BBG Watch Commentary

Steven Korn, President and Chief Executive Officer, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty

Steven Korn

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president and CEO Steven Korn has submitted a letter of resignation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting which had hired him and recently asked him to resign because of the crisis he created at RFE/RL by firing some of the best journalists at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow.
His resignation is effective as of the close of business on January 25, 2013. Last September, Korn fired more than 30 Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists in Moscow on the spot. The BBG gave him nearly a month to leave his post. Korn insists that the journalists all left voluntarily and were treated with great respect.
The fired Radio Liberty Moscow journalists were forbidden by RFE/RL executives and their security guards to say good bye to their audience. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty posted on its news home page, without any balancing information or commentary, Korn’s photo and a link to his lengthy resignation letter (2192 words).
RFE/RL newsroom, which in the past had always focused on human rights news stories, has all but ignored the controversy of the firings in Moscow and numerous protests it produced from Russian human rights activists. RFE/RL newsroom journalists explain their previous silence and the posting of Korn’s letter on the news site without any balance by fear of being fired.
The RFE/RL board, composed of BBG members, has accepted Korn’s resignation.
BBG member Victor Ashe

Victor Ashe

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Ambassador Victor Ashe welcomed the resignation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Steven Korn as necessary for RFE/RL to survive. RFE/RL newsroom ignored his comments even though Ashe is easily reachable by email and his email address is posted with his bio on the BBG website to encourage employees and members of public to contact him with questions and suggestions. His commennts first appeared on the BBG Watch website, which was also first to report several days ago, citing sources within the BBG and its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) administration in Washington that BBG members gave Korn 45 days to submit his resignation and stripped him of authority to fire employees.
Ambassador Ashe told reporters:

