Inside the belly of Russia's 'propaganda machine': A visit to RT news channel

US security services have fingered the channel as a key player in the Kremlin's efforts to sway Western politics. But inside its offices, RT seems a far cry from what the US says it is – and what it aspires to be.

Fred Weir
Oksana Boyko stands in the RT newsroom on Jan. 13, 2017.

According to the US intelligence community, this gated complex of buildings, housing the satellite channel RT's ultra-modern studios and bustling newsrooms, is ground zero for a sophisticated Kremlin-funded effort to subvert US and Western democracy.

It could be almost any Moscow television center, except for the prevalence of American-accented, English-speaking voices and RT's distinctive green-and-black logo, with its slogan "Question More!", decking the corridors. From here, the channel once known as Russia Today broadcasts news, documentaries, and public affairs programs from a critical and pro-Russian viewpoint, in English, to the world.

The channel's head of communications, Anna Belkina, says she was amazed when RT was singled out and described at length as a major threat to America in a seven-page annex of the declassified intelligence report outlining Russia's purported influence on the recent US presidential election, issued earlier this month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

"I have the impression that report was compiled by people who never bothered to watch RT for a single afternoon. Our actual programming bears no resemblance to the tropes presented there, or in the popular media," says Ms. Belkina, who lived 20 years in the US. "In general, our critics say two contradictory things about us: that we're destroying the world, but no one watches us."

RT's role

Founded in 2005 as Russia Today, the station was handed the modest mission of improving the global discussion about Russia. Its several branches, which now include Spanish and Arabic stations, plus semi-independent operations in the US and Britain, are entirely funded by the Russian government. Last year's total budget was 18.6 billion rubles, or approximately $310 million.

The network appears to have changed focus about five years ago to become more about promoting the Russian point of view on international affairs, and much less about covering Russia per se. It also became a platform for coverage of social problems in Western societies, government malfeasance, corporate non-accountability, and the dysfunctions of democracy that often contrasts in tone, and sometimes content, with mainstream media fare.

But the ODNI report accuses Russia of launching a multi-faceted campaign to shape the election outcome against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. That included allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee's emails and giving them to Wikileaks, as well as unleashing armies of internet trolls and waves of disinformation to skew the national discourse, all on Kremlin orders.

The open face of that campaign, it alleged, is RT and its sister English-language news agency Sputnik, which serve as permanent Kremlin-directed messaging tools "to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest."

Those officially sanctioned claims have ignited a debate that is not likely to die down any time soon, about the role of "information war" in sowing public doubts and undermining people's faith in their political leaders. It's a conversation that seems torn from the depths of the cold war, when both the USSR and the West maintained huge propaganda machines to engage in unambiguous ideological struggle, and used various methods, including short-wave radio broadcasts, to beam their conflicting world views into the adversary's home turf.

But today's world is a murkier place. While there are no longer any fundamental ideological differences between Russia and the West, geopolitical tensions seem just as intense and the arguments more acrimonious than ever.

The cold war wind blowing over RT must surely affect the scores of Americans who work for the network. While one US employee did famously quit on the air to protest the network's defense of Russian policies in Ukraine, there is no visible sign of disquiet among the others, and some staunchly defend RT's alternative coverage of world affairs.

"I don't think I'm working for an adversary, despite some elements in the American media-political establishment trying to position RT as such," says Anissa Naouai, host of a combative evening news program called In The Now. "In fact, I think my work, and RT overall, helps improve public discourse in the US by completing the picture of current affairs and introducing diverse voices into the debate at large."

Ms. Naouai, a New York native, moved to Russia to study theater 16 years ago, and stayed on to intern at RT. "I am pretty well adjusted, in fact I call Moscow home. My family and friends are very proud of my work and see way past the mainstream media narrative. The only thing that bothers them is that I am so far away," she says.

Much ado about no ratings?

Since the cold war days, digital technologies have shrunk the world and multiplied the platforms for disseminating information. Not surprisingly, the ODNI report warns that RT has an aggressive and fast-growing social media footprint.

No one at RT disputes that. Figures highlighted by RT indicate that its website got 120 million hits last month; its Twitter feed has 2.6 million followers; and its Facebook presence is massive. Its archive of YouTube videos has garnered an astounding 4 billion hits, though critics claim that only a small portion of those videos contain any political content.

The numbers of people that tune in to RT's 24-hour news programming is more controversial. Company officials say that 70 million people in 38 countries watch on a weekly basis, including 8 million in the US – where 85 million viewers have access to the channel on their cable boxes.

But Ellen Mickiewicz, a media specialist at Duke University, says there are no reliable figures for regular RT viewers in the US, much less any method for judging the station's actual impact on people's thinking. "Nielsen analyzed the top 94 US cable news programs for December 2014 through March 2015, and RT did not even make it onto the list," she says. "It ended with a fraction of a hundredth of a percent."

She adds that it's ironic that RT and the US intelligence community are the only two groups that agree on RT's allegedly vast reach and influence. "Any evidence that contradicts that assumption is just ignored," she says.

Oksana Boyko, who hosts a polemical interview show twice weekly on RT, defends the channel's approach to news. "I believe that RT serves, to some extent, as a tool of the Russian government. That doesn't compromise me as a journalist or a moral human being. I don't regard Russian foreign policy as inherently immoral."

She argues that the West's tactic for fighting the "information war," as typified in the ODNI report, is to try to shut RT out of the conversation. "The point of their model is not to engage with us or grant us any legitimacy." She says she often invites US officials to come on her show, but they always refuse. "That's too bad, because my preference is to engage."

Ms. Boyko spent two years at the University of Kansas in the early 2000s on a US State Department grant aimed at developing democracy. She says it was money well spent. "I benefited a lot [from studying in the US] and think I'm still working to develop democracy. I love the United States, and I don't conflate the government with the people," she says.

Milquetoast on the Kremlin

A key Russian critic of RT is Alexei Kovalev, a former employee of the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency turned media critic and blogger. He derides RT's claims that it is not much different from other state-funded news organizations, such as the Voice of America, the BBC, or Al Jazeera.

"There is a simple litmus test: will they report critically on their own government?" he says. "Maybe RT doesn't get orders every day from the Kremlin, but they never contradict Vladimir Putin or the Russian government."

Mr. Kovalev says anyone who wants a graphic illustration of that difference may watch RT's interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and compare it with an Al Jazeera interview with its own paymaster, the foreign minister of Qatar.

"The RT interview is like a low-level employee pitching softball questions to the boss; on Al Jazeera they ask probing and combative questions. It's like night and day," he says.

The success of RT may be largely a result of the collapsing credibility of established media in the West, rather than any innovative new media strategy, critics say. Disaffected people everywhere, who feel the media aren't reflecting their views, find confirmation in RT's alternative coverage.

"They are good at cultivating people of the far left and the far right," says Kovalev. "People who would be at each other's throats if they were sitting in the same room co-exist peacefully in RT's studios."

But even Kovalev agrees that the ODNI report was dangerously wrong to complain about RT's coverage of legitimate issues like Occupy Wall Street, the environmental dangers of fracking, or third-party candidates in US presidential elections. "That's what journalists should be doing, isn't it?" he says.

Belkina, the station's communications head, argues that in a fast-changing world, RT's focus on alternative causes is completely justified.

"We cover stories that are under-reported by the mainstream media, and engage with voices that might otherwise not be heard." The mainstream may dismiss these stories as marginal, she adds, "but times are changing, and we give a platform to people who are redefining the conversation."

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