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.

On April 25, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on national television and told his nation that the destruction of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He meant that the union’s dissolution had ushered in years of sinusoidal financial crises, but also that he mourned the passing glory of a great empire he had once served as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB. In the speech, Putin also expressed his hope that Russia would become a “free and democratic country,” but at its own pace. “Russia will decide for itself the pace, terms, and conditions of moving towards democracy,” he said, laying the foundation for a political creed that would become known as “sovereign democracy.” It is a phrase that became shorthand for what the West called Russia’s “resurgence,” and what Russia called its independence of an externally imposed Western morality.

Putin could do this because in 2005 things were going well. Oil prices were rising—they had more than doubled since he became president in 2000—and the Russian people were increasingly behind him and his brand of paternalistic nationalism. But with the return of Russia’s pride, so wounded during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s reputation suffered as Western and domestic critics attacked Putin for the steady degradation of democracy on his watch. Gubernatorial elections were eliminated, potential rivals—oligarchs like media king Vladimir Gusinsky and oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—were either driven from the country or unceremoniously locked up. Unsympathetic journalists were turning up dead.

Just over a month after the speech, the Kremlin announced the solution to its image problem. It would not change its defiant rhetoric of exceptionalism. Instead, it would launch a new international television channel that explained its actions—and its terms—to the rest of the world. It would be in English and would broadcast twenty-four hours a day.

Though the project had roots in the cold war-era “Radio Moscow,” which beamed news from the Soviet Union around the world, it is better explained by Putin’s obsession with television. As a child of the post-World War II generation, Putin, like his Western counterparts, was raised on it. As president, he took tapes of the day’s news broadcasts home to watch and analyze how he was covered. To Putin, television was the only way to get his message across while retaining full control of that message. One of his first moves as president was to force out the oligarchs running the independent television stations and bring their channels under state ownership—and censorship. Soon, the heads of television stations were meeting every Friday with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political strategist, to set the agenda for the coming week. The instincts of self-censorship took care of the rest.

But even with internal critics effectively marginalized, the external enemies remained. Moreover, they were the same ones who sat in their air-conditioned Washington think tanks and applauded the series of revolutions that replaced Russia-friendly rulers in the former Soviet territories with pro-Western leaders who wanted to do things like join NATO, which Russia considers its biggest military threat to this day.

On June 7, 2005, Margarita Simonyan held a press conference in which she announced the creation of Russia Today. “It will be a perspective on the world from Russia,” she told reporters. “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.”

The new channel would be nonprofit and run out of the headquarters of RIA Novosti, the state news agency. Despite having a large degree of autonomy, it would ultimately answer directly to its funder, the Kremlin. Simonyan, who was hired to run the news outlet, had just turned twenty-five. “Of course, I was nervous,” she wrote in response to questions from cjr. “It’s a tremendous responsibility.”

Simonyan’s story is in many ways typical of a young person in Moscow today. An ethnic Armenian born in Krasnodar, the southern Russian region abutting the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Simonyan comes from a blue-collar family. Her father was a refrigerator repairman, her mother stayed at home. “My parents have nothing to do with television,” Simonyan says. “Yet, even before I went to school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t even understand fully what the word meant.”

Like many of her generation, Simonyan started her career at a young age. After doing stories for the local newspaper, she was hired at eighteen to work at a local television station while studying journalism full-time at nearby Kuban University. This arrangement, repeated by students across the country who have any amount of ambition, is especially common in fields that did not exist in the Soviet era, like advertising, finance, and media, in which there is still a huge personnel vacuum. Moreover, these are fields for which Russian universities, still not fully up to speed, cannot adequately prepare them. Many of these ambitious “provincials” eventually come to Moscow, where as hungry outsiders they quickly outpace their less-driven Muscovite peers.

By 2004, then, twenty-four-year-old Simonyan was already in Moscow and working as a correspondent in the Kremlin press pool for Rossiya, the number two state television network with an audience of 50 million. To be picked for the Kremlin press pool is an honor but also a sign of trustworthiness. The pool is a place for the most loyal of the loyalists. To be assigned to cover the Russian president, especially for television, a reporter has to be absolutely reliable in his docility, and in his ability to ask softball questions. A year later, RIA Novosti tapped Simonyan to head Russia Today.

