BBG Watch Commentary
Voice of America (VOA) Director Amanda Bennett has made various charges against VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong who was first suspended with pay and has now been fired by VOA’s parent agency, the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), run since 2015 by Bennett’s boss, USAGM CEO John Lansing. Dr. Gong is appealing the decision to fire her. Bennett has been in charge of VOA since 2016. USAGM was previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The shortening by VOA’s senior management of the April 19, 2017 Guo Wengui whistleblower interview has produced widespread criticism on Chinese social media platforms and seriously harmed VOA’s credibility in China. Dr. Gong has written articles which are critical of VOA’s and the agency’s senior management’s handling of the Guo Wengui interview. Amanda Bennett has defended her decision to cut short the live interview as justified by the need to uphold high journalistic standards. Bennett also presented her claims to national media.
Photo: VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong (L) and VOA Director Amanda Bennett (R)
According to a report of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States prepared by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Center on US-China Relations at Asia Society in New York, “starting in the first decade of the 2000s, the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, and the leadership of VOA’s Mandarin service began an annual meeting to allow embassy officials to voice their opinions about VOA’s content.”
The Hoover Institution and Asia Society report also says that “VOA personalities have hosted events at the embassy,” and one of VOA’s TV editors “even publicly pledged his allegiance to China at an embassy event.” The report cited “interview with VOA staff” as a source of this piece of information.
Following Dr. Gong’s commentary, we are reposting an e-mail sent out recently by Director Bennett to VOA staff. All the views expressed in the commentary and the e-mail are only those of their respective writers.
VOA Problems: Racism, Xenophobia, Mediocrity, and Nepotism
Commentary by Sasha Gong, PhD
I started this article with a larger audience in mind. However, I realized later that I’d better communicate first with my colleagues at the Voice of America (VOA) before I bring these issues to Congress, to the administration, and to American taxpayers who, of course, also need to know. They generously pay for VOA to exist but are kept in the dark and misled by government bureaucrats about what this federally-run media outlet is doing. They were not told, for example, until recently, that incompetent federal managers had allowed some VOA media services to target Americans with illegal Facebook ads. More on this later.
In the past month, certain individuals within VOA’s parent agency in the federal government, the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and within VOA’s management have launched a massive media assault on the incoming CEO Michael Pack, who still needs confirmation from the U.S. Senate to take up his position. They accused him of being a conservative and an ally of the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Without knowing him or having any proof as to his motives, they told their media friends that Pack would turn VOA into a mouthpiece of President Trump and the Trump administration. Finally, Bannon showed his Irish temper and told a Los Angeles Times reporter that “VOA is a rotten fish from top to bottom. It’s now totally controlled by the deep-state apparatus.”
My name was mentioned to the New York Times, since I appeared in one of Bannon’s documentaries as a China expert. They never mentioned that I also appeared as a China expert on NPR, PBS, Washington Post, Financial Times, and numerous Chinese-language media outlets. I strongly believe that VOA must be non-partisan, neither pro-left or pro-right. It must be pro-American. Unfortunately, VOA has never been as partisan as the current management team has made it partisan.
But with an outburst from a prominent right-winger like Bannon, certain left-wing USAGM and VOA management figures got what they really wanted. They have turned the focus from their own bias and gross mis-management of the agency into a partisan fight in which Trump, who has left the agency alone—but not they—was made out to be a partisan threat to the agency before the future CEO, if he is confirmed, had a chance to testify at his own still to-be-scheduled confirmation hearing where he could present his views. My Washington sources who know him tell me that his ideas for the agency are totally different from what fear-mongers among USAGM and VOA management who don’t know him from Adam are presenting them to be. I’m told he is a strong supporter of the VOA Charter and wants to protect it, as I and most VOA journalists do.
Furthermore, there have been media reports that certain management figures may have orchestrated the introduction of a last-minute bill in the U.S. Senate (S.3654, proposed by Sen. Menendez of New Jersey) in an unprecedented attempt to eliminate the hiring and firing power of the new still to-be-confirmed CEO. To all appearances, they are clinging to power at the expense of any possible management reform. A bipartisan group of foresighted senators put the bill on hold. Hopefully, the scheme of the dysfunctional management will fail and USAGM and VOA will soon get a new, reform-minded leadership.