“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 RFE/RL board has already stripped Korn of the authority to fire any more employees.
Steven Korn has been responsible for one of the greatest crises in the history of U.S. international broadcasting. He’s been criticized by more human rights activists, independent journalists and democratic political leaders than any other RFE/RL executive since Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were created in the 1950s.
Steven Korn does not comment in his resignation letter on the controversy over his leadership and presents himself as an agent of change. He nearly destroyed Radio Liberty and many other RFE/RL services. Radio Liberty’s reputation in countries like Russia and Kazakhstan has been ruined and may be difficult to repair, but many supporters of U.S. international broadcasting are offering their support to the BBG now that Korn will soon be gone.
The biggest unresolved question is the future of outstanding Radio Liberty journalists who were fired by Korn. Human rights leaders in Russia and in the United States have asked that they be rehabilitated and given back their jobs. They include Lyudmila Alexeeva, the chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and David Kramer, the president of Freedom House. Russian and American academics have also called for the rehiring of the fired Radio Liberty journalists. They include Dr. Lev Gudkov, Dr. Vladimir Shlapentokh, and David Satter.
In Kazakhstan, the strategy of change promoted by Korn had resulted in posting online sexually suggestive videos designed to attract a young audience. The videos were later withdrawn after they offended many site visitors in this largely Muslim country. Half of the experienced journalists of the RFE/RL Kazakh Service in Prague who specialized in human rights reporting were fired on Korn’s orders to allow the production of the controversial videos by outside contractors.
An RFE/RL woman reporter in Kazakhstan did not have her contract renewed after she had questioned Korn about the firings of Radio Liberty in Moscow and later protested against the offensive videos being posted online by RFE/RL.
An RFE/RL employee in Moscow saw his contract terminated after he asked Korn a question in an open meeting which apparently annoyed the RFE/RL president.
Experienced RFE/RL managers, whom Korn called “old white guys,” were forced out.
The purge of journalists in Moscow was organized by Korn’s closest deputies, his vice president for content Julia Ragona and his vice president for administration Dale Cohen. Their future will most likely be decided by whoever is appointed as the next RFE/RL CEO, but BBG members will no doubt have a significant input.
With his personnel actions and programming changes introduced by Masha Gessen, his choice for the director of the Russian Service, Korn made Radio Liberty an enemy of human rights and opposition leaders in Russia, including Lyudmila Alexeeva and Mikhail Gorbachev. Many of them wrote letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and members of Congress demanding that the fired Radio Liberty journalists be given their jobs back and their pro-human rights and pro-democracy programs be restored.
Most Russia and U.S. international broadcasting experts agree that Radio Liberty’s reputation cannot be restored without rehabilitating the fired journalists and allowing them to return to work.
More than 30 journalists and other media professionals, including employees with disabilities, were fired using security guards and other coercive measures. RFE/RL executives prevented them from saying good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years. The methods used to intimidate, humiliate and fire Radio Liberty journalists have produced moral outrage in Russia.
Official BBG Press Release:
Board Accepts Resignation Of RFE/RL President And CEO Steven Korn
Washington, D.C. – The Board of Directors of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) today accepted the resignation of RFR/RL’s President and CEO, Steven Korn, to be effective January 25, 2013. The Board thanked Mr. Korn for his service and noted his work to enhance RFE/RL operations.
“We appreciate the passion and energy Steve devoted to RFE/RL through a difficult time of change in the global media landscape, including strengthening its presence on digital platforms,” said Michael Lynton, presiding governor of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. “He was crucial to negotiating a new lease for our Prague headquarters and establishing a Journalists in Trouble fund, among other important advancements. Steve’s background in the private sector, especially in broadcasting, made him our top choice, and he brought innovative approaches to his leadership. With his resignation, we will immediately begin a search for a replacement.”
Korn was appointed in June 2011 and had previously worked for 17 years for Turner Broadcasting Systems, Inc., serving as Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary. From 1996 to 2000, he was Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of CNN.
Interim leadership will be announced shortly, and the Board voted today to establish a search committee led by Governors Susan McCue, Michael Meehan, Victor Ashe and Dennis Mulhaupt.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the BBG Board of Governors:
The first rule of journalism is never bury the lead. So here it is: I hereby resign as President and Chief Executive Officer of RFE/RL, Inc., effective as of the close of business on January 25, 2013. I submit this resignation with a heavy heart and solely for personal reasons.
Several of you know that my family was unable to move to Prague for a variety of reasons. Christmas 2011 was the only time my three children were able to visit Prague. At that time, slightly more than a year ago, I made a promise to my son that I would be home permanently in time for his 16th birthday in February, 2013. I have never wavered in this commitment. My closest associates at RFE/RL have known of my intention since early last summer when I began the first draft of this letter.
In addition, my father is ill. He is in his eighties and his time may be short. I am simply no longer willing to spend his last years separated by 5,000 miles and six time zones.
As much as I believe in the mission of RFE/RL and as much as I respect the extraordinary people of this great company, my place is with my family and these considerations have made my decision to resign clear.
I agreed to take this position because it presented the opportunity to apply a lifetime of experience in the news and media business to an exceptionally worthy mission. The mission of RFE/RL for over 60 years has been to bring a free press — unbiased, truthful and accurate news and information — to societies that lack freedom of press and expression. RFE/RL is a beacon of hope to oppressed people from Belarus to Pakistan and to most points in between. Through our work and steadfast commitment to our mission we represent the best values of America; a country that I have loved all my life, but have grown to love even more because of my experience at RFE/RL.
Like any organization, the heart and soul of RFE/RL is its people. It has been one of the great honors of my life to serve with and get to know the hundreds of dedicated people of the company. I have been awed and humbled by their commitment, fearlessness, courage and strength that are evident most every day. From the Belarusians who have been beaten and interrogated by the KGB; to the Azeris blackmailed by their own government for exposing state corruption; to the Iranian thrown in solitary confinement for accepting an offer to work for us; and east to Afghanistan and Pakistan where our journalists face grave personal threats almost daily from the Taliban for the simple act of reporting the truth. These are the kind of people that make a difference in the world, but who too often go unnoticed.
The notion of “speaking truth to power” is used all too frequently in the U.S. to apply to cases where that act has very little in the way of negative consequences for the speaker. The journalists of RFE/RL, however, “speak truth to power” every day in places where doing so can, and all too frequently does, mean imprisonment, torture or death. To me that is the very essence of courage.
It has also been one of the great lessons of my life to get to know so many people from countries where oppression is the norm who nevertheless conduct their lives with dignity, optimism, kindness and humor. It is a lesson which I will strive to internalize and one which I shall never forget.
