Korn Fired: Meltdown at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

As it turned out, you really and truly needed a ticket to get into the December meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to try to figure out what’s going on with the complete disintegration of the taxpayer-funded Radio Liberty. Or to find out the fate of its highly problematic president, Steven Korn, a former CNN executive who has both led and fueled its meltdown. And as it also turned out, the board representatives were in no hurry to give that ticket to the press or, once the meeting was over, to encourage the press (i.e., me) to linger in order to discover what was bubbling beneath the blather. Korn especially wasn’t open to chat, his ruddy face as grim and rigid as Stonehenge, and his response to my interview request—a terse “I’m going on vacation”—as true a thing as he’s ever said.

Korn, as I soon discovered from two informed sources, will be going on permanent vacation. Come February, he was privately informed right before we met, he must leave the helm of Radio Liberty and its sister outfit, Radio Free Europe. Last week, his closest aides denied all talk of resignation to the RFE/RL staff, but then no one knows how long that inner circle will last either once they lose their champion. Just as urgent, I hear from those same sources: Korn is also not allowed to fire anyone at all during the weeks he has left. This was an essential part of the secret deal. Under his brief aegis and that of his most trusted aide, Julia Ragona, who is vice president for content, Radio Liberty, a onetime free speech and hard news beacon, has turned into a bloodbath, full of fear, fury—and almost no sound at all.

The Moscow radio component of Radio Liberty is for all practical purposes dead, in large part thanks to Vladimir Putin; and the region’s Internet service a disaster, with 41 of its best and most seasoned Russian journalists fired summarily, marched out, packed off in minivans, and dispatched to a lawyer’s office, having been told: (a) they couldn’t say goodbye to their audience and (b) they had no option but to resign with just a few months’ severance—or, as Liudmila Telen, then the editor of the Radio Liberty website, informs me, “to keep on working—but we would be denied access to the website and the office.” The Moscow editor recalls: “We asked for explanations, noting that such an immediate cessation will have a negative effect on audience [numbers] … but the answer was, ‘The decision is made, it is legal and therefore there is nothing to discuss.’” Small wonder that their page views have plummeted to 30,000–40,000 a day, from about 110,000. “No more burning issues, no more tough investigative journalism,” reports one knowledgeable source. “So there’s this huge loss of mission.”

As bad: The new director of the Moscow Internet service, Masha Gessen, who had written a critical book on Putin, actually met with the Russian autocrat shortly before she took over—a horrible misstep that left remaining journalists aghast. Almost no one of any influence has been untouched by the debacle. Prominent Russian human rights activists who, like some of the fired journalists, have risked their lives for their ideals, have complained openly and in vain to Korn, Ragona, and Gessen about what’s been happening to the service. Hard news is taking a back seat to fluff. And this is no accident.

“In times of tight censorship in the USSR, Radio Liberty made appeals for democratization and openness,” protested Mikhail Gorbachev, Glasnost’s father. Now, added the former Soviet president, it looks like “the American leadership of Radio Liberty is ready to rotate 180 degrees.”

Gorbachev isn’t alone in his dismay. “Steve Korn was a tremendous disappointment as the No. 1 person at RFERL,” Victor Ashe, one of board governors and a former US ambassador to Poland, tells me. “He made grievous mistakes and he was a terrible manager of people, and he has presided over the meltdown of the Moscow office. To turn Russian dissidents who used to be strong proponents of RFE and RL into opponents—even Vladimir Putin couldn’t have arranged that on his worst day. It’s breathtaking and stunning! And the ill will it created against an institution funded by the American taxpayer that has been an icon for freedom, liberty, and justice is amazing!”

But it isn’t just the loss of good journalists that employees and former fans of the outfit find disgraceful: it is the loss of journalism itself and the intrusion of high-level management into common journalistic practice. There seems, for instance, to have been some reluctance, at the start of Korn’s tenure, to annoy Putin. “Practically the first thing Korn did after his arrival last year was he banned all commentary and editorials, and the English language website was the most affected,” one employee informs me. “His style is: ‘There’ll be no discussion and it’s not up for debate.’”

Pretty soon a number of changes emerged under the new regime: a series of pathetically smutty videos appeared on the service’s Kazakh website, presumably to liven it up and attract new viewers. It is doubtful these aims were realized. In a largely Muslim region where smut doesn’t get a warm reception, viewers were treated to close-ups of bosoms and bikinis, and a narrative that suggests self-stimulation. “Those videos were removed after a while, but to put them up on an RFL site is ridiculous, it was just done to attract a young audience,” says Ted Lipien, who used to be acting associate director of Voice of America and who now heads the Committee for US International Broadcasting. “They just don’t understand why people go to RFE/RL websites. There are, I assure you, thousands of other websites with better sexually explicit material.”

Russia is a country where journalists who displease the regime often end up dead or facing criminal charges of libel and slander. Under Korn and Ragona, according to various well-placed sources, the very organization responsible for counteracting Putin’s malice and opening up informed debate has:

  • Told a female Kazakh staffer, Nazira Darimbet that her contract would not be renewed after a meeting during which she asked Korn pointed questions about the 41 fired Russian journalists. (She had previously criticized the posting of those dirty videos.)
  • Dismissed four out of its eight Kazakh journalists who had criticized their bureau—among them Saida Kalkulova who had worked there seven years. “The atmosphere … became unbearable when Steve Korn joined the radio as president,” said Kalkulova. “The whistleblower faces persecution.”
  • And, just last week, after the board told Korn his services would no longer be needed, Andrei Babitsky—a renowned war correspondent who was captured and tortured by Russian soldiers during the Chechnya atrocities—was ordered to apologize to Masha Gessen. Babitsky had written that the new Internet director was a poor manager and had an incomplete grasp of Russian. Babitsky refused, adding that if he was forced to apologize he would, but nothing would change his opinion of the Putin-visitor.

It is suspected that Babitsky, a courageous soul, was further emboldened by the new decree forbidding any further Korn firings. Let’s hope the cease-fire continues. Next week: a bit more on the subject. By the way: Sources welcome.


Photo Credit: Krokodyl

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