No one, except for a few entrenched bureaucrats and some of the often-blindsided Broadcasting Board of Governors (former agency name) members, would even for a moment think that VOA is a well-managed entity. The retiring Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce, certainly does not. In one of his last official acts as committee chairman, he has exposed disturbing details of repeated illegal targeting of Americans by USAGM with VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Facebook ads which the committee staff has investigated for several months. It’s one of the more spectacular and dangerous failures at the “practically defunct” agency, to use Hillary Clinton’s 2013 description of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It represents an attempt by a handful of partisan government employees to target Americans with propaganda at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.
Structural reforms must come from the administration, the Congress and the new CEO when he wins a bipartisan confirmation, which I’m sure he will considering his private and public media sector experience. None of the top current agency officials had any prior government experience before joining the agency and VOA. However, some of the more specific management reform proposals must come from inside the agency, from the rank-and-file journalists and other employees who are the bread and butter of the media organization. Michael Pack will need internal input. He won’t get it from the bureaucracy which has been sucking the life out of the organization for many years despite criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, from both Hillary Clinton and Chairman Royce. Many bipartisan efforts to reform the agency have been all without any success so far because the bureaucrats have opposed them all and have co-opted nearly all past and current senior leaders who lacked experience and knowledge to manage such a unique government and journalistic operation in support of democracy and freedom. It is not a place for naive leaders who can be easily scared by dictators and think that such dictators and their paid “journalists” and officials are equals who should not be offended and whose views deserve equal presentation in Voice of America programs.
Let me be the one to start our collective thinking process to get rid of such naive assumptions and achieve real reforms. I would like to offer a few thoughts on the key problems the new management under Michael Pack will face immediately upon him assuming his position and a few thoughts what it can do to solve them. Most people outside of VOA would not expect to find racism and xenophobia to be at the top of the list of problems at the agency being now run by individuals who were appointed during the Obama administration and present themselves to be super liberal. This is not about being a Democrat or a Republican, liberal or conservative. Any administration should be able to run this agency effectively and to achieve audience impact in countries where it matters to U.S. security and to supporters of freedom and democracy. Domestic politics and partisanship should be forever banned from this government agency or American taxpayers will refuse to fund it. This is only about the entrenched bureaucrats and some of the incompetent and highly politicized leaders who are still in charge of the agency. USAGM is still at the very bottom in federal government employee morale rankings. It is largely irrelevant whether the leaders in charge of the agency are Democrats and Republicans. The ones there now are simply not good.
Racism and Xenophobia
Among all federal agencies, Voice of America may have the highest percentage of staff and contractors who are immigrants and members of ethnic minorities. Yet, it may be the only agency which almost openly mistreats its foreign-born journalists. I can only attribute this to latent racism and xenophobia hidden in hypocrisy of the current leadership.
First, VOA broadcasts in 47 languages. Staffers working in the so-called “language services” are intentionally given lower federal government pay grades than mostly U.S. born employees in other departments who are engaged in professional work. A foreign-born star anchor or reporter may have millions of fans and followers abroad, but he or she has a pay grade ranging from GS-11 to 13. Language service chiefs are assigned to GS-13 or GS-14 pay grades, regardless of how big the service is. The Mandarin Service, for example, has approximately 100 staff employees and contractors. Meanwhile, many “directors” and “advisors” in the front office, who have very little to do, are ranked GS-14 and GS-15.
Second, if you are a good journalist in a language service, you are stuck there. VOA mostly hires or promotes native-born to top-level agency positions. Lately, many of them have been friends, acquaintances or former co-workers of BBG Broad members, VOA directors and their top lieutenants. Occasionally, a few language service people receive a promotion to the top rank. However, native-born staffers have a much better chance of being promoted to the highest positions. If you attend a top management meeting, you will hardly ever see a non-native born, with perhaps one or two exceptions.
Third, the top management sometimes prefers to select individuals to manage language services even though they cannot broadcast in that language and have limited understanding of the culture, politics, and people in the region. One example was the recent selection of the China Branch director. In the 77-year history of VOA, I was the only Branch director who was born in China. Everyone else was a white male. In 2018, when the position was open, the management turned down applications of anyone who spoke fluent Chinese, and selected yet another white male, who had no experience reporting on China, let along speaking the language. My colleague told me that they felt deeply insulted when the VOA director Amanda Bennett openly told the China Branch staff : “What good is that [speaking Chinese] gonna do?” The Chinese-speaking applicants, she implied, did not have “leadership” qualities.