After three months of around-the-clock rehearsal, Russia Today went live on December 10, 2005. The format, which has changed little in five years, began with a half-hour news block at the top of the hour, followed by features—culture, sports, business—in the bottom half. Three satellites beamed stories to Europe and the United States. Mostly, it was news about Russia, but there also were frequent reports about how badly the war in Iraq was going for George W. Bush, or how deeply Ukrainians and Georgians regretted their revolutions. There also were the more extreme features that would come to define Russia Today in the West, such as the prophesies of fringe authors who predicted a 55 percent chance of civil war and the dissolution of the United States into six distinct territories by July 2010.

From the start, Simonyan presided over a staff that wasn’t much older than she was, and today the network still has the feel of a high school newspaper with more money and considerably higher stakes. “We look for young people and educate them on the job,” says twenty-nine-year-old Irakly Gachechiladze, Russia Today’s news director. Native-level English is a must for presenters (in high school, Simonyan spent a year on an exchange program in Bristol, New Hampshire), and early on the network had a predilection for posh British accents. Brits made up the vast majority of the initial seventy-two foreigners RT recruited, through advertisements in The Guardian and other British papers.

Most of the foreigners were quite green. They were typically just out of one-year journalism graduate programs and had little practical experience. They were aggressively wooed, with a package that included health insurance, free housing, and hands-on experience that would have been impossible with the entry-level jobs available to them at home. And the money was good; foreign hires with little to no experience were paid in the low six figures for working five days out of every fourteen.

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.

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.”

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.”

This oppositional point of view was especially clear when RT rolled out a series of ads in the U.K. that featured images of Obama and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” or conflated pictures of a polar bear and an alien next to the text: “Climate Change: Science fact or science fiction?” (U.S. airports banned the ads until RT devised more politically correct versions; the original ads, meanwhile, won awards in the U.S. and the U.K.)

Coverage and stunts like these have given RT a bad reputation, especially among other Western journalists working in Russia who see RT not as journalism from the other side’s trenches, but as nothing more than Kremlin propaganda. Lavelle sneers at what he sees as supreme naiveté. “The paymaster determines a lot,” he says. “Are you telling me Murdoch doesn’t control the editorial line of his publications? No one can escape who pays for what.” He says he avoids contact with his Western colleagues in Moscow, who are, in turn, supremely contemptuous of most anyone who works for RT. “I am proud of my work,” Lavelle told me defiantly.

The younger members of the RT staff, however, are more pragmatic about the potential conflict—whether internal, ideological, or, down the line, professional—of working for RT. The ones who felt it compromised their careers have left; the rest choose to remove lofty ideals like objectivity from the equation. “Maybe people watch us like a freak show,” Shevardnadze told me, “but I’ve never been even slightly embarrassed. This point of view has a right to exist. We don’t have the pretension of being like CNN, or being as good as bbc, because we’re not. You may totally disagree with what we’re doing, and it’s meant to be that way.” She adds, with a touch of exasperation, “It’s a job. They pay you for it.”

In planning an elaborate and expensive image campaign, the Kremlin did not count on a global economic meltdown. A month after the war in Georgia, after a summer of dizzying oil prices, everything fell apart. Russia was among the worst hit of the G20 nations, and its GDP went from an 8.1 percent annual growth rate in 2007 to negative 7.9 percent in 2009. The price of oil plummeted, as did the prices of other commodities, such as nickel, aluminum, and steel—segments that funded two-thirds of the Russian federal budget. The crisis came as a massive shock to the Kremlin, and a group of liberals inside the administration of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev began to push for economic diversification away from dependence on volatile natural resources. But this meant deep budget cuts—including for RT—and, simultaneously, heavy investment in infrastructure, education, and start-ups, all at a time when the Kremlin was suddenly strapped for cash, its reserves significantly depleted after providing industry with a massive bailout.

