global free press, allegations of outside tampering with content are very serious and have the potential to undermine the credibility of VOA, whose charter requires that it “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”
Thus, VOA and USAGM management immediately launched independent investigations. In accordance with Federal laws and regulations, five members of the broadcast team were placed on leave with full pay and benefits while the matter was under investigation.
VOA decided to take the disciplinary action against the two following a review of the evidentiary record, which included the Mandarin Service broadcast team members’ written and oral replies to the charges against them. Disciplinary proceedings against the other two Service members for alleged improper conduct are continuing in accordance with applicable Federal laws and regulations. No determinations have been made with respect to the charges against them. On August 30, 2017, one member of the broadcast team returned to work from leave after a comprehensive investigation concluded that this person had a minor role in the proceedings.
The investigations included:
o A three-month administrative inquiry conducted by outside counsel, which included 23 interviews with key members of VOA leadership and the Mandarin Service; a comprehensive document review, including contemporaneously prepared witness statements; and the preparation of an 85-page report, which detailed the events leading up to the Guo interview in nearly minute-by-minute detail. The investigation found sufficient factual evidence to conclude that the broadcast’s termination resulted from repeated failures to follow VOA management instructions and a disregard of VOA’s journalistic Best Practices guide.
o An internal security review, which rebutted unsubstantiated allegations that elements of the Chinese government had infiltrated VOA and compelled the interview to be censored or cut short. The security review found no evidence to support these allegations.
o Several Members of Congress also requested the Office of Inspector General perform an impartial and thorough investigation. The OIG concluded that the decision to curtail the Guo interview was based solely on journalistic best practices rather than any pressure from the Chinese government.
o The expert witness analysis by Professor Feldstein of the School of Journalism at University of Maryland, College Park. Professor Feldstein concluded that “VOA’s senior management did its best to make decisions consistent with journalism’s best practices and industry standards,” and “was not improperly influenced by the Chinese government or anyone else.” Based on his review of the evidentiary record he also issued the following opinion:
o There had been “a grossly negligent approach” to pre-interview vetting and failure to “corroborate the authenticity of Guo’s evidence or interview other sources” in violation of industry standards.
o The interview team apparently “demonstrated greater loyalty to its source than to its employer—at the expense of basic journalistic standards of accuracy, verification, and fairness.”
The details of the broadcast in question are as follows:
On April 19, 2017, members of VOA’s Mandarin Service conducted a live televised interview with Chinese political activist Guo Wengui. Guo, who has lived in self-imposed exile in New York since 2015, is an active critic of the Chinese government, alleging corruption and political persecution on the part of its leaders. While many of his allegations have proved correct, others have proved impossible to verify.
In light of Guo’s reputation, VOA leadership had concerns about the Mandarin interview team’s initial proposal to conduct a three-hour long live interview with Guo. A live interview of this length, VOA leadership believed, would increase the likelihood that accusations would be broadcast without the opportunity to vet the accusations for accuracy or giving the other side the opportunity to respond—a clear breach of journalistic ethics. Consequently, VOA leadership issued specific instructions to the interview team to (1) limit the interview to no more than one hour, (2) prohibit any extension of the interview over social media, and (3) prohibit any use of unverified documentation or materials during the broadcast. (4) continue to tape the interview for as long as necessary to produce material for later, properly vetted, broadcast.
Despite these specific and repeated instructions, the Guo interview continued past the one-hour mark through use of a social media livestream. During the interview, recordings provided by Guo that had never been authenticated were played.
The VOA Charter mandates that VOA “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” VOA internal guidance explains that “[t]he accuracy, quality and credibility of the Voice of America are its most important assets,” such that “VOA employees should carry out their work with the utmost professionalism.”
VOA employees are required by law to conduct their work in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism. A failure to perform necessary diligence prior to a controversial and sensitive interview, and disregard of managerial instructions issued in accordance with best practices and industry standard, violates this directive.
The integrity and reliability of VOA’s journalism is of paramount concern to VOA leadership, as evinced by the exhaustive investigation undertaken in this case. While disciplinary action is always regrettable, VOA believes it to be both necessary and appropriate in these cases.
Amanda Bennett, Director
330 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20237
Voice of America is an international
broadcaster reaching 85 countries in
more than 40 languages via television,
radio, web and mobile. VOA has a
weekly audience of nearly 237 million
people and transmits programs through
a global network of more than 2,400
local TV and radio affiliates.
Employees have a human right to be treated with dignity and respect!
In an attempt to defend herself, Dr. Gong released a statement she had made to agency officials a few weeks ago:
DR: SASHA GONG, VOA MANDARIN SERVICE CHIEF: “I understand that this is not a courtroom. However, we have lawyers here, and a deciding officer who will judge me. My professionalism, my character, my honor, and my integrity are on the line.
