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.
The Ossetian War, as it’s known here, was Russia Today’s crucible. Especially in the first days of the conflict, when information was patchy and unreliable. RT became exactly what it set out to be: a source of information for the West about what the Russian position actually was. Moreover, it was the only press outlet available to a Western audience that had access to the Russian side of the fighting. The numbers reflected this advantage. According to RT, viewership reached almost 15 million and views of RT broadcasts on YouTube quickly clicked past the one million mark. To this day, RT sees the war as the event that best showcased its abilities as a news organization, and that made it a recognizable brand in the West.
But RT’s war coverage was at least as shrill and one-sided as anything the Western press produced. And this, according to people who worked for RT at the time, was a conscious choice. “RT sees it as a triumph, but RT went into a war. It was a P.R. war,” says another former RT correspondent who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Staff members were recently compelled to sign papers that barred them from speaking to the press.) “We were told, ‘Look at CNN, look at BBC. They’ve already taken a bias and we have the right to do the same.’ There was no room for questioning, for doubt.”