USAGM Watch Commentary
Originally published on May 1, 2020 and last edited for formatting changes on February 19, 2021.
As of this morning, April 21, 2020, the taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) managed by the $800 million (annual) U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is still promoting without any disclaimers Chinese government’s COVID-19 data, a dangerous journalistic malpractice which if not immediately addressed may encourage China to continue lying and convince its officials that their propaganda is having a desired effect. Anybody with any journalistic sense knows that these Chinese statistics are wrong and almost certainly falsified at some level in China to avoid responsibility for the outbreak and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. The China COVID-19 numbers are being used by Beijing officials for propaganda and disinformation purposes.
Despite severe criticism of the Voice of America by the White House more than ten days ago and serious doubts about China’s statistics expressed even earlier by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. intelligence agencies, VOA still presents as of April 21 in graphs and tables the highly questionable COVID-19 data from China. VOA has been putting such data online as part of a “VOA/JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY” project without any warnings to its audiences as to the accuracy of official Chinese coronavirus reporting. We tend to agree with the White House at least on one point. Uncritical reliance on such data and repetition of unchallenged Chinese and other foreign propaganda represent a major journalistic failure under the watch of VOA Director Amanda Bennett.
VOA has been relying frequently on China’s official COVID-19 data for many weeks with hardly any questioning, most of the time none at all. The question is not if the Voice of America has repeatedly broadcast and shown on the web Chinese propaganda lies about coronavirus, often without any challenge or balance, because it has, but whether such uncritical reporting encouraged Chinese officials and their propagandists to keep putting out false data and other disinformation because they saw from VOA’s response that what they were doing was working in their favor with unwitting assistance from the Voice of America and some other, although not all, Western media.
A dissident VOA news reporter sent to BBG – USAGM Watch a copy of an April 6 internal VOA e-mail which confirms that Voice of America management was unconcerned about the lack of reliability of COVID-19 statistics from China. The e-mail, in which a senior VOA manager urged VOA journalists to use and promote such official data, seems to have had the approval of VOA’s leadership as it has not been withdrawn or, to our knowledge, corrected, and the official data from China is still being shown by VOA on its websites and social media pages as of today.
Mon 4/6/2020 9:19 AM
Good morning everyone,
My counterpart at AP sent this to me, available for use by all at VOA:
News and Product have decided to make our dataset of U.S. Coronavirus cases available as a public service. The data is sourced from Johns Hopkins and is available at the county level in the United States. Multiple customers have come to us asking for our help (1) vetting all the various data sources that are out there and (2) organizing the data in an easier way. The AP has paired this data with population figures and county rural/urban designations, and has calculated caseload and death rates per 100,000 people. We have also included pre-made queries to aid analysis, insights into methodology/caveats and an interactive graphic.
Feel free to plug the data with your customers or prospects.
In the case of many countries, such official statistics are relatively accurate and are not believed to be intentionally falsified. But there was not a word in the April 6 VOA e-mail to news reporting staff suggesting that Chinese official data may be vastly misleading and that VOA journalists should question or investigate all official Chinese claims on coronavirus statistics. Not a word of caution was included in the internal VOA e-mail sent by a senior manager who did not note that only a few days earlier Secretary of State Michael Pompeo publicly questioned the accuracy of coronavirus information being provided by the Chinese government.
There was also no call in the e-mail to VOA editors to check any COVID-19 official information from Beijing with their colleagues at Radio Free Asia (RFA), which is also part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media but, unlike VOA, has a reputation of being well-managed and not fooled by Chinese regime’s propaganda.
In screenshots from VOA websites and social media pages taken on the morning EDT of April 21, 2020, we did not see any disclaimers that numbers from China may not only be unreliable but purposely false or misleading.
On April 9, the official Trump White House newsletter 1600 Daily accused the Voice of America of spending taxpayers’ money “to speak for authoritarian regimes.” The White House noted that VOA’s annual budget is about $200 million but it may be much higher if some of the VOA support budget of the U.S. Agency for Global Media is included. The White House said that “Today,… VOA too often speaks for America’s adversaries—not its citizens.”
During his April 15, 2020 White House press briefing, President Trump used even sharper words, saying that what is coming out of the U.S. tax-funded, U.S. government-managed Voice of America is “disgusting” and “a disgrace.” He called on Democrats in the U.S. Senate to quickly confirm his nominee Michael Pack to be CEO of the federal agency which oversees the Voice of America.
In her response to the White House statement, VOA Director Amanda Bennett, who was appointed to her position during the Obama administration, said that there is nothing wrong in presenting such [Chinese government] data because it “was drawn from Johns Hopkins, which is used throughout the world.”
