Old perestroika journalists need not apply – RFE/RL President Steven Korn defends his record
Old perestroika journalists need not apply – Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty President Steven Korn defends his record
A BBG Watch Commentary
We welcome the first posts from Jan (a pen name), a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist working in Prague, and from Leon (also a pen name), a former RFE/RL editor. They both discuss personnel policies of RFE/RL President Steven Korn and employee morale issues. President Korn is a friend of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Walter Isaacson from their days together at CNN and author of “Old White Guys” and “Cute High School Intern” comments. While we hear that Isaacson is now putting some distance between himself and Korn, RFE/RL President is trying to weather the storm.
As a public servant, Steven Korn has definitely changed the language of how personnel policies are discussed and implemented at the BBG, a federal workplace where inappropriate comments by a senior official can have bad consequences for the official and the agency. Sources told us that in emails and memos, Korn is now highlighting his accomplishments at RFE/RL, apparently in an effort to save his reputation and his job.
Sources who saw one of his memos told us that he had informed the Board members he had saved so far $1.2 million and plans to use that money to buy phones for reporters in Russia, reporter travel, hiring freelancers, and helping RFE/RL journalists who are threatened and jailed. We suspect, however, that this is not a complete list for this slush fund and other funds available to Korn and his top advisors. Korn also informed the Board that he plans to do a lot of foreign travel himself, but — according to one source — tried to discourage BBG members from visiting Prague. They might learn a thing or two if they did. One source told us that Korn reassured BBG members that his own planned foreign travels do not amount to “a grand tour.”
Jan, who works at RFE/RL, takes issue with some Korn’s claims, especially that ones that his management decisions of the past six months enjoy “broad support” among his subordinates and that he regularly seeks counsel outside of the small group of his newly-appointed Vice Presidents.
Jan may be right. Sources who have read Korn’s “what I accomplished and where we are going memo” tell us there is absolutely nothing in it about any cost-of-living raises or better housing allowances for rank-and-file employees. The memo goes on and on, however, how Korn’s management changes have boosted morale. There is no mention in the memo of the problem of unfair treatment of third-country foreign journalists or a promise to do something about it and extend to this group of RFE/RL employees the protections of the Czech labor law.
One source found it both sad and amusing that while such employee morale issues — often reported by the Czech press (Lidove noviny: Svobodnou Evropou obhazi strasidlo – A spectre is haunting Radio Free Europe) as well as media in Russia, Armenia and in other countries to which RFE/RL broadcasts — are ignored, the memo brags about RFE/RL’s plan to support a campaign to eliminate Prague’s graffiti problem.
A journalist with many years of work in international broadcasting who saw Korn’s memo told us that its most amazing feature is the total absence of any intellectual discussion of “why and what.” What is it that RFE/RL should be doing and why? The word management appears many times, but there is no mention in Korn’s memo of “freedom,” “democracy,” “human rights,” “rule of law,” “authoritarianism,” “dictatorship,” or “political dissidents.”
Leon’s post makes the following point:
“Keep in mind that this is the radio station that was established and led by intellectual giants. Its current leadership is bad news for America, and it’s even worse news for those who expect RFE/RL to lead them in their fight for freedom.”
Jan’s post adds more evidence to previous BBG Watch warnings that BBG executives, be it in Washington or in Prague, take a very good care of themselves and their friends and favorites but are far from being generous to those who actually carry out the BBG’s mission and who had contributed to the success of U.S. international broadcasting in the past.
BBG bonuses for SES staffers, more generous housing allowances for RFE/RL senior staff, new Vice President titles, hiring friends without experience in international broadcasting to fill high paying jobs — these are all recent examples of decisions by top BBG officials.
They pay for these bonuses, new privileges and new jobs by cutting or proposing to cut critical programs: VOA to Russia and China, closing down news bureaus, denying cost-of-living raises to rank-and-file employees (RFE/RL, IBB/VOA contract employees), and treating contract employees as second class citizens (RFE/RL, IBB/VOA).
A recently published article by an anonymous RFE/RL journalist talks about copies of samizdat being secretly passed among RFE/RL employees in Prague who see themselves as victims of discrimination by the management of the American-run and publicly funded station. In fairness to Korn, he inherited this problem, but some of the managers who created perpetuated this problem are still occupying high positions at IBB/BBG.
BBG Watch was not able to confirm Jan’s claim that salary increases came with the new Vice President titles introduced by Steven Korn and what additional housing allowances were granted and to whom. Our sources did confirm, however, that Korn was justifying his personnel decisions by claiming that the only VPs RFE/RL has had recently are “old white guys.”
According to the same sources, Korn insisted that his proposed promotions are well deserved, long overdue, and that they redress a legitimate grievance at zero cost. One of Korn’s memos describes his actions as “a morale boost.” He said that he has talked with the people in all of RFE/RL’s language services and support departments. He told the Board that the management changes he made were “broadly endorsed.” He even described them as “the springboard” for almost everything he and RFE/RL are doing. That’s quite a claim.
We wonder, however, whether “a clear direction,” RFE/RL President meant to impose is taking the organization in the right direction. Korn reportedly also talked about a “cold war” among the senior staff in Prague that required him to initiate a “perestroika” — these are Korn’s own words according to our sources that have seen his memo.
It appears, however, that as a result of Korn’s “perestroika,” some “old white guys” who actually had contributed to the success of the real perestroika in Russia and elsewhere, and therefore to the success of RFE/RL, are out or have had their titles and positions changed. They are being replaced by managers with no or little experience in transnational journalism, not unlike Mr. Korn himself, and perhaps quite soon by a “cute high school intern” or two.
