The U.S. Senate Thursday approved President Joe Biden's nominee to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and other international broadcasting entities.
On a 60-36 vote, the narrowly-Democratic-controlled Senate approved Amanda Bennett, the former director of VOA, to head USAGM for a three-year term.
Following the vote, acting USAGM CEO Kelu Chao praised her experience and vision and said Bennett can help equip the agency to "confront threats to independent media and reach audiences in need."
"Now more than ever, people across the world are depending on USAGM's fact-based news to triumph over increasing misinformation, disinformation, and censorship. I join our entire agency in welcoming Amanda back to serve during this crucial moment for freedom and democracy," Chao said.
An estimated 394 million people access USAGM programming each week. The federally-funded agency overseen by the U.S. Congress has two federal entities, the Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and four non-profits - Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Open Technology Fund.
Bennett served as executive editor at Bloomberg News and was managing editor of The Oregonian newspaper. She also was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal for more than two decades, including in Beijing. She is the author of six nonfiction books and has twice shared the Pulitzer Prize with her colleagues, in 1997 at The Wall Street Journal and again in 2001 at The Oregonian.
She served as VOA director from 2016 before resigning in June 2020, ahead of Michael Pack taking over as USAGM CEO. Pack was appointed by then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
Pack appointed Robert Reilly in December 2020 to succeed her. Minutes after Biden was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2021, he requested and received Pack's resignation and appointed then-VOA programming director Kelu Chao as acting USAGM CEO. Chao removed Reilly as VOA director a day later.
Bennett has faced criticism from some Republicans since her June 7 confirmation hearing, when she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she would advance USAGM's mission of objectivity and balanced reporting at a time when disinformation is on the rise globally.
America First Legal Foundation, a right-of-center nonprofit organization founded by former senior Trump administration officials, asked Biden to withdraw Bennett's nomination, citing alleged "national security and related failures" when she was VOA director.
The group's main complaint is that Bennett ran USAGM's biggest network, VOA, at a time when other government departments warned USAGM leaders of 'deficiencies' in security clearances of agency employees, some with sensitive positions. A July 2020 report by the Office of Personnel Management found that 1,527 USAGM employees, or about 40% of the total workforce, had been improperly vetted over the previous 10 years, prompting OPM to revoke USAGM's authority to conduct its own background investigations of employees.
Following the vote approving her nomination in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Marco Rubio told VOA, 'I had some questions about the way (VOA) handled the interview with the well-known Chinese dissident while she was there the first time."
Rubio was referring to Bennett's 2017 decision to cut short a planned live interview by VOA's Mandarin service with exiled Chinese billionaire and prominent Beijing critic Guo Wengui, and to fire then-Mandarin service chief Sasha Gong and other staffers who had defied instructions regarding the length and handling of the interview.
Bennett's critics accused her of succumbing to Chinese government pressure to silence Guo. But VOA's public relations office said third-party reviews of the incident "concluded that the decision to curtail the live interview was based solely on and consistent with journalistic best practices."
Bennett's nomination was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee en bloc this June, meaning she was passed along with other nominees without a recorded vote.
"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," U.S. Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, a former member of USAGM's governing board, told VOA earlier this year.