USAGM Watch Commentary

In her October 9, 2020 report, “Lawsuit Calls for Immediate Relief from USAGM CEO’s Actions,” Voice of America (VOA) “Press Freedom Reporter” Jessica Jerreat wrote that according to a lawsuit filed in a federal court in Washington on Thursday, “From the start of his tenure as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media in June, Michael Pack and his team of political appointees aggressively sought ‘to fundamentally remake USAGM into state sponsored media’.”

The 84-page document, filed on behalf of five former or suspended USAGM employees, asks the court to step in and stop decisions and actions by Pack and his team that the suit argues are unlawful or retaliatory and breach the editorial firewall protecting the media networks from political interference. 

“Five former or suspended USAGM employees” were not Voice of America or USAGM “employees” working as rank-and-file journalists but high-level USAGM managers. The Voice of America should have made it clear that they were not mere “employees” but individuals managing the agency during the period when multiple management and programming scandals were reported at USAGM and VOA.

In reporting on “USAGM 5” high-level managers and officials, VOA audience in the United States and abroad should have been also told by Jerreat about the still current case of “VOA Mandarin 5” journalists and about the difference between “VOA Mandarin 5” and “USAGM 5” when it comes to issues of press freedom.

“VOA Mandarin 5” were rank-and-file Voice of America journalists and managing editors who were disciplined and fired between 2017 and 2019 by the previous management team. A VOA “Press Freedom Reporter“ should probably be more concerned about VOA journalists who were fired for what they believed were their efforts to prevent censorship by the previous senior management than about an official who ordered their firing and is one of the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit against Michael Pack. At the very least, the Voice of America reporter should have mentioned some of the major management and programming scandals at the agency and at VOA while the “USAGM 5” managers were in charge of USAGM resources and personnel.

Significantly, VOA central English newsroom reporters and editors did not come to the defense of “VOA Mandarin 5” journalists, but many journalists in VOA foreign language services privately contacted their fired foreign-born colleagues to offer their sympathy and support. They were afraid under the previous USAGM and VOA management to make a public statement of support for Chinese-American refugee journalists.

“USAGM 5” are senior-level and high-level managers. It so happens that one of the “USAGM 5” participants in the lawsuit against new USAGM CEO Michael Pack, former Acting USAGM Director Grant Turner, signed three termination letters for “VOA Mandarin 5” journalists. He accused them of insubordination against former VOA Director Amanda Bennett and other senior VOA managers — a charge these journalists vigorously denied. Grant said that some of the fired VOA Mandarin journalists were wrong in believing that the VOA senior management caved in to pressure from the Chinese government in ordering them to cut short their interview with a Chinese whistleblower who promised to expose China’s spying and influence activities in the United States. Former VOA director Amanda Bennett denied that she was acting under pressure from China.

It would have been useful for VOA audiences to be told that former USAGM management ordered various investigations of “VOA Mandarin 5” journalists that did not produce charges from the VOA central English newsroom, NPR or the New York Times of inappropriate interference with Voice of America journalism even though three journalists were eventually fired. It should have been noted, at least by the VOA reporter, but also in reports by NPR and the New York Times, that USAGM officials have always reviewed and analyzed VOA news programs for compliance with the VOA Charter, the VOA Journalistic Code, other government rules, and the agency’s mission. The agency has always been in charge of the “Program Review” process for Voice of America programs. Agency officials have also made final decisions about firing VOA journalists for a variety of reasons, including disputes over programming decisions. This was quite clear in the “removal letters” written and signed by Grant Turner.

…I have decided that your removal from your position as International Broadcaster … is warranted. … Your personal effects have been gathered and boxed. You will need to retrieve them … otherwise they will be disposed of in an efficient manner.

Grant Turner, Excerpt from Final Decision on Termination of VOA Mandarin 5 Journalist, May 15, 2019

We have to conclude that the VOA report by Jessica Jerreat, who joined VOA in March 2020 when Amanda Bennett was still VOA director, as well as reporting by NPR, where Grant Turner’s former boss at USAGM John Lansing is now in charge, as well as a report in the New York Times, all lack balance and perspective.

