On Election Day 2008, two African-American men in black fatigues and berets stood outside a polling station in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia. They were members of the New Black Panther Party, which the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have labeled a hate group. One of the men wielded a police-style nightstick, and there were complaints about voter intimidation. Police eventually escorted the armed man away without incident, but the outgoing Bush administration filed a civil suit against the party alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In May 2009, against the advice of prosecutors who had worked on the case, President Obama’s Justice Department dropped the suit, a move that caused barely a ripple in the press at the time. The case came back to life in July, though, when a former Justice Department lawyer testified before the Commission on Civil Rights that the case was dropped because the Justice Department did not want to protect the civil rights of white people.
Fox News began to air allegations of an anti-white bias at the Obama Justice Department. But almost no one else reported on the case—it was old, tenuous, and even a prominent conservative commenter called it “small potatoes.” One outlet that did pick up the story, however, was Russia Today, a fairly new and still mostly obscure English-language cable news channel funded by the Russian government.
Russia Today was conceived as a soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad, to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media. Since its founding in 2005, however, the broadcast outlet has become better known as an extension of former President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational foreign policy. Too often the channel was provocative just for the sake of being provocative. It featured fringe-dwelling “experts,” like the Russian historian who predicted the imminent dissolution of the United States; broadcast bombastic speeches by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; aired ads conflating Barack Obama with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and ran out-of-nowhere reports on the homeless in America. Often, it seemed that Russia Today was just a way to stick it to the U.S. from behind the façade of legitimate newsgathering.
So it was fairly unremarkable when Russia Today, in a July 8 segment called “Fox News stirring up racial fears in America,” interviewed the chairman of the New Black Panther Party, Dr. Malik Zulu Shabazz, who lambasted Republicans for playing on people’s fears in an effort to dominate the fall midterm elections.
But then Russia Today did something out of character. When Fox’s Glenn Beck attacked the segment, asking why Russian state-run TV was suddenly “in lock-step” with the Obama administration, Russia Today fired back in a way that was puzzling to anyone familiar with the channel. On July 9, Alyona Minkovski, who hosts a daily program called The Alyona Show, laid into Beck—“the doughboy nut job from Fox News”—with patriotic American fervor: “I get to ask all the questions that the American people want answered about their own country because I care about this country and I don’t work for a corporate-owned media organization,” she said, her voice rising.
Fox …you hate Americans. Glenn Beck, you hate Americans. Because you lie to them, you scare them, you try to warp their minds. You tell them that we’re becoming some socialist country…. You’re not on the side of America. And the fact that my channel is more honest with the American people is something you should be ashamed of.
Huh? Forget the Obama administration, since when does Russia Today defend the policies of any American president? Or the informational needs of the American public, for that matter? Like many of RT’s journalists, Minkovksi is a Russian immigrant, born in Moscow, raised and educated in the West, and hired by the network for her fluency in both English and Russian—she is someone who could be both Russia’s ambassador to the West as well as its Sherpa into the Western mind. But her tirade against Fox offers a glimpse into the mind of a changing Russia Today.