Russia Today and the New Cultural Cold War
With punchy coverage on political and social topics of great importance, be it the ongoing collapse of American news networks, domestic drone use, the U.S. covert war in Somalia, poverty and economic inequality, Occupy Wall Street, among many other topics, some would even go so far to claim that it is better than the American mainstream news press.
“Obviously, it would be any channel’s dream right now to get Assange, but I think it is quite natural that his show will be on RT,” RT News Executive Nikolay Bogachikhin said of the announcement. “I mean, RT always tries to go beyond, to see other sides of any news story and to show the real reasons behind any news that you would see on mainstream channels.”
Yet, far from being merely another alternative-media outlet, RT is actually a parallel entity to the United States’ Voice of America, and a key player in a 21st century information war being waged by major powers in the global arena.
The Rise of Russia Today
RT was dreamt up in 2001 by the Russian government and hit the ground running in December 2005.
“With a global reach of over 430 million people, or 22% of all cable subscribers worldwide, RT news covers the major issues of our time for viewers wishing to question more,” reads its Corporate Profile. “The best of our broadcast can be found at RT’s YouTube channel, where the number of views has already exceeded half a billion, making RT the first TV news channel to break this record in YouTube’s history.”
RT’s slogan of “question more” bears a superficial resemblance to a true independent media’s espousal of deep-digging, fearless journalism. But, not surprisingly given its parentage, RT’s underlying mission is quite different.
“To be picked for the Kremlin press pool is an honor but also a sign of trustworthiness. The pool is a place for the most loyal of the loyalists,” the Columbia Journalism Review explained. “To be assigned to cover the Russian president, especially for television, a reporter has to be absolutely reliable in his docility, and in his ability to ask softball questions.”
Simonyan’s transition from the Kremlin pool to RT was quite logical based on its funding stream -- some $30 million per year -- which comes from RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned news agency, according to The Age.
RT says that its purpose is to portray Russia in a light not often portrayed in the western world.
“It will be a perspective on the world from Russia,” Simonyan said of the network’s 2005 launch. “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.”
Certainly, viewers of RT America will get a different picture of Russia, and of the United States, from anything seen on American television. And this can indeed provide a salutary balance.
Recent examples of praise-worthy RT America coverage that would rarely, if ever appear in the U.S. mainstream media include on-the-ground coverage of the role of British repression -- a close U.S. ally -- on the one year anniversary of the Bahraini Uprising; Iran’s threat to cut off fuel exports to the EU, the reaction to a push to war in Iran the US mainstream media is leading; and the Pentagon’s seeking of $3 billion from Congress for the ongoing occupation in Iraq, which outlets like NBC said was “over” long ago.
That said, how reliable a news source can a state-funded agency be?
RT: A 21st Century Radio Moscow and “Soft Power” Projection
A relic of the Soviet Union, Radio Moscow has since morphed into Voice of Russia, with a similar raison d'etre as its U.S.-based rival, Voice of America (VOA): to disseminate white propaganda, packaged as “objective news,” across the world. RT sits under the auspices of Voice of Russia.
“Clearly, RT is a more sophisticated operation than the old Radio Moscow, both technologically speaking and in how it approaches its mission,” explained Christopher Simpson, Professor of Communication Studies at American University in an interview with Nation of Change. “Like the Voice of America, it presents itself to viewers as being a legitimate news site, or at least what most viewers would interpret or view as a legitimate news site.”
“The American jargon to explain this, which has often been adopted by governments abroad, is the concept of ‘soft power,’ of influence, the ability to persuade through measures short of military confrontation, of cultural influence, and the players in this arena are quite conscious of soft power as a goal,” Simpson said. “And one of the things that is different about modern day propaganda, from say, its WWI or WWII grandfathers, if you will, is that it tends to be more subtle, more appealing to what the audience wants, as opposed to what it fears.”
These types of outfits are not unique to Russia and the United States -- most of the global powers maintain international broadcast channels of this sort. Other examples include, but are not limited to China Radio International, Israel Radio International, and Iran’s Press TV.
