The Chinese and U.S. flags set up for a visit by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Beijing in April. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
Media critic

There is a certain challenge in interviewing the billionaire Chinese exile Guo Wengui, who has many stories to tell. The subhead of a New York Times Magazine profile from January 2018 put the matter in direct terms: “From a penthouse on Central Park, Guo Wengui has exposed a phenomenal web of corruption in China’s ruling elite — if, that is, he’s telling the truth.” One of Guo’s many claims badly needing verification is that the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was the work of Chinese officials seeking to hide an organ-harvesting operation. A bonus: Guo fled China in 2014 and is under investigation there for allegations including bribery, fraud and rape — all of which he denies.

Over the years, journalism has evolved to contain folks such as Guo: The trick lies in hearing them out, taping their allegations, returning to the office, vetting them and, ultimately, presenting the investigative results to the public. From “60 Minutes” to the smallest local television outlet, that’s standard operating procedure for interviewing whistleblowers and bombthrowers.

During an interview on April 19, 2017, however, Voice of America (VOA) took a more direct approach. Sasha Gong, the chief of VOA’s Mandarin Service, was set to do a three-hour marathon interview with Guo — live.

The session was cut short after about an hour and 20 minutes, amid infighting at the VOA about how to handle the statements made by the talkative exile. For VOA, an international broadcaster funded by the U.S. government and part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, it was a high-profile production scandal. Last Thursday, VOA director Amanda Bennett announced that one of the service’s employees had been “removed” and another suspended over the goings-on, while disciplinary proceedings continue for two others. Investigations of the incident, wrote Bennett in a memo, “upheld the actions by VOA leadership, concluding that the unprofessional abrupt termination resulted from a series of apparent failures to follow explicit instructions from management and good journalistic practices.”

At most news organizations, a gaffe of this sort is commonly dealt with by a statement from the outlet, followed by quiet disciplinary action. At a government-run broadcaster, by contrast, there’s a bit more paperwork. The disciplinary process — during which the employees were on leave with pay and benefits — lasted 19 months, a bureaucratic marathon driven by four probes of the particulars: An 85-page reconstruction by the Gordon & Rees law firm; a security review, which, according to a Bennett memo, “rebutted unsubstantiated allegations that elements of the Chinese government had infiltrated VOA and compelled the interview to be censored or cut short”; an “expert witness” analysis by University of Maryland professor and longtime journalist Mark Feldstein; and an investigation by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General. 

Though Bennett didn’t identify Gong in her memo, the Mandarin Service chief confirms to the Erik Wemple Blog that she was fired over the incident. The 62-year-old Gong was born and raised in Guangzhou, China, and was once jailed for her activities as a political dissident. For Gong, the adverse personnel action hardly ends her input on the matter: “For years to come, I will put my energy and my intelligence to disclose the truth to the American public. I will write. I will publish articles and books. I will produce documentaries and movies. I will talk to everyone in Congress and anyone I can find in the administration. I will make exposing them my life mission regardless of the cost, because freedom and truth are priceless,” Gong wrote in a statement.

If only Gong had exerted such forcefulness in negotiating VOA’s interview with Guo. Instead, she acceded to the businessman’s demand that the session be taped live. It wasn’t an idle request, either: Guo told the Erik Wemple Blog that, earlier in 2017, he’d had a disappointing experience with the BBC. Though the British broadcaster interviewed him for a full hour, they cut the product down to 15 minutes — a standard move for broadcast journalism. Even in its reduced state, however, the segment was never aired, according to Guo. The BBC, he charges, “succumbed” to pressure from China to kill the interview.

A spokesperson for the BBC responds: “In 2017, the BBC Chinese service recorded an interview with Mr. Guo. After careful consideration, the BBC concluded that this interview did not meet BBC editorial standards and thus could not be published on any of its platforms because of the unsubstantiated allegations it contained.”

So when he discussed a session with VOA, Guo wasn’t going to be edited.  “If the interview wasn’t live, the content may be changed and would not be reported as it was said,” Guo said through an interpreter. The VOA’s Gong agreed to give Guo an hour of air time on the VOA’s “Issues & Opinions” show followed by two hours on social media. In his subsequent assessment, Feldstein wrote that the “terms for broadcast news interviews should be negotiated, not imposed.”

Gong insists that she went through channels to secure the appropriate approvals for the interview. According to Feldstein’s summary, however, three top managers at VOA didn’t discover until April 17 — two days before the interview — that Guo had been “promised” three hours of live airtime to unspool his thoughts about China. Over the next 48 hours, Gong and her interview team — who had set up in Guo’s New York residence — tussled with management by phone and email over how to deal with the interview.

Complicating all the interactions was the pressure from Beijing, which materialized after VOA ran a promotion for the interview promising “nuclear explosion-level” revelations. Chinese officials pulled in a VOA journalist in Beijing to warn him that the interview would interfere with internal Chinese affairs, not to mention the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, according to Gong. One of the Chinese officials told the correspondent, Bill Ide, that following through with the interview could jeopardize the VOA’s ability to get its visas renewed in China, according to the Gordon & Rees report. The Beijing correspondent emailed, “there is no way or reason for us not to air the interview,” according to the law firm’s report. Right on, said Gong.

