EXCLUSIVE BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Watch has learned that one of the more experienced Voice of America (VOA) English news service journalists with extensive international reporting experience was strongly advising the management of the U.S. taxpayer-funded media entity in the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that under no circumstances should they cave in to pressure from the Chinese communist authorities. The journalist reportedly told VOA management there was no reason not to air the exclusive VOA Mandarin Service interview with Chinese businessman turned whistleblower Guo Wengui, the plans for which were condemned by Beijing. There is “no way” not to air the interview, the VOA reporter told the management.
In objecting to the scheduled interview, Chinese government officials had alluded to the impact it could have on visa renewal process for VOA reporters and the “conveniences” similar to those the Chinese government was extending to VOA journalists who had made a recent trip from Washington to China.
VOA’s senior leaders insists that in ordering the live interview to be drastically shortened, they did not cave in to pressure from Beijing but were upholding universally accepted journalistic principles. Guo Wengui, many VOA Mandarin Service journalists, and thousands of Chinese who have left angry comments on social media believe that the VOA senior management was intimidated by the Chinese government. VOA Mandarin Service journalists told BBG Watch that they observe high journalistic principles. Other journalists pointed out that the Mandarin Service has been far more balanced and professional in its output than some of the other VOA services which had received praise from the VOA director in the past even after posting one-sided reports tainted by partisanship or other bias.
Several members of the U.S. Congress have asked the Office of Inspector general (OIG) to investigate the actions of VOA and BBG management. Chinese human rights defender Chen Guangcheng and other rights activists published an open letter urging the OIG to investigate any potential personal conflicts of interests of VOA and BBG officials who may have significant business interests in China.
In April, senior managers led by VOA director Amanda Bennett had ordered the interview with Guo Wengui to be drastically shortened. Their decision opposed by VOA Mandarin Service journalists has caused the Voice of America to lose much of its reputation and credibility in China and among the Chinese in the diaspora.
Thousands of comments on social media condemned the VOA management’s decisions to shorten the interview and to put five VOA Mandarin Service who had advised against this decision on forced leave with pay. Chinese social media users ridiculed the explanations from the VOA director.
Chinese Americans staged protests in front of the VOA building in Washington with a mock funeral and mock funeral wreaths.
The highly-respected VOA English service reporter who had advised the management against caving in to pressure from the Chinese authorities reportedly said that “obviously, there is no way or reason for us to not air the interview” with Guo Wengui.
Upon learning of the displeasure expressed by Chinese communist officials, VOA managers attempted at first to force VOA Mandarin Service not to broadcast the interview live and insisted that it must be all pre-recorded and evaluated before any later airing. This would have killed the interview because, fearing censorship, Guo Wengui would only agree to a live interview with the Voice of America.
Facing strong resistance from Mandarin Service journalists, VOA senior managers told them next in a phone conversation to limit any live interview with Guo Wengui to at most 15 minutes, VOA journalists told BBG Watch.
At that point the Mandarin Service had already planned and already announced three hour conversation with Guo Wengui in a mix of one hour live TV and two hours live Facebook broadcast. They did this without any previous objections from the senior management and with full administrative and logistical approval from various levels of management for conducting the live, three-hour-long interview in New York. Only after the Chinese government raised objections and VOA senior management was informed about it did VOA’s senior leaders reportedly told Mandarin Service journalists in a phone conversation to limit the scope of the interview to only Guo Wengui’s “personal story” and to make it short.
When VOA Mandarin Service journalists said that these conditions were unreasonable and unworkable, they were reportedly informed by VOA director Amanda Bennett in an email that they cannot — NOT was repeated and emphasized — allow a guest to make explosive allegations about other people, even if they are high government officials, without having given the other side an advance chance to respond.
This strong intervention by the VOA director seemed unusual since under Bennett’s watch and that of her boss, BBG CEO John F. Lansing, both of them Obama-era appointees, one-sided reports and use of strong labels against various American politicians — which VOA Mandarin Service never uses even against communist officials in China — have become common in broadcasts and online content of some of the other VOA services — although not in the Mandarin Service.
In one such media production by a VOA foreign language service — again, not the Mandarin Service which has maintained very high journalistic standards — Donald Trump was called “pig,” “dog” and other insulting names without any balance or response in the VOA report. The report was eventually removed after outside criticism. This, again, was not a VOA Mandarin Service production and it would have never been allowed by Mandarin Service editors.
Another blatantly one-sided VOA commentary — again, not by the Mandarin Service — which an outside journalist described as “state media” slander, was directed against Senator Bernie Sanders when he was Hillary Clinton’s Democratic opponent during the 2016 presidential election campaign. The commentary was left on the VOA website without any follow up by the VOA director or other senior managers.
In the case of Guo Wengui, the reaction from VOA director was swift and strong after the Chinese government issued its protest.
A guest cannot make explosive live statements or accusations about anyone without having given the other side an opportunity to respond first, the VOA Mandarin Service journalists were reportedly told. “FIRST” was emphasized. This is good journalistic standards, Bennett also reportedly informed VOA Mandarin Service and added that this has nothing to do with Chinese pressure.
