USAGM Watch Commentary
By Current and Former VOA Journalists
VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy, Sandy Sugawara, resigned on Monday, a widely expected development as the federal agency that runs VOA transitions to a new CEO nominated two years ago by President Donald Trump and recently confirmed by the Republican-led U.S. Senate.
In a note to staff Bennett, and Sugawara (a former editor with links, like Bennett, to the Washington Post) acknowledged that Michael Pack, the new CEO, had the right to replace them with his own VOA leadership.
They fired a parting warning shot at Pack, noting that he “swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust VOA’s audiences around the world have in the organization.”
A VOA Newsroom reporter who wants to remain anonymous since many of Bennett’s proteges are still in charge of promotions said “as BBG – USAGM Watch has documented time and time again, there have been many cases of poor reporting…” [during Bennett’s tenure]. “At least 80% of management here is worthless,” the VOA Newsroom reporter added. A few other VOA Newsroom reporters were expressing their support for Bennett on social media although not as frequently or enthusiastically as for some of the past VOA directors. Bennett’s critics still working at VOA have been afraid to say anything critical about her publicly but often contacted BBG – USAGM Watch with their complaints.
In 2016, Bennett was appointed to run VOA during the administration of former President Barack Obama.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media is a $800 million a year agency that oversees numerous other broadcast and online media including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN).
In recent weeks, VOA came under unprecedented direct sharp attack by President Trump who asserted that VOA had amplified Chinese government propaganda about the coronavirus crisis. Trump called VOA a “disgrace.”
Bennett defended her management of the organization, saying VOA had “thoroughly [covered] China’s disinformation and misinformation in English and Mandarin and at the same time reporting factually –– as we always do in all 47 of our broadcast languages — on other events in China.”
Just before Bennett and her deputy submitted their resignations to Pack, it was revealed that the Centers for Disease Control had banned VOA from interviews because of White House criticisms of VOA.
Emails published by The Knight First Amendment Institute obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that CDC public affairs told its staff to ignore VOA media requests.
One reporter mentioned was Greta van Susteren. The former FOX and MSNBC was brought in to VOA during Bennett’s tenure and has worked pro bono for the agency, an arrangement that caused concern among many of VOA’s rank-and-file reporters as lacking official chain-of- command accountability for her programming contributions to VOA. There have been no complaints that Greta van Susteren’s programs for VOA included any Chinese regime propaganda which appeared mostly in some VOA Mandarin and VOA English Newsroom-generated output.
The only interviews Trump granted to VOA since his election were given to Van Susteren, rather than VOA’s full-time White House reporters. Van Susteren simultaneously works for Atlanta-based Gray Television.
In a statement, Bennett said “efforts such as those outlined in the CDC memo can result in the kind of chilling effect on our journalism that we regularly see in the markets we broadcast to that have no free press – including in China and Russia.”
During Bennett’s time as director, a series of scandals played out at VOA and the government-funded outlet Radio and TV Marti in the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB). Bennett had no management role at OCB which one of several media outlets under the overall management of her boss, former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing who was also appointed during the Obama Administration and resigned in September 2019 to become the head of National Public Radio (NPR).
Eight Marti reporters and other employees were fired following an internal investigation into anti-Semitic video segments disparaging philanthropist and Democratic donor George Soros. The head of Radio/TV Marti resigned in September of 2019.
Bennett fired 15 journalists in VOA’s Hausa language service after an internal investigation found they had accepted “brown envelopes,” or bribes, from a Nigerian official, but she herself has been criticized for meeting with controversial foreign leaders in her position as VOA director.
Perhaps the most controversial scandal involved Bennett’s firing of the head of VOA’s Mandarin Service and punishing other journalists after they aired a lengthy live mixed TV and Facebook interview with a Chinese billionaire businessman living in exile who is a sharp critic of the government in Beijing.
Those fired accused Bennett and her deputy of ordering the live interview to be shortened following a Chinese government threat to restrict journalistic visas for VOA reporters in China. Bennett denied that her programming and personnel decisions were influenced by pressure from China.
In yet another scandal at the agency not related to Bennett, Haroon Ullah, a former chief strategy officer at USAGM who was selected by former agency CEO John Lansing who was also the official who had hired Bennett, served a three month jail term after pleading guilty in federal court in Alexandria, VA to stealing government property.
During her time as VOA director Bennett was forced to admonish reporting staff who used social media channels to voice personal political views and carry out advocacy journalism, but such violations of the VOA Charter and the VOA journalistic code and other agency regulations continued under her watch until this year.
After Trump’s election in 2016, VOA reporters skewered Trump and his wife Melania during a series of satirical holiday skits held at the VOA headquarters building in Washington.
VOA’s standards and practices guidelines were revised after numerous examples of personal bias were revealed by the independently-run watchdog site USAGM/BBG Watch and other media.
Bennett also was forced to order employees to undergo remedial training classes on reporting, and avoiding bias in reporting, but she also highlighted and praised VOA reports which critics described as containing partisan bias.
After Amanda Bennett pointed out recently that a media bias site gave the Voice of America a clean bill of journalistic health, a VOA journalist commented: “I’m not familiar with this media bias site, but they really got it wrong. It’s not the case that VOA ‘might’ lean ‘slightly left’ in some cases. As we both known, in some cases it has been pervasively anti-Trump for three years. If this were a credible media bias site , it would have seen what is blindingly obvious to anyone who bothers to read just a handful of VOA stories about Trump. But I can see why VOA leaders [Bennett and Sugawara] would want staff to share this flattering review of their network right now.”
In the months after Bennett first arrived at VOA, she brought in a three-person team of outside journalists as consultants to study VOA’s journalistic content. One of the three remained with VOA, handling a new “investigative” reporting unit.
It’s still not known whether the original team produced any final report for Bennett. The agency slow-walked Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information about the findings of this consultant team.
Just before the formal farewell note to staff appeared, sources who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak about internal issues said the head of VOA’s central newsroom called an “urgent” meeting focusing on the issue of balance in VOA reporting on nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
In previous days, one key VOA editor was tasked with examining quality control issues, including ensuring objectivity and balance in the agency’s reporting.
A VOA source who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely said “VOA cannot faithfully uphold its charter to represent America – and not any single segment of American society – unless we have new . . .leaders who recognize the need for intellectual diversity in newsrooms and who are committed to reporting conservative and liberal viewpoints on controversial issues equally and fairly across all news products and platforms.”
Since President Trump took office, the source said, “VOA English news coverage has primarily reported liberal viewpoints on U.S. political issues and minimized or excluded conservative opinions . . . ” adding that VOA newsroom leaders “know this but don’t see it as a problem, because they collectively believe conservative viewpoints are some combination of stupid, illegitimate, extremist, conspiracy theories and lies.”