The first address by new Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett was generally well received by employees, but many fear that she may be co-opted by Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) and VOA’s dysfunctional and failed managers.
Amanda Bennett is sworn in by BBG CEO John Lansing as VOA’s new Director. Kelu Chao, who served as acting VOA Director for nearly a year, holds the Bible.
Amanda Bennett’s inaugural statement demonstrated that she has some awareness of the huge problems at the Voice of America (VOA), but clearly not enough grasp as of yet to how deeply broken the place is, not just VOA, but also the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Office of Technology, Services, and Innovation.
Predictably, she sought to push back on the “dysfunctional and broken” image of the organization — no VOA director can afford to not to cheerlead to an extent, in an opening statement to staff.
It was predictable that she would lavish praise on VOA acting director Kelu Chao. What was quite astounding and revealing is that she would attach that general description of “fantastic” to the entire leadership team. One current VOA reporter questioned in a private email whether she may have already been co-opted to a degree by the existing management structure.
“Our ‘fantastic leadership team.’ Oops. Co-opted already?,” was how one VOA reporter responded to Bennett’s inaugural speech.
“I’m sure we will see before too long her going on a trip to visit the few remaining VOA news bureaus, with BBG’s longtime top bureaucrat Jeff Trimble,” a former senior VOA correspondent remarked after watching Amanda Bennett’s first address to agency employees.
While not numerous, questions were interesting, including one from a VOA Persian Service staffer who asked about investigative journalism followed by a statement from Jeff Young, who was given a title as VOA’s “Corruption Correspondent” by the former director David Ensor.
Among other things, let’s be clear: VOA has never had a primary role as an investigative journalism outfit; it’s a U.S. federal agency, albeit one in which journalism plays a key role. VOA has neither the resources, nor the history of being a consistently effective investigative journalism source.
Q&A also included the appearance by VOA senior national correspondent Jim Malone. Along with a small group of newsroom-based reporters, Malone strongly protested steps in 2014 and 2015 to increase the level of “countering violent extremism” programming at VOA, at one point calling on management to publicly reject such efforts.
This uprising by government-paid journalists came at a time when the Obama administration was trying to ascertain exactly what BBG would do to respond to needs to counter growing ISIS and al-Qaeda online activities. Some current and former VOA journalists, especially those working in foreign language services, felt that the VOA acting director at the time Kelu Chao was being bullied to stop her and the rest of VOA from having any kind of discussion about such issues as countering extremism and propaganda.
In her response to Malone’s mention of the issue of “government pressure…at the expense of journalism” Bennett referred to the VOA Charter, but added that “taking ideas….suggestions….” doesn’t mean “being biased.” There is “no room in VOA for pressure” said Bennett, but added that “if they are good ideas….I’ll take them from where they come.”
In general, Bennett appears to have said the right things for a new VOA director, with the usual references to the VOA Charter. But she’s only in the first mile of a long, long road and has yet to obtain even a fraction of the information she needs to deal with the entrenched VOA/IBB/BBG bureaucracy.
### Excerpts from Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett’s first address to employees:
“Also heard as I know you heard that the VOA is dysfunctional….the word broken being applied over and over and over again to the VOA. But then I got a chance to speak and meet with many of you here, to admire your expertise,to respect how hard you work and to observe so much passion, and so much commitment to VOA’s mission. So how could such characteristics be called dysfunctional? How could an organization made up of such people be thought of as broken? And, as for outliving our usefulness, I’ll argue along with John Lansing that far from being obsolete VOA is more vital than ever. The need for passionate, focused, mission-driven, credible and objective journalistic endeavor of the highest integrity is needed now more than ever.”
“We do have to change. We must change. Need to change in a big way. You have friends and colleagues at news organizations around world… all have struggled to adapt to new media environment. You don’t need me to tell you this is going to be hard. All have struggled with painful process of remaking themselves in this new world. Have to learn new skills, ways of thinking, embrace new colleagues and new audiences. Do best job we can reaching our viewers and readers….fierce dash to keep pace with global population becoming increasingly sophisticated and connected. If things are broken we must work hard to fix them. So, will all the pain be worth it? Think you all know the answer to that question. We are the VOA, tell America’s story, help other’s tell America’s story….listen to our audiences and tell them things they tell us they desperately need to know. Honest, unbiased, and tell the truth. And all you need to do is look around you….harrassment, interrogation, even death. Notes former VOA colleague in jail in Azerbaijan. Need to think of colleagues like her….use our freedoms wisely and well. I expect everyone here to do everything in their power to do that and promise you all I’ll do the same. Thank you.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."