My relationship with Voice of America began in 1971, when I was 15 years old. I first heard the Yankee-Doodle opening through a primitive crystal radio, assembled by my 13-year-old brother. At the time, listening to VOA was deemed a crime by the Chinese government. Many people went to jail for doing so, some even lost their lives. I wrote a chapter on secret listening to VOA in my 2009 book, Born American. In fact, I did go to jail for a year for participating in the dissident movement. Among the first questions of my interrogator was “Did you listen to enemy radio?” My answer was a proud yes, because at the time, VOA was a major source for people like me to obtain truth in communist China.
That is why when VOA offered me the position of China Branch director in 2011, I accepted without hesitation. Under my leadership, the audience size in China jumped from less than 2 million to 24.3 million in three years.
Since you don’t work in the news business or in the China study field, you might not really know me or my reputation. I am a humble person, and normally do not yank my credentials in front of strangers. However, you are the judge, the jury, and the executor here, I feel that I am obligated to give you some background information about me.
I am a renowned journalist, a well-known scholar, and a published author. 11 books carried my name as the author. Three of them are national best-sellers in China. Hundreds of my articles appeared in many major publications in Chinese and in English, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the South China Morning Post. Well, I also earned a PhD from Harvard.
I decided to work for Voice of America because, when I grew up, VOA was a bright star in the forever dark night of communist totalitarianism. I am willing to put my talent and sweat to advance its mission – promoting democracy and freedom around the world. My responsibility is first and foremost to my audiences, and to the American taxpayers.
That was why, on April 18, 2017, I fiercely disagreed with the suggestion from the VOA top management to cancel the Guo Wengui interview. It made zero sense to me that VOA would cave when facing vicious pressure from the totalitarian Chinese government. To me, we, the VOA journalists, should be the front line soldiers in guarding press freedom.
You have seen the evidence. You know for a fact that Sandy Sugawara, the acting VOA director, called the Chinese embassy to discuss the Guo interview. Such an act, a clear deviation from the journalistic principles, showed her true concern about the Chinese threat.
After the phone call, she, together with other top managers, wanted to cancel the interview. I could hear the panic in their voices when they called me and my colleagues that night. Yet, they were such cowards that they dared not to give a direct order. They knew how bad it looked to the public if a well-promoted and widely-expected program was canceled or cut short in the last minute. They were hoping for me to cave to them and to violate my journalistic principle and my duty to my audience. But I stood firm and argued against this effort to curtail the interview and lost credibility to our audience. For that, I am very proud of myself.
All evidence points at that the Chinese government was using all the means it controlled to shut Guo up and shut the VOA interview down, including arresting his brothers and daughter, issuing an arrest warrant in China and a red notice via Interpol 12 hours ahead of our interview, harassing my family, and threatening VOA. Remember, all these happened in two days prior to our interview.
VOA management used its power to persecute me and my colleagues. We were threatened to be fired. We were defamed in the national and international press. I was identified by VOA in its press release and by the VOA director in the Wall Street Journal as the responsible party of the Guo interview debacle. We were attacked by mobs via social media. We received more than one death threat.
Meanwhile, my family and friends in China have constantly been harassed by the Chinese police since the Guo interview. Many of my friends, who spread the words of Guo, were arrested. One, Dr. Liu Pengfei, remains in jail for more than one year.
Is one interview worth that much trouble? I often asked myself. After careful consideration, I gave myself a positive answer. I have two reasons.
First, I have been a soldier in the epic fight against communist dictatorship and for freedom and democracy since I was 17. I spent my 21stbirthday in jail. I am used to being shot by the Chinese authorities. There is a price to pay to be a freedom fighter and a truth-seeker.
Anyone who read the news would understand that the United States is now engaged in an information war with dictatorships around the world, especially with the powerful Chinese regime. Just listen to the speech of Vice President Pence in Hudson Institute last week.
Being stabbed in the back, I am a casualty in this war. I am honored to be one in serving my country.
Second, like any soldier in any brutal war, I am also fighting for my band of brothers. Those who stabbed me in the back also went after the best journalists in my team. Four of them were placed on administrative leave. Two were proposed to be fired. These great journalists did nothing but their jobs. They followed the original interview plan, which was the only plan they knew. If you find any fault, let it be mine, and mine alone.
These journalists devoted most of their professional lives to VOA. Since VOA is labeled by the Chinese government as an “enemy entity”, they will never be able to find another comparable job in today’s Chinese-language media where the Chinese government controls almost everything. They will have difficulties to pay their mortgages, child support, and children’s tuition. For what? I will mortgage my house and my 401K, and spend whatever savings I have, to defend these great men and their honor, their integrity, and their professionalism, in court, and in public eyes. You can take it to the bank.
To those VOA managers who first caved to the Chinese pressure, and then scapegoated the fine journalists to cover up their shameful act by claiming “insubordination”, I have a message. God may forgive you. I will not.
For years to come, I will put my energy and my intelligence to disclose the truth to the American public. I will write. I will publish articles and books. I will produce documentaries and movies. I will talk to everyone in Congress and anyone I can find in the administration. I will make exposing them my life mission regardless of the cost, because freedom and truth are priceless.”