Moscow on the Potomac – bizarre attempt to ban U.S. official from Masha Gessen event

BBG Watch Commentary

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Dinner in Washington

Judy Bachrach, Vanity Fair Photo

Judy Bachrach, Vanity Fair Photo

American journalist Judy Bachrach, who has previously reported on the firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia and the management crisis at the U.S. taxpayer-supported Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), published another article showing managerial mess at the media freedom institution even as its new acting president Kevin Klose is trying to reform it and restore its former prestige as a media freedom outlet for countries without free media. As Barchrach’s article, “Moscow on the Potomac” , World Affairs Journal, April 15, 2013, points out, Klose is facing a considerable managerial challenge in trying to do his job in Prague, the Czech Republic, where he is based, as do his bosses at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in Washington, DC.

In her latest article,  Bachrach reports how an American official in charge of U.S. government’s international broadcasts, BBG board member and former diplomat Victor Ashe, went to the Newseum in Washington, DC at 6:45 PM last Wednesday pursuant to his invitation for the Media for Liberty Award ceremony honoring Masha Gessen, was told he was not welcome and was asked to leave. The message apparently came from Masha Gessen herself.  In her official job, she works for him and American taxpayers as a mid-level manager at Radio Liberty. American taxpayers pay for her three figure salary and other job benefits, as they do for all of Radio Liberty’s programs, its journalists and other employees.

A contributing editor for Vanity Fair, former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, The Washington Star, The Washington Post and a professor of investigative journalism at John Cabot University, Judy Bachrach  had previously described  for World Affairs Journal the complete disintegration of  Radio Liberty in Russia, Kazakhstan and in other countries. BBG Watch was the first to report in the U.S. on the problems at RFE/RL. Judy Bachrach was the first mainstream U.S. media reporter to write about it. Ashe was the first BBG Governor to call attention to the crisis. With the eventual support from other board members, the board brought Kevin Klose in early 2013 to deal with a journalistic emergency, loss of audience, and a public diplomacy disaster. Klose, a former Washington Post correspondent in Moscow, had already been once RFE/RL president and later served as president of National Public Radio (NPR).

Victor Ashe

Victor Ashe Honors VOA Swahili Service

BBG Governor Victor Ashe (far left) presents an award to Voice of America Swahili Service, July 2012.

Victor Ashe is one of Masha Gessen’s bosses, not her immediate supervisor (Kevin Klose is), but a member of the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting which includes Radio Liberty. He received his invitation to the award event for Ms. Gessen not from her, but from Greg Maffei, the CEO of Liberty Media Corporation which gave the award to Gessen. But when he arrived with his invitation in hand, Judy Barchrach reported that he was stopped at the door and told that the guest of honor, Masha Gessen, did not want him to attend. “I’m sorry, but the guest of honor has requested that you not be admitted to the dinner,” Bachrach quotes one of the event’s organizers as telling Ambassador Ashe. The same message was repeated later by a Liberty Media Corporation employee.

Victor Ashe is a sixty-eight year old U.S. official who has spent most of his life in public service, including many years as a mayor of Knoxville, TN, and later as a U.S. Ambassador to Poland. A popular politician and respected diplomat, he has been honored many times for his service to his country and last year received the Bene Merito Award from Poland’s government for outstanding contributions to strengthening U.S.-Polish relations.

As one of the top officials in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, he has distinguished himself by his calls for greater transparency, demands for accountability from government managers and showing concern for improving poor employee morale at the Broadcasting Board of Governors. To the great discomfort of government bureaucrats running the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)–the administrative arm of the agency–Ashe was instrumental in getting BBG open board meetings to be streamed online and published his email address and telephone number to invite comments from the public on how the U.S. could do a better job of communicating with audiences abroad. None of this made him popular with the agency’s executive staff, which launched an anonymous smear campaign against him, but other BBG members, BBG employees, their AFGE Local 1812 union, and media freedom NGOs came to his defense. Victor Ashe and two other board governors, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, spearheaded major reforms at RFE/RL and at the BBG headquarters in Washington.

Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and author of an English-language biography of Russia’s President Putin, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. She described and criticized him as a dictator, but her book also shows him as a strong leader and is the first one providing details of his personal life and presenting his human side to English readers.

In September 2012, President Putin had invited Gessen to a semi-private meeting at the Kremlin in an apparent effort to persuade her not to leave an editorial position at a geographic magazine, which he sponsors, over her refusal to cover one of his publicity stunts. Accounts vary, but Gessen apparently first accepted his request and then turned it down. There is no reliable account as to what else might have been discussed at that meeting, a point made by Judy Bachrach in her article. Shortly after her meeting with Putin, former RFE/RL president Steven Korn announced that Gessen will be working for Radio Liberty.

Since October 1, 2012, Gessen has been the director of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty. Her office is in Moscow, where she lives. Her housing allowance, as Judy Bachrach reports, is paid for by American taxpayers. While not technically employed by the U.S. government, Gessen is representing America to the Russian public. Her actions are closely watched by the Russians who are familiar with Radio Liberty, especially by independent journalists, human rights NGOs and anti-Putin political leaders. She is probably one of the most visible U.S. public diplomacy figures in Russia and the most controversial because of what happened to Radio Liberty. Mikhail Gorbachev, former reformist Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov are among many anti-Putin leaders who have criticized personnel and programming changes at Radio Liberty. Others, including the Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeeva, have sent protest letters to the Obama administration officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was an ex officio BBG member, and to members of the U.S. Congress.

Problems Remain

Masha Gessen was being honored last Wednesday by a for-profit group of rich American investors, Liberty Media Corporation, not for her current work at Radio Liberty, but specifically for her article, “The Wrath of Putin,” which appeared in the April 2012 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. She was given a $50,000 prize.

It could have been also a nice publicity event for RFE/RL, her current employer, and for the BBG. Instead, the organizers restricted media coverage and the evening became yet another embarrassment for the U.S. government, as well as for the Liberty Media Corporation and its chairman John Malone.

This was a truly bizarre development, since Ashe is a presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) who has just been elected to be the co-chair of the corporate board of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, one of several U.S. taxpayer-supported media entities managed by the BBG. He was also just elected chairman of the  RFE/RL board’s Audit Committee. His job is to make sure that U.S. taxpayers’ money is well spent on Masha Gessen’s salary and the programs for Russia she produces.

As Ambassador Ashe was being told that he was a persona non grata at the event and that his invitation had been withdrawn, he was overheard saying that this sounded more like something which would happen in Moscow under Putin than here in the United States. Another BBG member who heard later about what happened to Victor Ashe reacted by describing the withdrawing of the invitation as bizarre and petty.

Several of his Washington friends, including former and current members of Congress who saw Ashe standing in the lobby, were asking why Masha Gessen would want to disinvite a distinguished American, a former U.S. Ambassador, and the vice chair of the public board she works for?

There are several possible answers to this question — none of them justifying the humiliating treatment of an outstanding public servant, but certainly raising serious doubts about Masha Gessen.

What Upset Masha Gessen?

Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen, RFERL website photo

While this does not justify what happened to Victor Ashe, he, Lyudmila Alexeeva and others may have upset Masha Gessen by defending the honor of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists who had been abruptly fired shortly before the previous management of RFE/RL gave Gessen her job and also hired some of her associates to fill some of the positions of the fired staff. Ashe, Alexeeva and others have also been highly critical of the man who had hired Gessen and later resigned, former RFE/RL president Steven Korn. Ashe had demanded his resignation and has been calling for returning the fired journalists to work at Radio Liberty. Many of them are well known and highly respected by pro-democracy Russians.

Their firing, which Ashe called a tragedy and apologized for it as an individual member of the BBG, has met with moral outrage in Russia. Nearly all leading human rights activists and anti-Putin politicians condemned it, but notably Masha Gessen failed to come to the journalists’ defense. She accused some of them of slandering her, a criminal offense in Putin’s Russia. Prior to accepting her permanent position, Gessen had worked as a private management consultant to former RFE/RL president Steven Korn who made the decision to fire the journalists, although he maintains that they all had resigned voluntarily and were treated with great respect. Afterwards, Masha Gessen made the following statement, which many Russians found incredulous.

