Russia expert David Satter offers scathing criticism of RFE/RL president Steven Korn

BBG Watch Commentary
In a wide-ranging interview recored at the Ekho Moskvy radio station, Russia scholar, journalist and author David Satter offered scathing criticism of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn. Satter, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, pointed out that by firing dozens of journalists at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau, Korn ruined the station’s reputation in Russia created over many decades. Satter was interviewed by former Radio Liberty political reporter Mikhail Sokolov.

In the interview, Satter said that Korn does not know the culture of Russia, does not read Russian, does not have a necessary background, and has just been made the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Satter said that because of Korn’s decisions, Radio Liberty instantly lost expertise, identify and profile. It is obvious that the “new” Radio Liberty will be just a shadow of the old, Satter said.

Satter also called Korn’s actions a huge loss for American public diplomacy. “These decisions cannot be tolerated and accepted as a fait accompli,” Satter said. He also told Sokolov that everyone who was fired at Radio Liberty, without exception, must return to work and predicted that the U.S. Congress will investigate what has happened at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent, is a long time observer of Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Satter has testified frequently on Russian affairs before Congressional committees. He has written extensively for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. His articles and op-ed pieces have also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, National Review, National Review Online, Forbes.com, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The New York Sun, The New York Review of Books, Reader’s Digest and The Washington Times. He is frequently interviewed in both Russian and English by Radio Liberty, the Voice of America and the BBC Russian Service and has appeared on CNN, CNN International, BBC World, the Charlie Rose Show, Al Jazeera, France 24, Fox News, C-Span and ORT and RTR, the state run Russian television networks.

A documentary film about the fall of the Soviet Union based on David Satter’s book Age of Delirium was completed in 2011. David Satter also appears in the documentary “Disbelief” about the Russian apartment bombings made by director Andrei Nekrasov in 2004.

Mikhail Sokolov, who interviewed Satter, is considered one of the best political reporters in Russia. He was fired on orders of Steven Korn along with more than 30 Radio Liberty journalists, web editors and new media experts to make room for the new Russian Service director Masha Gessen. Eight more Radio Liberty journalists resigned in protest against the brutal treatment of their colleagues who were not even allowed to say good bye to their audience. Gessen brought in a new team recruited from among her friends and associates, most of whom worked for print magazines and lack experience in radio, TV, political reporting or multimedia.

President Yeltsin personally handed Sokolov a license for RFE/RL to broadcast in Russia in recognition of his brave reporting during the 1991 communist coup. Sokolov now has a program on the popular Moscow FM radio station Ekho Moskvy.

Below are major portions of Mikhail Sokolov’s interview with David Satter published on the Radio Liberty in Exile website SvobodaNew.com.

A Loss for U.S. Public Diplomacy

“New” Radio Liberty “will be just a shadow of the old”, – said David Satter, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
 

David Satter worked for many years in the Soviet Union (1976-1982) and Russia as a correspondent for The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. He wrote a book about Yeltsin’s Russia, “Darkness at Dawn.” The documentary film “The Age of Madness” is his latest work. It was filmed by director Andrei Nekrasov

In the film, Satter looks back at his heroes of Soviet times, dissidents and victims of Soviet totalitarianism.

For me, the main theme of the film – the background of the tragic stories – has not changed in Putin’s Russia, Sokolov observed, pointing to official propaganda and people willing to serve any illegitimate regime.

SOKOLOV – David, what do you think about mass dismissals at the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty?
 
SATTER – I think that this story is not yet over. I can say that I know people who do not accept what happened. There are various discussions which are underway, about what to do to reverse the situation.

They (leaders of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) are now hiring new people, making the situation very complicated. But, as I said before, I repeat, everyone who was fired, without exception, must return to work.

I think it was a mistake on the part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. They found the man, Steven Korn, who did not know the history of Radio Liberty, did not speak in Russian, did not have the necessary experience. He was behaving like a normal American businessman who has employees selling washing powder …
 
SOKOLOV – He had a factory making shoes …
 
SATTER – It’s all clear. Shoes. Here he sees that sales have fallen. What to do? Dismiss all. He acted like businessman who wants to increase sales. And nothing happened. He does not know the culture, he does not know the tradition.
 
SOKOLOV – Indeed, sales have fallen, traffic to the site has crashed (since the mass dismissals) …
 
SATTER – This is due to the fact that Radio Liberty’s reputation is now ruined. One cannot in the media world undermine one’s own reputation. It is created over many decades. This was lost the moment the employees were fired.

And besides, Radio Liberty instantly lost expertise, identify and profile. It is obvious that the “new” Radio Liberty will be just a shadow of the old.

I think it’s not the end of the story, although I may be mistaken. But what they did – this is unacceptable, completely unprofessional.

I saw the “round table” in which Ludmila Alexeeva participated. True, I’ve seen excerpts. But it is quite clear that this man (Korn) – is unqualified (for this job), he does not understand what he was saying when he cites audience research. He does not understand the role of Radio Liberty, the traditions of this radio station, what it means for Russia and for the post-communist space.

And I am not opposed to modernizing …
 
SOKOLOV – We are also not against innovation …
 
SATTER – Of course, I understand. But to bet everything on the Internet – is very risky. Authorities can turn it off; they can block it. At a time of crisis it’s not inconceivable that Radio Liberty will be practically the only reliable source from which people can get information, as it was in 1991. Although Echo Moskvy station was also partially working during that time.

This is a huge loss for American public diplomacy. These decisions cannot be tolerated and accepted as a fait accompli.

We need to restore the old situation and then think rationally about any reasonable changes that should be made throughout the organization.

But simply to purge the entire editorial team – such behavior is unacceptable. This was done by a man who does not know the culture of Russia, does not read Russian, does not have a necessary background, and has just been made the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Such mistakes happen in the United States, in corporations, in companies. The new man wants to show how smart he is …
 
SOKOLOV – And it could end badly. The level of program quality is being lowered; it will become “yellow press.” Why should American taxpayers pay for content about sex? 

SATTER – I don’t know either. I’ve already seen examples. In Russia, there are those who can talk about such things at greater length and better. There will be hearings in the U.S. Senate, and if I am invited, as promised, I will talk in detail about this.

 
Sokolov added that he also talked with David Satter about modern “Criminal Russia” in Vladimir Putin’s time, the prospects for change, and American foreign policy. Sokolov and Satter recorded a program in the studio of Ekho Moskvy about the history of relations between the U.S. and Russia in the early XX century. The program will be broadcast in December on Ekho Moskvy and on the Russian television channel RTVi.

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