As international outcry grows alongside the body count in Syria, one news network has taken a decidedly unconventional approach to covering the crisis. Featuring a regular barrage of stories such as “Qatar Is Aligned With US in Destabilizing Syria,” “After Libya, ‘Syria Next Piece on Geopolitical Chessboard,’” and “West’s Policy on Syria Could Ignite WWIII,” the English-language news channel RT (formerly, Russia Today)—available via cable or satellite in tens of millions of American homes—has held to its steadfast view that civilian casualties in Syria are minimal, foreign intervention would be disastrous, and any humanitarian appeals from Western nations are a thin veil for a NATO-backed move to isolate Iran, China, and Russia. “President Obama is acting on a British geopolitical plan to force a confrontation with Russia and China, a military confrontation of which Syria and Iran would merely be the ignition point,” explained expert guest Lawrence Freeman, a Lyndon LaRouche devotee, in one typical segment.
Of course, it isn’t remarkable that eccentrics like Freeman are willing to appear on the Kremlin-funded station. What is surprising, however, are the number of decidedly non-crazy American experts and journalists who appear regularly on the channel’s news programs as guest analysts. Indeed, whether it’s playing host to contributors from respected outlets like The Nation or Reason or the Center for American Progress, RT has excelled in cultivating American liberals and libertarians eager to criticize the United States for its adventurism abroad and sermonizing posture toward other nations.
Between the outrage following allegations of fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections last December and the country’s more recent veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria, it’s clear why RT would want Americans to supply a counter-narrative that makes the United States look out of line for lecturing Russia. The bigger mystery is why American journalists and academics continue to go along for the ride.
RUSSIA TODAY WAS FOUNDED in 2005 on the heels of Vladimir Putin’s famous declaration that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” From then on, as Julia Ioffe noted in Columbia Journalism Review, both the network and the regime came to embrace an ideology of “sovereign democracy,” a concept meant to promote Russian “independence of an externally imposed Western morality.” The network’s insistence that the United States is a bad-faith arbiter of global affairs can be seen as a direct extension of this philosophy.
“They spend a lot of time on stories that come and go here in the U.S. because they think they reflect badly on us, and they’re particularly aggrieved by American sermonizing abroad,” Stephen Cohen, a professor of Russian studies at New York University, told me. “They’ve spent a lot of time on the Occupy movement, and, when the Kremlin decided to let protesters gather in large numbers, RT juxtaposed that with authorities rounding up Occupiers around the U.S. You didn’t need a lot of narrative to get the connection, and they were able to say: This is how the Americans treat their protesters and, by comparison, we’re flower children.”
And yet Cohen, a frequent analyst on RT who is often accompanied by his wife—The Nation’s editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel—says he feels no qualms about his appearances on the channel, where he can often be heard blaming U.S. policies and NATO expansionism for strained relations with Russia. “I know they come to me because I’m well-known here and in Russia, and my point of view is unconventional,” he told me. “I feel comfortable that what I say to TNR or CBS or NPR is what I say on RT. I just say what I say anywhere on whatever media environment I’m in.”
Moreover, when it comes to Syria, Cohen doesn’t think the U.S. media is covering the crisis much better. “I’m highly suspicious about the narrative I’m getting on CNN,” he says. “It seems to be the flip side of RT. It’s too black and white, too virtuous and simple. Each side sounds like one hand clapping.” RT might have a hard Kremlin slant, but Cohen argues that “any intelligent viewer can sort this out. I doubt that many idiots find their way to RT. First, you have to pay a lot for cable, and then you have to get way up in the numbers to find it.”
One of the main ways in which RT manages to persuade legitimate experts and journalists to appear as guests is by providing extensive airtime for issues that generally fail to register on other, larger news outlets. “I’ve been given the opportunity to talk about military expenditures in a way I haven’t been given in U.S. outlets,” explains John Feffer, codirector of Foreign Policy in Focus and a frequent critic of U.S. defense spending. “I have a basic policy in which I’ll be interviewed by anybody.” As for the fairness of RT, Feffer points out that he also talks to U.S.-funded news outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. “You’re going to find blind spots in the coverage for any news organization,” he told me.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, is also a critic of U.S. defense spending and a frequent guest on RT, where he has described U.S. plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe as “a system that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist to protect people who don’t want to be, and in the process you’re provoking a major power in the world.” Like Feffer, Korb told me that he will speak to basically anyone. “The reason I do it is that I want to make sure that my view, which I think represents the view of many Americans, gets heard,” Korb says. “I’ve got to tell you, I get treated better there than I do by Hannity or O’Reilly on Fox.”
