VOA China Fought Mgmt Push To Limit Guo Wengui Interview — Part III
Reputation Damaged — A Commentary
Journalists in Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service strongly resisted last-minute but relentless pressure from VOA Obama administration holdover executives, VOA director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara, who eventually succeeded in limiting the exclusive interview with Chinese businessman turned whistleblower Guo Wengui but did not manage to derail the live broadcast entirely. If it were not for the opposition from VOA journalists the entire interview most likely would be scuttled. Mr. Guo insisted on being interviewed live, while VOA executives who up to that point were “out to lunch,” as their critics said, demanded belatedly that the interview be pre-recorded. By then, VOA Mandarin Service had already informed its audience that the interview will be live and will last three hours in live TV and live social media broadcasts.
VOA leadership tried to prevent a live interview after the Chinese government expressed its strong displeasure with VOA plans to talk to Mr. Guo. E-mails and confidential conversations with VOA China Branch journalists reveal that VOA executives exerted tremendous pressure on VOA Mandarin reporters to give up on their plan to have Mr. Guo in a live program. When they met with strong resistance from VOA journalists, the top leadership tried to get them to drastically shorten the interview to only 15 minutes and to limit the scope of questions.
It appears that both Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara only got involved when the Chinese government strongly objected to the planned interview. A Chinese government official demanded on Monday that the interview be canceled and called VOA plans for the interview an unacceptable interference in China’s internal affairs. Prior to that, VOA executives together with the rest of VOA’s top and mid-level managers appeared to have been uninformed or unconcerned while VOA Mandarin Service was moving ahead with its plans for what promised to be explosive an interview that could reveal widespread corruption among China’s Communist Party leadership.
In their phone conversations and e-mails sent to VOA Chinese journalists, both Bennett and Sugawara vehemently denied that they were caving to pressure from the Chinese government and stressed instead their deep concern with upholding journalistic standards. Amanda Bennett, who was on an extended two-week tour of Africa, communicated in part by e-mail while her deputy Sandy Sugawara talked with VOA Mandarin Service journalists in New York by phone from Washington. The shortened interview with Guo Wengui was eventually conducted in New York on Wednesday.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists said that they were deeply offended by the mistrust shown by VOA’s top bosses in their ability to conduct a balanced live interview on a topic of great interest to their audience in China where accusations of corruption made against government officials are either censored or carefully managed by government-controlled media. Having examined evidence of corruption in Mr. Guo’s possession prior to the interview and having the official Chinese government statement accusing Mr. Guo of various alleged crimes, they felt confident they could conduct a well-balanced interview and challenge any unsupported allegations if such were made by Mr. Guo. When the live interview was cut short at the beginning of the second hour at the insistence of VOA management, many Chinese viewers were convinced that VOA tried to censor Mr. Guo and the VOA broadcast. VOA’s reputation was damaged, as VOA journalists warned the management it would be. Their warning were ignored, although some VOA China journalists admit that the Mandarin Service managers could have negotiated better terms with Mr. Guo. They still, however, blame the VOA and agency leadership for poor management of the situation from beginning to end.
Here is a typical comment found online:
Freedom of Speech[…]It is very sad to see this event happened. When I watched the live VOA Guo Wengui interview program, the program was suddenly cut off. I felt Democracy died in America. Voice of America was the symbol of freedom and democracy. It represented the values of the United States: freedom of press and freedom of speech. The cut-short program stopped the Voice of Freedom and Democracy. Today’s VOA is not the VOA I listened to during my youth years in China. It has become the Shame of America: Voice of Silence.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists tried hard to prevent such predictable reactions by conducting a full live interview, but ultimately they lost their struggle with top VOA executives.
According to e-mails and various accounts, VOA leadership first wanted to prevent the interview from being conducted live at all, and later, having been met with strong resistance from VOA Chinese journalists, tried hard to keep the interview as short as possible. BBG Watch was told that there were shouting matches during phone conversations between VOA Mandarin Service journalists in New York and VOA executives and managers in Washington. The interviewing team in New York had the support of their China service colleagues in Washington who were also reportedly also offended and upset by the actions of VOA executives. One VOA Chinese editor reportedly said that the only way for him to switch the VOA Mandarin 9am-10am TV broadcast from live to pre-recorded would be if VOA sent security guards and ordered him out of the studio. Another VOA Mandarin Service journalist refused to interrupt the live streaming of the interview on social media at the beginning of the second hour unless he received an order from the management in writing. The order came from a VOA manager and the live interview was cut short on social media at the beginning of the second hour.
VOA leadership denies that they were caving in to pressure from the Chinese government, but the evidence shows that VOA’s top management was either uninformed or unconcerned until the Chinese government issued its strong protest, made veiled threats, and charged Mr. Guo with alleged crimes. We are not caving to anyone’s pressure, one of the top executives reportedly told VOA Mandarin Service reporters. Our only concern is with good journalistic standards, VOA director Amanda Bennett reportedly was quoted to have said or written.
VOA Mandarin Service reporters and other journalists in the VOA China Branch we contacted were not convinced by these explanations from their top bosses. Under the watch of the current VOA leadership and their hands-off boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing, all of them Obama administration holdovers, VOA has conducted a number of one-sided interviews of which many VOA journalists, including those in the Mandarin Service, strongly disapprove because they violate the VOA Charter. Some of these interviews were even praised by VOA director Amanda Bennett, including one in which Donald Trump was called a candidate of “hate and prejudice” without anyone from VOA challenging the accusation during the interview or trying to obtain an advance rebuttal. Another one-sided commentary — this one not praised by Ms. Bennett — had Senator Bernie Sanders being accused on being anti-democratic. VOA also broadcast recently an interview with an unsupported and unchallenged accusation regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. VOA Mandarin Service reporters said that their interview with Mr. Guo met all the requirements of the VOA Charter.
