BBG Watch Commentary

Dale Cohen
Dale Cohen

A recording believed to have been made at a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) senior staff meeting Monday in Prague, Czech Republic, shows confident RFE/RL top executives who give no indication of knowing that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) had asked their president and CEO Steven Korn to resign within 45 days, as reported to us by highly reliable sources at the BBG headquarters in Washington .

In audio recordings, believed to be presentations by RFE/RL Vice President for Content Julia Ragona and a RFE/RL Vice President for Administration Dale Cohen, the executives:

1. Downplay to the staff the significance of the BBG-announced review of RFE/RL operations in Russia;

2. Deny that Radio Liberty Russian Service is losing audience;

3. Declare that BBG members are enthusiastic about Masha Gessen’s leadership of the Russian Service;

4. Accuse BBG Watch of poor and deceptive journalism.

Julia Ragona
Julia Ragona

In fact, RFE/RL executives themselves use a common and deceptive rhetorical technique of accusing their critics of crimes not committed, specifically of being opposed to progress, defined as seeking new audiences and expanding digital media, and presenting themselves as the agents of progress, i.e. seeking new audiences and expanding digital media, particularly video.

If we can speak on behalf of the critics, including the fired Radio Liberty journalists, most if not all of us are in fact enthusiastic supporters of digital expansion and use of video. Most of us are very active users and developers of new media platforms. We support this strategy and its reasonable implementation. Many of the fired journalists practiced it, some pioneered it at RFE/RL, and they have no problems with it whatsoever. Many of the Radio Liberty journalists fired in Moscow were Internet and social media experts. Some of them have already found new jobs as chief editors and web editors at popular Russian media outlets. Two of them have just received highly prestigious human rights journalism awards, partly for their online reporting. We did not expect Mr. Cohen and Ms. Ragona to mention this in their presentations Monday nor Mr. Korn to mention these important journalistic awards to BBG members in Washington.

What we criticize and cannot accept is the absolute cultural insensitivity, incredible incompetence and arrogance of the current RFE/RL management, specifically — Steven Korn, Dale Cohen, and Julia Ragona — in managing the organization and in implementing the digital strategy and most other management decisions, particularly personnel ones, for which Mr. Cohen — we believe — is largely responsible with input from Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona.

An RFE/RL executive, believed to be Dale Cohen, is also accusing BBG Watch of deceptive journalism, spreading lies, not providing balance or seeking comments, and not being real journalists.

We can assure Mr. Cohen that the vast majority of us are indeed former or current BBG journalists with many years of experience in USIB and in private media. We are not sure whether Mr. Cohen or Ms. Ragona have ever practiced serious news journalism, as Google searches have not produced numerous news articles for us to make a judgement.

That aside, we also point out that in fact and contrary to Mr. Cohen’s claims we often provide balance in BBG Watch commentaries (We call most of them commentaries rather than news reports because we are indeed a research and advocacy NGO, which we do not hide, but we check our facts carefully.) — sometimes quoting long statements from Mr. Korn, the BBG as an organization, BBG members, BBG officials, and many outside experts. We even quote official BBG spokespersons, whom various people working on our behalf have asked for comments on many occasions. They had responded to some of these inquiries and their responses were used and can be found on our website. We often extensively quote statements by various BBG members.

To show our good will, we republish here in this article/commentary large portions of remarks believed to have been made to RFE/RL staff in Prague by Mr. Cohen on Monday. We would like to ask Mr. Cohen in return to answer some of our questions so that we could show that we are indeed interested in balance. Please help us, Mr. Cohen.

Our questions for Mr. Cohen reflect facts and conclusions from our original reporting, of which we are proud and believe to be reasonably accurate. We have broken many news stories about U.S. international broadcasting and were vindicated on many occasions. Some of our contributors were quoted by NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Fox News, National Review and many other media in the U.S. and abroad. Even the BBG eventually agreed with us on Tibet and on many other policy decisions, which we had advocated, as did members of the U.S. Congress and human rights and media freedom organizations, to which some of our contributors belong. Several current and former BBG members have consulted with our contributors and sought their input.
We do apologize to Mr. Cohen for relying on anonymous sources. We believe it is necessary. We have seen USIB employees being fired for disagreeing with the management, especially at RFE/RL under the current leadership. As an employee of an organization reporting to countries with censorship and dictators, we’re sure Mr. Cohen can understand our desire to protect RFE/RL and BBG employees from retaliation.

But here is a chance for Mr. Cohen to prove how wrong we were in our reporting. He can do that by answering our questions. We promise that we will publish any responses without editing, just as we publish what are believed to be Mr. Cohen’s comments today. Please feel free to challenge the accuracy of our questions and include your own comments, but do first answer our questions with simple yes or no.

