For many, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “They put me in a correspondent shift right away,” says one former Russia Today presenter whose contract did not allow her to speak on the record. “Within the first week, I was sent to several locations in Russia. I had just graduated with a master’s in journalism and I was super eager to get my feet wet.” It was an exciting place to work. “There were lots of young people,” the former staffer says. “The mood was very eager, very fun. It had a real start-up feel to it.”
But despite the network’s favored status at home, Russia Today attracted little attention abroad, where it had to compete with behemoths like BBC and Al Jazeera, whose budgets dwarfed RT’s. (The channel’s budget was just $30 million the first year, but it grew in subsequent years before taking a hit during the global economic crisis that began in 2008. RT officials won’t provide specifics on the current budget, but the Kremlin has announced that it intends to spend $1.4 billion this year on international propaganda.) Beyond its budgetary limitations, there are the strictures of loosely defined Kremlin dogma. “On one hand, Russia Today is supposed to compete with Xinhua and Al Jazeera,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “On the other hand, it has to show a positive image of Russia, and, if you’re competing with Al Jazeera, this second function gets in the way.” In other words, to compete in the global news arena, even against outlets with a clear point of view, you need to be taken seriously.
“We got it right. We are the only ones who got it right,” says Peter Lavelle, the host of CrossTalk, RT’s version of Crossfire. “For months, we had been covering the border, and the day Saakashvili started the war the world woke up.”
Lavelle is sitting on a shaded bench in the courtyard of the RIA headquarters, smoking a Camel as some colleagues play ping-pong and bounce on a trampoline behind him. Hired by Russia Today in 2005, Lavelle spent over a decade living in Poland before moving to Russia in 1997. “I didn’t like it at first, it was a mess,” he says. But he stayed, becoming a vocal defender of Russia against critics around the world. He hasn’t been to the U.S. since 2001 because, he says, “I have had no reason.”
In the courtyard, Lavelle is talking about the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When the fighting started, the Russian military and foreign ministry closed ranks and, drawing on lessons from the second Chechen war, barred foreign reporters from entering the war zone. Commentary from Russian government sources was sparse. Meanwhile, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was ubiquitous, finding time to speak to every Western press outlet (his personal mobile number was widely circulated among journalists) and even to hold a joint press conference with then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The result was Western coverage that portrayed the Russians as autocratic aggressors against a weak, democratic Georgia. For the Russians, who insist that the Georgians fired the opening salvo, it was precisely the kind of anti-Russian reporting by the world’s press that Russia Today was created to counteract. A European Union report, issued more than a year after the war ended, lent some credence to the Russian complaint, stating that, while the Russians went too far in their response, the Georgians had “started an unjustified war.” By that point, though, the world’s attention had shifted elsewhere and the Russians’ sense of injustice remained.