The higher-ups weren’t as committed, Gong tells the Erik Wemple Blog. Jing Zhang, managing editor for VOA’s East Asia and Pacific division, said that a single interview with an exile didn’t merit imperiling visas for VOA personnel in China; Gong recalls responding:  “Tell them to go to hell. Otherwise, why do we do reporting?”

Chinese authorities spoke with Sandy Sugawara, VOA’s deputy director; according to Sugawara, they “demanded” that the organization kill the interview with Guo.  As Gong tells the story, Sugawara told her that the interview must be canceled. Sugawara contradicts this account. “I talked to them and they demanded that we cancel the show,” says Sugawara, who concluded that under such pressure, the VOA couldn’t cancel the session under any circumstances. That said, Sugawara did ask that “guardrails” be placed around the broadcast so that Guo’s riffs didn’t make it onto the air without vetting.  “I didn’t ask her to cancel it. I asked her to tape it,” says Sugawara.

Madness descended on the process, as top managers fought with Gong and her colleagues about the interview’s nitty-gritty. Management wanted to limit the amount of time that Guo would have to free-associate about his findings, not to mention the circumstances under which he’d be allowed to present any evidence on air to advance his allegations about Beijing.  According to the law firm investigation, a witness to the proceedings confirms that Gong ultimately agreed to a one-hour interview and to cancel the subsequent two hour presentation on Facebook Live. “Forget social media,” Gong told her managers on April 18, according to a witness cited by the law firm’s review. Gong vigorously disputes this conclusion, insisting that members of her interview team also on the call have no memory of this commitment.

The night before the interview, Interpol issued a red notice — essentially an arrest request — for Guo at the request of Beijing. That move heightened pressure on Gong and her colleagues.

When crunch time arrived, Gong’s team duly transitioned from the televised interview — which went pretty smoothly — to the social-media portion, signaling their intention to do the full three hours. VOA leaders watching in a Washington control room panicked, with Zhang writing in a message: “This is betrayal of basic trust. We cannot operate like this [if] we are a professional institution. Please wrap up the interview.” According to a transcript cited by the law firm’s report, Gong then took steps to halt the production. “Sorry, we must stop here, we must stop,” she said. And a colleague told viewers, “Dear audiences, I am very sorry, due to certain reason, our live broadcast must stop now.”

Feldstein: “To say that this fiasco failed to live up to professional standards is a colossal understatement. At best, it was a humiliating disaster. At worst, it looked like heavy-handed censorship by a dictator in a banana republic during a coup d’etat.”

Stepping back from the basic facts, Gong’s lawyer argues that interference from China turned the entire process. Whereas VOA management had supported the full three-hour interview, “it was only after the PRC launched an aggressive campaign to silence Guo Wengui that VOA management’s position shifted from one of affirmative support to one of active resistance, quickly followed by efforts to curtail the length and content of this critically important interview,” writes Paul Y. Kiyonaga of the Washington law firm Kiyonaga & Soltis, in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog.  “VOA’s unprincipled about-face led to the disastrous decision by management to cut off this interview mid-stream, a blatant affront to VOA’s core mission to provide robust, unflinching reporting and information to its audience worldwide.”

VOA management counters that it was merely trying to put some brakes on a freewheeling show — and if VOA was really suppressing something, it did a bad job of it. “This interview was carried on VOA live for one freaking hour,” says Bennett. “So if we’re going to talk about canceling and pressure, we did a full one-hour interview.” Nor does Bennett soft-pedal the ferocity from Beijing. “The Chinese were trying to stop the interview,” she says. “The Chinese did do many things. The Chinese always do things like this and it’s part of our normal cost of doing business in societies without a free press.”

There was nothing at all normal, however, about what happened just after the Guo interview. As recorded in the Gordon & Rees document, Gong reported to her colleagues that Guo “mentioned to all of us that [a VOA employee] was working for the Chinese spy agency.” If the team needed any proof of management’s warnings about stray allegations from this fellow, here it was. By Gong’s account, the spy-within-VOA allegation shocked Gong & Co. because no one on the team had mentioned the alleged spy’s name to Guo prior to his airing this out-of-nowhere claim. During his interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Guo said that, shortly after the VOA interview, he received a call from Liu Yanping, an official with the Chinese version of the CIA. “If we . . . want you to stop talking, then there is no way you can open your mouth and have a voice,” Liu said, according to Guo.  The Chinese official told Guo that Beijing is well-stocked with VOA plants.

In her memo last week, Bennett pointed out that the “security review” conducted after the Guo interview “found no evidence to support these allegations.” 

Gong’s past activism suggests this case will bubble along into its third year, with Kiyonaga insisting his client will use “all available means of legal redress” to fight the organization’s decision.

While Gong was on her interminable administrative leave, she made common cause with one of China’s most hardened critics: former Trump campaign aide and White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon. She pops up in the Bannon scare flick “Trump @War,” a platform that she uses to say this about Chinese President Xi Jinping: “He was a very cautious guy. He understood how to climb up. . . . But when he got to power, now he’s showing his true color. We see him using Mao’s language. We see him raising issues like what Mao raised.” (See 56:15). She recently tweeted pictures of herself alongside Trumpites Corey Lewandowski and Sebastian Gorka, who also contributed to “Trump @War.” As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Guo, too, has shown some affinity for Bannon, a hawk on U.S.-China relations.