The Conspiracy Channel
With a larger staff than Fox News, a worldwide Russian TV network spreads a unique brand of anti-American propaganda
Jesse Lefkowitz / www.jesse-lefkowitz.com
Five years ago, Russia Today made its debut as a news network aimed at enhancing Russia’s image in the West. Recently, however, the Kremlin-financed television channel has devoted considerable airtime not only to coverage that makes Russia look good, but also to coverage that makes the United States look bad.
Over the past two years, Russia Today has reported with boosterish zeal on conspiracy theories popular in the resurgent “Patriot” movement, whose adherents typically advocate extreme antigovernment doctrines. Its slickly packaged stories suggest that a legitimate debate is under way in the United States about who perpetrated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for instance, and about President Obama’s eligibility for high office. It also frequently quotes U.S. extremists as authorities on world events or interviews them at length without asking anything more than softball questions. One British journalist called Russia Today “a strange propaganda outfit” after appearing on a show in which the host injected 9/11 revisionism.
Unlike most U.S.-based Patriot radio shows that do the same, the Moscow-based Russia Today has a large global audience tuning in via cable, satellite, and the Internet. In North America, Europe, and South Africa, some 200 million paying viewers—including a growing number in the United States—have access to the network. In 2009 Nielsen Media Research found that more Washington, D.C., area viewers preferred to watch prime-time news on Russia Today than on other English-language foreign networks such as Deutsche Welle (Germany), France 24, Euronews (France), CCTV News (China), and Al Jazeera English (Qatar). On YouTube, Russia Today ranks among the top 10 news and political channels in subscriber numbers. It has 2,000 employees worldwide, including about 100 in its recently opened Washington, D.C., office. (That makes its staff larger than that of Fox News, which reports a worldwide staff of 1,200, and about half the size of cable news pioneer CNN’s.) Russia Today has launched sister networks in Arabic and Spanish in addition to its flagship English broadcasting service.
Though a spokeswoman declined to give the amount of Russia Today’s annual budget, the Russian government has pumped millions into the network since its inception in 2005.
Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, deputy director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, says the network’s target audience appears to be second- and third-generation members of the Russian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere, along with foreign investors and international media.
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