At RT, News Breaks You

U.S. intelligence officials have accused the Kremlin-funded network of helping swing the election to Trump. Could such a little-watched cable channel be that powerful?

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood • May 4, 2017

Source: RT/Youtube.com

About 17 million U.S. households subscribe to Spectrum, the television provider formerly known as Time Warner Cable. Those in New York City, whether they know it or not, also subscribe to the Russian-funded news outlet RT. Customers can locate it by scrolling past the Chinese Channel and the Africa Channel and into the triple digits, until RT’s radioactive-green logo appears on screen.

Like any 24-hour cable news outlet, RT has good days and excruciatingly slow days. April 24, the day after the first round of France’s presidential election, figured at least to be interesting. Russia was being accused of trying to tip the race in favor of the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen, and RT, if you believe the U.S. intelligence community, is at the vanguard of Russia’s soft-power strategy. So around noon that Monday, sitting at home in Brooklyn, I flip to Spectrum channel 218.

The coverage is being anchored from a raft on the Seine by two impassive, middle-aged Brits. The broadcast is live, but the hosts mainly introduce prerecorded segments from RT’s Paris bureau. Much of France has been exhaling at the election result, which saw the centrist Emmanuel Macron finish ahead of Le Pen. On RT, the mood is dour. One segment, set to menacing, Jaws-style strings, depicts violent outbursts from the previous night. There’s fire and tear gas. A young man kicks ineffectually at a glass door. “They’re not happy with anybody,” a reporter intones.

Next up, a bit titled “France of Rich & France of Poor,” which contrasts a workaday pro-Le Pen town with a snobby Paris suburb. “Enough of this boutique land,” a correspondent says. In the early afternoon, Janice Atkinson, a British member of the European Parliament who tweets as @Janice4Brexit, arrives at the floating studio. After dissing Macron as a “very, very unknown 39-year-old boy who has basically married his mother”—his wife is 25 years his elder—Atkinson goes off-message, accusing Russia of “doing an awful lot of meddling, don’t you think?” The anchors look at their feet.

At 4 p.m., RT hands off to RT America, its Washington, D.C.-based operation, which offers its regular mixture of anodyne headline news and niche opinion shows: Watching the Hawks, an occasionally paranoid show featuring the sons of Jesse Ventura and Oliver Stone; Larry King interviewing Mario Batali. When the feed returns to Paris at 8 p.m., a correspondent bats down talk of Russian electoral interference, above a chyron that reads, “Media overwhelmingly back Macron despite Le Pen only 2% away.”

All in a day’s coverage for RT, which began in 2005 as Russia Today, a Moscow-based, English-language competitor to Al Jazeera and BBC World News. But even as it added foreign bureaus and its staff increased to more than 2,000, its reach remained limited to a niche on the anti-Establishment Left. Journalists condescended to it. Politicians and cable operators shunned it.

Where else on cable news could a 27-year-old inveigh against U.S. imperialism on a nightly basis?

During last year’s U.S. election, as evidence mounted that Russia had orchestrated cyberhacks to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy, RT and its aggressively anti-Hillary Clinton coverage became harder to ignore. The network also made news for a 10th anniversary dinner it hosted in Moscow in late 2015, at which former counterintelligence official and Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn spoke for a $45,000 fee and sat at Vladimir Putin’s table. In January the CIA, FBI, and NSA jointly released a declassified report alleging that RT had sought to undermine the “U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” And in March, Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, introduced a bill in the Senate to investigate whether RT America and the Russian government coordinated to “spread misinformation.” (“They’ll soon start shooting our journalists at the squares,” RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan responded.)

All this sounds serious—much more serious than any of the frankly terrible TV I watched. RT’s coverage of U.S. politics, the war in Syria, and the cozy Trump-Russia relationship may well offer a window into the Kremlin’s PR strategy, but if the network’s largely young, left-wing journalists work on behalf of the Russian state, they hardly seem aware of it. Mostly they’re getting into Twitter feuds with CNN’s Jake Tapper and, they will quietly admit, looking for better jobs. If, as the authorities would have it, RT is executing a successful hearts-and-minds campaign to undermine the liberal democratic order, the liberal democratic order may be more vulnerable than we thought.

By the time Putin assumed Russia’s presidency in 1999, the country had developed a relatively robust post-Soviet media. Gradually he wrested every major outlet from private control and blanketed the airwaves with Kremlin PR. With the country also enjoying an oil and gas boom, Putin became more popular than ever. Abroad, not so much.

