We Report, You Question More

So lately I learned that some people are really upset about my attitude towards RT. While I believe my attitude toward the network is justified, it’s necessary to go back into Russia Without BS history and examine how and why that stance changed over the years.

First of all, I started this blog in the early autumn of 2013. I mentioned RT in the original FAQ because insofar as the blog was intended to critique media coverage about Russia, that question was bound to come up. Even before that, RT was being dismissed as a state-run propaganda channel in a manner that was rather blunt and ignored very important nuances.

My best friend had been working at RT for quite some time back then and believe me, he was no Putin supporter. He explained how at RT they would not make things up, nor were they ordered to do so, but rather they would jump on certain stories while ignoring others. Stories that made the US or its allies look bad were always welcome, but stories about problems in Russia or the opposition tended to get a cooler reaction. That being said, this doesn’t mean they went unreported in general, it just means the reaction to a story about a protest in the US and an opposition protest in Russia would be totally different.

Realistically speaking, at that point RT didn’t really diverge from practices that are very common in the news media. When it comes to covering Russia for example, Western outlets typically focused on more sensationalist things such as bombastic quotes from nationalist figures, military parades, and prostitution and/or mail order brides. Naturally many editors must be thanking their lucky stars over Russia’s recent attempt to portray itself as menacing with bombastic rhetoric and provocative military exercises. Even with all that, a story about prostitutes in some regions raising their prices due to the falling ruble still made big headlines in the English-speaking news media. The fact that lots of companies were raising prices on everything, you know, because that’s what inflation essentially leads to, just wasn’t interesting enough. When it’s Eastern Europe, you’ve always got to mention prostitution or desperate foreign men seeking brides.

The fact that RT would often have some weird guests on the air also doesn’t set it apart from many Western outlets. CNN, to use Team Russia’s favorite whipping boy, gave a whole show to Lou Dobbs, who not only had guests that were tied to white supremacist groups, but also mainstreamed the “birther” conspiracy, which claimed Obama’s presidency was illegitimate due to his not being a natural born citizen. CNN’s Crossfire originally starred Pat Buchanan, and apparently now has folks like Newt Gingrich and S.E. Cupp. Glenn Beck also got his start in TV on CNN. Piers Morgan interviewed Alex Jones. Ann Coulter still gets regular appearances on TV. I want to make the list longer but I’m trying to limit it to faces that appear on all networks as opposed to say, Fox News.

In short, RT definitely doesn’t have a monopoly on giving a platform to fringe figures or letting people speak with authority on issues they know nothing about. There was a time, and I would say it was before 2013 and especially before Euromaidan in Ukraine, when you really couldn’t honestly say that RT was significantly different from some of the major “Western” American media networks. What happened is that since then, not only did RT change, but the whole Russian media underwent a change. Some outlets such as RT, The Moscow News, and the English version of RIA-Novosti were too objective and thus had to be replaced by “information warfare”-outlets or at least get in line with such tactics. This is where it started to kick into high gear and RT jumped the shark.

Incidentally I have a theory as to why this happened at that moment. If you observe RT, you’ll notice that it can be rather balanced on issues that aren’t a priority for the Kremlin. They’ll even report on serious problems in Russia, as I’ve pointed out in the past. Where it goes haywire is when the Kremlin is trying to prop up its line on the international stage. This is why the most egregious examples of propaganda tend to revolve around topics like Ukraine.

Of course when you point out the network’s bias, the response from supporters is usually- So what? The “mainstream” media is just as biased! Well no, no it isn’t, and when it is, it’s for different reasons most of the time. For example, according to Team Russia, the “Western media” was covering up the nationalist presence in the Maidan movement. I find this hard to believe, because if they actually knew there was such a presence they would have made more of an effort to take photos that excluded nationalist flags and symbols. If anything they unwittingly exaggerated the nationalist presence. Unwittingly is the key word here because one main reason Western reports weren’t chock full of talk about nationalists is that most of their writers and reporters don’t know dick about Ukrainian history and the history of Ukrainian nationalism. I bet if they thought anything at all, they probably assumed the red and black flags belonged to anarchists. Loads of reporters have to do short, routine stories about what’s going on in the world, and for them it’s just easy enough to say that there’s this continuing protest in Kyiv, and it’s all because these people want to join the European Union. Incidentally, Russian propaganda didn’t dispute that point, whereas many Maidan participants would.

Okay, so the people whose job is to write short stories about international news are just ignorant, but what about the correspondents who live in those countries? Are they biased? You certainly do get the occasional self-righteous correspondent who comes here with preconceived notions and then seeks only to confirm them *COUGH!* LUKE HARDING! *COUGH!* Excuse me. That does happen, but the recent crop of correspondents I’ve seen working for outlets like ViceThe Guardian, etc. are pretty objective. I know this because I see them getting continually attacked by people on both sides of Russia vs. Ukraine, upset because these reporters won’t confirm their personal narrative of the conflict. It’s not just private media either. Voice of America is literally state-run and yet they made stories like these, showing both sides of the Donbas conflict and showing the suffering of civilians on the rebel side.

