Steven Korn's Wasteful Personal Spending at RFE/RL

Several of you know that my family was unable to move to Prague for a variety of reasons. Christmas 2011 was the only time my three children were able to visit Prague. At that time, slightly more than a year ago, I made a promise to my son that I would be home permanently in time for his 16th birthday in February, 2013. I have never wavered in this commitment. My closest associates at RFE/RL have known of my intention since early last summer when I began the first draft of this letter.

In addition, my father is ill. He is in his eighties and his time may be short. I am simply no longer willing to spend his last years separated by 5,000 miles and six time zones.

The above constitutes the second and third paragraphs of the so-called resignation letter of Steven Korn, until last week the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. As those of you who have been following this twisted tale already know, in reality (and despite his denials) Korn was asked to leave his post by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG is a group of political appointees who nominally watch over the doings of the organization that is supposed provide superb news and commentary to those in parts of the world where unbiased journalism is often rare.

In practice, however, most board members don’t appear to know what’s going on. They not only handpicked the disastrous Korn, but allowed both him and his top subordinates—the incompetent, clueless, but fiercely ambitious Julia Ragona (who has never been a journalist) and Masha Gessen (a self-serving, richly rewarded journalist of sorts)—untrammeled liberty to wreck a valuable organization, turning it into pit of rage and retribution from which it may never recover.

But let’s take Korn at his self-serving word. He resigned. He resigned after just a year and a half in order, he says, to fulfill a promise to his young son, which he made “slightly more than a year ago.” In that case, you might ask yourself—with a sick old father and a lonely teenager back home in Atlanta, Georgia—why did Korn purchase, in order to enhance his apartment on Prague’s elegant Parizska Street, furniture and furnishings amounting to $36,000—a sum that constitutes, according to those who know, 40 percent more than his RFE/RL allotment? Korn basically didn’t set up shop in Prague until a few months after his June 2011 appointment (he delayed his permanent arrival for reasons no one can understand). Yet within short order, the new president wants (a) a Prague housing allowance of $4,200, which was about $1,000 more than the allowance of his predecessor, (b) costly furnishings, (c) to spend an inordinate amount of time in Atlanta, and (d) to leave?

Oh—and according to those who know, that “Christmas trip,” which Korn mentions, the one that brought him a visit from his wife and three kids? None of whom had moved to Prague with Korn? They were all flown business class from Atlanta to Prague. And those furnishings? They will now most likely have to be sold off, and likely at a severe discount too, because who knows what kind of furniture the new RFE/RL president, whoever that president may be, will desire? So the US taxpayer-funded outfit will lose yet more money both on Korn, and thanks to Korn.

But let’s go back to the beginning, which is around the fall of 2011, when Korn told his employees there would be a new era of austerity in the office at RFE/RL. For one thing, the new president said, according to two of my sources, he wanted to get rid of all those green plants festooning the new Prague offices, because the greenery was costing RFE a whopping $18,000 in annual fees, paid to the company that maintained and watered them. The plants duly vanished from the premises. But they were not alone.

Scores of journalists also vanished, most of them excellent, and most of them fired. (As one of the excommunicated informs me, “On my last day, I was told I had to sign a number of documents exonerating RFE/RL from any claim I may make after leaving the organization.” Either that or no severance, it was intimated to the employee.)

Meanwhile, it should be pointed out that the journalists fired often don’t have a lot of alternate job options. They come, many of them, from countries ravaged by tyrants and terrorists, where, as one RFE/RL employee puts it, “If I return, I will be killed. No question.” By their former countrymen, even sometimes by their friends, they are frequently considered spies or American stooges. As for those who remain in power at RFE/RL, some of whom have been deemed responsible for that raft of devastating departures, they are positively thriving at the organization.

Julia Ragona, the non-journalist of suspect judgment and competence who is amazingly vice president of content at the organization, found her salary improved by $13,000 thanks to Korn: she now receives $140,000 a year. Dale Cohen, vice president of administration, receives the same. The recently arrived Masha Gessen, under whose ungainly directorship of the shriveled Russian service there is severe dissatisfaction, is rewarded with a salary and benefits totaling around $200,000 a year—an exalted sum in that part of the world.

Meanwhile at RFE/RL there is only fear. Fear of continuing mediocrity at the top, and fear that RFE/RL’s website, which now features little self-generated news, will remain as desiccated, rigid, and soulless as those still in command.

In other words, Korn’s disappearing act should be only the beginning. And that will be only part of what I will analyze on this site at length next week. Thanks to all of you brave enough to contact me. You are doing a real service to a world that needs a real service.


Photo Credit: Petr Kadlec

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