Enter Russia Today, which was developed by former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin as an urbane foreign counterpart to domestic telly. The network would imitate the look of Western cable news while disrupting narratives critical of Russia—or, as Putin later put it, while breaking “the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” Kremlin-funded, but in theory editorially independent, Russia Today was staffed by telegenic Brits and perfectly bilingual Muscovites. Its annual budget started at $30 million and increased 10-fold over the next five years. (By comparison, the BBC World Service’s annual budget is about $450 million; the federally funded Voice of America somehow spends $220 million.)

Most cable channels receive fees from broadcasters for the right to air them, but it wasn’t clear that Russia Today would draw enough viewers to make the prospect attractive to the likes of Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable. So the network paid for access to the largest U.S. cable markets—the same strategy Rupert Murdoch followed when Fox News was in its infancy—and an impossible number of random hotels around the country. It soon became clear, though, that nobody outside Russia cared to watch coverage of its domestic affairs. So in 2009, Simonyan, a wunderkind Russian reporter, pivoted to global news. She created Spanish- and Arabic-language bureaus out of Moscow, plus standalone operations in London and Washington, and dropped “Russia” from the channel’s name, rebranding it RT.

The shift created a new problem. During the Soviet era, Radio Moscow had pushed socialist ideology abroad, but none of the hallmarks of Putin’s Russia—he-man nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, cronyism—were so easily exportable. “Russia doesn’t have a coherent ideology to project,” says Alexey Kovalev, a Moscow journalist and media critic who formerly worked for the state news agency, RIA Novosti. “The only thing we can do is bring others on our level, to tell everybody that Western values don’t mean anything.”

Source: Youtube

In 2009, McCann Erickson created a slogan for the channel: “Question More.” Rather than foster a message of its own, RT would prick holes in everyone else’s. The next year it launched an offshoot, RT America, on the second floor of a building three blocks from the White House.

RT’s funding structure helped ensure that any political ties to Russia wouldn’t be subject to special scrutiny from the American government. The network was incorporated in Russia as a nonprofit organization, TV-Novosti, which then transferred funds to a separate, U.S.-incorporated company, RTTV Inc. This structure allowed it to bypass the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires entities representing foreign political interests to disclose themselves as such. But it also contributed to a chaotic, ad hoc corporate environment. A Maryland-based Russian who owned RTTV early on pleaded guilty in 2013 to tax fraud after stashing more than $1 million of the company’s money in a personal account. Control was transferred to its news director, Mikhail Solodovnikov, a former reporter for a Russian TV outlet.

A lot of RT America’s early coverage was absurd and conspiratorial, promoted by YouTube headlines such as “Obama an alien president?” A former employee told me she was asked in her job interview how she would cover the annual Bilderburg Group conference in the Netherlands, long a shadowy boogeything to the antiglobalist set. But what RT America lacked in editorial rigor it made up for in opportunity.

An emblematic early hire was Abby Martin, a pox-on-everybody iconoclast who’d caught RT’s attention for her freelance coverage of Occupy Wall Street. In 2012 she began hosting a nightly show, Breaking the Set. For her the appeal of RT America was editorial freedom; where else on cable news could a 27-year-old inveigh against U.S. imperialism on a nightly basis? “It was a huge space for radicals against the neoliberal Establishment,” she says. “I wouldn’t necessarily say this was my No. 1 choice, working for the Russian government to speak out against our policies. But in this abysmal media environment, it was really gratifying to be given this platform on an international stage.”

Henry looked up from his phone, grinned, and said, “Making Russia great again—I love it”

Martin had a six-figure social media following and did nothing if not “question more.” In 2013 she attacked MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow for mocking “truthers” who maintained the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job. “Is it really so hard to believe the fact that Bush and his cabinet turned a blind eye to let the attacks happen, or even ensure that they happened?” she asked. RT also sought out far-left critics of U.S. foreign policy, who would reliably argue that Western critiques of Russian belligerence were hypocritical. These people ranged from random New Black Panthers and Chomskyite beardos to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who got a short-lived show. The Financial Times described the network’s nonstop anti-U.S. coverage as “whataboutism”—as in sure, Russia has problems, but what about the States?

RT America’s coverage of issues such as mass incarceration and domestic surveillance wouldn’t have been out of place on Al Jazeera America or MSNBC. But the overarching aim of making the U.S. look unstable or undemocratic gave the productions a hyped-up, amateurish quality. Republicans and Democrats alike were portrayed as corporatist tools; during the 2012 election, RT America rallied behind Ron Paul.