VOA News depends on factual unbiased reporting. For example, VOA sources the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths both inside individual nations and globally from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Data from the graphic cited in the White House press release was drawn from Johns Hopkins, which is used throughout the world.
However, it appears that VOA has added its name, and therefore—in our view—the authority of the United States Government, to the Johns Hopkins data. The two names—VOA and Johns Hopkins University—can be seen on one of the screenshots from the official VOA website and the official VOA Facebook page. This may suggest to many readers that it is a joint project between VOA and Johns Hopkins University.
As Director Bennett herself wrote, this data “is used throughout the world.” Our questions for Director Bennett would be: Should the official China data be used throughout the world with the help from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America under its congressional Charter which says that VOA news will be accurate, balanced and comprehensive? What happened to journalistic skepticism and VOA’s journalistic independence?
In an unprecedented development in the history of the Voice of America and also in a somewhat bizarre response, the Voice of America director was defended against indirect accusations from the White House and the U.S. President by her husband, multimillionaire businessman Donald E. Graham, and by a family friend, Colbert I. King, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, a paper once owned by the family of Amanda Bennett’s husband. Such interventions by spouses and family friends on behalf of a VOA director have to our knowledge never happened before Amanda Bennett was put in charge of the Voice of America in 2016.
Showing a poor knowledge of VOA’s checkered history, which included promoting Stalin’s propaganda during World War II which led to the quiet resignation of the first VOA Director John Houseman under pressure from the President Roosevelt White House, Bennett’s family friend Colbert I. King titled his article Trump’s attack on the VOA reeks of McCarthyism. He is wrong on VOA’s history and did not bother to check with many inside and outside critics of Ms. Bennett’s management record at VOA, and neither did The Washington Post nor Politico. Among liberal media, only the National Public Radio (NPR) had a more objective report and quoted an outside critic.
On the same day the White House issued its rebuke of the Voice of America, the VOA China Branch produced and put on the Internet at US taxpayers’ expense a two-minute video of pure Chinese communist government propaganda.
Politico reported that “Bennett’s husband Don Graham, whose Graham Holdings sold the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos in 2013, has taken to defending her on his personal Facebook page, appealing to taxpayers.”
The article in Politico quoted “You, through your tax payments, have built up a worldwide broadcasting organization with considerable worldwide credibility. And now we have a chance to throw it away,” he [Amanda Bennett’s husband Donald E. Graham] wrote, in addition to authoring a lengthy post about Bennett’s work as an editor at Bloomberg News in exposing the riches of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s family.
“She [Amanda Bennett] has been a truthful reporter and editor,” he [Donald E. Graham] wrote, “willing to stand up to the Chinese government (as the family of Xi Jinping will attest), at Bloomberg and at VOA.”
According to Wikipedia article on Donald E. Graham, he is is the majority owner and chairman of Graham Holdings Company which, also according to Wikipedia, includes a higher education company Kaplan. A website for Kaplan International Pathways shows that the company is doing business in China and has an office in Beijing.
We tend to agree fully with Mr. Graham that Ms. Bennett is not knowingly or willingly sympathetic toward the Chinese communist government. Most Americans would not be, even those who do business in China. However, for many reasons she should not be in charge of the important part of U.S. government-funded media outreach to a major foreign power.
Some VOA English Newsroom managers, editors and reporters who dislike or even despise Donald Trump and who in the past posted obscene memes and comments about him on social media are afraid that if Michael Pack, a Trump nominee, is confirmed by the U.S. Senate he might fire Amanda Bennett and other managers. They were silent, however, when several anti-communists journalists in the VOA China Branch were either fired or disciplined because they disagreed with the VOA Director. She said that these fired or disciplined VOA journalists did not follow orders. They deny that they did anything wrong.
Those VOA journalists who agree with the White House that the organization is poorly managed by Bennett and her deputies are afraid to speak up publicly, but one of them with years of experience in multimedia journalism sent recently a few pointed questions to USAGM Watch.
Isn’t the scandal of multiple Voice of America Hausa Service journalists taking bribes from a Nigerian politician disgusting and disgraceful? [BBG – USAGM Watch note: These journalists were fired, but such a scandal occurring at VOA is unprecedented.”]
Isn’t the firing by senior VOA and Agency leaders of Chinese-American anti-communist Mandarin Service chief Dr. Sasha Gong who wanted to broadcast in full an interview with a Chinese whistleblower disgusting and disgraceful?
Aren’t VOA broadcasts to Iran described in the  American Foreign Policy Council study as “perpetuating to audiences the appearance of pro-regime propaganda rather than objective reporting” disgusting and disgraceful?
Aren’t meetings of VOA Director and other VOA managers with corrupt politicians abroad disgusting and disgraceful?
And the list goes on…
The VOA News reporter who sent these questions wants to remain anonymous because she is afraid of retaliation by the VOA management.
