What would George Orwell say about journalism at Radio Liberty?

BBG Watch Commentary

Journalism Is Not Public Relations

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” – attributed to George Orwell

“News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” – William Randolph Hearst

George Orwell died in 1950 and the U.S.-funded Radio Liberation’s (later Radio Liberty) first Russian broadcast went on the air 60 years ago on March 1, 1953 with the ambitious goal of piercing the Iron Curtain with uncensored news. A quote attributed to Orwell, although it has never been definitively sourced, stating that the role of journalism is to uncover the truth and not to write or repeat press releases and politburo communiques, was as appropriate during the existence of the Soviet Union, as it is now. We do know that William Randolph Hearst said something very similar: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”

Unfortunately, Radio Liberty, or more precisely some of the leftover managers of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are in violation of the first part of this rule, despite the best efforts of its newly-appointed interim president for one year, Kevin Klose, who himself is a distinguished journalist, former Washington Post Moscow correspondent, former NPR president, and professor of journalism. Klose was also RFE/RL president in the 1990s. And if public relations or U.S. public diplomacy in Russia are to be believable and effective, the old management team at RFE/RL is also in violation of the second part of Orwell’s or Hearst’s rule because effective PR cannot completely ignore the unpleasant truth.

Not that there is any doubt that Klose has every intention to promoting good journalism, but he has only been at his new post a few weeks, dealing with some of the most difficult management problems he had inherited. Despite the sad legacy of the previous management team, many language services still do outstanding reporting, as in this report by Radio Free Afghanistan.

The former management team focused its destructive efforts on several services, particularly the Russian Service, the Kazakh Service, and the Turkmen Service, but they infected to lesser or larger degree some of the other services as well. Some services resisted their push for “fluff journalism” better than others; some were just lucky to be ignored by them for the time being. Fortunately, their distorted journalistic model may soon be the thing of the past.

During a panel discussion celebrating the 60th anniversary of Radio Liberty, Klose told an audience at the RFE/RL office in Washington about his vision of skeptical and verifiable journalism:

Link to Video.

“Journalism which is guided by independent, skeptical, constant, iterative search for factual reality, for verifiable facts, for context, and for consideration of many points of view — journalism that is especially independent and therefore especially useful because it becomes trustworthy and verifiable to peoples’ minds and in fact, as they check the facts themselves. That kind of journalism, in may view, is a first step, and a powerful step, to allowing communities of people share uncensored information about who they are, who we are, who their community is, what is happening in it, and on and on, outward and outward, so they can get a clear picture of the issues in front of them.”

George Orwell would have certainly agreed with Kevin Klose, who was speaking in the presence of Lyudmila Alexeeva, a legendary Russian human rights campaigner whom he had invited to the ceremony. She has been boycotting the Russian Service of Radio Liberty since September 2012 (and still does) when the previous RFE/RL management team fired dozens of experienced journalists working in the Moscow bureau.

Alexeeva witnessed the brutal way in which the dismissals were carried out (security guards were used and RFE/RL managers prevented journalists from saying good bye to their audience of many years). She immediately joined other Russian human rights activists and democratic political leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, who have issued statements and wrote letters protesting the dismissals and programming changes at Radio Liberty. RFE/RL former president Steven Korn and his top deputies claim that all Radio Liberty journalists resigned voluntarily and were treated with utmost respect. They also insist that the dismissals were necessary to restructure Radio Liberty for digital age and to save money, even though the budget was not being cut and the Russian Service already had one of the most cited news websites in Russia.

Alexeeva signed protest letters to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, members of Congress, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting — and to Mr. Klose himself. In her letter to Mr. Klose, she wrote that RFE/RL managers, some of whom are still in charge of programming, do not understand the station’s mission and should leave their post. She even wanted to bring with her to the Washington event one of the fired human rights reporters, but a family emergency prevented the journalist from attending. The award-winning journalist recorded Alexeeva’s last interview for the Russian Service on the day she was fired without any warning.

Lyudmila Alexeeva with RFE/RL acting President Kevin Klose and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine

Lyudmila Alexeeva with RFE/RL acting President Kevin Klose and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine

Alexeeva agreed to come to the Radio Liberty celebration convinced that Kevin Klose will soon rehire the dismissed journalists and implement his vision of journalistic excellence. There is no reason to doubt that he will take these steps. The BBG wants him to resolve the crisis as soon as possible and he told friends that he fully intends to save Radio Liberty’s reputation in Russia.

