RT anchor Liz Wahl's decision to quit live on air yesterday, citing its "whitewashing" of the actions of President Vladimir Putin's government, is an opportunity to revisit the Russian government-owned channel's true purpose: A layered propaganda and disinformation operation.
The channel isn't subtle, and is unlikely to convince anyone closely following the events it covers. But for self-styled "anti-imperialists" who view the US as the greatest threat to world peace and security, its often farcical reports are waved like a bloody shirt to prove American perfidy.
And then there's the great middle where most news consumers reside. Most people don't follow foreign affairs intensely and are often unaware of the reputation and agendas behind the stories they click on. The Kremlin changed the channel's name from "Russia Today" to "RT" a few years ago to make scrutiny even less likely. Last summer it crowed that its official Youtube channel was the first news service to reach 1 billion views.
Much of RT's output is part of the flotsam and jetsam of the internet, convincing some, perplexing others. But with Russian troops (or "volunteer self-defense forces") in Ukraine's Crimea and a looming clash between US and Russian interests, the channel has found itself in an unusual spotlight.
Earlier this week, after days of stories pointing out the deceptive nature of the station's dispatches, an American RT anchor named Abby Martin said on air that Russia's occupation of Crimea was wrong, while defending the independence and integrity of her employer. She then added, after admitting her ignorance on Ukraine, that "all sides of the media spectrum" have been "rife with disinformation" about the Crimean standoff.
The two minute segment was seized immediately by defenders of the station as evidence that RT is not a propaganda outlet and no worse than American channels. Step forward, Glenn Greenwald. In a lengthy article, he begins by attacking various American political figures as hypocrites. Then he gets down to his defense of RT.
American media elites awash in an orgy of feel-good condemnation in particular love to mock Russian media, especially the government-funded English-language outlet RT, as being a source of shameless pro-Putin propaganda, where free expression is strictly barred (in contrast to the Free American Media). That that network has a strong pro-Russian bias is unquestionably true. But one of its leading hosts, Abby Martin, remarkably demonstrated last night what “journalistic independence” means by ending her Breaking the Set program with a clear and unapologetic denunciation of the Russian action in Ukraine:
For all the self-celebrating American journalists and political commentators: was there even a single U.S. television host who said anything comparable to this in the lead-up to, or the early stages of, the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Even now, how many American TV hosts on the major networks and cable outlets report on the types of American killings described in the first three paragraphs of this interview with Hamid Karzai, or the ongoing extinguishing of innocent human lives by President Obama’s drone attacks, or the pervasive chaos and suffering left in the wake of the NATO intervention in Libya that they almost universally cheered, or the endless brutality of the West Bank occupation and Gaza domination by the U.S.’s closest Middle East ally, or, for that matter, U.S./EU interference in the very same country that Russia is now condemned for invading?
Then he challenges US news broadcasters to do what Martin did in their reporting on US military intervention. Until then, he writes, their "self-justifying mockery of Russian media outlets" will be hollow hypocrisy (I paraphrase to save you his verbiage.)
This is called building a straw man, and engaging in false-equivalency. The American media is filled with criticisms of the US government, its wars abroad, its human-rights failings. The Greenwald Test – "do what Abby Martin did or you're all a bunch of shills" – is no test at all.
As the credulous coverage of false claims about Iraq by major papers like the New York Times before the invasion showed, many US reporters are too cozy with power. But so what?
As a friend asked me about RT, isn't it like Fox News with a different agenda? Actually no. As slanted as Fox's reporting is, it puts a political slant on things that are actually happening. So Fox reports that Russian troops are in Ukraine, proving that Putin is a tyrant and Obama is a weak president. That's called spin. RT goes much further. It claims that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine.
For Abby Martin, Greenwald's post was a mission accomplished moment. RT aired the 2 minute segment (on a 24/7 news channel), shared it on Twitter, and basked in the glory of a high-profile Greenwald defense packaged with a frontal assault on the integrity of the entire US media. The other 23 hours and 58 minutes of the day? Details!