It is most demoralizing to journalists, some of whom are stars among their audiences, to suffer such disrespect from VOA’s top managers. Many of them complained to the EEO office, but the bureaucrats don’t care. The only way for employees to show their anger is to give the senior management the lowest possible rating in the annual federal employee satisfaction survey. The agency remains at the very bottom of the employee morale ranking.
Mediocrity vs. Meritocracy
When I asked a successful journalist who has worked in Washington for decades and knows nearly everyone about one of the previously laid-off editors and reporters from CNN and other media outlets who later landed good-paying and secure government jobs at VOA thanks to their past connections to some of the current agency and VOA officials and managers, he hesitated a little and said: “I want to be polite. She is mediocre, to say the least.”
“Mediocre” is indeed a very polite word to characterize some of the friends and associates of the agency’s little known top managers. They call themselves lifelong journalists, but when you Google their names, not much shows up compared to pages of publications by their much more successful and far better-known colleagues who still work in private media.
In fact, mediocrity triumphs in VOA under the current leadership. Mediocre top managers praise and promote mediocre middle managers who favor those who do not stir things up and produce mediocre and biased programs in the VOA English newsroom and some of the language services. Every good journalist in the English newsroom or any language service will immediately recognize this pattern and provide examples he or she can observe first-hand.
As Richard Yates once said, mediocrity is a disease. In the world of the mediocre people, nobody thinks or feels or cares. Nobody gets excited or believes in anything except “their own comfortable little Goddamn mediocrity.” Government mediocrity is by far the worst because it is often hidden from public scrutiny. When mediocrity rules, it quickly turns into a form of tyranny. It destroys anything or anyone that doesn’t mirror its image. It has left a devastating mark on the Voice of America in recent years.
When I joined VOA as its China Branch director in August 2011, I learned that the VOA China broadcasting attracted only an audience of one to two million. I thought it was incredible for a country that has 1.4 billion people, lacks free media and democracy and has a government which uses repression to kill dissent. At the turn of the century, VOA’s estimated audience in China was 20 million.
Apparently, VOA had lost between 80 and 90 percent of its audience in China in the first decade of the century under the leadership of the Broadcasting Board of Governors who had selected VOA directors, who in turn had selected mid-level managers to run the China Branch. Having overseen the loss of almost all of the audience, the BBG then made a proposal to get rid of 65 percent of the staff based on the disastrous survey numbers for which the BBG Board and top management could only be blamed. Interestingly, one manager who was in charge when the audience in China nearly evaporated was promoted to an even higher-level managerial position. In the private sector, such a manager would most certainly be long gone.
It took me and my team three years to get the audience back, but we did. In the new survey in 2014, the number in China jumped to 24.3 million. Immediately after the survey was released, the manager responsible for the earlier loss of the China audience, announced that my position would be eliminated. I was assigned to do something else.
After the successful turnaround, the management began to cut programs that gave us the new audience. Astoundingly, the most management-despised program was also the one which was the most popular. The documentary film series “History’s Mysteries” attracted millions of viewers (so far about 60 million hits online). It was the most successful program ever produced by VOA. Some diplomats in the Chinese Embassy in Washington met with certain VOA managers and voiced their objection to the China Branch history series. The program was put on the chopping board. When one of the higher-level managers informed me of the decision, I could sense great pleasure in his voice, the pleasure of revenge and destruction.
The unaccountable rule of mediocre bureaucrats in an organization like VOA leads to another disturbing fact. They tend to kowtow to foreign dictators who control the media market abroad. Like any bureaucrat, they feed on power, even if that power comes from an enemy of the United States. In the first decade of the century, the VOA China Branch leadership spent a very large chunk of the budget – approximately 1/3 of the operation funds – to produce a weekly 5-minute television program composed of soft features with absolutely nothing that could offend the Chinese Communist Party or show viewers that there are better political and human rights alternatives to undemocratic rule in China. The footage was given to Chinese TV stations without any trace of VOA – no station ID and no VOA personality shown. The Chinese may use such TV programs for whatever propaganda purpose they choose because they convey nothing but America’s tacit acceptance of communist rule. Meanwhile, the management could claim that they have established themselves in the Chinese media market.
These are some of the same VOA managers who had made the disastrous decision to pull the plug on the Guo Wengui interview in 2017. Being informed of the threats from the Chinese government and of telephone calls to VOA from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, they decided to consult with the Chinese diplomats. They called back the Chinese Embassy. After listening to Chinese communist officials, they wanted the frontline VOA journalists to cancel the live program and, faced with strong criticism from within the ranks, later insisted that the live interview be severely shortened and the scope of questions be limited.