”The firings of the staff and the change in its structure were planned quite some time ago. My arrival was only a part of that plan and not the reason for the firings.”

She also defended the decision to fire Radio Liberty journalists.

“I have no reason to doubt the correctness of decisions: everything I know about the process of decision-making, makes me think that the decisions are correct. The fact that they are taken not by me – is just a historical fact.”

According to Russian press reports, Masha Gessen has become alienated from most of the intellectual and independent media community which supports the fired group, now known as Radio Liberty in Exile and which now has its own Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty) website. Perhaps the most famous Russian human rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lyudmila Alexeeva, said that Gessen does not understand the mission of Radio Liberty and should leave. The number of visitors to the Radio Liberty Russian website has dropped significantly, according to media reports. The station’s reputation and prestige evaporated.

All of these developments have become a big concern for Ashe and for some of his colleagues on the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Their response was the appointment of Kevin Klose, a distinguished journalist, media executive and professor of journalism, to deal with the crisis. As acting president of RFE/RL, Klose became Masha Gessen’s immediate boss. He had met in Moscow with representatives of the fired journalists and with Lyudmila Alexeeva and other Russian human rights leaders who support them. He invited Alexeeva to another meeting in Washington. He also received an invitation to participate the the Media for Liberty Award ceremony for Masha Gessen.

Detailed Account of What Happened at the Masha Gessen Event

Media For Liberty AwardThis is an account of what happened pulled together from Judy Bachrach’s article, various other witnesses and sources, and Liberty Media Corporation statements.

Broadcasting Board of Governors member and vice-chair of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty corporate board Ambassador Victor Ashe arrived at the door of Newseum in Washington D.C. last Wednesday at about 6:45 PM, was stopped and told that his name is not on the list of invited guests. He had received the invitation for himself and one extra guest on March 15 from Greg Maffei, Liberty Media CEO. He had responded, accepted the invitation and informed Liberty Media that a journalist Judy Bachrach would accompany him. Bacharach had reported previously on the Radio Liberty crisis for the World Affairs Journal. While standing in the lobby, several people, including former Tennessee Congressman Bart Gordon and former assistant Defense Secretary Powell Moore, came by to greet Ashe and inquired what was the problem.

Ashe told them that he was not on the list and had to await a decision on his admittance from the event organizers. By this time, Kevin Klose, the new acting president and CEO of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty came by and stopped. He was surprised to see Ashe being barred from entering. Klose said he would wait with Ashe until the problem is resolved. He also said that would not attend the event if Ashe is not admitted. Klose is Gessen’s most immediate supervisor. He already knew that Victor Ashe has just been named the new vice chair of RFE/RL board and chair of its Audit Committee in addition to being a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors which has the ultimate authority over Radio Liberty.

Klose volunteered to the Liberty Media event organizers that he would give up his seat to allow Ashe to attend, but Ashe told Klose that he would not take his seat. (It turned out later that Klose was to be seated at the main table where the guest of honor Masha Gessen and Liberty Media Corporation president, billionaire John Malone, were also seated.)

Shortly thereafter, Heather Lipp of Liberty Media Corporation came back after apparently conferring with Masha Gessen and informed Victor Ashe that his invitation had been withdrawn and that the guest of honor Masha Gessen does not want him to attend. Ashe asked why he was not told much earlier about his invitation being rescinded as he had turned down other invitations to accept this one. Heather Lipp of Liberty Media said at that point that she had no record of Ashe responding. Ashe asked how Ms. Gessen could say she did not want him to attend if his name was not on the list. A guest asked whether Ms. Gessen was psychic.

By this time, Kevin Klose said he would go inside and speak directly to Masha Gessen, informing her that it was inappropriate to attempt to bar Ashe from attending when he had been invited by the event organizers and had a copy of the invitation with him. By this time, journalist Judy Bachrach had already arrived and was left standing with Ashe. She was also barred from entering.

Ashe commented that this sounded more like something that would happen in Moscow under Putin than here in the United States. Klose again indicated he would not attend if Ashe was barred.

