U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) pledged Tuesday to advance the agency’s mission of objectivity and balanced reporting at a time when disinformation is on the rise globally.
Former Voice of America director Amanda Bennett told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she would be a pragmatic leader willing to adapt news delivery to whatever suits audiences best.
During the hourlong hearing, senators questioned Bennett on her record at VOA, how she would handle challenges facing the free press amid a global trend of disinformation, and USAGM’s ability to deliver news to audiences under authoritarian regimes.
If confirmed, Bennett would lead USAGM, the federal agency with an $840 million annual budget that oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Open Technology Foundation.
USAGM is currently led by former VOA director of programming Kelu Chao, who holds the CEO position in an acting capacity. Chao was assigned the position after Michael Pack, the last presidential appointee, resigned at Biden’s request.
In her opening remarks to the committee, Bennett spoke of the role journalism plays in society. “We’re at a critical moment in history,” she said. “Journalism and public diplomacy alike are targeted as never before by authoritarian regimes using myths and disinformation to undermine those seeking credible, fact-based and unbiased coverage of the world around them.”
Bennett said she would work with all USAGM entities to maintain high journalistic standards and protect the safety and privacy of journalists and audiences.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, who presided over the hearing and cited Russia’s crackdown on opposition to its war in Ukraine and the threats to media globally, said, “It’s clear that [USAGM’s] mission of providing balanced and objective media to societies without a free press has never been more important.”
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, said Bennett’s nomination comes at a time when press freedom and democracy are declining around the world.
“U.S. international broadcasting has a very important role to play with authoritarian governments [that] shut down the news and censor their people; this agency can give credible and timely and accurate information,” he said.
Senators also examined Bennett’s record while VOA director between 2016 and June 2020, when she resigned before Pack took over. During the Trump administration, the agency came under criticism from the president for using Chinese government data on coronavirus infections and deaths, implying the agency was “soft” on China, an accusation VOA vigorously disputed at the time.
Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said he backed Bennett’s journalistic track record leading the federal agency’s news coverage during her VOA tenure.
Bennett denied the agency had provided uncritical coverage of China, saying, “My entire journalistic career has been devoted to giving truthful news and information and not advocating for any position whatsoever, especially not a repressive regime.”
Bennett’s nomination is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled committee in the coming weeks before moving to a full floor vote in the U.S. Senate.
Her journalism experience and her experience as head of VOA were cited as reasons for her suitability for the role.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has a long career in U.S. media, including as executive editor at Bloomberg News and managing editor of The Oregonian newspaper. She was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal for more than two decades, including in Beijing.
Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, a former member of the USAGM’s governing board, told VOA that Bennett’s media background and knowledge of USAGM from her time as VOA director make her a strong candidate. She said Bennett could set “the standard for all who follow.”
“Her leadership is essential at a time of resurgent authoritarianism around the world — to ensure that people living under repressive regimes not only have access to accurate information but also can see models of excellent journalism in practice.”
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, speaking on background, highlighted to VOA key areas they believe the next head of the agency should focus on.
As well as closely tracking the increased funding provided under the latest spending bill, priorities include the creation of an advisory board to ensure objective news coverage without bias; ensuring robust coverage in Russia, Ukraine and surrounding countries, including via RFE/RL; and pro-American coverage of Iran and China.
Other issues include examining the rehiring of staff who were dismissed under Pack’s watch; and details, including the cost, of an investigation into allegations of Pack’s wrongdoing at the agency.
Critics also question Bennett’s decisions to cut a live interview broadcast by the network’s Mandarin service with a prominent critic of Beijing, and to dismiss Mandarin Service head Sasha Gong and others over the incident.
VOA says no wrongdoing has been proven in that decision.
“In no instance has any court or other adjudicative or administrative body found that the Agency failed to prove its allegations,” VOA’s Public Relations said Tuesday. “Third-party reviews of this matter concluded that the decision to curtail the live interview was based solely on and consistent with journalistic best practices.”
Committee hearings for presidential nominees take place after a White House vetting process. Candidates are also investigated by the FBI, IRS and Office of Government Ethics.
During nomination hearings, senators question the candidate to determine their suitability for the position and seek evidence of partisanship. The committee members eventually vote on whether to recommend the nominee for consideration by the full Senate.