BBG – USAGM Commentary
U.S. Agency for Global Media former Acting CEO and Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner who was among several senior USAGM officials put on administrative leave this week by the new Trump-appointed CEO Michael Pack, was the deciding officer in 2018 and 2019 in the case of some of the dissident Voice of America (VOA) China Branch journalists known as “VOA Mandarin Five,” copies of letters obtained by USAGM Watch show. Some of the VOA journalists were fired or otherwise disciplined by the former agency management in which Grant played a key role as deputy to former USAGM CEO John Lansing who was appointed in 2015 during the Obama administration and served until September 2019. Grant Turner served as USAGM CEO and Director on an interim basis from October 2019-June 2020.
The current suspension of several USAGM high-ranking managers, however, does not appear to be related to the VOA Mandarin Service incident in April 2017. According to media reports, the cause for the suspensions may be still unproven allegations of mishandling of security clearances for USAGM employees. Voice of America English Newsroom reported on August 14, 2020 that “The officials were placed on administrative leave, and their security clearances revoked.”
Although not related to their case, Grant Turner’s recent suspension, however, brought new hope to Voice of America China Branch Mandarin Service journalists who were punished over their programming and management dispute with former VOA Director Amanda Bennett that they might be exonerated and allowed to return to work at the organization that they feel mistreated and abandoned them under the previous management despite their loyalty and commitment to VOA’s mission of bringing uncensored news to China and other countries deprived of free media by communist and authoritarian regimes. In 2017, then Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett accused a group of VOA China Branch broadcasters of poor journalism and insubordination–charges these journalists strongly denied.
The fired VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters–all of them naturalized U.S. citizens–are still pursuing administrative actions to get Mr. Turner’s decisions in their cases reversed. They have said repeatedly that they want their names cleared and are eager to return to work at the Voice of America. They also told their many supporters that working for VOA is their life’s calling after having experienced arrests and repressions in communist China when they were younger before leaving their country and seeking refugee status in the United States. These longtime Chinese-American VOA journalists hope that the new USAGM management under CEO Michael Pack will help them put their lives back to normal. They described their treatment by the former management as unjust.
USAGM – BBG Watch found documents showing that Grant Turner was the USAGM official who made the decision to fire three experienced and highly-respected VOA Mandarin Service journalists, one of them a former political prisoner in China. It appears that the firings were at the request of VOA managers who reported to former Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett. She was appointed to her U.S. government position during the Obama administration. Her husband, the former publisher of The Washington Post, was reported to have had corporate business interests in communist China, but she has strongly denied that she was under any pressure or any kind of influence when several VOA Mandarin Service journalists were suspended and later some of them fired from their U.S. federal government jobs after many years of service.
In its current reporting on the suspension of Grant Turner and a few other high-ranking managers at USAGM , Voice of America English News does not mention any potential conflicts of interest of former USAGM executives or former members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, including former Democratic BBG Board Chairman Jeff Shell, a Hollywood movie executive. Shell was doing private corporate business in China while overseeing U.S. broadcasting to the communist-ruled country and approving the selection of Amanda Bennett as VOA Director and her former boss John Lansing as BBG CEO. Lansing is currently the head of National Public Radio (NPR). Broadcasting Board of Governors was the USAGM agency’s name before 2018. In its reporting, VOA has said nothing about business interests of former BBG Board members in China or in Russia. Although not illegal, such business dealings should have been noted in VOA news reports.
A Voice of America VOA English News August 14, 2020 report, “Pack Expands Purge at US Global News Agency,” did not mention Grant Turner’s role in the VOA Mandarin Five case and his decisions to fire three VOA China Branch journalists.
When reporting earlier on the disciplining and later firing of some of the VOA Mandarin journalists, VOA English Newsroom editors and writers did not use emotional terms such as “purge” or “retaliation” and did not show any obvious sympathy toward their Chinese-born colleagues. As a group they also did not sign any petitions in defense of VOA Mandarin Five. VOA English Newsroom also never reported on the death threats received by some of the suspended and fired VOA China Branch journalists. The death threats were apparently sent by members or supporters of the Chinese communist regime.