Another 7 minutes went by and the total time spent at the front door awaiting for the powers to be to decide that to do with Ashe was about 20 minutes. While inside, Klose apparently did not talk to Gessen directly as she was in the company others and he was afraid that if he confronted her it could create a scene. He apparently asked one of the Liberty Media Corporation handlers to deliver his message to Gessen.

Klose (whose name on his handwritten name tag was misspelled as “Close”) then returned and informed Ashe that Gessen had relented and said she had no objection to his presence at the event. Ashe and Judy Bachrach finally got into the gala event where several VIPs, such as Senator Maria Cantwell (D – WA) and Senator Michael Bennett (D – CO) were attending along with Congressman James Clyburn (D – SC) of South Carolina and Congressman Mike Coffman (R – CO) of Colorado.

Ashe shrugged off the whole incident and the insult while Klose made fun of his name being misspelled as “Close.” Ashe later made fun of the incident with a comment “a funny thing happened to me on the way to dinner in Washington, DC.” Klose would not comment on the attempt to ban Ashe from the event, but said that Masha Gessen is a gifted reporter whose work is worthy of Vanity Fair, a statement that most people would not disagree with. Klose also said that he was glad that he and Ambassador Ashe were present at “a celebration of courageous personal journalism.”

Klose did not mention the award for Masha Gessen or the incident in his remarks later in the week at the open BBG board meeting in Washington. Normally, heads of BBG’s media entities brag to no end about such awards. Liberty Media Corporation has not yet posted anything on its website about the award for Masha Gessen. RFE/RL and BBG English-language websites also posted no press releases about the award for Gessen, but the RFE/RL English website had an announcement, “RFE/RL’s Gessen Honored For ‘Vanity Fair’ Putin-Khodorkovsky Profile,” slugged as “Communications / Kudos & Awards.” By calling it something else than a news story, editors apparently could justify not reporting on the incident with Ambassador Ashe or the ongoing controversy over the fired Radio Liberty journalists. The RFE/RL announcement quotes Kevin Klose:

“Masha Gessen’s detailed and enormously readable Vanity Fair article reveals a battleground where iron-willed men maneuver for advantage and retribution,” said RFE/RL’s Acting President and CEO Kevin Klose. “It’s a clear-eyed chronicle that informs and elucidates; it is both necessary and courageous.”

The RFE/RL announcement does not provide for readers to leave comments. (UPDATE: It appears that after we published this information, the article/announcement has been removed from the RFE/RL website.)

Gessen received a $50,000 check along with the Media for Liberty Award. About 70 persons were in attendance seated at 7 tables of 10 each.  The acoustics were not good and Gessen’s comments were barely audible along with John Stossel’s comments which lasted 20 minutes. Sources who had problems hearing her speech believe that Gessen did not mention the fired Radio Liberty journalists or they would have been told that she did.

Liberty Media Corporation Statements

Ms. Lipp of Liberty Media Corporation later said that “we apologized to Ambassador Ashe and his guest at the event. We regret this unfortunate situation and are pleased that they were able to attend the event.” Other sources told us that the only apology came for “a nice young man” working for an independent contractor who was responsible for setting up the event for Liberty Media.

Liberty Media issued the following explanation in response to media inquiries:

“Ms. Gessen is being honored for her article, “The Wrath of Putin,” which appeared in the April 2012 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, which we believe fit the criteria of the award — to explore the link between economic and political liberty – and was evaluated on specific criteria including relevance to the public discourse, educational value, mastery of the media format and thematic relevance.

We are aware, based on the reporting and opinion articles in public media, of the situation with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Russia, but it would be inappropriate for us to comment on those matters. To be clear, the focus of our panel was specifically and solely on Ms. Gessen’s article for Vanity Fair Magazine.

As it relates to the request for media credentials, we hope you will understand that this event is invitation only to persons in the media, political and other related fields.  There will be no working media in attendance at the event.  Therefore, we must decline your request for media accreditation to attend and cover the event.”

What Does This All Mean?