While BBC is funded by British taxpayer money via the Communications Act 2003, BBC Worldwide is funded by the UK’s State Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Reflecting its “soft power” projection mission, BBC Worldwide was formerly known as the BBC Empire Service, as it served as a tool of the former British Empire.
BBC and BBC Worldwide have been criticized by critical observers for favoring the Israeli narrative on the Israel-Palestine conflict, for often adhering to the pro-government line at any given moment, and for supporting the British government’s narrative at face value of its involvement in the 2003 invasion and ongoing occupation in Iraq.
Perhaps most egregiously, “the BBC allowed Britain's domestic security agency, MI5, to investigate the backgrounds and political affiliations of thousands of its employees, including newsreaders, reporters and continuity announcers...The BBC's reliance on MI5 reached a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” the London Telegraph reported in July 2006.
The Costs and Consequences of Real Independent Journalism in Russia
A case study of the costs and consequences of real independent journalism in Russia can be seen through the lens of the Russian independent news publication, Novaya Gazeta. The Gazeta is described by The Guardian as one “dedicated to real journalism, unlike Russian television and most other newspapers, all under Putin's thumb.”
“Since 1999, when Vladimir Putin [took power] thirteen journalists have been murdered in Russia,” according to a 2007 story by The New Yorker. A fourteenth -- Anastasia Baburova -- a reporter for the Novaya Gazeta, was killed in 2009.
In a review of her book, The Guardian wrote in ominous fashion, “Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this collection is that it feels like a Soviet-era dissident's book. Her pieces have that slightly desperate pitch of someone who fears no one is listening - that her own people have given up and that the outside world does not want to hear, or worse, does not care.”
As these examples make clear, there is a steep price to pay when journalists fail to toe the line of the Kremlin. As a result, Simpson explains, Russian journalists, if they do not want to risk their lives, develop an acute “sense of smell.”“In Russia, journalists don’t get memos from the government, but as the Washington Post recently pointed out, they have an acute ‘sense of smell,’ and using the sense of smell, they’re able to adjust their line, their presentation, and the content of the broadcast to suit the powers that be in that particular country. And I think that’s the best way to explain it,” remarked Simpson. “The usefulness of this sense of smell is that it protects that executive or individual in his/her effort to win favor within the social/bureaucratic class structure of that particular society.”
A U.S. Mirror Image Out East?
Many would contend that the United States-- unlike Russia, where independent journalists are sometimes killed by the government --has a robust independent media to hold the powers-that-be in check.
Simpson argues it’s not so cut and dry, though.
“I think it’s a misunderstanding to contend the U.S. doesn’t have state-run media operations,” he explained. “The structure of the corporate media in the U.S. is quite different than that of Russia and I don’t want to pretend they’re not quite different, but nevertheless, the U.S. government spends billions of dollars a year doing domestic propaganda through the Pentagon, through press releases, through various interest groups, and through PR for products or for businesses that basically run on federal contracts. In addition, the U.S. has very large media aimed at its armed forces, its bases and so on. Taken together those news outlets have a substantial and measurable impact on perception of the government in this country.”
He continued, “And, perhaps most fundamentally, in the western media, you have a situation in which the mainstream media have a love/hate relationship with the government and the media organizations are essentially subordinate to the government. Frankly, there are more similarities between the media structure in the US and the media structure in Russia than either country is willing to admit to itself or each other.”
An Ode to Truly Independent Investigative Journalism
That RT, a creature of the Putin-led Russian government, has found a mass market in the U.S. says as much about the state of our own journalism industry, as it does about Putin’s success in projecting “soft power” to the western world. U.S. citizens are in desperate search for journalism that serves as a voice for the voiceless and speaks truth to power -- so desperate, in fact, that RT is in many ways filling a void.
Real independent journalism, though, has loyalty to only one thing: the truth and the whole truth, not piecemeal truths selected to support the agenda of whoever funds it.