Other VOA programs and reports posted online in recent months lacked any balance and appeared highly partisan to VOA’s critics. VOA Mandarin Service reporters said that in contrast to such typical VOA output, their interview was properly balanced and any allegations made by Mr. Guo were supported by the evidence which they had examined beforehand or they would have vigorously challenged his statements. They said that they would in any case offer Chinese government officials an opportunity to respond and did broadcast the Chinese government’s attack on Mr. Guo, to which he responded. VOA Mandarin Service reporters said that Ms. Bennett may have been under the impression that a response to allegations from specific Chinese government officials can be obtained in advance, but chances of Chinese officials agreeing to be interviewed by VOA in response to accusations of corruption in advance or afterwords are practically nonexistent.
Conducted under constraints imposed by the VOA leadership, the interview in its shortened form did not go very smoothly and disappointed VOA’s audience. Prior to the interview, one of the VOA reporters was under such great pressure that during a telephone conversations with VOA executives in Washington she thought she had developed a serious medical condition requiring immediate hospitalization. That particular tense conversation was cut short and she apparently recovered after taking medication. What this shows is that VOA Mandarin Service reporters did everything in their power to salvage VOA’s reputation from actions of VOA leaders and managed to limit the damage to some degree. The damage to VOA’s reputation, however, was still enormous. It was caused by VOA executives who at first appeared uninterested and asleep at the wheel and later engaged in clumsy attempts to micromanage a difficult situation without a full understanding of the consequences of their actions.
READ MORE: POLICIES & POLITICS Plug pulled on US interview with wanted Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui, Robert Delaney, US correspondent, South China Morning Post, UPDATED : Thursday, 20 Apr 2017, 10:48PM
READ MORE: CUSIB Asks for Investigation About Why VOA China Service Cut Live-Stream Interview with Chinese Billionaire Guo Wengui, CUSIB, April 21, 2017
READ MORE: CUSIB concerned about partisanship and mismanagement at BBG and VOA, CUSIB, April 21, 2017
The following explanation of the abrupt termination of a Voice of America interview was provided to various media organizations by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency in charge of VOA:
BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS / VOICE OF AMERICA
“On Tuesday VOA interviewed Guo Wengui. Guo reacted to an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest issued the day before. He talked about the mistreatment of his family, about being coerced by national security people to work for them, and about his relationship with a senior official who is now in custody. The one-hour interview was simulcast live via TV, radio, web and social media. We had multiple plans to conduct additional interviews with the subject for social media and later in the day made the editorial decision to record this material, edit, and post it in the coming days. In a miscommunication, the stream was allowed to continue beyond the first hour. When this was noticed the feed was terminated. We will release content from these interviews and will continue to report on corruption issues.
The original one-hour interview can be viewed on the VOA Mandarin website:
Guo Wengui is a Chinese real estate tycoon currently living in the U.S. Guo is reported to have irregular business dealings involving senior government officials. On Tuesday Interpol issued a Red Notice for Guo after a local Chinese government issued a warrant for Guo’s arrest.”
END OF BBG STATEMENT
While the BBG statement says that the live interview with Guo Wengui was conducted on Tuesday, it was in fact conducted on Wednesday, April 19.
The independent and nonpartisan NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) is asking for a congressional investigation. CUSIB points out that “miscommunication” at the U.S. agency charged with communicating with the world is in itself a troubling sign of continuing mismanagement.
CUSIB PRESS RELEASE
April 21, 2017
For Immediate Release
CUSIB Asks for Investigation About Why VOA China Service Cut Live-Stream Interview with Chinese Billionaire Guo Wengui
The Committee for US International Broadcasting (www.cusib.org) has released the following statement:
“In an effort to protect Voice of America China Service from being unfairly influenced or manipulated by outside political sources, the Committee for US International Broadcasting is asking for a thorough congressional investigation about what transpired on April 19, 2017 during a VOA live-stream broadcast of Chinese billionaire Gui Wengui as he spoke about corruption in China.
Guo Wengui was described by The New York Times as a “Chinese-born billionaire who in recent months has publicized allegations of corruption against relatives of high-ranking Communist Party officials is now a wanted man after Beijing asked Interpol to issue a global request for his arrest.” He was in New York doing an exclusive live interview with Voice of America.
CUSIB shares the concerns of Chinese viewers who tuned in to that interview and want to know why it was abruptly cut, thereby damaging the journalistic integrity and reputation of VOA among those viewers. The official explanation from the Voice of America and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), that it was a case of “miscommunication” is in itself troubling as it shows that the U.S. agency created to communicate with the world continues to be mismanaged.
Was VOA influenced by political powers to cut the live-stream broadcast, and if so, who was involved? More specifically, who in VOA gave the order to censor the broadcast of Guo Wengui, and who may have pressured VOA to censor this special live-stream broadcast?
CUSIB urges VOA’s audience to remain vigilant about this very serious matter and to demand for VOA to remain true to its mission statement to be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”
For further information, please contact Ann Noonan at (646) 251-6069 or Ted Lipien at (415) 793-1642.
END OF CUSIB PRESS RELEASE