1. Did you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — fire/terminate/forced to sign termination agreements/asked nicely to sign termination agreements Radio Liberty employees in Moscow without any prior warning that they would soon lose their jobs?

How long did you talk to them in a law firm in Moscow? Did you advise them to seek outside legal counsel before signing any documents? Did you tell them they could return to work if they did not sign?

2. Do you — — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — believe that USIB employees and contractors should have their employment terminated in this fashion?

3. Did you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn/anybody else — use security guards to prevent longtime RFE/RL employees and contractors from entering the RFE/RL Moscow bureau?

4. Did you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn/anybody else — use security guards to prevent longtime RFE/RL journalists and broadcasters from saying good bye to their radio and online audience of many years. (Please feel free to deny it, if not true.)

5. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that RFE/RL Board, which is composed of BBG members, has asked/requested/ordered Mr. Korn to leave his post/resign/find another job within 45 days? (Please feel free to deny it, if not true.)

6. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that the RFE/RL Board, which is composed of BBG members, has stripped/removed/withdrawn/asked not to be exercised Mr. Korn’s authority to fire RFE/RL employees within the next 45 days? (Please feel free to deny it, if not true.)

7. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that in communicating with BGG members Mr. Korn described some of the former RFE/RL longtime senior employees as “old white guys” and that some of them were fired/forced out/forced to sign termination agreements/asked nicely to sign termination agreements? (Please feel to deny it if not true.)

8. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that in a public meeting Mr. Korn joked about hiring “a cute high school intern”?

Do you deny that Mr. Korn told people in Washington that the fired Radio Liberty journalists were resistant to change and stuck in the 1980s?

9. Do you, Mr. Cohen, disagree with this quote from BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe: “Because Applebaum said nice things about Gessen does not mean that I think she was a good choice. It was ridiculous to suggest that”? Please explain or comment.

10. Do you, Mr. Cohen, disagree with another quote form BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe: “I did not praise Masha Gessen…did mention that Applebaum thought well of her…which does not mean that I do or do not think well of her”? Please explain or comment.

11. Do you, Mr. Cohen,disagree with another quote form BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe: “Absolutely not… (BBG members being gaga about Masha Gessen) really no comment at all…cannot speak to anyone talking privately. Board members did not endorse Gessen publicly… Note that Cohen refers to Kramer as ‘the guy from Freedom House.’ Board members just listened to Gessen and did not make many comments….Cohen’s suggestion that I was impressed was ‘fiction on his part'”? Please explain or comment.

12. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — disagree with the statement from Lyudmila Alexeeva, a preeminent leader of the Russian human rights movement that “even wild Russian capitalists, whom the whole world finds repugnant, treat their people better than Mr. Korn”?

Do you deny that Ms. Alexeeva made this comment?

13. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that Ms. Alexeeva was recording an interview, was present at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau when guards were preventing journalists from entering the building, and observed part of the firing operation first hand?

14. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that Ms. Alexeeva, other major human rights leaders and opposition political figures in Russia, including Mikhail Gorbachev and a former reformer Russian prime minister and deputy prime minister, issued statements condemning the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and many of them sent letters of protest and petitions to the BBG, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and members of the U.S. Congress?

Do you deny that some of these leaders said that Mr. Korn had done more damage to Radio Liberty than the KGB and Putin could ever had?

Do you deny that Mr. Korn said about Ms. Alexeeva and other human rights leaders, some political opposition leaders, and a renowned Russian sociologists that they would not believe in anything he had to say, not even what day it was?

Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — think this comment was dismissive or offensive?

15. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny Masha Gessen accused some independent Russian journalists of slander for suggesting that she may have had some kind of connection to the firing of Radio Liberty journalists?

Is slander a criminal offense in Putin’s Russia?

16. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that Ms. Gessen lost website visitors for her previous employer and for RFE/RL?

17. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — deny that you had fired/terminated/forced to sign termination agreements/asked nicely to sign termination agreements two fully capable and experienced employees with disabilities?

18. Were these employees with disabilities replaced with non-disabled employees who were less experienced?

How do you explain firing/terminating employees with disabilities and replacing them with new employees?

Do you plan to rehire them?

Is it true that some of Ms. Gessen new employees, her former associates, had to be trained in posting audio and video online because they only had experienced with posting text?

Is it true that the first group of RFE/RL employees/contractors who were terminated were members of the Internet team?

19. Did RFE/RL co-produced with private contractors in Kazakhstan offensive and sexually suggestive videos which were placed on the RFE/RL websites and removed only after they caused an outrage in Kazakhstan, a largely Muslim country?

