The Daily Report’s Katheryn Hayes Tucker recently talked to Steve Korn about his experience running Radio Free Europe in Prague.
Korn Still Speaking Truth To Power By Katheryn Hayes Tucker for the Daily Report
After a career of building the business and legal framework for journalism, the man who was Ted Turner’s top lawyer during the creation of Cable News Network has returned from a stint at the helm of Radio Free Europe with a new appreciation for speaking truth to power.
“The people who work there, the journalists in particular, are absolutely courageous, brave heroes,” Steven Korn said of the staff of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Inc., where he served as president and chief executive officer from July 2011 until the end of January 2013. “Time after time, they’ve endured prison, solitary confinement and harassment in their home countries and they are completely dedicated to providing a free press.”
One reporter from Iran was beaten, tortured and held prisoner by the government for 33 days simply for considering a job offer with the U.S. government-funded broadcasting company, whose mission is to provide news in countries that don’t allow freedom of speech. When that reporter was released, he sneaked across the border and took a job with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague.
Another reporter, a woman from a Muslim country, was blackmailed with a sex video taken by a hidden camera in her own apartment. She decided to keep doing her job anyway, knowing that such a video in her country could place her life in danger.
“It was an honor to work with these kinds of people,” said Korn, former publisher of the Daily Report. “I’ve spent my entire professional life with and around journalists. This was a great opportunity to do something I really believed in.”
Korn also felt the pain of speaking truth to power during the time in Prague. He took a business-like look at a 60-year-old non-profit organization—which began as an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency—and quickly saw it was in need of change. He upgraded facilities, added new equipment and cut unnecessary spending, including layoffs in overstaffed bureaus. For that, he suffered a barrage of criticism in the press and the blogosphere.
“Little did I anticipate the fierceness with which the old guard would oppose any change whatsoever,” said Korn. “I ran into quite a buzz saw.”
Although the service operates in 21 countries, much of the heat centered on Russia, where radio ratings had dropped drastically. Korn’s strategic plan included investing heavily in new equipment to move to a digital platform, but it called for cutting 89 jobs that “could not be justified,” Korn said, releasing a storm of criticism for cutting back on the commitment to Russia.
Here’s what Washington Post editorial writer Jackson Diehl said in a Feb. 3 opinion piece under the headline, Static at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “Steven Korn, then president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, presided over the firings or resignations of more than 40 of Radio Liberty’s 100 staffers, including a number of veteran journalists, who were unceremoniously ejected from the Moscow office. As former supporters such as Mikhail Gorbachev and human rights icons Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Sergei Kovalyov loudly protested, a new strategy of focusing on the Internet and softer content bombed, leading to a big drop in audience.” Korn said 43 were fired, reducing the staff from 89 to 46.
Korn said criticism of his tenure was “almost comically inaccurate,” since the organization was actually increasing its investment there. But, like other news organizations, the service was confronted with the need to change based on market pressures and technological advances. He’s proud of hiring a Russian service director who’s based in Moscow rather than Prague, as past directors had been, and of creating a new bureau with “state-of-the-art video and audio” facilities.