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The ill-covered crisis at an American institution.


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John O’Sullivan

The only community that continued blithely unaware was the U.S. media.

But the story had reached Washington all the same. At its mid-December meeting the board held a wider meeting with outside experts to discuss the progress of RFERL’s “Russia strategy.” Some of their judgments — notably those from David Kramer of Freedom House — were sharply critical. And the board’s formal meeting made the unexpected decision to hold an internal investigation into what had gone wrong in Moscow by the board’s deputy director, Jeff Trimble. Even more unexpectedly, it also decided to seek the resignation of RFERL director Steve Korn within 45 days but not to announce this publicly. All this might have died quietly in the obscure grave of a BBG press release except that the public side of the meeting was attended by Judy Bachrach, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, who through her blogging for World Affairs Journal kept in touch with these issues. (Full disclosure: Ms. Bachrach is an old friend.)

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What she heard persuaded her to devote her next two regular Monday columns (here and here) to what was now a crisis in both Moscow and Washington. Her pieces were a scorching blend of investigative reporting and savage invective — one-sided, perhaps, but gripping and apparently well sourced, a fine example of opinionated reporting and an illustration of why some people love it and some loathe it. (Her third column, incidentally, appeared today on the World Affairs website.)

Because Ms. Bachrach is a member in good standing of the Washington media elite, these columns were a breakthrough. They had appeared as blogs on the website of a distinguished opinion journal rather than in the mainstream media. Still, it was now only a matter of time before a major metropolitan daily carried either a report or an opinion piece on RFERL’s Moscow crisis. The Wall Street Journal won the race handily with my op-ed, cited above, which among other things predicted that as a result of it Korn would resign last Monday. He did so that afternoon.

He thus at once became free to present his case in public both personally and through friendly media. He did so, first, in his letter to the Board and to RFERL employees and, second, in his letter to the Wall Street Journal responding to my article. He maintained that he resigned entirely for family and personal reasons, but that his reforms of RFERL and of its Russian service, Radio Liberty, were a necessary adaptation to new technologies in order to reverse RFERL’s falling audience share and to win a better hearing for its mission of democracy and human rights. It is reasonable to infer from both statements that he now sees his own mission as defending the policy he presided over.

Now that the story was indisputably a Washington one (if for no other reason, there is an official job in play, namely the next president of RFERL), the media took an interest. The Washington Post ran a report here by Kathy Lally, who sought to be fair to all sides and included an interview with Korn in which he essentially repeated the argument of his two earlier statements.

What will now ensue, as the board considers a new or interim president, is a battle of the narratives. This battle has very little to do with new technology. Both sides favor the best mix of technologies and platforms to get their message across. Essentially, the dispute is over the message, a.k.a. the mission. Those who favor the recent Moscow reforms believe that Radio Liberty should pursue a more “normal” journalism of social and softer political features over a harder-edged news approach with an “opposition” feel. Those who oppose them believe that this strategy would have been a moral and political abdication at any time but that it is especially mistaken at the very moment when younger Russians are joining an older generation of dissidents and human-rights campaigners in opposition to Putin’s growing authoritarianism.

If you’ve read this far, you probably know which side you and the U.S. taxpayer should be on.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting. 

— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.



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