In the past few days, the Russian state-funded media organization, RT, has had two of its staff members express some level of protest against the editorial line of the organization and how it is currently covering the Russia-Ukraine “crisis” that has been unfolding.
Abby Martin, anchor of “Breaking the Set,” a show with an editorial perspective of its own, declared at the end of her show’s broadcast on March 3, “Just because I work here for RT doesn’t mean I don’t have editorial independence. And I can’t stress enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs. What Russia did is wrong.”
Liz Wahl, who anchored a block of straight news each evening and technically did not have her own program, took a more drastic step and resigned on air. She could no longer bring herself to push “Putinist propaganda” on air. She said on “The Last Word” on MSNBC she felt someone needed to speak up about a network out to make “America look like the bad guy,” “make excuses” for President Vladimir Putin, who she referred to as a dictator and “whitewash his decisions.”
Her resignation stung RT worse than Martin’s expression of independence. It has animated neoconservatives like young James Kirchick, who took his own stand when he appeared on RT against “homophobic repression.” The reason being, as Kirchick wrote in his story on Wahl, is they believe RT “portrays every Western military intervention as an act of imperialism while depicting Russian ones as mere humanitarian attempts at ‘protecting’ local populations, as the network constantly describes Moscow’s role in Crimea.”
That is probably true. However, for people like Kirchick, this analysis is premised on the fact that most, if not all, Western military interventions have inherently good motivations. The United States must take action or failure to intervene will mean conflicts get worse without its moral leadership. Reality is somewhere in between—that both Russia and the US are superpowers which will employ, support or threaten the use of force to protect national interests.
CNN was eager to have Martin and Wahl on their programs because the protest at a state-owned media network that broadcasts to American and international audiences suggests that Putin is losing. It advances an anti-Putin narrative without seriously examining the issues of journalistic or editorial independence in media that are fundamental to these stories of protest at RT.
Piers Morgan’s show had them on to talk about what they did because, as CNN put it, “It may be a new Cold War between Russia and the rest of the world.”
Here’s the critical part of Martin’s appearance:
MORGAN: What is your specific criticism about the way RT America has covered this crisis?
MARTIN: You know, I just saw the higher media apparatus was covering it. I mean, RT was covering it in a different way that I didn’t agree with, and then I saw the corporate media coverage almost wanting to revive the Cold War. I mean, I felt like people were egging on Obama to attack militarily.
I mean, it’s insane living in a time where we have corporate media actually supporting military intervention and action against Russia. I mean, this is no joke here. We got to really take a step back and think about how we can do things peacefully and diplomatically and not continue to warmonger and fearmonger the American people about what’s going on.
MORGAN: And tell me this, I mean, you’ve — in the clip we played at the start when you made your dramatic statement, you conceded you weren’t an expert in what is going on in Ukraine or indeed in Ukraine itself.
I presume now you probably come up to speed pretty quickly given all the attention that you’ve had. What do you think with all your experience in broadcasting on RT America is the correct way for this crisis to be resolved?
MARTIN: I hope it resolves diplomatically, Piers, you know, you could imagine the last couple of days that have been pretty hectic, I hadn’t really been able to keep up with the day to day but I just hope for a peaceful outcome with no more military aggression, I hope the military aggression scaled back and I hope we can see a peaceful outcome.
But I think that the real question that should be asked is why do I have to work for RT to tell the truth about corporations and the U.S. government? I mean, seriously, you guys will be holding to advertisers that you cannot criticize and that’s why I work for a station that I can criticize …
MORGAN: Well, hang on, hang on …
MORGAN: I’m free to say what the hell I like …
MORGAN: … no one’s ever told me I can’t criticize advertisers or corporate entity. That conversation has never happened in the three years I’ve been on air in CNN.
MARTIN: Fair enough, Piers, but I think a lot of people deal with self-censorship all across the media spectrum.
MORGAN: I certainly don’t. That’s probably one of my problems. [emphasis added]
What is striking about this exchange is that Morgan does not think he has engaged in self-censorship at CNN. Both Morgan and Anderson Cooper, who covered recent developments at RT, omitted the fact that journalists have quit CNN because they were being asked to censor their coverage.
Amber Lyon, who worked for CNN, went to Bahrain to produce a one-hour documentary on democracy activists using social media and internet technology. CNN International refused to broadcast the documentary. And, as journalist Glenn Greenwald reported, CNN came under pressure from the Bahraini regime to include their claims “about the violence in their country,” even when Lyon knew with certainty those claims were false.
Greenwald explored in a related post how CNN International relied on “revenue from Middle East regimes,” including an arrangement to “market Lebanon as a tourism destination.” It aired programming on Kazakhstan that was sponsored by the Kazakh government. He highlighted how complaints from Bahrain or Saudi Arabia would be given deference because they are close allies of the US government.
As Jay Rosen, a media critic and New York University professor, described:
…The value of what CNN is trying to do to be this consensus news product around the world – not just in the western economic club but around the world – has many serious consequences. One of the consequences is that it puts you into business with ruling regimes in order to get on the air. Of course, there’s a relationship between what you broadcast, what you put out as news, and the likelihood of getting accepted by regimes…
However, viewers have no idea that CNN may have business interests that require it to tacitly endorse the actions of repressive regimes. This is understandably not something CNN advertises. On the other hand, viewers know full well what they are getting from RT: it will be news from a Russian perspective.
