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Steven Korn's Disastrous Tenure at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: A Postmortem

No one appears to know what to do at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty any more. And no one appears to know what to do about it. There was supposed to be a formal meeting of the Board of Governors today, Monday. Now there is simply an informal one, with no official decisions to be made. Steven Korn, the demonstrably unfit and arrogant RFE/RL president, was supposed to tender his resignation today, but no one appears to know if this will happen now. Other important matters remain woefully unresolved. For instance, Jeffrey Trimble, International Broadcasting Bureau acting deputy director, will not have completed his analysis of what went wrong at the devastated Radio Liberty, bereft now of some of its best reporters. This is because Trimble has six months—that’s right—in which to tell his colleagues how Korn, Korn’s top aide Julia Ragona, and Masha Gessen, their new director of the Russian service, wrecked an outfit that for decades has provided, as its name suggests, liberty. Uncensored news, opinion, and free speech broadcast to audiences who yearn for all of these: such were RFE/RL’s hallmarks.

Since it’s obvious that very few at the controls of RFE/RL, which operates on an annual US taxpayer–funded budget approaching $100 million, are in a big hurry to uncover or analyze what’s going on behind the scenes, I guess the job of describing what led up to the recent turmoil, destruction, and total demoralization of this once-proud organization falls to me.

For one thing, as I am told, “there are almost no employees” left pursuing Moscow stories: so bad is the situation that when anti-Putin demonstrations took place recently, only two sound engineers were packed off to cover them (along with just one correspondent). This is the result of mass firings at Radio Liberty and related departures this fall—in September, dozens of fine Russian journalists disappeared overnight from RFE/RL rosters.

It was shortly after this that a concerned Moscow investigative reporter, Anastasia Kirilenko, asked Gessen during a meeting of those who remained: “Will we reporters still be sending formal questions on important issues to Vladimir Putin? Or his people?” The reply from Gessen, she felt, was evasive, so she pursued the matter. Could she, Kirilenko, continue her two-year investigation into links between the Russian mafia and the Russian defense minister as well as underworld links with other top Russian deputies? She had new sources, after all, she told Gessen.

A few days later, Kirilenko tells me, she had her real answer. “Masha said, no—what I had sent her, she claimed, was badly edited. We had another person with an idea: The fate of polar bears … that really pleased her!”

How about a story on Russian marriage and funeral traditions? another reporter inquired. “Yes!” Gessen replied. “I love your idea.” Or, added the new Russian service director, maybe a piece on kindergartens in Russia, or yet another on Russian cinema and how films get made. What the remaining RFE/RL journalists were supposed to cover now, Gessen informed her crew in October, was “stuff others don’t do. That’s the best journalism around.” No one knew what precisely that meant, but Kirilenko had a pretty good idea. She resigned.

In fact, there was a lot of new and astonishing docility all around at RFE/RL. No one could understand, for example, why Korn and Ragona made the meek decision in September to shut down the organization’s Russian medium wave radio broadcasts. Putin had, after all, shown a rainbow of his true colors, having just banned all USAID activities in Russia. He had also signed into law legislation compelling foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to register as foreign agents, and implemented a new media law restricting foreign ownership of a broadcast license.

Why, many inside RFE/RL and the outside wondered, was Radio Liberty, with its proud tradition of independence, now making decisions that would make life easier for a tyrant by deferentially pulling up stakes? Why not force Putin to shut it down rather than capitulate?

“Before that, whenever there’d been a move by the Russian government to inhibit our broadcasts—say by putting pressure on a landlord to end our lease—we’d always fight,” a knowledgeable source tells me. “We always put out press releases protesting and we’d fight with every fiber of our being! But this time, everything was almost frighteningly smooth: those in charge—they almost took it lying down.”

As the radio shutdown date approached, mass confusion simply deepened. At a September meeting, Kirilenko says, the Moscow technical director asked Korn, “Can you tell us what we’ll be doing at work on a daily basis?”

“No,” said Korn.

“How many hours a day will we be online?” Ragona was asked.

“We don’t know,” said Ragona. But she did talk in detail about some office furniture, newly acquired.

(As it turned out, there was a lot that top management didn’t know—and this may have been the result, in part, of Korn’s lengthy absences. “Steve Korn spent more time in the US than in Prague [RFE/RL’s main headquarters]—and more time in the US than in Europe,” Victor Ashe, a member of the Board of Governors tells me. “Flying business class,” he adds pointedly, because RFE/RL’s president is permitted the kind of extraordinary luxuries that federal agency personnel are almost never allowed.)

Meanwhile, a number of outrages apparently went either undetected or unpursued. Within the Kazakh service, I am informed, charges of nepotism and favoritism erupted against the director who apparently prefers to hire members of his own tribe. The repercussions: the three women journalists who brought these allegations to the attention of RFE/RL’s human resources staff were fired in June, three months after making their complaints. That same Kazakh service has, I am told, posted alternately anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual content. And, before the site was scrubbed, viewers were regaled with poems referring to “Russian cunning,” “the hidden greediness of the Chinese,” and, above all, the unforgettable exhortation, “Don’t spatter your sperm in vain.” All courtesy of the US taxpayer.

“This will be a fantastic, exciting time,” Julia Ragona promised RFE/RL journalists in the fall. It certainly was exciting, in its own Putinesque way. By late November, Ragona was warning all staff against posting entries on the mass purge on Facebook. Kirilenko, who asked Ragona about the criteria for those firings, was told: “Your question is out of place.” Last week, Elena Polyakovskaya, yet another journalist openly supportive of the purged correspondents and critical of the new Russian website, found her contract was not going to be renewed. When I discovered this, I immediately phoned a person of considerable authority and rectitude, who questioned Gessen. Lo and behold, Polyakovskaya was informed her services would still be needed.

“You can see how journalists who come from totalitarian countries feel when we see the same kind of treatment at RFE/RL,” says one source.

I can indeed.

To that end, I am writing a fuller and much longer investigative essay on this and other related subjects come mid-January. Thanks to all of you who are helping to end the outrage. Even more sources welcome.

 

Photo Credit: Petr Kadlec

 

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