In two articles on his public diplomacy blog, MountainRunner.us, Matt Armstrong, former Republican member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) who is now a frequent critic of President Trump and his administration, has asserted that “a lack of leadership by the administration … allows Director Bennett to misuse scarce resources to run VOA as just another news agency competing with US media for audience instead of reaching and empowering audiences abroad.”
It should be apparent at this point that there is a problem of leadership at both VOA and USAGM that has permitted the situation to not just perpetuate but potentially get worse, as Director Bennett’s mission-deaf comments reveal.
We are not a China experts, but we have reasons to believe that if VOA from the very beginning started to question aggressively Chinese government COVID-19 data instead of promoting it as valid in multiple reports and graphics, perhaps Chinese officials could have felt enough American pressure to back off on their propaganda and disinformation claims and start providing accurate information to the United States and other nations that could have saved many lives.
We are aware that Radio Free Asia has done excellent investigative reporting and questioning (for which we applaud RFA), but Chinese government officials, if they think the same way communist officials did during the Cold War, would, in our view, probably pay much more attention to what VOA is saying at this time. China’s leaders may fear RFA, just as communist leaders during the Cold War feared Radio Free Europe more than they feared VOA, but being regime bureaucrats they may be influenced more by VOA as the official or semi-official voice of the U.S. Government. We would not be at all surprised if they think that VOA is and represents the U.S. Government.
When Chinese regime officials saw in 2017 that VOA Director Amanda Bennett ordered shortening of a lengthy interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui after they put pressure on VOA to cancel the interview, they may have concluded that pressure and lies work against VOA even though Amanda Bennett categorically denied that she was acting under any pressure and presented her decision to cut the interview short as necessary for upholding high journalistic standards. When VOA senior management later fired or disciplined some of the VOA Mandarin Service journalists who wanted to air the whole interview with the whistleblower, Chinese officials may have become even more convinced that VOA can be successfully manipulated. According to dissident VOA Chinese Branch journalists, the following message was sent to them in 2017 by a senior VOA manager with regard to China-related interviews.
You cannot… I repeat…NOT allow a guest to make explosive allegations about other people, even if they are high government officials, without having given the other side an advance chance to respond.
Since Chinese communist officials do not respond to such requests, they could no longer be accused by name by VOA or by VOA’s guests of any serious misdeeds, including corruption. After the firing of a few of its most experienced anti-communist journalists, the VOA Mandarin Service went a step further and started to quote at length Chinese regime officials, allowing them in many cases to tell lies without any immediate challenge or even promoting such lies in social media graphics produced by VOA.
Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) Executive Director Ann Noonan criticized one such anti-U.S. and pro-China message from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America. Representing her non-partisan, independent NGO, Ann Noonan spoke about it on September 11, 2019 at the open meeting of the U.S. Agency for Global Media Board which oversees the work of VOA executives and journalists.
During the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese students could rely upon VOA to cover their message without giving equal time or any time to the oppressors. If Carrie Lam needs to be quoted, can’t VOA say how this relates back to the CCP’s own propaganda to divert attention from the suppression of basic human rights in Hong Kong?ANN NOONAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE COMMITTEE FOR U.S. INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING, SPEAKING IN WASHINGTON, DC AT THE OPEN BOARD MEETING OF THE U.S. AGENCY FOR GLOBAL MEDIA ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2019.
When at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic Chinese government officials saw that VOA was accepting and using their propaganda and even on April 9 produced a two-minute video with nothing else but an anti-US rant by one of Beijing’s top-propagandists, they may have been encouraged to keep on lying about COVID-19 because they thought, correctly in this case, that their propaganda was working at least for the time being and perhaps would work forever. They seem somewhat shaken when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly condemned their propaganda lies and when the White House and President Trump strongly criticized the Voice of America for promoting them in its programs.
To present it another way, perhaps the Voice of America had the power back in January 2020 to save lives by stopping China from lying, but VOA not only failed to use that power; it helped the Chinese communist regime spread its disinformation, which in turn may have contributed to unnecessary deaths in the United States and in other countries, including China.
To put it yet another way, bad, un-skeptical and reckless journalism at the time of a grave international or national emergency can be deadly and is a threat to U.S. national security. We are not saying that somebody at VOA was intentionally at fault, but the end result for Americans and for many other people, including the Chinese, may have been just as bad because VOA chose to accept and use Chinese communist regime’s coronavirus data and false claims instead of vigorously challenging and investigating them from day one.
Following criticism from the White House and from other corners in Washington and in some U.S. media, VOA slowly started to question China’s COVID-19 statistics, but it still accepts and promotes them in some of its reporting and in its online graphics as of April 21, 2020.