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.
“It’s clearly a pro-Russian perspective; that’s the purpose of Russia Today,” she says. “Sometimes, a pro-Russia perspective involves an anti-somebody-else perspective–and we’re the most useful target at certain times.”
Russia Today officials, who have long insisted that they operate without government influence despite multimillion-dollar subsidies, contend that the network is simply presenting a fresh take on the news. (Full disclosure: Intelligence Report editor Mark Potok appeared in April 2010 on Russia Today’s CrossTalk program to discuss the rise of U.S. militias. The network also aired an interview with a militia leader who criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center’s characterization of militia groups.) In a statement to Intelligence Report, Russia Today editor in chief Margarita Simonyan calls the network’s editorial policy “open and balanced” and dismissed criticism that the channel gives undue airtime to fringe ideas.
“We don’t talk about 9/11 any more than the U.S. media discuss who was behind the 1999 explosions in Moscow,” she writes, referring to a series of deadly apartment bombings that helped spark the second Chechen war. “Moreover, our own journalists have never claimed or even as much as hinted that the U.S. government may have been behind the tragedy of 9/11.”
That last claim is debatable at best. Russia Today has churned out dozens of stories that focus solely on the perspective of “9/11 truthers”–the small minority that, despite overwhelming evidence, rejects the government’s finding that the September 11, 2001, attacks were perpetrated by al-Qaeda terrorists flying planes into buildings. Last year, for instance, independent producer Lori Harfenist, whose program The Resident is carried regularly on Russia Today, interviewed New Yorkers on the street about whether they thought 9/11 was “an inside job.”
“Eight years after the attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, questions still loom as to whether there were more people involved or if the U.S. government had anything to do with it,” she said in her introduction to that program. “Do you think the events were purely terrorist attacks or do you think there were conspiratorial forces behind them?” And this statement appeared on the television screen throughout the segment: “New Yorkers unsure whether 9/11 was terrorist attack or inside job.”
Russia Today also appears to give credence to the 9/11 truthers in its news and commentary. For instance, the network reported in October 2009 that a judge would not let New Yorkers vote on whether to launch a new investigation into 9/11. “If a government by the people ignores the people, many wonder if here democracy is becoming hypocrisy,” the reporter concluded.
The channel also spoke extensively with Luke Rudkowski, the founder of We Are Change, a group that not only seeks “the truth” behind the 9/11 attacks but also frets about a looming “one world order,” a classic Patriot fear.
“We go up to members . . . we shake their hands and we ask them can you please tell us what happens when you meet with the world’s elites and banking media corporations and governments all around the world in secret,” Rudkowski said in an April 2009 interview. The Russia Today host did not challenge Rudkowski’s suggestion of international conspiracies by world elites, a common theme on the U.S. radical right. In February 2009 Russia Today interviewed another We Are Change activist. Manny Badillo claimed that newly released 9/11 photos prove that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings.
On the 2009 anniversary of 9/11, the channel published on its website a four-part series titled “911 Reasons Why 9/11 Was (Probably) an Inside Job.” The articles, by Russia Today commentator Robert Bridge, report uncritically on discredited notions about 9/11, including the possibility that a bomb inside the towers contributed to their collapse and that the U.S. government had advance knowledge of the attack. On March 10, 2010, one of Russia Today’s top stories was headlined “Americans Continue to Fight for 9/11 Truth.”
Russia Today’s focus on 9/11 “truth” hasn’t gone unnoticed. Douglas Murray, a British journalist and conservative political commentator, posted a withering blog item in early 2010 about his CrossTalk appearance.
“You can probably imagine,” he wrote on February 15, “indeed, can see, the look of astonishment that I and my fellow guest felt when the presenter declared to us, in the middle of a discussion about a totally different subject, that ‘the people that perpetrated 9/11 were not even fundamentalists at all.’ ” (The show’s host, Peter Lavelle, told the Moscow Times that the show had been a “fiasco” because bad weather had prevented him from lining up guests to argue both sides of the issue under discussion.)
Russia Today editor in chief Simonyan tells Intelligence Report that “the last time we talked about it [the 9/11 truthers movement] was in March .” On May 20, however, the channel published on its website another article by Bridge that again questioned the 9/11 Commission Report. The article asserted that the about that official report “has only served to fuel suspicions watershed moment that will dominate U.S. foreign and domestic policy for many years to come.”
Simonyan is by no means a seasoned veteran of the practice of objective journalism. Born in Russia of Armenian parents, she was only 25 when the Kremlin named her editor in chief of the new network five years ago. Washington Post Moscow correspondent Peter Finn, in a September 2008 article on the website Russia Beyond the Headlines, called the network a “breathless cheerleader” for the Kremlin, one that carefully avoided topics deemed too critical of then-president Vladimir Putin. The article continued: “During the  conflict in South Ossetia, one of Russia Today’s foreign journalists resigned, claiming that his reports were being censored to meet the official line. Even longtime Kremlin adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov at first referred to Russia Today as ‘too amateurish.’ “
It’s not just conspiracy theories about 9/11 that pre-occupy Russia Today. The channel has also reported on the false notion that Obama was born outside the United States and therefore is ineligible for the presidency. The channel in March interviewed Orly Taitz, an émigré from the former Soviet republic of Moldova and a chief proponent of the “birther” movement who gained notoriety in August 2009 by unveiling a supposed Kenyan Obama birth certificate–a document quickly exposed as a laughable forgery–and has proffered other unsupported claims. Though the host noted that major American media outlets have refuted birther claims, he did not state that Obama has made public his birth certificate, even when Taitz asserted that “Obama himself owed allegiance to three other nations.” Taitz has made other appearances on Russia Today.
