The extraordinary leadership dysfunction at USAGM, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, continues under former Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett who is now USAGM CEO.

A Commentary by The Federalist

Former Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett was confirmed by the U.S Senate on September 22nd (the vote was 60 to 36) as the next CEO of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), even though her tenure as VOA director was a travesty marked by myriad problems and scandals that were chronicled by BBG Watch and its successor, USAGM Watch.

The Voice of America has been broadcasting for over 80 years, but during the first 50 or even 60 years of its existence, any VOA director under whose tenure more than a dozen VOA journalists took bribes from a foreign politician, a VOA director who met with a foreign politician who openly tried to interfere in U.S. elections, a VOA director who was there when one-sided partisan U.S. presidential election campaign videos were broadcast by VOA, and a VOA director who was there when former Russian state media employees with a history of anti-U.S. and anti-Ukraine propaganda were hired without proper vetting, would have lost his or her job. Amanda Bennett, whose Voice of America tour saw all of these scandals, was nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the USAGM CEO. It shows how little the agency means to the Washington establishment, and how irrelevant it has become.

None of the missteps came as a surprise. It all started with Bennett’s declaration shortly after arriving at VOA in 2016 that the agency bureaucracy was a “fantastic leadership team” [emphasis added] when the record shows it was and is now anything but fantastic, except as a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

Now, Bennett has released a statement in the form of a message to employees, in which she could barely contain her enthusiasm, contributing to the fiction of the agency’s impact in global media.

The USAGM mission statement claims that its operations are “in support of freedom and democracy.” If so, the agency is an unmitigated failure going back to Bennett’s VOA tour.

In part, she remarks,

I have watched how you have brought truthful, trustworthy, factual news to places that would have no other access to it – From the coup in Myanmar to the frantic efforts to get as many of our colleagues in Afghanistan to safety as possible to the street protests in Cuba.  From the invasion of Ukraine (where we saw in real time how truthful information could influence the course of history) to this week’s protests in Iran (with all the implications for the Middle East and the rest of the world) where we see the increasingly sophisticated ways authoritarian governments are closing their information space….

Now, let’s talk about reality:

Read how the Voice of America English downplayed the recent Cuban protests (after Bennett’s tenure but under the watch of key members of her “leadership team”) and how VOA glorified Fidel Castro in 2016 during Bennett’s tenure.

This agency has had no forward momentum when it comes to being “in support of freedom and democracy.” In fact, as world events indicate, momentum is in favor of non-democratic events:

  • In Myanmar.
  • In Afghanistan.
  • in China.
  • In Cuba.
  • In Russia.
  • In Iran and the Middle East.

In short, Bennett’s agency-wide announcement is an exercise in a self-serving promotion. Facts don’t back her up, except for one:

…we see the increasingly sophisticated ways authoritarian governments are closing their information space….

The one, probably unintentional kernel of truth.

Let’s review:

Myanmar. The Burmese military which took control after a coup in 2021, remains in power. This has dropped off the global news radar. “Supporting freedom and democracy” in Burma and elsewhere is risky business: the risk of losing your life. This is not to say that the Burmese people are happy with the status quo. But the realization is that the rest of the world is not likely to come to the rescue of Burmese democracy advocates. The name of the game is survival. The Burmese people know what they are dealing with and are likely following the sage advice to choose your battles with the lowest level of risk of imprisonment or death.

During Bennett’s VOA tenure, she made a big deal out of a so-called documentary regarding the displaced Rohingya people, and an initiative to make it easier for displaced people in camps to hear VOA programming.  She even got a trip at taxpayer expense to view the camps.  Has anyone heard any good news regarding the Rohingya since that documentary? Well, no.

Afghanistan. Bennett is so proud of herself that she couldn’t help but expound on Afghanistan. In the process, she exposes herself and the agency to some serious scrutiny and questions. The United States and coalition forces were in Afghanistan for over 20 years. This included local broadcast services of USAGM: in Dari, Farsi, and Pashto language services, and Urdu in neighboring Pakistan.

How is it that in the reports filed by these services virtually no one saw or predicted the resilience of the Taliban, its alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist organizations, and, most importantly, its positioning to overrun the country?

A serious examination of broadcasts by USAGM needs to be conducted, complete with translations and interviews with staff to ask exactly what they were doing supposedly “in support of freedom and democracy.” Keep in mind too that Bennett was the head of VOA for part of the time of U.S involvement in Afghanistan and broadcast content during her tenure.

And then there is the matter of the precipitous rout of the U.S, including scenes at Kabul International Airport and the discarding of the more secure Bagram Airbase.

In the process, Bennett’s proteges, Kelu Chao and Yolanda Lopez, effectively presided over the abandonment of 500+ agency contractors, and dependents to a fate unknown.