Another important point to consider is the fact that many pro-RT critics of “the mainstream” media are happy to use “mainstream media” articles to back up their claims. But if that media is so biased, and deliberately so, why would those articles ever get published? Going back to claims about the Western media covering up the nationalist element in Maidan, I have, since the riots broke out, kept track of every mainstream outlet article about the far-right in Ukraine I happen to run across. They come from a diverse spectrum of outlets, such as the BBC and The Guardian, and even the rabidly anti-Kremlin publication The Interpreter. Mark Adomanis has written on the subject, as have Leonid Bershidsky and even extremely pro-EU, liberal writer Anton Shekhovtsov. Add to this list of journalists Christopher Miller, Mark Galeotti, Simon Ostrovsky, Oliver Carroll, Alec Luhn, Anna Arutunyan, and Natalia Antonova. Why them? Simply because I have seen all of them get labeled as Kremlin propagandists because they failed to strictly uphold some people’s narrative on the Ukrainian conflict. If the allegations of a deliberate anti-Russian information war were true, these people shouldn’t have jobs. All of them routinely go “off script,” typically with no consequences beyond some angry Canadian Ukrainian on Twitter calling them a Kremlin whore.

Still, there are some who insist that the Western media doesn’t give enough credit to “the Russian side.” Well, the problem with that is twofold. First of all, there is never just one Russian side. They tend to shotgun their claims, throwing out multiple, often contradictory explanations and hoping that one sticks. Their coverage on MH17 is a perfect example, and this is just dealing with RT, not other state-owned outlets or the Russian domestic press, which have put out even more theories. Second, look what happens when you try to confirm stories from “the Russian side.”  Correspondents who know Russia and see stories such as the “Crucified boy of Sloviansk” aren’t obliged to take these stories seriously for the sake of artificial “balance.”

What this all boils down to is basically this: No, RT is not like the “mainstream media,” with one exception- Fox News. Allow me to demonstrate.

-Fox News does not claim to be a conservative network. Instead it claims the rest of the media, which it often refers to as the “mainstream media,” is biased. Sound familiar?

-Fox News will put almost anyone with a conservative message on the air, often allowing them to speak on topics they know little, if anything about. “Joe the Plumber” comes to mind. At RT, any guest that can regurgitate what they read on Sputnik News can get the title of “political analyst” and speak with authority on any subject, including countries they’ve never been to. And before any RT fans balk at that, I learned this from former employees at RT, one of whom told me that “political analyst” is a sort of generic title whenever they have someone who lacks any real credentials. Here are a couple articles about RT’s guests with unusual theories, and one about a very mislabeled guest. What is more, RT has actually misrepresented guests quite frequently when it comes to Ukraine.

-Fox News will make scandals out of certain issues while ignoring others, often asserting that the other networks aren’t reporting on the scandal because of their liberal bias. This is similar to any number of claims about the “biased, Western, mainstream media.”

-Fox News is known for having a severe lack of decency at times, for example demonizing unarmed black youth who are shot by police. By comparison, RT published this conspiracy theory about the Charlie Hebdo massacre within about a day of the attack.

-Fox News has been known for its worshipful coverage of certain figures, for example George W. Bush and especially Ronald Reagan.

*See footnote for full documentary

RT does the same with Putin.

-Fox News is clearly biased in favor of conservative republicans, so while they’ll have “opposing views,” these are usually people who aren’t really very well known on the left. Often times they cave into the conservative host, thus demonstrating the correctness of the conservative talking points.

RT doesn’t even go that far, which is one reason why Ofcom took the network to task in the UK. On RT you can have guests who say Euromaidan was engineered by the CIA to spread liberal, left-wing values, and you can have a left-wing guest that says it’s all about spreading fascism and neo-liberal economic policies, but I’ve yet to see any conversation with, for example, actual, verified Maidan participants, particularly from the more popular segments of the protests. Just as Fox News viewers tended to believe that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11 in spite of the fact that the network didn’t explicitly make this claim, it would seem a lot of RT consumers seem to have bought into the “fascist coup d’etat”/”illegitimate junta” claims. I also see a lot of concern for the bombing of civilians in the rebel occupied regions of the Donbas, but nothing about those civilians on the government-controlled side who were shelled by the rebels. Incidentally, those people were, up until last year, also “poor persecuted Russian speakers” and residents of the rebel “republics.” VOA apparently has no problem showing the story of those who have suffered at the hands of the Ukrainian armed forces. Why can’t RT show the same on the other side?