It further marginalized itself with self-interested foreign coverage. In 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, RT pushed the line that Ukraine was engaging in a “genocidal” massacre of civilians. Martin denounced Russian aggression on her show, and two days later one of her colleagues, Liz Wahl, resigned on air, saying she couldn’t work for a network that “whitewashes the actions of Putin.” But the incidents were more embarrassing to the network than threatening. (Martin left in 2015 and now hosts a show on a channel funded by the Venezuelan government.)

In 2016, RT America at last began proving its usefulness to the Russian government. The outlet remained as second-rate as ever, but during an election campaign governed by populist rage, anti-Establishment whataboutism had fresh appeal. RT America’s editorial staff appeared enamored of Bernie Sanders; the Kremlin was tempted by Trump. The result was a fire hose of negative Clinton coverage, with almost nightly segments about her private email server.

As Election Day drew near, a synergy developed between RT’s election coverage and Russia’s apparent hacking efforts. In July the channel aired a segment promising fresh Clinton campaign email revelations. “Julian Assange claims next leak will lead to arrest of Clinton,” read the chyron. The story was based on an interview Assange had given more than a month earlier in which he said he didn’t believe his batch of emails would yield an indictment. The promised emails never came, but Trump benefited just the same.

Judging the reach of RT’s election coverage is tricky. The station doesn’t pay into the Nielsen service that measures cable TV ratings, but even if it did, it seems unlikely it would meet Nielsen’s viewership threshold for publishing figures. (RT commissioned a study by market researcher Ipsos in 2016 that put total weekly U.S. viewership at 8 million. It’s unclear whether that number reflects actual viewers or the channel’s “reach”; RT didn't reveal the methodology.) And while RT has more total YouTube views than CNN or BBC America, leaked documents have shown its stats to be heavily inflated by random disaster footage that the network buys the rights to broadcast. Still, RT managed to set the pro-Trump agenda in the danker corners of the internet—its pro-Bashar al-Assad or anti-George Soros articles were reposted everywhere from breitbart.com to InfoWars to the neo-Nazi forum stormfront.org. The Assange clip was viewed more than 700,000 times; weeks before the election, pro-Trump websites and alt-right trolls were still using it to whip up readers.

Toward the end of the race, professional journalists and self-styled muckrakers began to trace Russian electoral interference to RT. The January U.S. intelligence report went further, devoting most of its declassified findings to RT’s critical coverage of U.S. affairs. A lot of people found such assertions laughable. In a blog post, the New Yorker’s Adrian Chen argued that one widely circulated independent study failed to distinguish between “explicit tools of the Russian state” and the “useful idiots” who did their bidding unwittingly. Masha Gessen, in a piece published on the New York Review of Books’ website a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, mocked the government for casting RT America’s coverage of fracking and Occupy Wall Street as un-American subversion. The declassified report, she wrote, “suggests that the U.S. intelligence agencies’ Russia expertise is weak and throws into question their ability to process and present information.”

As if to prove Gessen’s point, the day after her piece was published, at a U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing covering “Russian Intelligence Activities,” Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked National Intelligence Director James Clapper, “Does RT get any of its broadcast into the United States?”

Clapper replied, “Yes it does, sir. It does, it’s very prevalent in Europe and lesser so—” He paused. “I think there’s an RT channel here.”

Washington’s bemusement was on display in February at the Beltway ritual known as the Conservative Political Action Conference. Ed Schultz, a 63-year-old populist who once hosted a nightly opinion show on MSNBC and now anchors a news program on RT America, was appearing there for a panel on trade. In his new incarnation as an anchor for a Russian media outlet accused of subverting democracy, he drew a sizable crowd.

“Full disclosure,” he began. “The Russians did not tell Hillary Clinton, ‘Don’t go to Wisconsin.’ ” He then praised the new president, whom he’d once openly scorned, for appealing to disaffected workers: “For years they thought the Democrats and the progressive movement was their friend. But wait a minute, the jobs left anyways. So a guy named Donald Trump comes up, who’s not bought and paid for by anybody, who pulls up in a 757 and says, ‘I care about your jobs.’ He ain’t fakin’ it. He’s successful.”

In a post-panel press scrum, a reporter suggested Schultz had become a mouthpiece for Putin. He replied, “The perception is that we’re propaganda, and we simply are not.” More journalists appeared. “I don’t believe that Russia is the enemy of the United States,” he said. “I think this is all big paranoia.”