The message seems clear: perestroika-era journalists who speak a foreign language or two and have been around for a while, those who may still know how to deal with the likes of Mr. Putin and company, the “old white guys” — need not apply. If they are still at RFE/RL, they’re lucky if they can hold on to their jobs with diminished titles and authority.
Sources tell us that after learning about the “old white guys” comment, BBG members reversed some of Korn’s personnel changes and adopted a resolution condemning workplace discrimination. Some, however, still defended Korn and even pushed for him to be considered for the person in charge of implementing the proposed merger of the BBG’s surrogate broadcasters.
Korn’s strongest supporters on the Board, according to our sources, are Republicans Enders Wimbush and Dennis Mulhaupt, and Susan McCue, a Democrat. We don’t suggest, however, that these BBG members condone workplace discrimination.
As one source told us, when the issue of Korn’s future came up, one BBG member, who may have been Michael Meehan, apparently asked the question whether the BBG has enough money to cover the “legal liability.”
Having been led astray earlier by BBG, IBB and VOA executives, Meehan, a Democrat, has turned out to be of late a surprisingly keen spotter of waste and poor management at the BBG along with senior Republican member Victor Ashe. Sources tells us, however, that Ashe’s fellow Republicans, Wimbush and Mulhaupt, frequently oppose Ashe’s initiatives aimed at fighting mismanagement, improving employee morale, and increasing transparency and public scrutiny.
When Steven Korn’s future came up for discussion, the majority of BBG members — a source tells us — agreed that some damage control is necessary but could not agree whether Korn should be asked to leave. The job of overseeing the merger, however, ultimately went not to Korn but to Brian Conniff, President of the BBG’s Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. (MBN), under a compromise apparently worked out between BBG Chairman Isaacson and Victor Ashe.
We all love you
by Jan (pen name of a current RFE/RL journalist)
I am very amused by the comment in your 19 January post “Broadcasting Board of Governors released video with gender-insensitive comment“, where President Steve Korn, is quoted as telling BBG members that his management changes have been “broadly endorsed” by the RFE/RL staff. I am wondering how he would know, since he sits in his office, speaking only to his senior staff.
These senior employees support him of course, because he has given them higher salaries (while regular employees have not even received a cost of living raise in two years), and changed the housing allowance so that senior managers get housing allowances at the discretion of the President. I would also agree with the changes that made my salary payments and benefits significantly higher.
As for how the regular employees view the recent personnel moves, Mister Korn should ask around. This is what I hear in the halls regarding the new appointed Vice-Presidents:
People wonder how a person with no journalism experience is once again in charge. Even more amusing is that they got rid of the “Old White Guys” who were hired to fix the problems that came up the last time this executive was placed in charge under a previous RFE/RL president.
The Chief of Staff is also a Vice President, which sounds odd to anyone who has covered governments or the military. Since nobody really knows what this position entails, there are not many negatives comments heard in the building.
As for the one new person brought in to be yet another Vice President, nobody really knows him except that we have heard he is a friend of Steve Korn. We did get a copy of his CV when he was hired, and he did spend a short period as his only work in broadcasting. He never worked outside the United States of America, and does not seem to have worked with an organization that has international employees, even though he has the oversight function for personnel policies. Nobody believes he is the best person for the job. We suspect he was brought on board because Steve Korn wanted a friend with him in Prague.
It would be nice if President Korn were to expand his interactions to include employees who actually work directly on our Broadcast (or should I say Content), and find a way to assist them in providing news to the target audience instead of closing news bureaus in Eurasia so that he and his senior staff could make more money and live in nicer houses. Why should a single executive with no kids be eligible for a new title and housing allowance, when we have broadcasters with several children being asked to do with the same low monthly payments? Based on what I read on this website, I see that this is really emulating action by the BBG, showing that management is more important that quality output.
“No jeans for you RFE/RL ladies”
A commentary sent to BBG Watch by Leon (pen name), a former RFE/RL editor, writer and reporter.
To quote from an article by Leonid Panov, “American Radio Free Europe Fights in Courts against Armenian journalist. And Scores against America,” AZG Daily, Dec 6, 2011: “Take Steven Korn, new president of the Radio. He’s already half a year in Prague and changed nothing. Political feeling — zero. Doesn’t speak a single foreign language. Could not find Balkans on the map, I was told,’ says Snjezana Pelivan.” [Pelivan is one of the two former foreign-born female RFE/RL employees who are suing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Broadcasting Board of Governors for unlawful discrimination.]
In that respect, Korn’s plans for foreign travels may contribute to his qualifications. I don’t know for sure whether Korn speaks any language other than English and whether it’s literally true that he could not find the Balkans on the map, but I’m quite sure he does not know any language or has in-depth knowledge of any country to which RFE/RL directs its programs.
And something else coming from insiders. One of the first broadly discussed and ridiculed improvements that Korn apparently intended to introduce, was the ban on women wearing jeans at work. Regardless of how true this rumor is, he does have a gusto for ladies’ look as we saw from his “cute high school intern” outburst at the Broadcasting Board of Governors meeting. He also referred to some of the talented RFE/RL broadcasters who have spent decades fighting communism and were now fighting authoritarianism in Russia and elsewhere as “old white guys.” Some of them are now gone.
At Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where there are still quite a few accomplished writers, journalists, and other highly qualified professionals, I’m told that he is not a respected figure. (His Russian nickname at RFE/RL is not highly complimentary.) Hence, his penchant for surrounding himself with those matching his own level.
I don’t want to dwell here on one of his new Vice-Presidents but try to find on the Internet anything written by her. And (according to Korn) everyone at RFE/RL approves her promotion to oversee editorial content. Really?
Keep in mind that this is the radio station that was established and led by intellectual giants. Its current leadership is bad news for America, and it’s even worse news for those who expect RFE/RL to lead them in their fight for freedom.