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On Masha Gessen and Radio Liberty



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In the current Forbes online the columnist Mark Adomanis defends Masha Gessen, the new director of Radio Liberty in Moscow, against the charge — leveled against her, he claims, by me among others — of being a “Kremlin stooge,” a “surrogate Kremlin operative,” or ”some sort of sycophantic Kremlin suck-up.” His observations can be found here, and he is writing about my op-ed in the Wall Street Journal here.

Mr. Adomanis thus confirms for the umpteenth time the insight of the Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnar, that journalists who can write outnumber those who can read.

For I nowhere wrote that Ms. Gessen was a Kremlin stooge, let alone some sort of sycophantic Kremlin suck-up. Nor do I think it — or anything like it. Nor did I write or think that Radio Liberty is pumping out pro-Kremlin propaganda — or anything like it. And I am perfectly aware of Ms. Gessen’s record as a strong critic of Putin. What I am inclined to think, indeed, is that Ms. Gessen is herself a victim of the current Radio Liberty crisis, not as much a victim as the 41 RL people now out of work, but a victim nonetheless. Her reputation has been damaged by her decision to accept the position at Radio Liberty on terms that required the firing of dozens of good editors and reporters and in pursuit of an editorial strategy that downplayed hard news and anti-Kremlin criticisms in favor of news features and softer social stories. This damage is not irreparable, but it is real.

What is the evidence for Mr. Adomanis’s charge and the evidence for my defense? Oddly enough, they are the same piece of evidence.  

Mr. Adomanis, in the course of refuting the idea that Ms. Gessen is a Kremlin stooge (etc.), claims that she “is instead an active and vocal member of the opposition that, according to O’Sullivan, she supposedly ‘disdains.’”

But my suppositions hardly come into the matter. Ms. Gessen herself disdained opposition journalism in the very passage that Mr. Adomanis cites against me. I merely quoted her and drew the appropriate conclusions. Here is the passage:  

“I want to do a kind of journalism that no one is doing at the moment. I would describe it as normal journalism,” she told the Moscow Times shortly after her appointment. “Something that’s not polemical, like opposition media, and something that’s not controlled by the Kremlin.”

Game, set, and match, I guess. But it is worth adding that, whatever others have said about Ms. Gessen, my article was not about her but about the style of journalism that Radio Liberty should offer — and that RL alone can dependably offer — in the sharpening political environment of Putin’s Russia. The “normal” journalism of softer social features suits the Kremlin very well; it is the most they can expect from RL. But in conditions of a Russia where authoritarianism is both increasingly repressive and increasingly unstable, normal journalism ought surely to sound something like opposition media.



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