This kind of cowardly behavior in dealing with authoritarian regimes and in treating as equals corrupt officials known for stealing from their own people and lying to their own countrymen and foreigners alike leads these naive VOA managers to believe that communists officials and other dictators deserve equal time in VOA programs because they see them as equals on the account of the important positions they hold. Such naïveté is a symptom of another major problem at VOA, namely, nepotism.
Unable to secure quickly good-paying jobs in the private media sector after being laid off, these managers, editors and reporters parade into VOA because they are friends or past associates of some of the key VOA officials. When Amanda Bennett, who married into the powerful Graham family of the Washington Post fame, was appointed director of VOA, she selected a person who has never worked for any federal agency or managed federal employees. It was for a newly created managerial position which did not exist before. In less than two years, dozens of positions in VOA were filled in a similar manner. The once very lean front office is now crowded with people, including highly-paid “advisors” and “consultants.”
Before Amanda Bennett, the previous VOA director, who came from CNN, filled several high-level positions with his former colleagues at CNN. The director left, but the CNN clan has stayed. No longer being favored by the new director who has hired her own staff, many of them simply draw generous six-figure government salaries and sit in their comfortable offices.
Language service journalists are particularly frustrated by the prevailing nepotism practiced by the privileged managerial class. As new immigrants, they normally don’t have networks in the American journalistic community. Many of them become isolated and withdrawn. They show up for work but know that their efforts would not be rewarded by the management no matter how hard they try.
In fact, working hard may bring real trouble to journalists in the VOA language services, since their work is often judged by managers who have limited knowledge of their target regions and of the nature of communism and other forms of authoritarian rule. For instance, an excellent writer and reporter in the Mandarin Service was reprimanded time after time by the management simply because they believed that his work was “unfair” to the Chinese government. The producer of “History’s Mysteries” was criticized for “unbalanced” programs because in his film on banning books in China, he did not interview Chinese officials to get their side of the story even though he fully presented and exposed their outrageous lies and their fake excuses for censorship.
My final conclusion is this: nepotism, favoritism and censorship have destroyed the soul of the once respected Voice of America. VOA needs to be saved.
A Note to My Colleagues
I began listening to Voice of America in China when I was 15. Hearing VOA through the ear bug of a primitive crystal radio set inspired me to join the underground dissident movement. Later, when I was facing interrogators in a Chinese prison, I proudly admitted that I was a VOA listener. To people like me around the world, VOA has been a great source of hope for truth and freedom. I know many journalists in language services who have had the same experience.
It is heartbreaking to watch the soulless and heartless bureaucrats destroying the institution we love. I am asking my colleagues to write to the U.S. Congress, to the administration, and to the press. Tell your stories. Share your observation. Ask them to save VOA.
END OF DR. SASHA GONG’S COMMENTARY
COPY OF NOV. 29, 2018 E-MAIL FROM AMANDA BENNETT ON VOA MANDARIN SERVICE
From: Amanda Bennett
Sent: Thursday, November 29, 2018 11:32 AM
To: VOA Notices; IBB Notices Admin; BBG Networks
Subject: VOA MANDARIN SERVICE
Voice of America has today removed one Mandarin Service employee and given a period of suspension to another. Both actions relate to the April 19, 2017, Mandarin service interview with Guo Wengui—a Chinese business tycoon who later became a political activist—that was abruptly terminated.
The actions follow four independent investigations that all concluded the interview’s termination was a result of VOA leadership’s attempt to enforce previously agreed-upon journalistic standards. The investigations found no evidence to support allegations that pressure from the Chinese government, purportedly driven by “spies” within VOA, had caused the termination.
Rather, the investigations upheld the actions by VOA leadership, concluding that the unprofessional abrupt termination resulted from a series of apparent failures to follow explicit instructions from management and good journalistic practices.
The failure to comply with leadership’s instructions during the Guo interview “was a colossal and unprecedented violation of journalistic professionalism and broadcast industry standards,” concluded one outside report by Professor Mark Feldstein, Richard Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a journalist with decades of experiences as an award-winning television investigative reporter.
In this era of so-called “fake news” and interference by authoritarian governments into the workings of the global free press, allegations of outside tampering with content are very serious and have the potential to undermine the credibility of VOA, whose charter requires that it “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”
Thus, VOA and USAGM management immediately launched independent investigations. In accordance with Federal laws and regulations, five members of the broadcast team were placed on leave with full pay and benefits while the matter was under investigation.