On the other side of the spectrum, RT devotes a disproportionate amount of time to covering Ron Paul, wondering aloud why the presidential candidate and his vision of the United States don’t get more attention from the mainstream media and running stories with headlines like “Corporatocracy: Ron Paul Says US ‘Slipping into Fascism,’” “Ron Paul: ‘Last Man Standing for Lost Liberties,’” and “Ron Paul, US ‘Fascist System’ More Like ‘Dictatorship’!?” The network’s obsession with the erosion of U.S. civil liberties—“US Police Wage War on Cameras,” “CIA Won’t Disclose Involvement in OWS [Occupy Wall Street] Crackdowns,” and “Big Brother: Is the Red Squad Back in Chicago?”—attracts a number of libertarian journalists happy to have a platform to discuss their views.
“My general impression is, whenever they have me on, it’s to criticize the American government,” says Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason. “Of course, that’s no big surprise because that’s pretty much what I do. That’s how I make my living. But I did start to wonder after a while what they were saying about the Russian government.” Sullum says he’s OK with appearing on RT because he, personally, hasn’t seen “anything beyond the pale” when he’s been a guest of the network, but “it would trouble me if they were drawing a moral equivalence between Russia and other countries like the U.S.”
One issue where RT persistently tries to push just such a moral equivalence is on elections. Before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, RT interviewed Thom Hartmann, a progressive talk-radio host (who now has his own talk show on RT), and asked him whether he thought the upcoming elections would be fair. “No, it’s not going to be a fair election,” Hartmann responded emphatically. “The United States seems to like to be critical of other nations,” the RT reporter pressed. “Do you think at this point it is really in a position to criticize other countries and to lecture them?” “I don’t think that we’ve been in a position where we can afford to lecture other nations for a long, long time,” Hartmann replied.
Then, following widespread allegations of fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections last December, RT ran numerous segments bemoaning the alleged hypocrisy of Hillary Clinton’s critical remarks, with one anchor asking, “As far as America goes, is this a case of people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?” Pepe Escobar, a left-wing writer for Asia Times and frequent guest on RT, was happy to pile on, making the case that, in the United States, “we had a stolen election in 2000 [and] we had a semi-stolen election in 2004.” Escobar defended his analogy to me on the phone, saying, “I knew I was talking to Americans so I drew a comparison to the U.S. I could have talked about rigged elections in central Asia, but I think for this audience it was interesting to compare it with the U.S. process, because a lot of people forget that there are lots of problems with the U.S.”
As to whether he has any qualms about voicing his views on RT, Escobar told me, “I knew the Kremlin involvement, but I said, why not use it? After a few months, I was very impressed by the American audience. There are dozens of thousands of viewers. A very simple story can get 20,000 hits on YouTube. The feedback was huge.” Indeed, RT is a major online success: Its YouTube videos have garnered more than 690 million views.
NOT ALL THE journalists I spoke to were as blasé about the Russian network. “I have friends who I highly respect who have done RT, but the network also features guests who I would put in the conspiracy-theorist camp,” a liberal journalist who turned down multiple interview requests from RT told me. “I think it really comes down to your personal brand, because that’s why you do radio or TV—to disseminate your story but also to market yourself, too, and it just doesn’t seem like the best venue to do that in.”
One journalist who covers civil liberties told me that he used to appear on RT’s news programs, but now restricts himself to “The Alyona Show,” a talk show produced in RT’s Washington bureau and hosted by 26-year-old Russian-American Alyona Minkovski. “The reason I continue to do her show is, one, I think it’s good. It’s not conspiratorial or anything. And, two, in terms of the issues I cover, I think she’s probably the best interviewer on cable news,” he told me. “I really don’t watch the other programs on the network, but I’ve seen clips online in which they’ve given a platform to 9/11 truthers and other fringier, crazier guests. So I’m not really comfortable doing those shows.”
Michael Moynihan, the managing editor at Vice magazine and a former editor at Reason, agreed that, while Alyona’s show is earnest and well-produced, the rest of the network is farcically slanted and not worth engaging. “The news bit is psychopathic conspiracy mongering about Tower Seven, and the Russia coverage is absolutely appalling,” Moynihan told me. “I like to think you’re responsible for what you say and not what others say, but, that said, you have to draw a line. ... Some of these people just don’t deserve to be debated.”
Jesse Zwick is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of the magazine.