What Was RT America? – The Atlantic Otesanya David March 28, 2022

What Was RT America? – The Atlantic

What Was RT America? – The Atlantic


You can still watch Russian-propaganda television if you really want to. RT, the English-language news network funded by the Kremlin and based in Moscow, was dropped from YouTube and American cable in early March, but still appears on an assortment of alternative video-hosting platforms, where reporting on the war is described as a “special operation chronicle.” What you won’t find, though, on any television or social-media site, are the thousands of hours of programming that RT filmed and broadcast over the past 12 years from its production site down the street from the White House. RT America, as this bureau was called, has been all but erased from the internet.

For a reporter, this is frustrating. RT America was so weird, and that’s the first thing anyone would need to know about it. But its weirdness is much harder to explain if you can’t look at any of its deeply weird clips. From the start, the channel was staffed by has-beens, oddballs, and extremely young people—which is to say, by American journalists who might have had a hard time finding work at other outlets, or who were mad at CNN and The New York Times, or who harbored an interest in conspiracy theories of one sort or another. These journalists and the guests they featured brought together perspectives and positions pulled from both ends of the political spectrum; the far left and the far right shared outrage over being censored and mocked by the mainstream, and agreed that nearly all information produced by the U.S. government was suspect. But the news that RT America produced wasn’t merely (or wasn’t always) tinged with an anti-U.S. ideology. It also had a wild, shameless inconsistency.

At this point, you’ll just have to take my word for it. After Russia invaded Ukraine and RT America was booted from the limited number of streaming services and cable platforms that carried it, Mikhail Solodovnikov, the channel’s news director and general manager of its production company, laid off the entire staff and announced that RT America would be shutting down because of “unforeseen business-interruption events.” (Solodovnikov did not respond to a request for comment.) More than 100 employees were sent home immediately and told to expect pay and health care until the beginning of May. And then, on March 11, in the middle of a Friday afternoon, all of RT America’s past videos were made inaccessible on YouTube.

Which brings us to the present day’s confusion. If RT America was a mouthpiece for Russia, designed to speak to Americans, you could hardly blame Americans for having no idea what Russia was trying to say.

Russia Today started broadcasting in English from Moscow in 2005, with the stated intention of rehabilitating Russia’s global image by explaining Russian news and culture to the world. RT America came on the air five years later, shortly after the larger network’s name was shortened to the less conspicuous RT. “They wanted to speak to American audiences specifically,” says Mona Elswah, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute who studies state-controlled media. RT America would present American stories for American audiences, told predominantly by American hosts. And at first glance, the channel would seem sort of normal.

RT America’s first major hire was the former MSNBC host Ed Schultz, who had been let go because of low ratings, and who had caused some controversy by calling Fox News’s Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut,” but was still by all accounts a respected newsperson. (A “state-affiliated media” disclaimer was recently added to the @NewswithEd Twitter account, though that feed has been inactive since Schultz’s death in 2018.) The channel took other cracks at legitimacy by licensing a show from Larry King and hiring the Pulitzer Prize winner and Iraq War dissenter Chris Hedges, who resigned from The New York Times in 2005.

In 2020, Elswah and her colleague Philip Howard interviewed RT employees from several bureaus, including RT America, and used the anonymized responses to sketch a portrait of RT’s operations and aims. The organization had three goals, Elswah and Howard reported: “First, to push the idea that Western countries have as many problems as Russia. Second, to encourage conspiracy theories about media institutions in the West in order to discredit and delegitimize them … Third, to create controversy and to make people criticize the channel, because it suggests that the channel is important, an approach that would particularly help RT managers get more funding from the government.” Under its editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, the network expanded and adopted the look and feel of global cable news, and by 2011, the Russian government was allocating more than $300 million a year for RT’s operating expenses. President Vladimir Putin banned budget cuts for state-run media outlets two years later.

RT America had some degree of independence from RT headquarters. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, the RT mothership started putting together stories that portrayed Ukrainians as fascists and tried to explain away the shooting-down (by Russian-backed forces) of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. At the American channel, some level of professional disagreement made it on air. Abby Martin, a 9/11 truther and self-described “anti-imperialist” reporter who had cut her teeth making videos about the Occupy Wall Street movement, split from the party line on her show for RT America, Breaking the Set. “What Russia did is wrong,” she said, in part. “I will not sit here and apologize or defend military aggression.”

