USAGM Watch Commentary

Regardless of who wins Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election, Michael Pack, Trump-nominated and Senate-confirmed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), is, according to sources, set to rehire three Voice of America (VOA) Chinese American refugee journalists who were fired by the former agency management over their dispute with former VOA director Amanda Bennett on the handling of the 2017 VOA Mandarin Service interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui. Bennett wanted the live three-hour exclusive interview shortened after Chinese communist officials in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Washington threatened to retaliate against VOA if the interview were to be broadcast, but Bennett denied that she was acting under pressure from China. Bennett argued that VOA China Branch journalists could not allow Guo Wengui to make explosive allegations about high Chinese communist government officials, without having given the other side an advance chance to respond. Chinese officials never respond to any specific corruption allegations against them, but in Guo’s case they responded by issuing an arrest warrant and making various accusations against him, which VOA Mandarin Service journalists reported during the interview and believed that it satisfied any requirement for balance.

While broadcasters claimed that senior management’s orders were confusing, Bennett accused those among VOA Mandarin Service journalists—known as “VOA Mandarin Five”—who argued against the shortening of the interview, of not following best journalistic practices and disregarding orders from her and the senior staffers. These VOA Chinese American journalists with years of broadcasting and journalistic experience denied Bennett’s accusations. Some of them were victims of persecution by the communist regime before they sought asylum in the United States as political refugees. All of them have been U.S. citizens for many years.

The shortening of the interview undermined VOA’s credibility and resulted in massive criticism of Bennett’s decision on social media by anti-communist Chinese in China, including Hong Kong, and by Chinese Americans. Groups of Chinese Americans staged a mock funeral in May 2017 in front of the Voice of American building in Washington, D.C. shortly after the shortening of the Guo Wengui interview, in which he was to reveal China’s influence and spying operations in the United States, as well as corruption in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Amanda Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and investigative journalist and editor, was named Director of the Voice of America in March 2016 and resigned shortly before Michael Pack took over as USAGM CEO in June 2020 after his confirmation by the Senate for a three year term. Together with her husband, Donald Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post who is reported to have various business interests, including in China, Bennett is a co-founder of TheDream.US, which provides college scholarships to the children of undocumented immigrants.

Bennett’s decision to shorten the interview was supported by former USAGM CEO John F. Lansing, who in September 2019 resigned from the agency to become the head of National Public Radio (NPR), as well as by Lansing’s deputy Grant Turner who signed the termination letters for the three VOA Mandarin Service journalists who were fired. Critics said that even if some of the VOA Mandarin Five had done something wrong, the punishment given to them by the former management team was grossly excessive and that most of the blame should have gone to senior VOA managers who failed to properly plan and directly supervise a highly sensitive interview. They received no punishment for their lack of hands-on involvement which should have been the case from the moment the interview was first brought to their attention. Under their watch in the period following the shortening of the Guo Wengui interview and the firing of some of the Mandarin Five journalists, the VOA Mandarin Service broadcast and posted on social media under the VOA logo videos of several lengthy propaganda statements by Chinese communist officials without attaching any challenge or balance.

Grant Turner was later suspended by Michael Pack over other issues and is now suing him in court together with some other members of the former USAGM management team whom Pack has also suspended. VOA English newsroom reported that Turner said his suspension was punishment for speaking up about “patterns of gross mismanagement” since Pack took over in June and about violations of the legal “firewall” that shields USAGM journalists from political interference.

Bennett claims that since his confirmation as CEO, Mr. Pack has grossly mismanaged USAGM and its broadcasting networks, causing irreparable damage to the networks’ ability to fulfill their mission.

Pack argues that between 2010 and 2020 previous agency leaders “repeatedly ignored protocols and other federal government human resources practices, placing U.S. national security and USAGM’s ability in grave danger.” An Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report dated July 2020 and released by the agency’s new managers, detailed years of assessments of deficiencies at the agency and its failure to comply with numerous standards involving “personnel suitability and vetting programs.” Pack claims that these failures have endangered VOA employees.

Some of the members of the former management team at the agency have accused Pack of being a danger to VOA journalists because he did not renew work visas for some VOA freelance foreign contractors in the United States, including one from Spain who previously had worked for Russian state media channel RT, but it appears likely that Pack will bring back three VOA Chinese American refugee journalists, all of them now U.S. citizens, whom the former management team had fired. According to sources, their return to work will depend on the signing of settlement agreements between them and the agency, which, sources say, may happen as early as this week regardless of who is the winner in the U.S. presidential election.