The Voice of America reporting on the suspended USAGM executives was substantially different from its reporting about the suspension and firing of VOA Mandarin Service journalists. VOA English News presented Grant Turner and David Kligerman, USAGM’s top lawyer, as possible victims of retaliation by new CEO Michael Pack.
VOA ENGLISH NEWS (Aug. 14, 2020): …the highest-ranking official sidelined, Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, said it was punishment for speaking up about “patterns of gross mismanagement” since Pack took over in June and about violations of the legal “firewall” that shields USAGM journalists from political interference.
“I think this is really retaliation for a lot of issues that I’ve been bringing to the front office,” Turner told VOA in an interview. He called the stated reasons for his removal “meritless.”
David Kligerman, who had served as general counsel for USAGM and previously the Voice of America, also was shoved out.
“As a career civil servant, I was disappointed to learn of these actions,” he said in a statement to VOA. “There is no other conclusion to draw except that it is in retaliation for attempting to do my job in an apolitical manner and to speak truth to power.”
Of the recently suspended USAGM executives, Grant Turner had a direct role in making decisions on the VOA China Branch firings. Initially five VOA Mandarin Service journalists were put on administrative leave in 2017 shortly after their interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui who wanted to expose Chinese government’s spying and influence buying activities in the U.S. It was reported at the time that Bennett ordered them to cut short the interview but due to apparent lack of hands-on management by senior leaders and miscommunication the interview lasted longer than Bennett wanted. The journalists reportedly argued against shortening the interview but were overruled in phone calls and e-mails.
Bennett later categorically denied that she was acting under any pressure from the Chinese communist government which prior to the interview had requested that it be canceled, but she ordered the live interview, which was scheduled for three hours, to be substantially shortened.
The VOA report on August 14 did not mention several USAGM and VOA management and programming scandals under former USAGM CEO John Lansing’s watch, including the hiring of his chief strategic advisor Dr. Haroon Ullah who was later caught stealing money from the agency and spent time in federal prison following a felony conviction. Lansing said in a statement that the suspended executives were “some of the finest public servants,” VOA reported. The VOA English News report did not question any of his assertions.
VOA ENGLISH NEWS (Aug. 14, 2020): John Lansing, the Obama appointee who preceded Pack as the USAGM’s leader from September 2015 to September 2019, said in a statement Thursday that the executives being shoved aside are “some of the finest public servants I have ever had the privilege to work with.”
“Pack’s attempt to discredit them is merely a smokescreen for his attempt to dismantle the legitimate editorial independence of VOA in favor of propagandizing the agency to favor the administration, which is illegal according to the congressional charter that established VOA and USAGM,” Lansing wrote.
Under Lansing’s and Amanda Bennett’s watch repeated violations of the VOA Charter were reported, including illegal targeting of Americans with Voice of America Facebook ads.
The VOA English News report painted an overall favorable picture of how the agency was managed under the previous team of executives and had several quotes from Grant Turner criticizing the new management.
VOA ENGLISH NEWS (Aug. 14, 2020): In an interview, Turner also brought up the firewall and pressures on journalistic resources.
He said potential violations include the temporary reassignment of VOA’s journalistic standards editor, Steven Springer, and the J-1 visa policy, saying it was “consistent with what I’ve seen as a pattern of trying to starve our various broadcasting networks of resources.”
As interim CEO, Turner handled visa extensions and said he wasn’t aware of any flaws in the process.
“We have people from many countries, and the agency, I believe, has taken security very seriously over the years and tried to do very clear investigations of staff,” he said.
“Since Mr. Pack’s tenure began there’s been a pattern of gross mismanagement at the agency that I’ve raised concerns about,” Turner said. “Obviously people in VOA and our journalist entities have seen what I believe are clear violations of the firewall.”
VOA English Newsroom which gave significant attention to Grant Turner’s explanations in his own case of being put on administrative leave never gave much attention to the stories of Voice of America Mandarin Service journalists who were fired by him earlier. Lansing apparently tasked Turner with making the decision on the fate of the VOA China Branch journalists even though Turner had no experience in news reporting or investigative journalism.