Eventually he extricated himself, and we walked together toward the exit. On our way out, he spied Fox News’s Ed Henry standing alone outside a ballroom. Relieved to see a familiar face, Schultz loped over to greet Henry, saying, “The one. The only. There’s only one Fast Eddie!” Henry looked up from his phone, grinned, and said, “Making Russia great again—I love it.”

RT America collects discarded pundits. Schultz signed on after MSNBC canceled his nightly show in 2015. In 2013, Larry King, now 83, inked a deal to air his independently produced interview shows, Larry King Now and Politicking, on RT America. (He occasionally throws shade at the outlet to assert his editorial freedom.) Ex-Minnesota Governor and conspiracy buff Jesse Ventura has hosted a show and will return later this year with a second. Such hires may seem desperate, but they’re in a sense on-brand for an operation that pits itself relentlessly against the mainstream media.

Schultz almost never grants interviews anymore, precisely to avoid unpleasant grillings about his new job, but as we rode back to his office in a company SUV, he told me a story. After the 2010 BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he’d gone down to report for MSNBC on the environmental toll. “The PR people at BP were calling us every night,” he said. “They just didn’t want to accept the fact that we were telling the truth.” The implication was that at RT, there are no ads or shareholders, and thus no corporate pressure to soft-pedal stories about oil spills. (Neither MSNBC nor BP would comment on Schultz’s assertion.)

There was, however, Putin to please. I asked Schultz if he’d ever had editorial disagreements with RT. “No. Not once,” he replied. Crimea? Syria? “No. Not in our shop.”

I found that hard to believe. But his underlying critique is foundational to RT: the notion that CNN and Fox News, by virtue of their corporate owners and sponsors, reflect a U.S. perspective no less than state-funded RT reflects a Russian one. “There is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from,” Editor-in-Chief Simonyan told a Russian newspaper in 2016.

To that end, RT America’s 60-odd journalists are encouraged to see themselves as members of the alternative press. In morning editorial meetings, says one reporter, the easiest way to get a story greenlighted by Solodovnikov is to devise an angle that puts it in conflict with the “mainstream media.” That might mean framing reports on Russian hacking as neoliberal scaremongering, or staking out a story cable news was slow to cover, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. A former producer says that when she was hired, she received a list of websites from which to gain inspiration. The main theme was skepticism of U.S. power, with liberal standard-bearers such as the Nation juxtaposed alongside tinfoil-hat concern InfoWars.

“That’s their main point. To show that American society is descending into chaos”

The channel also self-selects for those suspicious of the mainstream press. Tyrel Ventura, co-host of the evening show Watching the Hawks and son of Jesse, says his dad was ostracized from politics, then cable news, for his heterodox beliefs. “I saw [MSNBC] essentially silence my father because he wouldn’t cheerlead the Iraq War,” says Ventura, 39. “Growing up, I already had that kind of skepticism of the quote-unquote official story of the media, learning about the JFK assassination and reading the People’s History of the United States.” He says he’s never been given marching orders at RT to cover anything—instead, the impetus is to find stories that aren’t “covered to death.”

Ventura isn’t spinning me. None of the dozen or so former and current employees I spoke with said they’d been coerced into airing positive content about Russia or its allies. Instead they described a blanket self-censorship: Clearly, certain stories—say, a negative piece about Assad, a Putin client—aren’t worth pitching. But in a more general sense, by casting all mainstream media reportage as corrupted—as fake news, in essence—RT claims the moral high ground for its own set of facts.

This dynamic is perhaps most evident in the work of RT’s Middle East correspondent, a 31-year-old Brit named Lizzie Phelan. Unlike her colleagues in the Western media, Phelan has been granted a journalist visa by Syria. As a result, she is confined to reporting from government-held areas unlikely to reflect the most heinous crimes of the Syrian regime. But what some might see as pro-Assad propaganda winds up looking, to a certain kind of skeptic, like credible indie journalism. Phelan’s work is popular on both the anti-imperialist Left and the alt-right.

Staffwide self-censorship is useful in another regard: RT America probably couldn’t script propaganda if it wanted to. It isn’t organized enough. The news director, Solodovnikov—everyone calls him Misha—is a former Washington bureau chief for the Russian broadcaster VGTRK. Everyone I spoke to described him as apolitical. Instead, says Abby Martin, “he’s obsessed with aesthetics, lighting, the colors, the names.” Beyond that, there’s little quality control—Solodovnikov’s whims govern all. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, according to several staffers, he urged reporters to cover golf and tennis results—two events nobody cared about, but which he followed assiduously. One reporter recalls a meeting a couple of years earlier during which Misha enthusiastically suggested hiring a “midget” to appear on air. Often, current and former employees say, he wouldn’t show up to the office at all. Through a spokesperson, RT didn’t respond to the assertion about Solodovnikov’s hiring suggestion and described his comings and goings as “mundane.”