Sometimes Russia Today seems to want to have it two ways. A July 31, 2009, article on its website reported that Hawaii officials had confirmed that Obama was born there. It went on to state, however, that Obama was “being asked a lot of questions,” including the “particularly embarrassing” one about his birthplace. It quoted a correspondent for the far-right website World Net Daily who suggested that, if the birth certificate exists, Obama should display it. The article didn’t mention that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told World Net Daily that the birth certificate is posted on the Internet.
In addition, a November 25, 2009, Russia Today story reported that James David Manning, the pastor of a Harlem church, not only sees “pure evil” in Obama–but also contends he’s not a U.S. citizen. The story noted that Manning’s views are controversial, but concluded, “Pastor Manning remains undeterred in his rhetoric, despite the criticism of his community.” (Manning is apparently a friend of Taitz, joining her for a tiny 2009 protest in front of Fox News’ offices in New York after Fox’s Bill O’Reilly called Taitz “a nut.”)
Manning isn’t the only fringe figure to whom Russia Today has given exposure. Conspiracy-minded radio host Alex Jones makes frequent appearances. In an April 2009 interview, Jones rehashed a signature Patriot conspiracy theory when he described the United States as a tool of the “new world order” and asserted that the world is “controlled by the Bilderberg Group.” (The Bilderberg Group is an international, invitation-only group of influential business and government figures that meets privately every year. Many on the American radical right, including a number of anti-Semites, have long seen the Bilderberg Group as being behind all kinds of nefarious plots.)
“The new world order,” Jones said, “is just a super-rich international mafia of oligarchs that are playing God, who want to abolish and bankrupt nation-states so they can set up an international order, where the planet is owned by a private bank.”
The host, Anastasia Churkina, did not challenge any of Jones’ claims. In fact, Russia Today has sought Jones’ opinion on topics ranging from Internet security to a Philadelphia school district’s webcam spying scandal to the BP oil spill response. (He sees a federal conspiracy in all these cases.) An April 16 story headlined “Alex Jones Reacts to News of Potential Oil Shortages” gives odd weight to the opinion of the self-described truth teller. Consider the story’s opening paragraph: “In a new report, U.S. military officials are warning of a drop in oil production as early as 2012, and a deficit by 2015, but Alex Jones says that this may be true, and if so, it is the result of a conspiracy.”
Longtime militia organizer Jim Stachowiak, a controversial figure even in Patriot circles, also is a regular guest on Russia Today. The Georgia-based radio host appeared on the network to defend Charles Dyer, who was a prominent associate of the Patriot group Oath Keepers and was charged with child sex abuse in January 2010.
“We’re standing by Dyer,” said Stachowiak, who wore a “Don’t Tread on Me” hat and referred to the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) as the “American Terrorism Force.”
Even white nationalist Jared Taylor has found a platform on Russia Today. In February 2010, when Taylor participated in a CrossTalk discussion of whether Obama is a post-racial president, host Lavelle introduced him as an author and editor of American Renaissance journal but made no mention of his blatantly racist views. (In 2005, for instance, Taylor wrote in his journal: “Blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization–any kind of civilization–disappears.”) Russia Today was also the only major media outlet to interview Taylor after multiple hotels canceled his magazine’s biannual conference in February 2010. It did not seek comment from the activists behind the campaign to shut down the conference, which brings together prominent white supremacists and academic racists from the United States and abroad.
Simonyan denies that the channel is providing a forum for extremists. “We don’t give airtime to public figures who you call extremist any more than CNN and other channels give airtime to people who many in Russia consider extremists,” she says.
Yet Russia Today is clearly serving the interests of those who promote the ideas that animate the burgeoning Patriot movement. The channel gets rave reviews on Patriot websites, including Jones’ Prison Planet Forum. “Russia Today is what mainstream news should be like,” one forum poster declared in May 2010–ironically overlooking the fact that his ideal media outlet is heavily subsidized by and very likely beholden to a government. “Russia Today,” he said, “gets major kudos from me.”
Extra: “Moscow Message Control” by Keith Goetzman
The Cold War may be history, but Russia is mounting a new battle to win U.S. minds: The state-run TV news network Russia Today is moving aggressively to attract a larger U.S. audience for its Kremlin-friendly programming. After Intelligence Report wrote about the station (see main story), both the New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review weighed in with reports on Russia Today’s move into the U.S. market.
The New York Times (Aug. 22, 2010) notes that the network has created a Washington, D.C., bureau with 40 editorial positions, inked cable deals in Los Angeles and San Diego, and is showing six hours of programming daily for the Americans in its worldwide audience–including lots of news about the United States.
“Everybody wants to know what is happening in their backyards,” Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today’s editor in chief, tells the Times.
A lengthy profile in Columbia Journalism Review (Sept.-Oct. 2010) explores Russia Today’s attempt to build U.S. credibility and viewership and sweep aside concerns that it is purely a propaganda outfit. Noting the staff’s youth and inexperience, writer Julie Ioffe writes that “the network still has the feel of a high school newspaper with more money and considerably higher stakes.”
In other words, it’s more like Little Brother than Big Brother.
Current and former Russia Today reporters describe an atmosphere in which coverage is not dictated but rather insinuated. One unnamed reporter at “RT,” as it’s been rebranded, tells Ioffe: “There is no censorship per se. But there are a lot of young people at the channel, a lot of self-starters who are eager to please the management. You can easily guess what the Kremlin wants the world to know, so you change your coverage.”
Excerpted from Intelligence Report (Fall 2010), a quarterly published by the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The magazine tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups; it is distributed free of charge to law enforcement officials, journalists, and scholars.www.splcenter.org
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.