The USAGM managers who were recently suspended are completely unknown in the countries to which VOA should direct its programs, while the suspended and fired VOA Mandarin Service journalists are well-known in China, yet VOA English Newsroom gave these journalist hardly any attention and did not present their stories while paying a lot of attention in its report this week to government executives, most of them U.S.-born.
One of the Voice of America journalists fired by Grant Turner was Dr. Sasha Gong, former VOA Mandarin Service and China Branch chief, who is well-known in China and among Chinese immigrants in the United States. The VOA English Newsroom never reported on the loss of VOA’s credibility as a result of the shortening of the Guo Wengui interview and thousands of social media comments from Chinese Twitter and Facebook users criticizing Amanda Bennett and the agency’s former senior management for what they saw as the mishandling of the whistleblower interview and unjust firing of VOA Mandarin journalists. A group of some of the most prominent U.S. scholars specializing in China studies sent a letter in defense of Voice of America Mandarin Service journalists when they were being threatened with firing by VOA’s senior management. Chinese Americans staged protests in front of the VOA building in Washington, DC and have contributed money to the legal defense fund for the VOA Chinese journalists. VOA English Newsroom did not report on the public support for VOA Mandarin Service reporters.
DR. SASHA GONG: …on April 18, 2017, I fiercely resisted the suggestion from the VOA top management to cancel the Guo Wengui interview. It made zero sense to me that VOA would cave when facing vicious pressure from the totalitarian Chinese government. To me, we, the VOA journalists, should be the frontline soldiers in guarding press freedom.
I could hear the panic in their voices when they called me and my colleagues that night. Yet, they were such cowards that they dared not to give a direct order. They knew how bad it looked to the public if a well-promoted and widely-expected program was canceled or cut short in the last minute. They were hoping for me to cave to them and to violate my journalistic principle and my duty to my audience. But I stood firm and argued against this effort to curtail the interview and lost credibility to our audience. For that, I am very proud of myself.
All evidence points at that the Chinese government was using all the means it controlled to shut Guo up and shut the VOA interview down, including arresting his brothers and daughter, issuing an arrest warrant in China and a red notice via Interpol 12 hours ahead of our interview, harassing my family, and threatening VOA. Remember, all these happened in two days prior to our interview.
VOA management used its power to persecute me and my colleagues. We were threatened to be fired. We were defamed in the national and international press. I was identified by VOA in its press release and by the VOA director in the Wall Street Journal as the responsible party of the Guo interview debacle. We were attacked by mobs via social media. We received more than one death threat.
Unlike in the case of Grant Turner and other high-ranking USAGM officials who were suspended by the new agency management, Voice of America VOA English Newsroom staff showed no concern or solidarity in public with their foreign-born Chinese-speaking journalist colleagues when they were being fired. When Sasha Gong was fired, VOA News reported that “independent investigators found no evidence to support allegations the U.S. government agency caved in to pressure from the Beijing government and may have been infiltrated by a Chinese spy.” Bennett’s message to staff said the State Department inspector general’s report concluded “that the decision to curtail the Guo interview was based solely on journalistic best practices rather than any pressure from the Chinese government.”
VOA ENGLISH NEWS (Nov. 29, 2018): The internal security review “found no evidence to support” allegations that elements of the Chinese government had infiltrated VOA and compelled the interview to be censored or cut short, Bennett added.
Asked about those claims in the interview, Bennett said, “Any time you have allegations that a foreign power has infiltrated a U.S. government agency and directed its actions, that is a very serious matter, and we took it very seriously. … We found no evidence whatsoever” that it is true.
Going forward, she said she hopes the agency’s actions “will show that we are a professional news organization that follows best journalism practices, that doesn’t back down, that corrects its mistakes, but if it is correct, stands behind its reporting. And that we expect professional behavior from every member of our staff.”
Excerpts from the dismissal letters signed by Grant Turner and sent to some of the VOA Mandarin Five journalists who were fired.