BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Director Amanda Bennett
VOA Director Amanda Bennett

New Voice of America (VOA) director, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amanda Bennett, impressed many VOA employees with her handling of a question from a VOA newsroom reporter when she remarked after her swearing in earlier this week that the U.S. taxpayer-funded media organization she was selected to lead ought to take good ideas from wherever they come. See video HERE. (It’s ironic that BBG support services for a media organization like VOA could not upload good quality video from the swearing in ceremony. BBG Watch used the video provided by the BBG.)

Ms. Bennett (@ abennett – 10K Twitter followers as of 4/21/16) was responding to a question from VOA Central Newsroom national correspondent Jim Malone (@ JMaloneVOA – 403 Twitter followers as of 4/21/16) who suggested that there has been “governmental pressure to conform to certain policies or emphasizing certain policies at the expense of journalism, in the view of some of us.” Others dispute that there has been such pressure and see lack of leadership, uncertainty about the mission, bad management, and uneven journalism as the agency’s biggest problems.

A small group of Voice of America Central Newsroom reporters has been objecting to countering violent extremism with VOA programs. Some have also objected to having any internal or external discussion on how countering violent extremism and propaganda could be done by VOA.

Many journalists working for VOA’s foreign language services, however, consider it their mission to expose propaganda and disinformation as fully as possible without violating journalistic standards or the VOA Charter. Some felt that the then VOA acting director Kelu Chao, who is also in charge of VOA foreign language programming, was being bullied when in the summer of 2015 she had tried to have a discussion with some VOA Newsroom correspondents on countering violent extremism. In her inaugural speech, Ms. Bennett spoke very highly of Ms. Chao and their close collaboration.

Ms. Bennett’s inaugural speech and her responses to questions impressed a number of VOA journalists, although some rank and file employees were concerned about her brief comment, also in an answer to a question, that VOA had a fantastic leadership team.

VOA and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have been rated for years in surveys conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) at the very bottom of federal agencies in the categories of employee satisfaction and management leadership skills.

Permanent agency employees, who are federal government workers, blame poor morale mostly on bad managers and the agency’s board and top executives. VOA also employs hundreds of poorly-paid contract employees who are not surveyed by OPM. Some of them have filed a $400 million anti-discrimination class action lawsuit in a federal court against the BBG.

What many VOA employees, both permanent and contractors, found especially impressive was Ms. Bennett’s response to the “governmental pressure” question from a longtime VOA Central Newsroom correspondent. Her handling of the question was a big hit with VOA staff.

Jim Malone said during the Q&A session that “in recent years, we’ve noticed at times pressure from within, sort of governmental pressure, on conforming to certain policies, or emphasizing policies at the expense of journalism, in the view of some of us.” He then asked, “how to you see the confluence of government, possible pressures, and our role as a journalist?”

Amanda Bennett responded with a question: “So what does the [VOA] Charter say about that?”

She then gave her answer: “The Charter says that our role is to be fair, objective journalist, to tell both the good and the bad. That does not mean that when people give you suggestions or ideas that taking those ideas means being biased. Every so often, people outside of this organization have pretty good ideas. And I think you ought to accept ideas that are good ideas from wherever they come. But as far the word ‘pressure,’ I think there is no room in the Voice of America for pressure. But, again, if the ideas are good, I’ll take them from wherever they come.”

Many current and former VOA employees were impressed with Ms. Bennett’s confidence and saw her answer as a victory for freedom of expression within the organization and an affirmation of VOA’s longtime mission and the VOA Charter.

Along with a small group of newsroom-based reporters, Jim Malone strongly protested steps in 2014 and 2015 to increase the level of “countering violent extremism” programming at VOA, at one point calling on management to publicly reject such efforts.

Watch Jim Malone @JMaloneVOA (397 Twitter followers worldwide as of April 18, 2016) in a Voice of America “WWII Victory Flyover Reaction” – video, May 8, 2015.