Who is Martin? At RT she's aired reports on what she believes to be corporate America and the US government's fiendish fluoridated water conspiracy, claimed that the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy run by the CIA, and said Israel is pursuing a Nazi-inspired genocide against the Palestinians. This kind of stuff is quite common on RT and serves the overall agenda – as did Martin's segment on the Ukraine, whether she knows it or not.
RT's editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, a Russian journalist, wrote a defense of the channel that explains the role that Russia has set the station to play.
I can see very clearly why I continue to work for a channel that stands alone (!) face-to-face with thousands and tens of thousands of Western news outlets, showing everybody the other side of the story, under daily attacks from the media against which it can hardly fight back. It’s my country. There is no other choice for me. But the foreign journalists who work for RT across the globe do have a choice. Some of them might be asking themselves, “Why would I have to defend Russia at the expense of my career, my future, my reputation, why would I tolerate humiliation by my fellow journalists?” Few can say “Because I’m telling the truth, and there’s no one else to tell it.” Some will fail to find the answer and quietly resign. Others will perform their resignation on air in a self-promotional stunt, perhaps securing fantastic career prospects they wouldn’t have dreamt of before.
In fact, this was Putin's intent for the channel when he launched it. He said last year RT's job was to "break the monopoly of the Anglo-saxon mass media." Ms. Martin takes this challenge literally on her show, "Breaking the Set." In the intro, she carries a sledgehammer to a TV tuned to the major US news networks. She then smashes it to smithereens. (I am not making this up.)
Information operations designed at spreading doubt are nothing new – and not unique to Russia. During the cold war, the US gave as good as it got in this regard. Radio Free Europe received part of its funding from the CIA into the 1970s, and for much of the '50s and' 60s functioned much like RT does today (the Wilson Center has an excellent collection of declassified documents on the station's early years). RFE lives on, though not in the same propaganda style as it was at the heights of the cold war.
The forerunner of the US news operation was created in 1948 and it was conceived as a direct propaganda weapon against the rise of Soviet-led Communism in Europe. There wasn't much dissembling, with RFE/RL originally run through a body called the American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism and getting its hands dirty in matters far afield from anything resembling neutral journalism, supporting things like Hungarian uprising that led Soviet tanks to roll into Budapest and forced Ms. Wahl's grandparents to flee. (Wahl cited her ties to Hungary as among the reasons she quit and spoke to her grandparents about their escape from Hungary the night before.)
But while RFE lives on, it's not run as it was long ago. Does it have a pro-US bias in its coverage? I think so. But it is neither designed nor run as a propaganda exercise.
Sometimes it's hard to criticize RT's individual stories. US torture of prisoners during the Bush Administration, civilian casualties from drone strikes in Pakistan or Yemen, and the extent of the NSA's spying operations are important issues that deserve scrutiny. But if you watch a few hours of RT or scan its website for a few days all you will find are stories that are unfavorable to the US (some fair, some not) and absolutely none about the actions of Russia.
US to fund Syrian rebels? Bad - they're financing terrorists! How about Russia, the major arms supplier to Syria's Army, famous for its use of torture and embroiled in a war that has claimed 150,000 lives, huge numbers of them civilians? Putin is merely interested in protecting and enforcing international law. Credible reports that Assad used the chemical weapon sarin on civilians? A false flag attack designed to make Russia's friend Bashar al-Assad look bad.
It gets worse. Who can forget RT's infamous claim in 2011 that reports of rebels overrunning Libya's capital were being falsified by all other news outlets.
The NSA is spying on foreign leaders? Wall to wall coverage. Strong evidence that Russia has been tapping foreign leaders' phone calls and posting them on Youtube? Silence on where the tape came from and a distortion of the contents of the call. Then there's Ms. Wahl, who quit yesterday:
Yes, the unfortunate Mr. Putin who's so restrained in his actions.