BBG Watch Commentary

John O'Sullivan Photo, NROIn an National Review article, “How to Listen to the Radio: The ill-covered crisis at an American institution,” former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executive editor John O’Sullivan gives BBG Watch credit for exposing crisis and corruption at the American taxpayer-funded station broadcasting uncensored news to Russia and other nations without free media.

John O’Sullivan was Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executive editor from 2008 until 2011 and vice president (2011). He is the author of “The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister” (Regnery, 2006), and former advisor to Margaret Thatcher.

O’Sullivan published an earlier op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal critical of RFE/RL president Steven Korn’s mass dismissal of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and programming changes introduced by Masha Gessen, Korn’s pick to run the Russian Service.

O’Sullivan, a British conservative political commentator and journalist who during the 1980s was a senior policywriter and speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher when she was British prime minister, was one of former top RFE/RL managers whom Steven Korn derisively called “old white guys” and forced to leave.

Before leaving, O’Sullivan told Korn that what he was planning to do with Radio Liberty in Russia was insane from a journalistic and political perspective. His warning was ignored and Korn appointed Julia Ragona, who has no record of journalistic experience, to be the vice-president of content and marketing. She assisted Korn in firing Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow. Dale Cohen, the vide-president of administration, whom Korn brought on board to replace another “old white guy,” who was also forced to leave, organized the firings in such a way that it created a moral outrage among Russians. Some of those fired were fully qualified employees with disabilities.

Dedicated, loyal and experienced longtime and younger Radio Liberty journalists, many of whom well known and highly respected in Russia, were without any warning barred by RFE/RL-hired security guards from entering their news bureau in Moscow, directed to a law firm and forced to resign. They were later prevented by RFE/EL executives from saying good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years. In a letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal in response to O’Sullivan article, Korn claimed that “suggestions that any staffers were treated harshly in this process are patently false.”

BBG Watch has published accounts from the fired journalists that clearly contradict Korn’s assertions. If 80 percent of NPR’s best anchors and reporters found one day their building blocked by guards, were sent to a Washington law firm, forced to resign, given a few months of severance pay, and prevented from saying good bye on the air to NPR listeners, would Steven Korn still claim that they were treated “not harshly” but with “great respect?,” one former BBG executive asked. The same former BBG executive pointed out that Mr. Korn made a big deal in his resignation letter about wanting to be with his family, but he didn’t seem too concerned earlier what would happen to the families of dozens of journalists whom he had fired. There are not too many media outlets left in Putin’s Russia that would risk hiring journalists previously associated with an American-funded station. Read ‘Special operation’ at Radio Liberty Moscow – Part One

“Even without the style of the firings,” John O’Sullivan wrote in his article in The Wall Street Journal, “Russians would have been upset by the purge of a rare news outlet outside the control of the Kremlin and its compliant oligarchs.” “Mikhail Gorbachev was among the first to protest, saying that the dismissals looked ‘especially strange’ given Mr. Putin’s moves against independent journalism in Russia,” O’Sullivan pointed out.

The mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists prompted protests by human-rights activists in Russia. They wrote protest letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex officio BBG member, and to members of the U.S. Congress.

In his latest National Review article, O’Sullivan points out that the critical events took place in mid-September, but the mainstream U.S. media began reporting them only last week.

“This first report was an article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page (by me, as it happens) arguing that the decision of RFERL’s president, Steve Korn, and senior managers to fire the journalists and replace them with a new Russian staff — under a well-known Moscow journalist, Masha Gessen, who wanted to pursue a more “normal” and less “opposition” kind of journalism — was a major mistake on several grounds, notably that it let down the growing opposition to Putin’s growing authoritarianism.”

O’Sullivan wrote that until his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, the sole U.S. coverage of the upheavals at Radio Liberty in Moscow had appeared in journals of opinion and blogs. He noted that the first account appeared on National Review Online on October 23. “Entitled ‘Silenced by Washington,’ the piece, written by Mario Corti, a former director of Radio Liberty (Russian Service), and Ted Lipien, a former acting associate director of VOA, was the case for the prosecution: a lively, argumentative feature critiquing the justifications of RFERL’s management but also laying out the main facts clearly,” O’Sullivan wrote.

“Following the NRO article, nothing much happened in the U.S. But in Moscow the crisis continued to metastasize. Masha Gessen took over, and she gradually began to change the character of RL’s broadcasts. But she did so against a background of mute resistance within RL and outright hostility outside it. A group of Russian intellectuals wrote a second letter to Congress protesting the decision. RL audience figures began to fall. The station disappeared from a list of Internet news sites that were most frequently cited by other news outlets — an indication of declining influence. The fired Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow established their own organization with the ironic title, “Radio Liberty in Exile.” Four of them were honored with prestigious professional awards. Liudmila Telen, the much-respected former editor of RL’s website, for instance, received a citation for her professionalism and integrity from the Russian Union of Journalists; reporter Kristina Gorelik for her human-rights journalism from the Moscow Helsinki Committee; and so on. These awards may have had an element of solidarity about them; but there’s no doubt that they also represented the collective admiration of the journalistic profession and human-rights groups for strong professional performances.

All these things were reported, not on RL’s website, nor in the U.S. media, but by the watchdog BBG Watch, co-founded and directed by Ted Lipien, on its website.

BBG Watch is strongly in favor of U.S. international broadcasting — which it regards as an excellent investment for America — but highly critical of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency appointed to exercise oversight of the USIB entities. Its commentaries are written from this acknowledged standpoint, but it claims that the facts in them are accurate and that the opinions expressed are legitimate comments on matters of public controversy.”

READ MORE: “How to Listen to the Radio: The ill-covered crisis at an American institution,” John O’Sullivan, National Review Online, January 7, 2013.