Kevin Klose has been on the job for only a little over a month. In that time, he met in Moscow with representatives of the fired staff and with Russian human rights and political leaders who support them. But Klose’s journalistic philosophy and management style are not shared by managers of the previous team. They continue to exercise considerable power over the rank and file, and some journalists still live in fear that those who had fired Russian Service reporters may stay and fire them after Klose’s one-year appointment runs out.

Shortly after Klose spoke on Friday in Washington, the RFE/RL English website published a report on Lyudmila Alexeeva that broke some of the basic rules of objective and skeptical journalism, as outlined by him in his speech. The report titled, “Rights Campaigner Recalls 60-Year Friendship With ‘Svoboda’,” accurately described Aleeeva’s campaign for human rights in the Soviet Union and her longtime association with Radio Liberty until September 2012. The report did not point out, however, that she had ended her association with the Russian Service last September and refuses to resume it under the current service leadership. The report failed to mention not only this but many other material facts. It did not explain the controversy in any substantive way and did not point out that Alexeeva is still boycotting the Russian Service.

The report accurately quoted Alexeeva saying that “Today, as the Kremlin continues to tighten its grip on the media, she says RFE/RL’s Russian Service remains every bit as relevant as when it first hit the airwaves 60 years ago.”

What the report failed to point out is that Alexeeva still believes that since last autumn, the Russian Service of Radio Liberty remains irrelevant under its present leadership. The report reduced Alexeeva’s significant objections to the current state of the U.S.-funded broadcaster to just two short sentences: “A parallel event was scheduled to be held in Moscow by a group of former Russian Service journalists laid off last year as part of a restructuring plan. Alekseyeva was among the leading critics of that plan.” Another RFE/RL report, “RFE/RL’s Russian Service Marks 60th Birthday” said that “A parallel event was held in Moscow by a group of former Russian Service journalists who were laid off last year as part of a restructuring plan. More than 100 people attended that event, including rights activists and journalists, with speakers praising Svoboda’s legacy but criticizing the service’s restructuring.” The second description was slightly more detailed, but it was also a far cry from accurate, objective and comprehensive reporting one should expect from RFE/RL.

The report may have made Lyudmila Alexeeva look to some as an enemy of progress, perhaps incapable of understanding that “restructuring” is a good thing. It did not mention that the human rights NGO which she chairs, the Helsinki Moscow Group, co-sponsored the parallel 60th anniversary event hosted by the fired journalists. It did not mention their alternative organization, Radio Liberty in Exile, their alternative news website, New Liberty – SvobodaNew.com – and their Radio Liberty in Exile Facebook Page. The said nothing about the tremendous loss of online visitors and citations in Russian media for the official Russian Service website, which was redesigned by Masha Gessen who had been appointed by Steven Korn, Klose’s predecessor as RFE/RL president. It did not mention that many award-winning young Radio Liberty journalists resigned in protest to show solidarity with their colleagues and because they refused to work for Masha Gessen. The report also said nothing about Alexeeva’s famous confrontation with Korn in Moscow, during which she told him that even repugnant Russian capitalists treat their employees better than he treated Radio Liberty journalists. There was nothing about her continuing boycott of the Russian Service. There was nothing about Korn’s resignation and why Kevin Klose was appointed by the BBG. Even for a historical piece, the report did not mention the significance of Alexeeva’s acceptance of Klose’s invitation to attend the event. All these material journalistic facts were reduced to one sentence that Alexeeva opposed a restructuring plan. There was nothing on the RFE/RL English news website about the Radio Liberty in Exile anniversary event attended by many famous Russian public figures.

The news report posted on the RFE/RL website did not mention that the previous management team falsely accused award-winning Radio Liberty multimedia journalists of being incapable of doing digital media. They also accused them falsely of being resistant to change. The previous management’s idea of change were sexually-suggestive videos which caused an outrage in Kazakhstan and were later deleted from RFE/RL websites.