VOA decided to take the disciplinary action against the two following a review of the evidentiary record, which included the Mandarin Service broadcast team members’ written and oral replies to the charges against them. Disciplinary proceedings against the other two Service members for alleged improper conduct are continuing in accordance with applicable Federal laws and regulations. No determinations have been made with respect to the charges against them. On August 30, 2017, one member of the broadcast team returned to work from leave after a comprehensive investigation concluded that this person had a minor role in the proceedings.
The investigations included:
o A three-month administrative inquiry conducted by outside counsel, which included 23 interviews with key members of VOA leadership and the Mandarin Service; a comprehensive document review, including contemporaneously prepared witness statements; and the preparation of an 85-page report, which detailed the events leading up to the Guo interview in nearly minute-by-minute detail. The investigation found sufficient factual evidence to conclude that the broadcast’s termination resulted from repeated failures to follow VOA management instructions and a disregard of VOA’s journalistic Best Practices guide.
o An internal security review, which rebutted unsubstantiated allegations that elements of the Chinese government had infiltrated VOA and compelled the interview to be censored or cut short. The security review found no evidence to support these allegations.
o Several Members of Congress also requested the Office of Inspector General perform an impartial and thorough investigation. The OIG concluded that the decision to curtail the Guo interview was based solely on journalistic best practices rather than any pressure from the Chinese government.
o The expert witness analysis by Professor Feldstein of the School of Journalism at University of Maryland, College Park. Professor Feldstein concluded that “VOA’s senior management did its best to make decisions consistent with journalism’s best practices and industry standards,” and “was not improperly influenced by the Chinese government or anyone else.” Based on his review of the evidentiary record he also issued the following opinion:
o There had been “a grossly negligent approach” to pre-interview vetting and failure to “corroborate the authenticity of Guo’s evidence or interview other sources” in violation of industry standards.
o The interview team apparently “demonstrated greater loyalty to its source than to its employer—at the expense of basic journalistic standards of accuracy, verification, and fairness.”
The details of the broadcast in question are as follows:
On April 19, 2017, members of VOA’s Mandarin Service conducted a live televised interview with Chinese political activist Guo Wengui. Guo, who has lived in self-imposed exile in New York since 2015, is an active critic of the Chinese government, alleging corruption and political persecution on the part of its leaders. While many of his allegations have proved correct, others have proved impossible to verify.
In light of Guo’s reputation, VOA leadership had concerns about the Mandarin interview team’s initial proposal to conduct a three-hour long live interview with Guo. A live interview of this length, VOA leadership believed, would increase the likelihood that accusations would be broadcast without the opportunity to vet the accusations for accuracy or giving the other side the opportunity to respond—a clear breach of journalistic ethics. Consequently, VOA leadership issued specific instructions to the interview team to (1) limit the interview to no more than one hour, (2) prohibit any extension of the interview over social media, and (3) prohibit any use of unverified documentation or materials during the broadcast. (4) continue to tape the interview for as long as necessary to produce material for later, properly vetted, broadcast.
Despite these specific and repeated instructions, the Guo interview continued past the one-hour mark through use of a social media livestream. During the interview, recordings provided by Guo that had never been authenticated were played.
The VOA Charter mandates that VOA “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” VOA internal guidance explains that “[t]he accuracy, quality and credibility of the Voice of America are its most important assets,” such that “VOA employees should carry out their work with the utmost professionalism.”
VOA employees are required by law to conduct their work in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism. A failure to perform necessary diligence prior to a controversial and sensitive interview, and disregard of managerial instructions issued in accordance with best practices and industry standard, violates this directive.
The integrity and reliability of VOA’s journalism is of paramount concern to VOA leadership, as evinced by the exhaustive investigation undertaken in this case. While disciplinary action is always regrettable, VOA believes it to be both necessary and appropriate in these cases.
Amanda Bennett, Director
330 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20237
Voice of America is an international
broadcaster reaching 85 countries in
more than 40 languages via television,
radio, web and mobile. VOA has a
weekly audience of nearly 237 million
people and transmits programs through
a global network of more than 2,400
local TV and radio affiliates.
Employees have a human right to be treated with dignity and respect!
END OF COPY OF NOV. 29, 2018 E-MAIL FROM AMANDA BENNETT ON VOA Mandarin SERVICE