To fill those gaps, Russia had to woo back international investors who ran for the hills when the fighting broke out in Ossetia. They had to be shown not a resurgent Russia with Soviet overtones, as RT portrayed it, but a reasonable, modern country that behaves rationally. It was, above all, a sales pitch, and a recognition that Russia’s conversation with the world was a dialogue, not a monologue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bearing an olive branch from the new administration in the form of a large, red “reset” button, could not have shown up at a better time (even if the Americans used the wrong Russian word for “reset,” touching off a gleeful round of mockery in the local press). It was March 2009, less than two months after Barack Obama had been sworn into office, promising a different approach toward Russia, one based not on lectures but dialogue. This was an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin: the United States had come to it before it had to go begging. Which is why, after some obligatory chest pounding and naysaying, Moscow began to respond to Washington’s overtures, cooperating on initiatives like renewing the start treaty and backing the U.S. on new sanctions against Iran.

Russia Today’s coverage has closely mirrored this shift. It has become more international and less anti-American (there are fewer stories about America’s social ills, for instance). It even abruptly changed its logo from Russia Today to the less binding “RT,” and built a state-of-the-art studio and newsroom in Washington, D.C. From there it beams original content about American politics and society under its new, more journalistic “Question More” banner. Most significantly, coverage of big Russian-American issues hews closely to the Kremlin’s new tone. This was evident in the treatment of the recent spy scandal. “We focused on why it is such a big media campaign, we brought on experts to talk about why and how spying happens,” says Gachechiladze, the news director. “We talked about the invisible ink. There are a lot of very colorful details. It was a classic spy story.” No outrage at the arrest and deportation of Russian citizens, no incredulity at the accusations that Russia was spying on the U.S., just the colorful details, as if the biggest spy swap since the cold war was nothing more than a Hollywood blockbuster. Which, of course, is exactly how Moscow and Washington wanted it.

Simonyan, however, insists that nothing’s changed: “Our goal is still to provide unbiased information about Russia to the rest of the world, to report about our country.”

But something has changed, and it is explained not only by the Russo-American détente, but also by the fact that RT’s ambitions have grown. It now boasts a staff of 2,000, wider distribution than ever, and channels in Arabic and Spanish. It has learned to pitch the Kremlin’s line in a more subtle way. RT is also evincing a certain confidence these days. It has shed much of its foreign staff, and newsroom meetings are now conducted in Russian. There are hints of a broader, if uneven, move toward seriousness and professionalism.

Clearly, the Russia-U.S. “reset” is a game-changer for Russia Today, a fact that was aptly expressed in Alyona Minkovski’s diatribe against Glenn Beck. The mission of broadcasting Russia’s line to the world was always reminiscent of the old Brezhnev-era foreign policy, when the Soviet Union projected influence either in places America had overlooked, or where America was hated. In other words, it often wasn’t about the Soviet Union at all, just as this new effort to project influence isn’t necessarily about Russia. Both were about using a common enemy to deflect attention from Russia’s own problems, and to gain leverage abroad. This can be effective, until you talk your way into a corner. Now that America is no longer necessarily the enemy, this is exactly what has happened.

For Russia Today—for RT—it raises a pressing question: is there even a point anymore? Increasingly, it is hard to watch RT and not get the sense that the people making the decisions are wrestling with that very question. Even though Russia’s relationship with the U.S. will surely have its ups and downs in the coming years, it’s unlikely there will be a need for the kind of shrill propaganda outlet that RT has been. So, then, who is RT’s target audience? Unlike the Chinese international networks that are tapping into the burgeoning business interest in China, as well as into a large Chinese diaspora, or Al Jazeera, which broadcasts to a broader Islamic universe, Russia can claim neither of these footholds. On the contrary, Russia is still desperately trying to fend off stereotypes of itself—the endemic corruption, the whimsical autocracy of the state—that have kept much foreign capital, and many Russian émigrés, from returning.

But here is the most fundamental problem with Russia’s clever attempt to flex its soft power: the Soviet period excepted, Russia has traditionally been a country that has made itself a player on the world stage by insisting on its own importance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no ideology to propagate. There is no Islam, no Chinese Communism, no beacon of democracy, no Coca-Cola or MTV to smooth the way for political influence. And in terms of cultural influence, Russia has a mixed bag. Despite its rich and broad cultural contribution (Nabokov, the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky), Russia balks at, and actively fights, other key aspects of its culture: the vodka, the winter, the women. When there’s nothing for the propaganda channel to propagate, RT’s message becomes a slightly schizophrenic, ad hoc effort to push back against what comes out of the West. And if there’s nothing to push back against, other than the ghosts of a bygone era, then what, really, is left to say that others aren’t already saying, and saying better? 

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