The fired journalists not only won prestigious journalistic awards for their online reporting, which were even acknowledged in BBG press releases. They pioneered online video streaming in Russia and streamed live their 60th anniversary event. Even those who do not speak Russian can appreciate the excellent production values and emotional content of the video. It starts with a slide show of historical Radio Liberty Russian Service photographs and a famous song by Alexander Galich “I Choose Liberty.” Galich was a Russian poet, singer-songwriter, and dissident whose songs were played on Radio Liberty during Soviet times. We think George Orwell would agree that Radio Liberty in Exile maintains journalistic traditions and values of Radio Liberty.

Before Kevin Klose’s arrival, RFE/RL Newsroom completely ignored some of the basic rules of objective journalism as it failed to report on the growing crisis at Radio Liberty, which was widely covered in Russia, as well as later by international and American media. Even in reporting the resignation of former RFE/RL president Steven Korn, RFE/RL Newsroom journalists were forced by unidentified higher-level managers to post a link to Korn’s resignation letter and his photo prominently on the home page of the English news web site without offering any balance or explaining true reasons for his imminent departure. “For the first time ever the RFE/RL Newsroom has published ‘information’ that we have every reason to believe is not true,” one anonymous RFE/RL reporter observed.

We admit that it may be difficult for any journalistic organization to report on its internal or external problems. But, as a longtime former Washington Post reporter, Kevin Klose knows how a responsible institution should deal with such issues. In 1980, the newspaper published a dramatic story describing the life of an eight-year-old heroin addict in Washington, for which reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize. Subsequent investigation, however, revealed the story to be a fabrication. The Pulitzer Prize was returned and The Washington Post published a full account of what happened. As long as there is substantial fear in the Newsroom, there is little chance for objective, skeptical and comprehensive journalism.

It’s important to keep in mind that some of the architects of the mass dismissals of Radio Liberty journalists are still in charge of the station’s news programming. Even as late as January 2013, the previous management team would not have allowed any mention of criticism of its actions. This time, they put out an incomplete and biased report, but at least they acknowledged criticism, albeit far too briefly and in a highly misleading fashion.

Despite Kevin Klose’s arrival on the scene, the climate of fear and bad practices of the old regime, as well as some of its main actors, are still in place. The RFE/RL report in question is not only an example of poor journalism, it is also poor PR. Even a press release to be good has to be somewhat believable.

As George Orwell’s compatriot Aldous Huxley observed, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Radio Liberty’s Russian Service has for years played an important role of exposing lies, hypocrisy and censorship in ways that George Orwell would applaud. Many RFE/RL journalists are trying to remain faithful to these principles despite all odds and insufficient funding, but some have capitulated out of fear to the old regime and seem unable to change even with Kevin Klose now in charge.

Kevin Klose needs to move fast to restore good journalism and good management at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and to save its former reputation for fearless news reporting to people deprived of free speech and free media by ruthless regimes. Radio Liberty needs journalist who are not afraid — Moscow bureau reporters who were fired, their colleagues who resigned in protest, and current Russian Service staffers who took risks to write a letter to Mr. Klose asking him to save their beloved media freedom institution from conformity and fear. In special anniversary message, Kevin Klose said the Russian Service remains an important source of accurate, independent news.

“We honor the broadcasters of that day — and the dedicated professionals of today – of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty,” Klose said.

George Orwell would have been proud of those who did their job according to sound principles of journalism despite being told by the former management team they were wrong, proud of those who resigned in protest and those who signed protest letters, risking their careers. Their spirit has not been broken. There is a lot of outstanding work being done Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists in defense of freedom for very little money. Kevin Klose must make sure that those who made this work difficult, and in some cases impossible, are no longer able to do their damage to the organization, which is by far America’s most cost-effective national security asset that all Americans should be proud of and protect.

While the remaining members of the old management team still deceive themselves, readers of the RFE/RL website are not deceived, as judged by this comment, posted by Jorjo from Florida:

“‘A parallel event will be held in Moscow by a group of former Russian Service journalists laid off last year as part of a restructuring plan. Alekseyeva was among the leading critics of that plan.’ Not only Alekseyeva was among the leading critics of the plan, she was (and is) the most fervent supporter of the best possible correction of that plan – re-hiring of all Radio Svoboda and other RFE/RL journalists who were terminated during the reign of RFE/RL previous president, S. Korn. It has been publicly acknowledged that Korn’s purge of RFE/RL ranks was a serious mistake. Most of those journalists are still awaiting a corrective action by the new (old) president K. Klose. These topics were on various occasions raised by Ms. Alekseyeva and should have been duly reported by RFE/RL.”

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