The US Senate on Thursday (22/9) approved the nominee for US President Joe Biden’s Head of the US Global Media Agency (USAGM), Amanda Bennett. USAGM is the federal agency that oversees Voice of America (VOA) and other international broadcasting entities.
With a vote of 60 to 36, the US Senate, controlled by a slim majority of Democrats, approved Amanda, the former director of VOA, as head of USAGM for a three-year term.
Following the results of the vote, USAGM acting CEO Kelu Caho praised Amanda’s experience and vision and said Amanda could help equip the broadcaster to “confront threats to independent media and reach audiences in need.”
“Now, more than ever, people around the world rely on fact-based USAGM news to defeat growing misinformation, disinformation and censorship. I and the whole body welcome Amanda back to serve at this crucial moment for freedom and democracy,” Chao said.
Approximately 394 million people access USAGM programs each week. The federal agency overseen by the US Congress oversees two other federal entities, VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), as well as four non-profit agencies, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East East Broadcasting Network (MEBN) and Open Technology Fund (OTF).
Amanda previously served as executive editor of Bloomberg News and managing editor of The Oregonian newspaper. He has also been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal for more than two decades, including in Beijing. He wrote six nonfiction books and twice shared the Pulitzer Prize with his colleagues: the first in 1997 with The Wall Street Journal and the second in 2001 with The Oregonian.
He has served as director of VOA since 2016 and stepped down in June 2020, just before Michael Pack took over as CEO of USAGM. Pack was Donald Trump’s nominee when he was president.
Pack then appointed Robert Reilli in December 2020 to replace Amanda. Minutes after Biden was sworn in as president on January 20, 2021, Biden requested and accepted Pack’s resignation and appointed VOA program director Kelu Chao as acting CEO of USAGM. Chao fired Reilly a day later.
Amanda has faced criticism from some Republican politicians since her confirmation hearing last June 7, when she told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she would advance USAGM’s mission of objective and balanced reporting at a time when disinformation is on the rise around the world.
The America First Legal Foundation, a center-right nonprofit founded by a former senior Trump administration official, asked Biden to withdraw Amanda’s nomination over allegations of “national security failures and related matters” when he was director of VOA.
The foundation’s chief complaint was that Amanda headed USAGM’s largest media network, VOA, at a time when other departments warned USAGM of the agency’s “weaknesses” in granting security clearances to employees, some of whom held sensitive positions. In a 2020 report compiled by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), it was found that 1,527 USAGM employees, or approximately 40% of the total workforce, had improperly undergone security screening during the previous 10 years. This prompted OPM to revoke USAGM’s authority to conduct background checks on its own employees.
Following the vote in favor of Amanda’s appointment as CEO of USAGM on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Marco Rubio told VOA, “I have a few questions about how [VOA] dealing with an interview with a prominent Chinese dissident when he [Amanda] work there [VOA] before.”
Rubio was referring to Amanda’s decision in 2017 to cut short a live interview that VOA’s Mandarin section conducted with Chinese billionaire and well-known Beijing critic Guo Wengui that was previously scheduled to last three hours. Rubio also questioned Amanda’s decision to fire the then head of the Mandarin section, Sasha Gong, and several other employees who had defied her orders regarding the duration and handling of the interview.
Amanda’s critics accuse her of bowing to Chinese government pressure to silence Gui. However, VOA’s public relations office said that a third-party review of the incident “concluded that the decision to limit in-person interviews was based solely on and consistent with journalistic guidelines. [VOA].”
Amanda’s nomination was approved by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a group last June, meaning she passed along with several other nominees without a vote.
“His leadership is important at a time of the rise of authoritarianism around the world – to ensure that people living under repressive regimes, not only have access to accurate information, but can also see examples of excellent journalism practice,” said Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, former member of the USAGM board, told VOA earlier this year. [rd/jm]