Chao and acting VOA director Lopez are still agency officials. They have not been held accountable for their actions or lack thereof. Chao and Lopez have looked away from this disaster, in part for their own self-preservation. It is likely that Bennett will do the same.

China. During Bennett’s tenure, the Voice of America lost much of its audience and credibility in China because of the Guo Wengui interview scandal. She and her senior staff refused to take responsibility for it and blamed lower-ranking managers and broadcasters, some of whom were fired. The reaction in China and among the Chinese diaspora was overwhelmingly negative toward the VOA management.

Cuba. Not much has changed in Cuba “in support of freedom and democracy” except that the island has been ferociously pounded by Hurricane Ian. The Cubans have plenty on their hands. That is not to say the Cuban people don’t want to see an end to the excesses of the Cuban regime but getting there is not going to be via the officials on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building who are in charge of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Voice of America.

Russia. There is no press freedom in Russia, but there is plenty of pro-war propaganda and disinformation from the Kremlin-controlled state media. Putin’s supporters rely on state media. Pro-democracy Russians, in Russia and in exile, rely on independent Russian media sources such as MEDUZA, which is based abroad. USAGM broadcasts have little to do with influencing events. In Ukraine, the Russians have encountered stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces. This is due in no small measure to the billions of dollars in military hardware and other assistance provided by the United States and NATO countries. That’s where the proverbial rubber meets the road, not USAGM broadcasts. Even so, the Russians have conducted referendums in the Ukrainian territory under their control seeking to break it illegally from being a part of Ukraine. The overall situation remains in doubt with grave and perhaps unknown consequences. But, even with the ongoing hostilities, the Ukrainian government is capable of getting its own news, information, and messaging out to its people and the rest of the world without USAGM.

Iran and the Middle East. Oh, no. Raising the ghost of the alleged “Arab Spring.” Yes, certain segments of the Iranian people have visibly protested the actions of the Iranian government, but they remember that under Amanda Bennett the Voice of America, including its Persian Service, became an advocate for the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the Iranian regime and limited reporting on anti-regime protests and human rights violations. During Bennett’s tenure, VOA lost much of its former audience in Iran.

The Underlying Flaws

The strategic outlook of the agency, whether Bennett or her “fantastic leadership team”, is fundamentally flawed. It is flawed on two levels.

First, there is an undertone of a superiority complex, meaning that the agency still acts like this is the Cold War and they are one of if not the ONLY show around. That hasn’t been the case for virtually all of the 21st century. There are countless other media actors competing for the attention of global audiences. Even non-government-originated broadcasters have the capability of reaching foreign audiences in far greater numbers than VOA, not only by direct broadcasts but also by Facebook, YouTube, and other available sources. And some of these operate 24/7 or in real-time applications that do not apply to USAGM broadcasts. One can see the result by viewing USAGM content on these platforms. More often than not, the views or likes of USAGM offerings are anemic.  It’s an embarrassment.

The even more serious flaw is the notion of “supporting freedom and democracy” as a code phrase for nation-building. It doesn’t work very well and likely doesn’t gain a self-supporting foothold in countries without much experience in Western-style democracy. Worse is the lack of resolve demonstrated by Western governments, including the United States, to stay the course. “Stay the course” means in part understanding one’s adversaries especially those who have a strategic outlook of “war without end” – to outlast foreign powers and foreign cultural influences, as demonstrated clearly in Afghanistan.

Political change is an evolutionary process. It is not an overnight phenomenon. “Freedom and democracy” didn’t last long in the broader scheme of things as in Afghanistan and it didn’t last long in Russia either. In Afghanistan, the strong cultural underpinning is tribal loyalty. In Russia, it has been an autocratic government coupled with a strong distrust of the West by a segment of the population.

As long as people like Bennett and others inside USAGM continue with their largely false claims of success, the mission of the agency is and will continue to be a failure.

With one exception:

This mantra sounds really good when addressing members of Congress, which to this point shows a blind willingness to continue to provide funding to this agency with every annual budget cycle without demanding effective oversight and accountability. 

The truth of the agency’s failure is apparent every day in world events. It’s Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. But that’s the problem: the result is the same.

But inside the Cohen Building, one might make the argument that the bureaucrats are thrilled with embracing the failure result. It guarantees that they are one step closer to a nice federal retirement while bilking the American taxpayer who knows little and sees even less relevance in this arcane federal agency.

Don’t expect any sea change in the agency with Bennett at the helm.

And who misses the obvious:

“…we see the increasingly sophisticated ways authoritarian governments are closing their information space….”

In short, the agency isn’t in the same league with its ideological adversaries.

The Federalist

September 2022

READ on USAGM Watch: Extraordinary Leadership Dysfunction at USAGM Continues