Kevin Klose offers vision of journalism that empowers, remains silent on plans to reform RFE/RL

BBG Watch Commentary

Kevin Klose

Kevin Klose

“Fact-based, quality, reliable, independent, verifiable journalism — that’s what we’re about,” recently appointed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) acting president Kevin Klose told RFE/RL employees in a meeting Monday in Prague. “I’ve spent my entire life in pursuit of those goals to provide people what journalism can offer civil societies, which is knowledge so that people-empowered can both empower their lives and make decisions about who will govern them and how, and under what terms.”

In his first public meeting with RFE/RL staff in Prague since he became RFE/RL’s acting chief executive on January 26, Klose did not disclose how he plans to return RFE/RL to these principles after the controversial tenure of his predecessor Steven Korn.

Korn was reportedly forced to resign by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) over the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and programming changes which triggered strong protests from democratic opposition leaders in Russia, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Lyudmila Alexeeva. Many leading human rights and opposition figures, as well as independent journalists and intellectuals, are now boycotting Radio Liberty’s Russian Service under the directorship of Korn’s pick Masha Gessen. Korn and Gessen deny that they have done anything wrong. Korn claims that all the fired journalists resigned voluntarily and were treated with utmost respect. Korn’s managers prevented the journalists from saying good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years and had security guards escort them out of their Moscow office.

Klose did not say during the meeting what he plans to do about Korn’s top deputies who carried out the purge of experienced journalists or about Masha Gessen. She has replaced much of RFE/RL’s traditional political journalism with softer reporting on social issues in Russia and light features but reportedly lost a large segment of the former online audience without attracting many new visitors.

Gessen ignored recently on her redesigned Russian Service website a well-publicized news story about a visit to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz of two young Russian women who have become famous in Russia for admitting in a TV program that they knew nothing about the WWII Jewish Holocaust. The visit was organized and filmed by an award-winning journalist and filmmaker Mumin Shakirov who was among dozens of media professionals fired by Klose’s predecessor.

In his address, Kevin Klose stressed the importance of new media and new delivery platforms, including mobile devices used to receive news and information, while also stressing the importance of radio. After dozens of Radio Liberty journalists were dismissed, it became obvious that most of them were also highly experienced award-winning multimedia professionals with news reporting and digital skills far exceeding those of the largely unknown members of Masha Gessen’s new team. The fired journalists quickly launched their own website, SvobodaNew.com, Radio Liberty in Exile Facebook Page, and are producing online video discussions using Google Hangout.

While not commenting directly on the current leadership of the Russian Service and their new editorial policies, Klose said in his opening remarks that he started his journalistic career while he was an undergraduate in college when he met a woman who was a Holocaust survivor and interviewed her for two and a half years. He helped her write her autobiography, which he described as “fact-based, on her bearing witness to her life.”

Radio Liberty on Prof. Paul FramptonThe kind of journalism described by Kevin Klose is far removed from stories about topless bars, online romances of middle-aged professors in America, and anti-meat diet regulations in the UK, all illustrated with images of women in skimpy costumes, or even without, that have appeared recently on Masha Gessen’s website. At the same time, she declared the Sakharov human rights journalism awards not to be worthy of coverage because — in her words — they have become a “low profile” event in Russia. One of the Sakharov awards went to a young woman journalist, a former web editor at Radio Liberty who resigned in protest, and to members of the radio’s Internet team who were fired.

The day before his staff meeting in Prague, Kevin Klose received a letter form Russia’s legendary human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeeva who wrote to him that Masha Gessen and Julia Ragona, a non-journalist elevated by Steven Korn to the position of RFE/RL vice president of content, insist on “making…programming more entertainment-oriented.” Alexeeva observed: “We are more than adequately entertained by government-owned television networks and radio stations. Human rights reportage and cogent political analysis is what we are lacking.” She told Korn that Gessen and Ragona “do not understand the organization’s mission, and, in my opinion, should leave their posts.”

