As a former executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I am accustomed to hearing people say, “Oh, are they still in business? I thought they were a Cold War thing.” Well, the radios were a Cold War thing, of course; and a very successful one, too. They were so successful indeed that, when the Cold War came to an end, such leaders of the new market democracies as the late Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa asked the U.S. to keep the radios broadcasting until their countries enjoyed both a secure democracy and a genuinely competitive free media market.
That didn’t happen overnight; in some countries it hasn’t happened yet. So RFERL stayed in being but changed in two ways: Its broadcasting “footprint” moved east and south (away from Poland and the Czech Republic, towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Balkans), and it expanded technologically from radio alone into a series of multi-media electronic platforms. Today it broadcasts uncensored news, commentary, and debate to 21 countries in 28 languages and on multiple platforms. And it does so courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.
I can rattle on like this for some time, if necessary. But rather than my doing so, here’s a link to a report on RFERL by P. J. O’Rourke following a visit he made to our Prague headquarters (given to us in 1995 by President Havel for the princely rent of one dollar annually). This was published two years ago in the World Affairs Journal, but it gives an accurate picture of RFERL, probably until its recent “troubles” and certainly until I left at the end of 2011.
Now, RFERL is something you should know about because U.S. international broadcasting, of which it is one “entity,” will be an increasingly important arm of American influence in the world as Washington copes with its reduced power to intervene militarily, diplomatically, and economically. It’s relatively cheap — less than $1 billion funds the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, RFERL, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the rest. Yes, its immediate impact is variable: Some stations help start revolutions, others register lightly in the public mind. But its real value is less in bringing crowds into the streets than in bringing minds out of a totalitarian or medieval passivity into an environment of free, open stand-up debate. It spreads American values but, even more subversively, it spreads an American mentality — the feeling that a man has a right to express his opinion and to question orders rather than simply to follow them. Its broadcasts create democrats and liberals in advance of liberal democracy. And as a result most of the authoritarian countries to which RFERL in particular broadcasts have liberal and democratic dissident groups who rely on it for intellectual sustenance, links with the outside world (and each other), and simple moral encouragement.
Russia is one such country — increasingly so as Putin tightens his control over both the opposition and the media. So when 41 journalists were let go from Radio Liberty in Moscow (37 fired, four resigning in sympathy) and the entire community of Russian democratic dissidents from Vladimir Bukovsky to Mikhail Gorbachev erupted in angry opposition, crying betrayal by the U.S., one might have expected that the U.S. and other Western media would immediately pay close and serious attention. Yet these events took place in mid-September, and 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. But you can read it all here.
Until then the sole U.S. coverage of the upheavals at Radio Liberty in Moscow had appeared in journals of opinion and blogs. In fact the first account appeared here on NRO on October 23. Entitled “Silenced by Washington,” the piece, written by Mario Corti, a former director of Radio Liberty, 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.
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. You can judge the worth of these claims by going onto its site. What is undeniable, however, is
(a) that the website kept up a steady drumbeat of reports from Moscow on all the developing aspects of the crisis;
(b) that it quickly became the forum which RL journalists — some among the fired, others still employed at the radios — exploited to get their stories/grievances/allegations out to the world; and
(c) that its coverage of the Moscow brouhaha began to trickle through to official Washington through human-rights NGOs, regional experts in Washington think tanks, and the penumbra of ex-USIB people who follow any news of their old workplace.
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.)
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.