“Do not call him an evil genius who is maniacally pulling the strings and making things happen,” Martin says. “It’s the contrary of that. There are weeks when he’s just gone. I have friends at RT now who are just like, ‘Misha hasn’t been here all month, we have no idea where he is.’ ”

At the outset of Trump’s presidency, as the web of known connections between his campaign and Russia grew stickier, RT America tended to cast itself as a victim of mainstream media bullying. In January, Chris Hedges, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who hosts the weekend show On Contact, said the Russian interference story was being pushed by a “compliant corporate media that operates in a nonfact-based universe every bit as pernicious as that inhabited by Trump.” A few days later, RT host Anya Parimpil mocked CNN on Twitter for covering a fireworks display at Trump’s inauguration rather than something more substantial. Anchor Jake Tapper tweeted: “Next time tune in when we’re discussing how your boss Vladimir Putin is responsible for human rights abuses and cyberattacks of US.” Parimpil shot back, “Childish McCarthyism aside, your *actual* boss, Jeff Zucker, created Trump. Now let’s watch careerists like you fall in line and punch left.”

In general, RT America seemed unsure how to cover the new administration. It was hard-wired to view American power skeptically, but disinclined to go negative on the putatively isolationist, pro-Vlad Trump. Like Jon Stewart after Barack Obama’s election, it seemed to have lost its raison d’être. It was the dog that caught the car. Would RT America, like Stewart, cast itself primarily as a critic of the president’s critics, or could it offer something more substantial?

To try and get an answer, I sat down in March with the enigmatic Misha at a cafe near RT America’s New York offices, on Manhattan’s East Side. Our interview was much delayed; RT America’s offices were under renovation, and he apparently didn’t want me to see the place in disarray.

Solodovnikov, ginger-haired and bearded, was wearing red jeans and a blue blazer. That day, RT America had scored its first-ever daytime Emmy nomination, for On Contact. We began discussing RT’s ambitions for his shop. His goal, he said, was to “make RT America the No. 1 international network in the U.S.” I asked how he planned to do that. “You gotta have a good team, good journalists,” he said, in accented English. “You gotta have critical thinking.”

He didn’t articulate the editorial vision his ideal team of journalists would present, and instead supplied critiques of his competitors. BBC and France 24 were irrelevant, he said, and CNN’s talking-head approach was stale. “You watch certain networks and they almost behave like opposition parties, especially after elections,” he continued. “And I feel like as a viewer you get a feeling that all your taste buds are messed up, because you don’t get a taste for what’s really news anymore.”

It was hard to argue the point. And if the proliferation of biased and fraudulent journalism had poisoned the public’s appreciation for objective reporting, well, RT was happy to take advantage. “It’s never been easier for us to work in the United States,” Solodovnikov said. “It’s extremely easy to say the truth.”

But what would that truth look like? A few weeks later, in early April, Assad was accused of launching a chemical attack on his own citizens; two days after that the U.S. responded with a missile attack on a Syrian air base, reportedly giving Russia only a cursory heads-up. Putin called the gas attack a “false flag,” engineered to goad Trump into action.

RT followed suit. The day after Putin’s statement, RT America reporter Alexey Yaroshevsky published an “exclusive” interview with an MIT professor who said he didn’t believe Assad was responsible for the chemical attack. The Moscow-based show Crosstalk, a Crossfire imitator, ran an episode called “War-a-Lago.” And a recent edition of liberal pundit Thom Hartmann’s The Big Picture was teased online with the headline “Trump Risks World War for Tiny Syrian Intervention.”

Suddenly, U.S.-Russia relations had returned to their familiar dismal state. For RT, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “They win either way with Trump,” says Bob Orttung, an international relations professor at George Washington University who studies Russian media. “Even if he’s not particularly pro-Russian, they can elide that fact and focus on all the chaos. That’s their main point. To show that American society is descending into chaos.”

Even for the most marginal of government-funded, internet-savvy cable-TV channels, that may not be a difficult task.

Corrects to specify why Nielsen doesn't publish RT ratings in the 22nd paragraph.