In his address, however, Klose did not comment on specific editorial policy and personnel issues, pointing out instead that he has just arrived and needs time to study the situation. While this statement may be largely true, well-informed sources told us that Klose has been following the crisis at RFE/RL for months prior to his appointment and expressing his concern to various people in Washington. Our sources described Klose as a very astute manager who doesn’t like to reveal his plans in public until he finds it is the right time to make an announcement and act.

Klose said that in light of budgetary restraints in Washington and careful outside scrutiny of RFE/RL’s work, it is important for the institution to be “coherent and stable, and protective of the mission.” His relative silence during the initial staff meeting on the major issues facing RFE/RL reflects his personal and professional preference to deal with problems behind the scenes without generating publicity that may harm the institution, our source said. It does not mean that he will not act when the time is right, our source added.

In his address, Klose mentioned that he will be going soon to Moscow with the International Broadcasting Bureau deputy director Jeff Trimble, but according to our sources it is Klose who will be making all the decisions and has full support of the BBG board. Sources told us that Trimble has very little credibility with most BBG board members having failed to alert them early enough to the growing crisis at RFE/RL and for his previous defense of executives and managers whom most board members now see as being responsible for causing the crisis in the first place. These BBG members now blame the IBB executive staff and particularly Jeff Trimble, as IBB’s only Russia expert, for allowing the situation get out of control. They vow that they will not let this happen ever again, sources told BBG Watch.

While Kevin Klose’s initial address to the staff may not have produced any news, it set the tone for his stay at RFE/RL, especially with his comments about quality journalism that empowers civil societies. In her letter to Klose, Lyudmila Alexeeva wrote that “the Russian government is in the middle of a massive crackdown on civil liberties, and is facing a desperate battle from civil society.” She praised Klose as “a man with the necessary experience for this difficult job.”

The Washington Post‘s deputy editorial page editor and one of the newspaper’s most experienced foreign correspondents Jackson Diehl described Klose in an op-ed as a new RFE/RL executive “whose dedication to its journalistic mission is unquestioned.”

But in one of the most bizarre displays of Washington bureaucratic arrogance, Diehl was immediately attacked in a private blog by an obscure IBB staffer who is known to be close to some of his bosses. The staffer accused Diehl, who received the Overseas Press Association award in 1990 for his coverage of the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe (Diehl was his paper’s correspondent in Poland during the Solidarity period.) and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2011, of being easily deceived and “swallowing whole the story that was given to him.”

We would like to point out that Kevin Klose was for many years associated with Diehl’s newspaper and was The Washington Post‘s correspondent in Moscow for several years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is the IBB executive staff — the worst-rated managers in the federal government, according to OPM surveys — that needs a lesson in modesty, logic, clear thinking and good public relations.

We believe that Lyudmila Alexeeva and Jackson Diehl are right and IBB executives who defended Korn, Ragona and Gessen were and are completely wrong. Kevin Klose also has a strong mandate and strong support from the reinvigorated and much more united than before Broadcasting Board of Governors. While Klose did not say what he plans to do about the fired Radio Liberty journalists, most BBG members are known to favor a solution that would save RFE/RL from being now widely viewed in Russia as professionally and morally reprehensible. They also want to see justice and fairness prevail.

Kevin Klose spoke in his address about tight budgets and the need to use U.S. taxpayers’ money wisely. Returning the fired journalists to work at Radio Liberty would be the wisest investment that can be made for RFE/RL’s future, but IBB bureaucrats and Korn’s former assistants will no doubt try to discourage Klose with warnings of budgetary crises.

Klose, however, is far more likely to get support in Congress, from media freedom NGOs and ethnic communities in the United States if he does the right thing about the fired journalists and their canceled programs than he would if he takes the advice of those who have managed to turn all of these important constituencies against RFE/RL. Kevin Klose knows this.

Some BBG board members who wanted to assume a more active role in solving the Russia crisis agreed to stay in the background to allow Klose as much freedom of action as he needs to restore effectiveness and reputation of Radio Liberty. One former BBG manager who knows him told us that there should be no doubt Klose knows what he will do and will get the job done in his own way. Our source described him as a man who likes to keep his cards close to his chest. He is being both cautious and smart because you don’t want to make a mistake when the future and the reputation of an important American institution of media freedom is at stake, our source added.

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