GUEST BBG – USAGM WATCH COMMENTARY
Silencing Steve Bannon
By Sasha Gong
It is hard to imagine anyone being able to shut him up, but U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) in the hands of Obama-era appointees did, at least to China. See: “USAGM and Voice of America: The Case of the Disappeared — and Delayed — Steve Bannon Interview.” Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House strategist, is now acting as a free agent. He travels within the 50 states, and in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, to promote his “populist nationalist movement”. He meets with protesters and hostile reporters. He was invited – and sometimes disinvited – to appear in dozens of international forums. Often dressing like an unmade bed, he gives lengthy speeches to large audiences. The ex-chairman of Breitbart News is a brilliant orator with deep thoughts, representing an important trend in contemporary American political thinking. When he speaks, people pay attention.
One of the main themes in Bannon’s speeches is China. While working as an investment banker, Bannon lived in Shanghai for a while. As a China expert, I have pored over dozens of China studies, in both English and Chinese. Bannon, in my opinion, understands communist China profoundly. More importantly, his ideas have been accepted and implemented by the Trump administration. Like him or not, agree with him or not, he is consequential.
When I heard that Bannon had recorded a one-hour video interview with the Voice of America Mandarin Service for a show to commemorate the forty-year anniversary of the normalization of the US-China relationship, I felt thrilled that his ideas would be presented to the Chinese people in their own language.
The interview was conducted five months ago. The anniversary had long passed. Nothing of the Bannon interview came out. Other interviews for the same project were aired in the form of q&a or as special reports, including those in favor of the Chinese Communist Party. When Bannon called VOA to inquire, he got the answer: his words were too biased against the Chinese communists. They would not be put on air; may be a clip or two would be used, but even that is uncertain.
Bannon seemed to be a little shocked when he revealed the incident to the public. I was not. For the past few years, it is the official policy of the VOA leadership that the Mandarin Service must “balance” its news coverage by putting on air more “pro-China” voices. According to sources inside VOA, the current China Branch director does not speak Chinese and has no experience working on China issues. He was appointed in 2018 by VOA director Amanda Bennett. It is not clear who had ordered to hold up the Bannon interview. An attempt to get an official response from VOA management was met with silence.
Giving authoritarian governments in the target areas more voice to “balance” programs has been the official VOA policy under Bennett’s leadership. Journalists in the VOA Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and in other services have been complaining for years about the pro-regime bias, as do the audiences and diaspora members in the United States. According to her bio on the agency’s website, Bennett is married to Donald Graham, the Washington Post’s powerful former owner. He is reported to have extensive business interests in communist China.
As a dictatorship, the Chinese communist government owns the domestic media market. In recent decades, it has acquired more and more platforms abroad to voice its interests. The Hoover Institution issued an extensive study in November 2018, titled “Chinese Influence and American Interests”. The 213-page report, signed off by 32 top China specialists, detailed a multi-billion-dollar effort by the CCP to monopolize the Chinese media outlets in every diaspora community. The so-called Grand External Propaganda Campaign bought out or established media organizations, which saturated the once-diverse overseas Chinese-language media with lies and biased opinions.
Voice of America, unfortunately, is also a target of influence from Beijing. Some of the past and at least one current member of the U.S. government board that oversaw the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and now serving in an advisory capacity, have had significant business ties with China. Some of the former BBG members also did business in Russia.
Journalists with Chinese ethnic backgrounds and their family members are routinely harassed by the Chinese government. A VOA anchor was denied visa to visit his family last year. Many journalists, when visiting China, were summoned by the secret police. They are warned “not to be an enemy” of the communist state, otherwise they and their families will suffer. Consequently, some VOA reporters refused to write on “sensitive” topics after coming back from China.
Bureaucrats in the agency are also determined to kill the once hard-hitting programs by directing more resources to produce “soft” content in an attempt to gain a larger market share in China. When I joined VOA in August 2011, the most-promoted feature of the VOA China Branch was “OMG Meiyu,” a five-minute daily show to teach American slang, such as “yacky gunk”. The latest fashion is to tell stories about Chinese investors in the US by showing that their efforts are saving American jobs.
Meanwhile, programs branded “anti-China” have been put on the chopping block. For instance, History’s Mysteries, a popular documentary film series launched in 2012 exposing China’s communist history, was canceled after the Chinese Embassy in Washington raised objections. And, of course, there was the infamous unplugging of the Guo Wengui interview in 2017. The VOA management talked on the phone with the Chinese Embassy before deciding to shorten the previously announced three-hour live program. There appears to be no “firewall” between the VOA management and the Chinese Embassy. As the then director of the VOA Mandarin Service, I and my colleagues arranged for the live interview with Guo Wengui, but we were later ordered by the management to shorten the live program. I was subsequently fired. Some of my colleagues in the Mandarin Service were placed on forced leave with pay. Chinese social media exploded with negative comments about the shortening of the interview.
No wonder the Chinese audience is abandoning VOA. A recent official survey inside China could not find even one listener or viewer of VOA radio or TV programs. (In the 2014 survey, 12 were found among 3000 people.) The ship of VOA is sinking.
Will the silencing of Steve Bannon be the last straw?
Sasha Gong, PhD, served as VOA China Branch Director and Mandarin Service Director. She is now an independent scholar and journalist living in Virginia. Views expressed are those of the author.