20. Is the production of such videos part of RFE/RL’s strategy?

21. Did a contract RFE/RL journalist in Kazakhstan, a young woman, have her employment contract not renewed shortly after she had questioned Mr. Korn about the firing of journalists in Moscow and later objected to the offensive, sexually suggestive videos being produced and posted online by RFE/RL?

Do you think that most RFE/RL employees were too intimidated by your management and personnel practices to alert Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn to offensive, sexual videos being produced and posted?

22. Do you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn/Ms. Gessen — have any comment or disagreement with these statements from BBG Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe: “Stunning that she (Masha Gessen) would say such ( that the BBG did not order an inspection of RFE/RL) as it is totally untrue.”

“While I do not speak for my colleagues, I truly believe they want an objective assessment of what happened and this includes nothing being off limits. They want Jeff Trimble to report back on what happened, lessons learned as well as way forward. I really wonder if Ms. Gessen was listening carefully to the discussion when she makes these claims.”

“The review of RFE/RL Moscow by Deputy IBB (International Broadcasting Bureau) Director Jeff Trimble is designed to get to the bottom of the controversial decisions made in Moscow by RFE/RL management. I hope the review will take far less than six months. Time is urgent.”

“If Ms. Gessen feels her tenure and actions are not part of the review then she is mistaken,” Ashe said. “Trimble has direction to turn over all the rocks and get to the bottom of this. A serious review has to deal with her involvement in this and what responsibility she bears. We also need to review the current path RFE/RL is on and whether it fulfils our mission. We hope Trimble can do this in the near future as we cannot let this be ignored or forgotten. The full Board needs the facts and a recommended course of action”?

What to you think of this comment by a Russian web visitor on Ms. Gessen’s media interviews and online postings suggesting strongly to people in Russia that no inspection/review of Radio Liberty is being planned by the BBG?

“Well this is simply a return to the origins. In the Soviet Union, citizens often learned about the news from the denials in the Soviet media and here probably I would have not heard anything about this “inspection” without this refutation by Gessen. Of course, a review – it is not an inspection, but we all understand the truth.”

How many times has Ms. Gessen published an article in Russia or appeared on major Russian media outlets as compared to, let’s say, fired Radio Liberty political reporter and commentator Mikhail Sokolov?

23. Did you — Mr. Cohen/Ms. Ragona/Mr. Korn — fly business class from Prague to Washington and back to attend BBG meetings on Dec. 13/14? Why, if you did? Is RFE/RL subject to Fly America Act?

We could ask many more such questions, all based on our reporting, using both anonymous and open sources, but we’ll stop here for now.

Mr. Cohen, please respond, to help us with more balanced reporting.

Let us point out once again, Mr. Cohen and Ms. Ragona, that you accuse BBG Watch and critics within the human rights community, including Freedom House, of only supporting the old Radio Liberty audience in Russia and not caring about new digital audience. That accusation is patently untrue as many of the outside critics of the current RFE/RL management, as well as the outstanding journalists fired by you, are deeply concerned about the damage to Radio Liberty’s reputation and its ability to attract an online audience with substantive content in the future.

Voice of Julia Ragona: “So the one thing neither of us picked up on. There are so many things to address, is 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.”

Voice believed to be of Dale Cohen’s: “So, yea, there was another party going on besides yours, Scott, last week, the BBG. We had a couple of days of meetings. The first day was devoted to two, three-hour sessions, one devoted to Iran and Iran strategy, and the second one. Well, the first one to Russia.

With respect to the Iran strategy, there were a number of participants, both within the USIB family and outsiders. Mardo, Beth and Julia participated on our behalf. And I think the meeting went really well, contrary to everything you are going to hear and read. All of these meetings went really well.

In particular, there was a little bit of a love fest about the new television show in cooperation between VOA and Radio Farda, which I think is a smashing success all the way around and the people in Washington felt very strongly that way. And there was lots of talk about other collaborations in the future.

With respect to Russia, there were a number of inside people as well as outside experts from Freedom House from various Russian media and there was lots of discussion. But let’s start with the most salient fact, which has not been reported anywhere, and that is Masha Gessen was a big hit. OK. Across, every, virtually every Board member had something positive to say, including Victor Ashe, including Michael Lynton, the presiding governor, all of whom said to us privately and to Masha directly that her presentations on both days, on Thursday and Friday, were terrific, that she had addressed all of the issues. One of them referred to her as a superstar. Another congratulated Steve on having found the right person to lead our efforts. And, overall, it went extraordinarily well. So, it was quite a surprise to read on BBG Watch and elsewhere that the Board was unimpressed. In fact, and I had promised Julia and let her talk about this, but I really think we need to get to it right away. Steve purchased books, copies of her most recent book and pass them out to the Board members. They all came flocking to Masha asking her to sign it because they wanted her signature. They all were talking to her privately. People have asked to have lunch with her. Everybody was fascinated by her presentation and I think Julia will share some of the details because I think the facts are what’s really important here.

