Spinning Game

BBG Watch Commentary

It used to be the job of the director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service to counter Soviet and later Putin’s spin designed to confuse and deceive media consumers. But dozens of Radio Liberty journalists who had done that were fired without any warning last September on orders of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn and replaced by Masha Gessen and her team. This produced an outrage among Radio Liberty supporters in Russia, particularly among human rights leaders, like Lyudmila Alexeeva, and opposition political figures like Mikhail Gorbachev.

Korn Fires Employees with Disabilities (Radio Liberty in Exile photo.)

So when the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that funds and oversees RFE/RL, finally ordered last week a review of Steven Korn’s personnel and other management decisions, those responsible for the dismissals under Korn — including his Vice President for Administration Dale Cohen and Vice President for Content Julia Ragona — went into spin overdrive, presenting the BBG action not as an investigation of their actions but merely as a review of the situation in Russia and building bridges with the old audience and supporters who have left Radio Liberty in disgust.

No doubt these managers and executives fear a full-blown investigation or even a review of their own role in the destruction of the Radio Liberty Russian Service, particularly their role in the brutal dismissal of longtime journalists, which triggered the crisis. There was moral outrage in Russia when Russian media reported that RFE/RL executives used security guards against experienced, dedicated and loyal journalists to bar them from entering their news bureau in Moscow, and even prevented them, after they were fired, from saying good bye to their audience of many years, both on radio and online.

The job of spinning the news from the BBG in Russia was taken up by Masha Gessen, the new director of the Russian Service. When media outlets in Russia reported over the weekend that the BBG had ordered an inspection of Radio Liberty, Gessen wrote on her Facebook page:

“It is an idiotic task work to refute nonsense. But I have to. No, there is no inspection of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty. To everyone who shares a canard (false media report) about the alleged inspection announced by Michael Lynton, I advise to search on Google words: “Michael Lynton”, and let’s say, ‘Russian’. Well, or ‘Inspection’. Well, or what else you are able to invent. There is no announcement. End of message.”

When someone challenged her, Gessen wrote:

“Oh, that’s it! You think that the words BBG commissioned a six-month review of the situation in Russia can be translated as “Michael Lynton announced an inspection of the Russian Service.” But in fact they are translated as “BBG commissioned review of the situation in Russia, which should be completed in 6 months. These are the difficulties of translation.”

Masha Gessen also said in a Russian media interview that during a closed BBG meeting in Washington last Friday, “the strategy of the development of the Russian Service (under her directorship) was perceived very positively.” “There was no talk of concerns; no concerns were expressed.”

Gessen also attacked Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent, nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), who spoke at the BBG meeting in Washington in defense of the fired Radio Liberty journalists.

BBG Watch has learned that inquiries from CUSIB whether the BBG had sanctioned Gessen’s comments about Noonan were left unanswered.

Masha Gessen’s spin for the Russian media was too much for BBG member Victor Ashe. When contacted by Lenta.ru, which had reported earlier on Gessen’s statements, Victor Ashe said that “Radio Liberty Russian Service Director Masha Gessen distorted the sense of a decision made during a closed meeting of the BBG that an inspection be conducted at Radio Liberty.”

Американский регулятор подтвердил инспекцию на “Радио Свобода” – Lenta.ru, Dec. 18, 2012

In an interview with Lenta.ru, Ashe confirmed that a review by the BBG will take place and will be focused on the circumstances of the firing of Radio Liberty staffers. According to his words, the decision to fire Radio Liberty journalists was made by Steven Korn without the sanction of the BBG. Victor Ashe refused to confirm previous reports concerning the imminent departure of Korn from RFE/RL. BBG Watch has learned that BBG members had agreed not to comment on this issue for the time being.

BBG Watch reported, quoting reliable sources at the BBG headquarters in Washington, that BBG members had given Korn 45 days to leave his post and stripped him of the authority to fire any more RFE/RL employees.

Lenta.ru reported that BBG Watch published a statement by Victor Ashe describing Gessen’s comments as “stunning” and “totally untrue.” Ashe stressed that the Deputy Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Jeffrey Trimble was directed “to turn over all the rocks and get to the bottom of the events.”

“If Ms. Gessen feels her actions are not part of the review then she is mistaken,” Ashe said. In his interview with Lenta.ru, Ashe confirmed that he did in fact make this comment to BBG Watch. Ashe also denied suggestions from Dale Cohen that BBG members, including himself, went gaga over Gessen when they met her in Washington.

Dale Cohen has accused BBG Watch of spreading lies and not seeking balancing comments. He has not responded, however, to BBG Watch questions to him posted online. BBG Watch in fact frequently seeks and posts comments or provides statements from BBG spokespersons, other officials, and BBG members.

Lenta.ru reported that, according to Masha Gessen, the firings of Radio Liberty journalists were decided before she came on board and were due to the necessity to change the format. However, Victor Ashe said that for him “it is difficult to believe” that Gessen did not know in advance about the imminent firings of staffers, Lenta.ru reported.

Other RFE/RL executives responsible for the crisis at Radio Liberty joined Gessen in downplaying the significance of the review ordered by the BBG.

RFE/RL Vice President for Content Julia Ragona who oversaw the process of the selection of the journalists to be fired, including some of the most popular and most influential in Russia, made this statement to the RFE/RL staff after the BBG meetings in Washington, which she attended by flying business class from Prague with Dale Cohen, as reported by BBG sources (BBG Watch has learned that inquiries directed to the BBG if Ragona and Dale indeed flew business class and why went unanswered):

“Jeff’s (IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble) six-month review that was mentioned there. And just to put it into context, this is, Jeff is meant to — because all of you know Jeff’s, his background, his abilities, his connections — to work with the sort of, the audience that was on the medium wave, the people who are upset to have lost their medium wave — aren’t we all — to try to build bridges with the new team. It’s largely for the sake of trying to build relationships that have been, shall we say, damaged, and not for the sake of a review of the strategy, which is how it’s been thrown out there.”

Interesting spin from RFE/RL executives responsible for the current crisis at Radio Liberty and a public diplomacy crisis for the United States in Russia. Mr. Putin must be rejoicing to see Radio Liberty being now run by people who have ruined the station’s formerly stellar reputation for hard-hitting, objective, pro-human rights journalism. If Masha Gessen is practicing her spin on Russian media consumers, and Dale Cohen and Julia Ragona are practicing theirs on RFE/RL staff, it is fair to ask who will counter Putin’s spin in Russia on behalf of American taxpayers who want the Russian people to have access to uncensored news and who are paying salaries of American executives in charge of Radio Liberty.

The fired Radio Liberty journalists and their colleagues who resigned in protest and solidarity have created Radio Liberty in Exile group and started their own website, SvobodaNew.com. Other than their volunteer work, most of them are still unemployed in Putin’s Russia. Their website, which continues the tradition of Radio Liberty journalism, receives no funding from the U.S. government.

Justice for Radio Liberty Journalists (Radio Liberty in Exile photo.)

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