I could go on, but I think the reader gets the idea. While there are key differences, Fox is the closest analog to RT- they have an agenda, though Fox claims it’s “fair and balanced” in response to liberal media bias and RT says it’s just an “alternative, Russian point of view(or 37 alternative points of view),” again all in opposition to a conspiratorial media bias. Both networks are often the odd one out when it comes to their coverage, and yet this is used to prove that they are somehow providing truth that the establishment doesn’t want you to know. I must digress a bit here, but I find it funny that the network of the neocons and the people who constantly drone on about neocons are so remarkably similar in every way. Hey, “political analysts,” perhaps the “mainstream media” said no WMDs were found in Iraq, but Fox was just trying to provide an alternative point of view! Is that so bad? Question more!

In conclusion, I have been extremely fair to RT since long before I started writing. I’d even considered working there in the past and I still know people who work there or used to work there. Call me a Kremlin whore all you like for admitting that. I condemned those hypocrites who attacked former employees of the company, and I staunchly oppose those who say that any CV with RT on it should be immediately discarded. Sure, you can say that even those people who work behind the scenes are contributing to the final product, but how far are you willing to take that? Are we going to start condemning the secretaries, the janitors, and the IT people who work for that outlet? Are you really sure that your employer isn’t involved in anything unethical or questionable, or investing in companies that are? The fact is that RT does have a lot of employees who don’t agree with its message or practices. You can condemn them all you like, but just be sure to leave them a few suggestions as to where they might seek better employment. This is the kind of condemnation that could actually extend to almost any person employed in Russia.

As for those who produce the content, as far as I know there still is a lot of editorial leeway on most issues, which means critics should save their criticism for those who willingly promote propaganda when they do not have to. For the rest, I’ve been told many times, by multiple people, that the network changed. If I noticed the same changes from the outside, it stands to reason that they are right. I sympathize with them because in a way, the same thing happened with Russia. People have treated me with suspicion because I live here and tend to vehemently dispute certain talking points on the “Western” side. As the situation seems to get worse with no end in sight, I begin to wonder how I’ll be received abroad, especially back in the US. How do I explain to people that it was a completely different country up until a couple of years ago? In 2006 choosing to live in Russia was a totally apolitical issue.

At the end of the day, if RT isn’t taken seriously its management and news makers have nobody to blame but themselves. If they truly have real editorial freedom, they ought to be able to correct a lot of the practices they’ve been busted for. Maybe get some rational pro-Ukrainian people on there for once and stop selling the myth of the “fascist junta,” seeing as how Russia has recognized the Ukrainian government since at least the election of Poroshenko, whereas by contrast the Russian government does not recognize the separatist republics in the Donbas and often refers to them as “self-proclaimed.” Maybe stop implying that people only get out in the streets and protest because the US instigates it. RT was actually nominated for an Emmy award due to its coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Were those people paid to protest? Did the Russian government engineer that? Were they all on drugs?

Nobody can claim RT isn’t aware there’s a problem because if that weren’t the case, they wouldn’t filter out some of the Russian domestic media’s wackier claims, particularly those that involve made-up stories or poor Photoshop-altered images. Someone there must know about the concept of journalist integrity and credibility. If they really have as much editorial freedom as they claim, let them take advantage of it and clean the place up. Otherwise, well, let’s just say: If the shoe fits…

*Outfoxed – The must-see documentary.

10 thoughts on “We Report, You Question More

  1. gbd_crwx

    They seem somewhat similar to CCTV then. I was in China four years ago when both the Xinjiang riots in western china and the Breivik shootings in Norway happened. Xinjiang = government line, Norway = fairly freereporting.

    I wonder if this is a actual outthought policy to build trust or as you say that the management don’t care about the other stuff. If it is the first I guess they are trying tomimic what the Americans did in Guatemala in the 50-ies.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      One thing is that the regime itself was just a lot softer back when RT started. In fact, RT wasn’t even about this stuff for a long part of its existence. At first it was actually about life in Russia, cultural issues, etc. Of course nobody was interested in that and the ratings were very low. I think it was with Occupy that they started to find their niche.

      Ukraine, however, is where they started to become Fox.

  2. Jim Kovpak Post author

    Usually people believe them because of wishful thinking. They may see some of their respected intellectuals on RT and generally not on other networks, even though they do appear. For example, you can’t get more anti-government than Glenn Greenwald, yet he appears on major networks, had a regular column in Salon, and sometimes contributes to The Guardian. Hmm…I don’t get it- that’s MAINSTREAM MEDIA!

  3. ejh

    “Are we going to start condemning the secretaries, the janitors, and the IT people who work for that outlet”

    This reminds me of the Death Star conversation in Clerks


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