Jerreat at the Voice of America, David Folkenflik at NPR and Pranshu Verma at the New York Times seem to be unaware of blatant partisan bias at VOA under the previous management, or are unwilling to report it. They also seem unaware of management scandals under former USAGM CEO John Lansing, including the federal prison sentence for his right hand man and top aide Harroon Ullah, or are unwilling to report on these scandals in any significant detail. Lack of knowledge of material facts is no excuse for a journalist, especially at the U.S. government-managed and taxpayer-funded Voice of America which has a congressional Charter mandating that all VOA News reporting must be “balanced and comprehensive.”

Folkenflik mentions the agency’s statement about mismanagement by the previous team but does not provide specific information about the nature and the extent of these problems. It could have presented former USAGM CEO and his current top boss John Lansing as being a failing manager of U.S. government programs.

Neither journalist presented evidence of any biased pro-Trump reporting by VOA since Michael Pack took charge of the agency. There is no such evidence compared to overwhelming evidence of bias under the previous agency and VOA management.

Neither journalist bothered to give examples of some of the highly-partisan reporting and anti-Trump social media posts, which some VOA reporters and editors have been accused of doing for many years prior to Pack’s arrival and even after he came to the agency in June 2020.

Jerreat should have known and noted that under Pack VOA has not posted any anti-Biden videos similar to the video posted during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign by the VOA Ukrainian Service when John Lansing and Amanda Bennett were in charge, in which Donald Trump was called “dog,” “pig” and other offensive names and physical violence against him was condoned.

In fact, even shortly after Pack took over, the VOA Urdu Service posted a pro-Biden election campaign video. Pack’s USAGM managers’ inquiries on how this violation of the VOA Charter was allowed was presented as an attack on press freedom.

The same reporters did not describe various USAGM investigations of “VOA Mandarin 5” journalists, which actually led to three anti-communist journalists being fired, as an attack on free press. They did not mention it, which in our view made their reporting incomplete and deceptive.

Also while focusing on political associations of some of Pack’s USAGM aides, VOA, NPR and New York Times reporters did not note that Elez Biberaj, the person Pack selected to be VOA acting director, has family links to Democratic Party politicians, including former President Obama and former Vice President Biden. Pack knew about it and if he planned to politicize VOA, he would certainly not have chosen Biberaj to lead VOA, even on an interim basis.

We have been trying unsuccessfully so far to get Jessica Jerreat and the VOA central English newsroom to report that VOA has failed to report that the Albanian ambassador to the United States openly interfered in 2020 U.S. elections by publicly endorsing Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who despite the foreign endorsement lost the primary election race in New York to progressive Democrat Jamaal Bowman. Not reporting on the Albanian ambassador’s tweet was an apparent and appalling attempt by VOA Journalists and editors to cover up a serious foreign interference with U.S. democratic elections in order to protect from bad publicity a friendly foreign ambassador, in this case of a friendly country, and a friendly politician, in this case from the Democratic Party.

If Jerreat would do some investigative reporting, she might have also discovered that Elez Biberaj took former VOA director Amanda Bennett to meet with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama who openly interfered in 2016 U.S. elections with his various public statements opposing the Republican presidential nomination of Donald Trump on the grounds that his election would be bad for Muslims, Americans and Albanians. Some Albanian-American’s found his comments in 2016 on U.S. elections inappropriate and also criticized the Albanian ambassador for her recent tweet in support of Rep. Eliot Engel. Some media outlets in Albania reported on the Albanian-American criticism of the Albanian ambassador, but the Voice of America did not.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama while visiting Tirana in September 2017.
VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong (L) and VOA Director Amanda Bennett (R)

Photo: Former VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong (L), who is now one of the VOA Mandarin 5 fired journalists, and former VOA Director Amanda Bennett (R), June 2017.