Ambassador Ashe’s comment that “this sounded more like something that would happen in Moscow under Putin than here in the United States” strikes us as being right on the mark, as does the tile of Ms. Bachrach’s article, “Moscow on the Potomac.”

An additional irony is that when Elena Vlasenko, one of the Radio Liberty journalists who had resigned in protest, received the Andrei Sakharov Award for Human Right Journalism, specifically for her online reporting, Gessen apparently justified not covering the ceremony by describing it as unfortunately a low profile news event in Russia.

At least prior to the publication of Bachrach’s article, Gessen apparently did not respond to any media requests for her comment about the incident at her award ceremony in Washington.

Ambassador Ashe is not the only person showing concern over the firing of Radio Liberty journalists. Other BBG members, including RFE/RL board chair Susan McCue, are also deeply alarmed and are working with Kevin Klose to solve the crisis.

Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent, volunteer Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) has repeatedly called for the reinstatement of the fired journalists, making several appeals at open BBG meetings. In a Russian media interview, Gessen lashed against Noonan, describing her activities and those of other American NGO’s members as “a trick with mirrors: they serve themselves, illuminate themselves, inflate scandal.” She reportedly also told Russian media after her patron Steven Korn had resigned that she will stay at Radio Liberty no matter what.

In commenting on the RFE/RL leaders who had dismissed Radio Liberty journalists, Freedom House president David Kramer said that “nothing short of major change is required, meaning a complete housecleaning of the top leadership.” “The damage they have done is immeasurable,” Kramer added.

Pussy Riot type protest poster in defense of fired Radio Liberty journalists

Pussy Riot type protest poster in defense of fired Radio Liberty journalists.

Supporters of media freedom in Russia published a Pussy Riot type protest poster, calling on Liberty Media not to forget 40 fired Radio Liberty journalists as the American investment company honors Masha Gessen. The poster shows a naked young woman covering her chest with her arms and a sign: “Liberty Media, Don’t Forget 40 Fired RFE/RL Journalists in Russia.” Many of Radio Liberty journalists, except those hired by Masha Gessen, feel the same way and are not longer afraid to express these views in public.

But it appears that it was a comment like the one below from Ambassador Ashe in support of the fired Radio Liberty journalists that apparently got him in trouble with Masha Gessen.

Being a good reporter is not enough. Many of the fired Radio Liberty staffers are also outstanding, award-winning reporters, some of them far better known and certainly more respected in Russia for their independent journalistic work than Masha Gessen whose account of her meeting with President Putin was far from complete or well presented.

After years of dedicated service to America and democracy in Russia, these journalists were thrown on the street by the former American management of RFE/RL, not even allowed to say good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years. They are gifted and brave, but most of them have no chance to make a living as independent reporters under President Putin’s rule unless they are allowed to return to Radio Liberty.

The question to be asked is not who is a good reporter but who has good judgement, good managerial and people skills, trust and support of the pro-democracy public in Russia and ability to lead the Russian Service of Radio Liberty as president Putin continues to clamp down on media freedom. The bizarre and embarrassing incident last Wednesday, it seems to us, provides at least part of the answer to this question. As suggested by Lyudmila Alexeeva and others, Masha Gessen should leave as a manager at Radio Liberty and use her talents as a writer and reporter elsewhere. Practically every independent Russian journalist, human rights activist and opposition leader agrees that this is the only way to save Radio Liberty’s important role an alternative source of news and commentary in Putin’s Russia.

BBG Governor Victor Ashe Commenting on the Fired Radio Liberty Journalists

“We cannot let the tragic events at the Moscow Bureau over the past six months go unmentioned. As one Board member, As one individual Governor, I want to apologize for what happened. I can assure you the Board was never informed in any significant way as to what happened. That does not lessen the scope or the manner in which decisions were made and implemented. I feel with Kevin Klose, RFE/RL has a new leader who generates confidence and deserves our support as he works to deal with the situation.” — Victor Ashe, BBG Governor

Get to Know Some of the Fired Radio Liberty Journalists and Their Colleagues Who Resigned in Protest

Watch this Radio Liberty in Exile’s “US CONGRESS HELP US” video on YouTube.

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