BBG Watch Commentary
Steven Korn, the outgoing president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), insists that he is resigning from his post at the U.S. taxpayer-funded international media freedom outlet for purely personal reasons. In 2002, Korn also cited personal reasons, spending more time with his family, for leaving his executive position at CNN. Both times questions have been raised about Korn’s performance, but his tenure at RFE/RL produced what has been described as the greatest crisis in the history of U.S. international broadcasting.
Korn is strongly defending his record at RFE/RL, while the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency which had hired and reportedly fired him for destroying Radio Liberty in Russia, keeps largely silent. In comments for The Washington Post and in a letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal in response to John O’Sullivan’s article Turmoil Over America’s Radio Voice in Russia, Korn continues to defend himself and to defame dozens of Radio Liberty journalists whom he had fired in Moscow as “not well suited to the demands of our new approach.”
Korn denies that highly experienced longtime RFE/RL journalists, who were barred by security guards from entering their office, directed to a law firm to be fired and prevented from saying good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years, were in any way treated unfairly.
“Suggestions that any staffers were treated harshly in this process are patently false,” Korn wrote to The Wall Street Journal.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors has not yet directly challenged his claim, but it issued a press release recognizing prestigious journalism awards won by the Radio Liberty reporters he had fired, including the Andrei Sakharov human right journalism award that went to the fired Internet team and one of its star reporters Elena Vlasenko who resigned in protest in a show of solidarity.
Korn has been sharply criticized by nearly all Russian human rights leaders and political opposition figures, including Lyudmila Alexeeva of the human rights Helsinki Moscow Group and former President Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as heads of American human rights NGOs, including Freedom House and the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB.org), not only for mistreating loyal and outstanding employees but also for destroying Radio Liberty’s reputation and effectiveness in Russia.
Almost no one supports Steven Korn or his claims, except perhaps for his closest deputies, friends and family, including his RFE/RL vice-presidents Julia Ragona and Dale Cohen and his choice to run Radio Liberty’s Russian Service Masha Gessen, who does not have any significant support among human rights and opposition figures in Russia. Outside of her own circle, she is now highly disliked by many among those few in Russia who know about her for supporting the mass dismissals at Radio Liberty, making accusations of slander against independent journalists, canceling human rights programs and redesigning Radio Liberty’s previously successful news website.
Many critics in Russia, in Europe, and in the U.S. have called for Ragona and Gessen to resign together with Korn. The latest such call came from a European public interest journalism expert Zygmunt Dzieciolowski. He and many others, including Freedom House president David Kramer, have also called on the BBG to immediately rehire all Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists fired by Korn. Kramer that nothing short of a complete housecleaning of the RFE/RL top leadership is required. “The damage they have done is immeasurable,” Kramer concluded.
RFE/RL journalists, some still writing anonymously but others like famous Radio Liberty Chechnya war correspondent Andrei Babitsky posting under their own names, present Steven Korn as a universally hated and incompetent manager surrounding himself with equally cruel and incompetent aides.
While Korn insists that he is leaving RFE/RL completely on his own for personal reasons, BBG Watch and other media reported, based on information from sources within the BBG administration in Washington, that in December 2012 he was in fact asked by BBG members to resign within 45 days and stripped of the authority to fire any more RFE/RL employees after Democrats and Republicans serving on the bipartisan BBG board became fully aware of the extent of the problem he created in Russia and at the institution he headed.
When in 2000, Korn resigned from CNN, he also cited personal family reasons for leaving. A Google search produced a Media Life Magazine report which suggested that he was canned by CNN after 17 years with the Turner-owned network. “The chief operating officer will not stick around after his contract expires in June, Jeff Bercovici reported for Media Life Magazine in 2000 in an article found on Google search and in Media Life archives for February 15, 2000.
Canned Korn? CNNer’s exit announced amid ratings slide Insiders: Lou Dobbs aftermath bungled badly, Jeff Bercovici, Media Life Magazine, Feb. 2000.
“Though CNN chairman Tom Johnson has stressed that this is Korn’s own decision, Korn appears to have taken the fall for the decline of the network following the abrupt departure last summer of Lou Dobbs, the iconic “Moneyline News Hour” host and financial news president,” Bercovici wrote.
Another article, this one highly sympathetic to Korn in Atlanta Business Chronicle, quotes Johnson as saying: “Yes, I was surprised,” said Tom Johnson, who was chairman of CNN at the time. “After hearing his reasoning (to spend more time with his family), however, I did not try to change his mind.” This was hardly a ringing endorsement from his boss. Coming out of hibernation: Thirty months after he quit CNN, Steve Korn is getting back to work by Jim Lovel, Atlanta Business Chronicle, Nov. 2002.
According Media Life Magazine report, Korn was put in charge of the search for Lou Dobbs’s replacement but failed in his mission.
“As time dragged on, Johnson realized Korn wasn’t getting the job done and he took over the search himself, finally poaching Shelby Coffey from ABC News. Now Korn appears to have paid the price for his failure to put out the fires when Dobbs left. Despite protestations to the contrary from CNN, it’s likely Korn is being speeded on his way by top CNN suits.”
Should we be surprised that top American broadcasting anchors and reporters, who clearly had a choice of employers, did not want to work for Steven Korn? Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty employees, gathered on New Year’s eve on the Wenceslas Square in Prague certainly would not be surprised by it as they joyfully celebrated the news of Korn’s retirement, which came just before midnight.
Korn is now granting interviews denying that he has been fired by the BBG, continues to defame award-winning Radio Liberty journalists he fired in Moscow, defends Masha Gessen, presents himself as a reformer and even criticizes the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Gessen, meanwhile, is also making various inaccurate claims to Russian media about the BBG, the fired journalists, and her own job performance.
BBG Watch has learned that as part of a deal reached with Korn, the Broadcasting Board of Governos would not discuss the real reasons for his departure, even though the BBG is a public institution funded with U.S. taxpayers’ money who deserve to know what they are getting in return.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors should level with the American people and should not let Korn’s patently false and hurtful claims go unchallenged. Only one BBG member, Ambassador Victor Ashe, has so far come out and given his honest public assessment of Steve Korn’s tenure at RFE/RL, but he was only speaking for himself:
“Korn’s departure was necessary for the survival of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He was feared and disliked by most employees. His self serving letter of resignation sets a new standard for arrogance and delusion. His hiring was a terrible mistake we will spend years recovering from.”
“This has been a nightmare for many at RFERL especially in Moscow but also in Prague. I look forward to working to re-estblish fairness and respect for dissent at the RFE/RL family,” Ashe added.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors should not be silent on this critical issue and other BBG members should also make their views public. They owe it to the Radio Liberty fired journalists and all other RFE/RL employees who have suffered under the imperial and disastrous presidency of Steven Korn. May he soon leave them in peace and may those he had unjustly fired return to RFE/RL to save this important U.S. institution promoting media freedom abroad and making America a more secure nation.