There is this view in US establishment media that they are immune to advancing nationalistic narratives in the same way that the Kremlin-backed news organization RT does. However, the coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War was such a moment where independent journalism was forsaken for state-identified journalism that amplified a case for war that rested upon neoconservative propaganda.
Currently, there is minimal attention, if any attention, to the US government’s claimed authority to target and kill Americans or how President Barack Obama has embraced drones. (In fact, one might argue “The Daily Show,” a satirical news program, has had better coverage than most US media.)
And, consider how reluctant and difficult it was for news programs on television to confront the reality that the US government was engaged in torture or how they studiously avoid that there are over a hundred people being indefinitely detained at Guantanamo Bay (the vast majority of which have been deemed to pose absolutely no threat to the US yet have not been transferred home).
Any time journalists cover how another media outlet functions, they run the risk of unfairly suggesting in their critiques that what is happening at that outlet is unique to that outlet, that what is happening there could not happen where they work.
In the rush to impose sanctions or to consider sending a billion dollars of aid to Ukraine, is there any reflection on what this does to the crisis and whether it will de-escalate tensions? Is there any meaningful attempt to report on the extent to which US was funding and actively backing forces that were protesting and destabilized Ukraine?
No part of this post is intended to suggest that somehow RT has been fair and accurate in its portrayal of what has been happening with Russia and Ukraine (it hasn’t), but consider how much of the US broadcast news media coverage has been the inverse of RT’s editorial line.
—WOLF BLITZER, CNN: …When we come back, does Vladimir Putin have a double standard when it comes to military intervention in other countries? We’re going to take a closer look at his controversial strategy in this crisis… (March 4)
—FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN: …I’ve had a few chances to meet with him in small groups — very small groups. And he is — you — when it comes to process, very intelligent, very tough, and a deep sense of a Russian nationalism, a deep sense of the greatness of Russia if you were Russian exceptionalism.
So I think that, you know, you’re dealing with somebody with whom you cannot make appeals to international norms and laws that these things are not going to be as important. It is brutal understanding of Russia’s interest. And I think that the “Off Ramp” that we might find, it lies in — what Putin said in his press conference. The most important thing he said in that long, rambling press conference was that he does not intend to annex (ph) Crimea… (March 4)
—BILL NEELY, NBC News Chief correspondent: Words laced with menace from President Putin. “There is no need for further Russian military intervention in Ukraine,” he says. But the possibility still exists. It is a veiled threat…
…The US is looking at economic sanctions. But does Russia`s president care? Amidst the crisis, Russian war games, led by President Putin, a display of Russian power, the timing deliberate. Putin defiant as he redraws Europe`s map. The exercises are not over, the takeover of Crimea is not, nor is the standoff at Ukraine`s military bases… (March 4)
—DAVID GREGORY, NBC News host: (interviewing Sen. Marco Rubio) …You`re saying as you did in a piece that you wrote for Politico about how to confront Russia that we`ve got to the use blunt talk. So I ask you for some blunt talk. Is Russia an enemy of the United States now? (March 2)
All of US media is making comparisons to the Georgia-Russia conflict that occurred in 2008, but they inaccurately are suggesting that Russia started the war when, in fact, according to a study by the European Union, it was Georgia that “started the conflict with Russia with an attack that was in violation of international law.”
Here’s New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cartoonishly asking, who is really the villain here?
This would be laughed at if RT tweeted Obama on a bicycle and reduced the situation to a battle of good versus evil.
As Sam Knight, who once was a segment producer at RT, said during an interview for the National Journal:
…The corporate media is staffed with fleshy bags of walking sycophancy—pathetic excuses for journalists, really—and a lot of these stories about RT reek of projection and insecurity. These “Neo-nazis in Kiev are overstated,” or “Putin is just doing this because he can” stories are childish and absurd, boiling the entire conflict down to black and white “democracy vs. authoritarianism” or a cartoonish pantomime portrait of a guy, who, in reality, has support that can’t be easily dismissed—both at home and in Crimea. This doesn’t excuse RT’s coverage of the conflict. But it’s state-owned. What are these jingoistic American hacks’ excuses?
There is no overt state-influence as a result of funding. These networks just have a way of letting the state influence coverage, as they did when they allowed the Pentagon to create positive war coverage it desired by having favored military analysts appear on air.
So, here’s a valid question: Why does someone have to work for RT in order to host a daily news program, where she is free to question military interventions by any country that violates the sovereignty of another country? Why couldn’t she work for CNN or MSNBC? Or a network where she would not have to constantly defend herself as being independent and not a Putin apparatchik?
Are we happy living in a society where someone with openly antiwar views who strongly questions the US government cannot host a news program on a network that reaches a wide audience like RT?
Knight, reflecting on his decision to work for RT, said, “The journalism job market is tough these days—particularly if you’re an American seeking to cover your own government in a non-superficial manner.”
Young people go to work for RT because they do not believe they can go to work for US establishment or corporate media news outlets and cover the stories of which Americans should be informed.
The failure of US media creates a market for networks like RT, which cover under-reported US stories since they fit into their agenda.
All the disgust and the repulsion toward RT should not distract from the reality of how horrid the media economy can be and often is in the United States.
Rather than fixate on what a “Kremlin-funded” network is doing daily—or cast the network as a monolith populated with conspiracy cranks and Putin mouthpieces, it would be better to confront our own media and address its many flaws so that less people feel they have to turn to a Russian-owned media network in order to get the truth about what is happening with their government in their country.