BBG Watch Commentary

A Failure of Leadership

No matter how one reads the Washington Post’s blog opinion article by Erik Wemple about the current state of the taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA), it shows, perhaps inadvertently and perhaps contrary to the author’s intent, a monumental failure of leadership: top leaders who don’t lead and senior managers who don’t manage — all of them blaming frontline VOA journalists for their own failure to lead, anticipate problems and take a hands-on approach to prevent them.

No matter how one reacts to the Washington Post opinion article, it shows that Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, VOA Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara, their boss, U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO John Lansing, and senior managers above the level of the chief of the Mandarin Service are in fact primarily responsible for the unprecedented fiasco with the sudden shortening of the Guo Wengui interview after protests from the Chinese communist government. They are far more to blame for failing to anticipate and prevent the crisis than Dr. Sasha Gong or any other journalist who was involved with the interview and now faces punishment for doing what they thought was right: exposing corruption and human rights abuses in China and resisting censorship demands from the Chinese government.

Before Mr. Lansing, Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sugawara appeared at the agency and the Voice of America, VOA journalists had done hundreds of interviews with controversial defectors and former communist officials. None of them resulted in a major scandal and disciplining of five frontline journalists. It never happened before because previous agency and VOA directors knew how to manage or had senior managers who knew how to manage.

The fact that Mr. Lansing, Ms. Bennett, and Ms. Sugawara were not closely involved in the planning and managing of such an important and potentially explosive interview from the very beginning to the very end—something that past agency and VOA directors simply knew they had to do in their U.S. government broadcasting jobs—shows that they do not understand their official role. They showed themselves to be disengaged, disconnected and not capable of leading the Voice of America and supervising its product. It is they who should resign rather than try to fire and discipline journalists for whom they have failed to provide leadership, direction, motivation, guidance and proper oversight.

Additionally, they simply don’t know what it takes to counter communist media monopoly in a country like China.

The opinion article does not mention Ms. Bennett’s and Ms. Sugawara’s past links with Washington Post nor reported business interests in China of Ms. Bennett’s husband who is the newspaper’s former publisher.

READ THE WASHINGTON POST OPINION ARTICLE: VOA fires journalist over interview with Chinese exile, Opinion, Blogs, The Washington Post, December 3, 2018.