If there is one lesson that I hope to have imparted to my colleagues it is that change is inevitable, constant, and necessary to the continued vitality of RFE/RL. To be frank, when I arrived I found a degree of institutional inertia and insular self-satisfaction that I thought could be harmful to the future of the company. The company had become too comfortable with its past successes and current methods.
Despite the expressed desires of some, RFE/RL is not a think tank. We are a news and information company with a very specific mission that competes against highly focused, better resourced competitors that often play by rules that we reject and abhor. We cannot rest on our reputation, past successes or the righteousness of our mission. As George Romney prophetically told his son Mitt in reference to the U.S. auto industry: “there’s nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success”.
As I have said many times to the people in the company, change is not a choice. The only choice is whether we initiate and control the way we change; or whether we become the victims of change by external conditions and competitors. If we do not relentlessly choose the former, we will be buried by the later.
This has been the constant theme of my stewardship of RFE/RL. It has driven our strategic and audience targeting plans for each of our language services. It is the reason for our emphasis on multimedia distribution where necessary or feasible. In addition to safety, it has been the motivating force behind the new facilities we are building in Moscow, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Almaty, our plans to upgrade our video capability in Baku and our plans to build three fully equipped video studios in Prague. We have reorganized our central news room operation and placed greater emphasis on its role in servicing our language services, rather than Washington think tanks. As I told you in a memo last fall we have changed our emphasis to look to the east to our broadcast region in direct support of the journalism that is our raison d’être. We are increasing the investment in our bureaus and the people who work tirelessly in them. We have and continue to provide them with new equipment wherever possible. For the first time we have created a fund to help protect and aid our journalists in trouble. We have expanded the Havel Fellowship program and solidified its financial future. For the first time in our history, we have secured health insurance for our bureau employees. The lack of such coverage was a shameful condition that I am most proud to have remedied.
Change is inevitable and smart, strategically sound change is imperative. While I have chosen to make the necessity for change the basic thrust of my tenure, I know well that many people find change difficult. We are all, to some degree, creatures of habit. I know also that those who have opposed our course of innovation, especially in Russia, will view my resignation as some sort of victory. I am convinced, however, that when all of the dust has settled, the histrionics have abated and the biased misinformation falls of its own weight, that the change we have implemented will be proved to have preserved, strengthened and advanced our core mission.
I think it is also well worth noting that that all of these changes have been accomplished without one penny of additional funding. It has all been achieved through careful management of our allocated budget. To be sure, we are under resourced. To pay for the changes we have implemented we have had to make smart, strategic and sometimes painful choices about how and where to spend our funds. We have done things like reducing or not filling vacancies for nine senior management positions. We subleased one of the two floors we occupied in our Washington office because the additional space was a luxury we could not afford and did not need. The sublease alone saved us $500,000 per year which we have been able to plow back directly into our mission. Similarly, we downsized our Washington presence in favor of moving resources east to Prague and the bureaus. We reduced certain building services in Prague and reallocated those funds to direct support of our journalists.
These choices in no way obviate our need for greater funding. As I noted, we are severely under resourced. As you know well, the current budget environment makes adequate funding difficult to imagine and reduced funding difficult to avoid. Nevertheless, reduced funding imperils the mission and puts an unfair burden on our people who are, in almost all cases, inadequately compensated for their efforts. Beyond compensation, we struggle with paltry budgets that make basic things difficult and at which our competitors would no doubt laugh. I am certain you share my views on this issue. I can only wish you nothing but success in the budget battles to come.
At every turn since I joined RFE/RL I have supported and, indeed defended, the Board’s strategy for USIB, even as others have resisted your vision for the agency. Your vision for consolidation and elimination of language service duplication was rejected by many, but I thought it was smart and necessary and said so publicly when doing so was not the most popular position to take. Unfortunately, these efforts are, at best, stalled. We have found ways to cooperate with our colleagues at VOA. As you know, Radio Farda recently launched a terrific new morning show, Breakfast with News, on VOA’s Persian News Network. I believe this effort will serve as a model for future cooperation between the entities of USIB. When we open our new state of the art facility in Moscow in a few weeks, VOA’s Moscow bureau will move into our facility at no cost to VOA. This collocation should also serve to facilitate joint projects between RFE/RL and VOA. RFE/RL has led the way in sharing and implementing our home grown content management system, Pangea, with the other USIB entities, save one, to great success. This project alone has saved the agency upwards of seven figures.
It is all too painfully known to everyone involved with U. S. International Broadcasting that the organization suffers from structural dysfunction that has a significantly negative impact on the entire agency. There is constant internecine warfare over issues large and small. There are indeed serious battles to be fought. If, however, we spend all of our time fighting among ourselves over petty issues, then our real adversaries and competitors will waltz to victory in the “information war”. I hope that you will find a way to heal USIB so that the good people who have devoted their lives to the agency’s important mission can do their jobs and receive the Board’s support. Perhaps the imminent public release of the Inspector General’s report on the BBG will provide the impetus for the change that is so sorely needed if the mission is to be accomplished.
At my initial meeting with the Presidential search committee I said that if they wanted to hire someone to merely babysit RFE/RL, that I was not the person for the job. I explained my views about the role of a CEO as a change agent and described the way I went about change at two other media organizations at which I had worked. I explained that change was an ongoing process and that we should never be satisfied with our past successes. The committee indicated that the approach I described was consistent with its view of what was required from the next President of RFE/RL.
Similarly, in the first speech I gave to the RFE/RL staff in Prague on June 6, 2011, I said: “we will never be complacent or become satisfied with what we have accomplished. In 60 years we have accomplished remarkable things, but if we focus excessively on past achievements we dishonor our own history and disable our future… every day when I wake up I will be motivated by one question: What can I do today to make RFE/RL better? How can I advance the mission?”
I leave my post as President of RFE/RL knowing to a moral certainty that I have kept faith with that pledge.
To both those who may be heartened and those who may be disheartened by my resignation, I would point to the words of Theodore Parker, the American theologian and abolitionist who, in a speech in 1858, said: “ I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
My term at RFE/RL has been Dickensian. It has been the best of times; and it has been the worst of times. Yet, I am honored and have been enriched by and am thankful for the rare opportunity you have given me to lead RFE/RL. I will, of course, work with you and my successor (whose selection I whole heartedly applaud) in any way you or he may desire to assure a smooth and professional transition.
I remain,
Very Truly Yours,