Op-ed: VOA "exists to promote U.S. culture and values," hence need for "objective journalism" from RFE/RL.

Posted: 05 Feb 2013   Print   Send a link
Washington Post, 3 Feb 2013, Jackson Diehl: Broadcasting Board of Governors member Victor Ashe "understood what most of the rest of the board and staff did not: that Radio Free Europe was failing to deliver on its most essential mission — and the only one that really justifies its existence. Unlike Voice of America, which exists to promote U.S. culture and values to the world, RFE/RL’s mandate is 'surrogate broadcasting' — the provision of objective journalism, diverse commentary and open political debate to societies whose local media, because of censorship or state pressure, cannot provide it. For decades during the Cold War, the radios did this job superbly, attracting an audience throughout the Soviet Bloc and becoming the go-to medium in times of crisis. Since 1991, however, they have been subjected to serial attempts to revamp their programming, supposedly to accommodate a post-Cold War or post-Internet era. The idea, often peddled by board members and executives drawn from the entertainment industry, is that the audience needs to be broadened, radio downplayed in favor of digital offerings and ratings boosted. Hard-core journalism and political discussions should be leavened with lifestyle features, cultural offerings — or maybe just pop music."

In this op-ed, RFE/RL is described as "surrogate broadcasting" which provides "objective journalism ... to societies whose local media, because of censorship or state pressure, cannot provide it." This website, kimandrewelliott.com, is a surrogate website. It provides the accurate information about US international broadcasting as an antidote to the misinformation and disinformation about USIB that is endemic in US government circles, think tanks, and op-ed pages.

Who told Jackson Diehl that VOA "exists to promote U.S. culture and values to the world," as if VOA does no news, including news about its target countries? Who libeled VOA in an effort to justify the continued existence of RFE/RL? And why didn't Mr. Diehl do even a tiny bit of research instead of swallowing whole the story that was given to him?

RFE/RL is given credit for, during the Cold War, "attracting an audience throughout the Soviet Bloc and becoming the go-to medium in times of crisis." VOA's Cold War role was much the same, a fact conveniently omitted by Diehl's misinformer. A recent GAO report (see previous post) confirmed the obvious: VOA and the Radio Free stations have been duplicating each others' efforts since the Cold War. That's a much bigger story than the problems at RFE/RL Russian but, so far, reporters and op-ed writers seem to be ignoring it.

BBG Watch, 5 Feb 2013: "[I]n one of the most bizarre displays of Washington bureaucratic arrogance, Diehl was immediately attacked in a private blog by an obscure IBB staffer who is known to be close to some of his bosses." Being called "an obscure IBB staffer" is the most fun I've had since a French-language publication referred to me as a "fonctionnaire."

Anyway, as for RFE/RL Russian, I'm still not certain if it's moving from hard news to an op-ed page, or from op-ed page to hard news. The following item by a former RFE/RL executive editor adds to the confusion....

National Review, The Corner, 17 Jan 2013, John O'Sullivan: "Here’s the money quote [from RFE/RL Russian director Masha Gessen]: '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.' Ms. Gessen here distinguishes among three kinds or styles of journalism. Naturally she rejects pro-Kremlin journalism. But she also rejects a journalism that is 'polemical,' which is how she sees 'opposition media.' What she endorses is what she calls 'normal journalism,' which she defines negatively as 'not polemical.' And those are the choices in the debate over Radio Liberty. No one favors pro-Kremlin journalism on Radio Liberty; not even Putin thinks it a possible outcome. Ms. Gessen and those RFERL senior managers who appointed her favor what they call a 'normal journalism' of softer social features. The dismissed journalists and the Moscow human-rights community prefer the harder-hitting and, yes, polemical style of opposition journalism."

"Opposition journalism" is an oxymoron. How does the listener know when the news ends and the polemics begin? Is there a musical signature tune when that happens? Is Radio Liberty supposed to limit itself to an audience in the "Moscow human-rights community"? If that's the case, an anti-Putin website doesn't need US government funding. It will consist of commentaries off the top of the heads of anti-Putin activists, rather than the more expensive coverage by reporters who gather all the facts, not just opposition facts.

Masha Gessen's "money quote" -- "Something that’s not polemical, like opposition media, and something that’s not controlled by the Kremlin" -- seems to me right on the money. It's an excellent description of what could be a credible news organization. Mr. O'Sullivan's "polemical style of opposition journalism" is much scarier, especially coming from no less than the former executive editor of RFE/RL.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The World Today, 1 Feb 2013, Andrew Greene: "[F]ormer staff members have ... accused [former RFE/RL Steven] Korn of wasteful personal spending, including elaborate furnishings for his Prague flat. It's an allegation he angrily rejects. STEVE KORN: I have no idea to what you're referring. I haven't misused anything, okay. Whoever says that doesn't know what they're talking about. So that's absurd. These people are beneath contempt frankly. ANDREW GREENE: One Radio Free Europe broadcaster, who would only speak to the ABC anonymously, says despite the problems in Russia the organisation's other language services are all working well." With audio.

The Prague Post, 23 Jan 2013, Andrew Greene: "Some former employees at the embattled international broadcasting service have accused Steve Korn of gross mismanagement and say his tenure was 'disastrous.' In an exclusive interview with The Prague Post, the former lawyer has hit back at his critics and says he may even take legal action against them."

Voice of Russia, 22 Jan 2013, citing Interfax: "The employees of the Radio Liberty Russian Service have declared that their radio station lost its popularity in Russia over recent years due to slipping into ‘soft journalism’ and called the management to correct this mistake. They wrote an open letter to the US Secretary of State, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in the US government and the new head of the radio station Kevin Klose. The letter reads that the management moved the principle of protecting human rights to the background in favour of ‘soft journalism’ convenient to the authorities."

BBG Watch, 4 Feb 2013, translating letter from human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva to new RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose: "Like in the Soviet era, Radio Liberty is becoming the principal source of alternative information; however, the new management in Moscow, headed by M. Gessen, and Vice-President J. Ragona seem to be in cahoots with our oppressors. They insist on making our programming more entertainment-oriented. We are more than adequately entertained by government-owned television networks and radio stations. Human rights reportage and cogent political analysis is what we are lacking. The demand for coverage of these issues by the progressive part of our citizenry is not even closely satisfied by what is currently available. It is Radio Liberty’s responsibility to fulfill this role. Gessen and Ragona do not understand the organization’s mission, and, in my opinion, should leave their posts."

See previous post about same subject.