Russia Today correspondents in Ossetia found that much of their information was being fed to them from Moscow, whether it corresponded to what they saw on the ground or not. Reporters who tried to broadcast anything outside the boundaries that Moscow had carefully delineated were punished. William Dunbar, a young RT correspondent in Georgia, did a phone interview with the Moscow studio in which he mentioned that he was hearing unconfirmed reports that Russia had bombed undisputed Georgian territory. After the interview, he “rushed to the studio to do a live update via satellite,” he says. “I had been told I would be doing live updates every hour that day. I got a call from the newsroom telling me the live updates had been cancelled. They said, ‘We don’t need you, go home.’ ” Another correspondent, whose reporting departed from the Kremlin line that Georgians were slaughtering unarmed Ossetians, was summoned to the office of the deputy editor in chief in Moscow, where they went over the segment’s script line by line. “He had a gun on his desk,” the correspondent says.
Even those who were not reprimanded—and were otherwise believers in RT’s mission—were uncomfortable with the heavy-handed message control. Irakly Gachechiladze, an ethnic Georgian born in Moscow, had recently been appointed news director when the war began. Despite his staunch loyalty to the channel’s official line, he says he was uneasy. “It was not a happy time, obviously,” he told me when we met in his office. It was the biggest story anyone there had ever covered, but Gachechiladze politely bowed out. “I packed for the vacation that I had planned a long time in advance, and I left. When I came back, the war was over.”

Sophie Shevardnadze, the daughter of Georgia’s second president who has a political interview show on RT, took a leave of absence rather than report negatively about her fellow Georgians. “I didn’t go to work for three and a half months,” she says. “I took unpaid leave and I wasn’t even sure if I was going back.” The leave was, she says, her editors’ proposal. “I had to be on air on the ninth”—the third day of the fighting—“and they called me and they were like, you don’t have to do that.”

This kind of message control, though rare and targeted to highly sensitive issues, is not exclusive to coverage of the war. The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon and Putin rival, is another example. When an RT reporter took a more balanced approach to covering the trial than RT’s previous dispatches, Gachechiladze told the reporter that he was “not playing for the team.” “He asked me, ‘Why are you still working for this channel?’ ” the reporter told me. (RT officials deny that this exchange took place.) Another correspondent who pitched a story about the aids epidemic in Russia—a taboo topic here—was told it was not a “nice” story and was sent to cover a flower show instead.

Usually, though, the Kremlin line is enforced the way it is everywhere else in Russian television: by the reporters and editors themselves. “There is no censorship per se,” says another RT reporter. “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.”

Another criticism often leveled at RT is that in striving to bring the West an alternate point of view, it is forced to talk to marginal, offensive, and often irrelevant figures who can take positions bordering on the absurd. In March, for instance, RT dedicated a twelve-minute interview to Hank Albarelli, a self-described American “historian” who claims that the CIA is testing dangerous drugs on unwitting civilians. After an earthquake ravaged Haiti earlier this year, RT turned for commentary to Carl Dix, a representative of the American Revolutionary Communist Party, who appeared on air wearing a Mao cap. On a recent episode of Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, the guests themselves berated Lavelle for saying that the 9/11 terrorists were not fundamentalists. (The “Truther” claim that 9/11 was an inside job makes a frequent appearance on the channel, though Putin was the first to phone in his condolences to President Bush in 2001.) “I like being counterintuitive,” Lavelle told me. “Being mainstream has been very dangerous for the West.”

Julia Ioffe is a freelance writer based in New York City.