As a non-Russian speaker, somebody who is a little bit removed from the Russian content as a result, here are my take-aways from that session.

The first one is, there were all kinds of research presentations made by BBG and others. It is clear there is a gigantic underserved audience out there that nobody is tapping into, particularly outside of Moscow, but including Moscow, and that Masha has a strategy, very clearly, to go after some of that audience.

The second thing that was clear from the presentations is that video is the most dominant medium for news in Russia, that’s what the Russian people want. Not television, not satellite, but video. And they’ll take it in any number of ways. And that’s our plan.

The third one is that Masha’s plan, including this distribution program that she’s told you about, about using other media, not only makes sense in terms of reaching other markets but addresses a concern that everybody raised at this meeting, which was what if Putin decides to shut us down. And Masha’s response, and it was a very sensible and powerful one, is it makes it more and more difficult for anybody to try to stop us, our voice, if we’re in lots and lots of places. They can’t shut everything down.

Lastly, it was clear from the meeting that there is a strong constituency out there that wants us to go back to what we were doing and to stay in our little box, to serve just that audience that we’ve been serving before. And nobody means to denigrate that audience, but it is small. OK. And shrinking. OK. And the data was very clear on that front. And just living with the old audience is not a strategy for success. OK. Nobody wants to get rid of that audience, but we need to grow it. But there were a number of people there, including friends of our former journalists, including the guy from Freedom House, including our competitors in the Russian media marketplace, all of whom said: you should just keep serving who you were serving before, keep doing what you were doing before. Well, respectfully, that’s not a winning strategy for us. And I understand why they feel that way, but that’s not what we’re planning to do. And the Board signed off on that and supported it from the very beginning, and they still support it today.

Voice believed to be Julia Ragona’s: It’s also just, again, just, there is so much misinformation, I feel I need to say this. It wasn’t an option. The medium wave had to be closed to comply with this law on November 9. So, that was the main forum for the previous audience. If we’re not going to have medium wave, the website needs to be a stand alone and much stronger digital presence than it was. I mean, this is just, this is some of the common sense facts that seem to be missing, and I do think with respect to Mr. Kramer at Freedom House that there is a lot of misinformation that he was getting that I think we may have cleared up, because he was quite happy to speak with Masha afterwards and wanted to get more of that perspective that he hadn’t gotten.

Voice believed to be Dale Cohen’s: So, I think it’s going to be really important going forward now. It is clear that there is a group out there. I’ll call them a cabal, because I think that’s what it is. An alliance, that is trying to tear down everything that we do. And we see it almost everyday on the BBG Watch site. So let’s start there. OK. BBG Watch is a blog that, that, ah, I can’t even call it negative campaigning in the American political sense because there are rules even with respect to negative campaigns and negative ads in the United States. They follow no journalistic rules. They follow no reasonable rules with respect to objectivity or fairness. These are not journalists. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are journalists and everyone at this table should know that. Right. It’s anonymous. OK. That’s a starting point.

Unidentified voice: We know who they are.

Voice believed to be Dale Cohen’s: Their sourcing is anonymous. Right. They never ask for comment. They never balance anything. And anybody who is reading that and taking it as the truth is not behaving like a journalist. OK. I’m sorry. You do not report based on unsourced blogs. Nobody should be taking this is Gospel when they read it. It’s brilliantly written. OK. It’s great advocacy. It’s terrific politics. It isn’t journalism. And it’s not facts. So Julia is going to give you some of the facts with respect to Russia, but it’s really important that we say it. We’ve been very polite up until now. But I think it’s time. Right, we have to call lies and anonymous lies what they are – lies.

Several of you in this room have been the victims of anonymous letters. We’ve worked arm in arm to respond to them and say this just isn’t true. OK. It’s happening on BBG Watch and we shouldn’t be just carrying these messages around this building. These people are tearing into RFE/RL as a whole and we shouldn’t be helping. OK.

So, with respect to the lies, I’ve already told you that, that the Board praised Masha all the way around, calling her all kinds of great names: superstar, terrific a winner, a home run, so forth and so on. Michael Lynton praised her and said that David Remnick from The New Yorker had said good things about her when he sent his regards. Even Victor Ashe said that Ann Applebaum for The Washington Post, a friend of his, had said wonderful things, and therefore he thought she was a good choice. I just think it’s important that you guys focus on the facts. If you’ve got questions about the things that you read or hear, let’s talk about them. OK. Ask. There are people who can help you answer those questions. And if the people in your services have questions about the things they’re reading, let us know. It’s time to respond to this. We can’t ignore it anymore. OK.

And lastly, Steve will be back in January, just like he told you when he was here the last time.”

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