The VOA Mandarin Service was also reportedly told at this point that the management was not asking them to cancel the interview. We are asking you to reduce the length of time he is on air to minimize the possibility that he might make a rash or unsupported statement on air, the instruction from the VOA director reportedly said.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists were reportedly also told by Amanda Bennett that they can then record the interview for as long as they want and VOA can air it later once we’ve been able to evaluate his statements.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists said later that they had already carefully evaluated Guo Wengui’s statements in a multi-hour pre-interview conversation with him and through an examination of the documents he presented. More than 36 hours prior to the live interview, the VOA Mandarin Service submitted to the Chinese officials in Beijing several questions:
VOA MANDARIN SERVICE QUESTIONS SUBMITTED TO THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT PRIOR TO THE INTERVIEW WITH GUO WENGUI
a) Why does the Chinese government oppose the interview? What are the reasons?
b) The Chinese government named Guo a criminal. Is there an arrest warrant? What are the charges? His staff members are also detained. Why?
c) Why does the Chinese government indicate the VOA interview with Guo interferes with the Chinese internal affairs? What kind of affairs?
d) The Chinese government said that there would be severe consequences if VOA goes ahead and conduct the interview. What kind of consequences there might be? Would it affect the visas of the VOA correspondents?
The Chinese government declined to respond to these questions, but VOA Mandarin Service journalists still included during their interview the earlier Chinese government’s statements with accusations against Guo Wengui and asked for his response. He provided his responses until the interview was cut short on orders of the VOA management.
To make sure the interview was fair and balanced, the VOA Mandarin Service interview team had engaged in intensive and extensive preparations, BBG Watch was told.
According to VOA Mandarin Service journalists, the ways to make balanced reports are different in different media platforms, but in the case of VOA they also must expose constant lies, distortions and disinformation from state media in communist-ruled countries like China.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists said that in their in-depth online articles, VOA reporters always try to incorporate information from all relevant parties, but emphasize what is true information and what is fake news or attempts by Chinese communist officials to smear the reputation of critics, political dissidents and whistleblowers.
In TV and radio pre-packaged pieces, VOA Mandarin Service reporters put in soundbites and information already available from the Chinese communist government. VOA Chinese journalists told BBG Watch that this was done extensively during the live interview with Guo Wengui.
BBG Watch was also told that as in all of their live interviews, VOA Mandarin Service reporters remained inquisitive throughout the conversation with Guo Wengui.
As explained to us by VOA Mandarin Service journalists, organizations such as the Voice of America created to counter propaganda from communist and other authoritarian regimes are facing much greater challenges than U.S. domestic media. VOA’s audiences are subjected all the time to intense state media propaganda in their home country. The stories presented in the state media are always one-sided and lack balance which VOA Mandarin Service must provide according to the VOA Charter.
Presenting a balanced report in VOA Chinese broadcasts and online often means providing information otherwise not available to the audience and countering false information with true information.
BBG Watch was also told by journalists that some senior managers at the Voice of America are from time to time confused on this point. Journalists referred to VOA Mandarin Service interviews with several authors whose books have been banned by the Chinese government. Some Voice of America managers who were not Chinese strongly criticized the interviews for “not allowing the Chinese government to present their side of the story,” BBG Watch was told. In fact, the Chinese already presented their side of the story by banning these authors and/or attacking them in state media. In that respect, these dissident Chinese authors are not different from the experience of Nobel Prize winner Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists further explained that the same issues applied to the Guo interview. Other journalists pointed out that during the Cold War, VOA would not be required to get each time specific responses from Soviet officials to accusations of human rights abuses made in interviews with VOA by dissident writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn whom the Kremlin had vilified and forced into exile.
The fact that Solzhenitsyn had been persecuted and exiled was in itself a response from the Soviet government. In any case, the Soviets would not respond to any inquiries from VOA journalists, just as the Chinese government would not respond to any VOA Mandarin Service inquiries about Guo Wengui. They recalled that in the 1970s, VOA’s senior management also had tried at one point to censor broadcasts of Solzhenitsyn’s books by the Russian Service, but the management’s decision was later reversed after considerable criticism from VOA journalists and outside media freedom advocates.
The Chinese government, in a period of more than two years, mobilized the state propaganda machine to attack Guo Wengui on a scale similar to Soviet attacks on Solzhenitsyn. The two men are obviously of different backgrounds and personalities, but they both tried to expose crimes and corruption of communist regimes. The Chinese authorities have charged Guo Wengui with a crime and detained his family members without charge. The Mandarin Service saw the Guo interview as part of an effort by the free media to balance the Chinese state media news, BBG Watch was told.
Since apparently VOA’s senior managers initially would not put in writing their order to shorten the live interview to any specific time, VOA Mandarin Service managed to extend it to about one hour and fifteen minutes. The live interview was cut short by the staff under protest only after a written order from the VOA management had been issued, BBG Watch was told. Guo Wengui who had already said he would not agree to a pre-recorded interview did not want to continue to be interviewed off air.
VOA director Amanda Bennett, whose husband’s company is reported to have substantial business interests in China, repeated in a later statement that Guo’s charges that interview with him conducted by VOA’s Mandarin Service in April was cut short due to interference from the Chinese government are baseless.
Critics say that when the Voice of America director feels that she has to criticize a critic of the communist government and a whistleblower, it is yet another blow to VOA’s already damaged reputation.
But the VOA director is adamant. “Pressure from the Chinese government played no role in any decision-making,” Amanda Bennett said.