The moment became a viral news story and turned Martin into a momentary internet icon, though this wasn’t exactly what she’d intended. When I spoke with her recently, she said that people had misunderstood what she’d been going for and that the stakes hadn’t been as high as other journalists had made them out to be. “I wasn’t trying to hijack air or undermine my network or throw my work under the bus at all,” she said. She’d told her boss that she was going to speak her mind, and he’d given her the okay, not expecting the comment to be packaged as an exciting story about resistance to Putin inside the network. “I became basically a tool of the other side’s narrative for 24 hours or whatever,” she said, referring to the rest of the news media.

Two days later, the RT anchor Liz Wahl resigned live on air, proclaiming, “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.” She told me that her departure was motivated primarily by the “grotesque” reporting RT was doing on Ukraine at the time, but also that Martin’s smaller protest had only served to further Russia’s aims. “RT highlighted Abby Martin’s brief moment of war disapproval to give more legitimacy to the channel,” she said. Martin, for her part, claims that the manipulation worked the other way around. Wahl’s live resignation, she said, was very obviously “concocted to try to delegitimize my action and almost allege that I was some sort of false flag.” You may, at this point, be wondering: um, what?

RT America was often this confusing. The channel’s content was a grab bag: It produced regular news content, and also a documentary about the “dark side of Hollywood’s pedophile rings”; it aired special reports on ocean cleanup and the struggles of farmworkers, and also segments promoting 9/11 conspiracy theories and explaining how COVID-19 mask mandates enable child trafficking. (They don’t.) People who worked there didn’t need to be pushed much one way or another, Elswah told me. RT mostly hired recent college graduates who knew very little about journalism or Russia, or people who already had fringe beliefs—whether on the right or on the left—and would be sympathetic to the idea that Russia is a victim of the West. Bob Orttung, an international-affairs professor at George Washington University, agreed with this assessment. “They just tried whatever they could, hired whoever they could get,” he told me. “In most cases, it wasn’t the best and brightest.”

As such, the staff wouldn’t seem well equipped to launch a coordinated influence campaign. Yet in early 2017, when U.S. intelligence agencies released a declassified version of their report on “Moscow’s long standing desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” they included several pages implicating RT America. The channel had been dedicated to “the promotion of radical discontent” since 2012, the report said, citing numerous examples of “programming that highlights criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties.” This included disingenuous reporting about voter fraud and the “sham” of the American electoral system, interviews with third-party candidates, and favorable coverage of Occupy Wall Street. The report also invoked RT America stories about government surveillance, police brutality, and “corporate greed”—themes and topics covered by more or less all major American news outlets during the same period, if usually by more professional personalities in more measured tones and employing better facts.

In August 2017, the Justice Department demanded that RT America register as a foreign agent. As scrutiny increased, some RT America journalists quit, not wanting a stain on their résumés; others stayed and became even more distrustful of the “mainstream” to which they had set themselves up as a counterpoint. (“I really found that report ridiculous,” Phillip Chang, a former RT America producer, told me. “You can say that anything influenced an election.”) Around the same time, RT lost its congressional press credentials and some of its cable deals in the U.S., but YouTube defended its practice of hosting RT videos, telling Congress that the network hadn’t violated its rules about inciting hate speech or violence.

Today, YouTube says that both RT America and the Moscow-based RT have violated those same rules. “Our Community Guidelines prohibit content denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events, and we remove content about Russia’s invasion in Ukraine that violates this policy,” the company announced on March 11. This standard clearly applies to RT videos denying that Russia has invaded Ukraine in an act of aggression, but does not account for the removal of all RT America content, some of which had been online for more than a decade. But YouTube’s explanation continues: “In line with that, effective immediately, we are also blocking YouTube channels associated with Russian state-funded media, globally.” (A spokesperson did not respond to a request for elaboration.)

Now, this may be somewhat arbitrary, but it is not a major loss, because most of RT America’s content was quite bad. Whether it’s in any way a gain—I mean, whether the disappearance of all this lousy content really helps protect the “liberal democratic order”—remains unclear.

In a 2015 ad promoting the RT America show Watching the Hawks, the show’s three hosts walked somberly through a graveyard and paid their respects at mainstream media’s grave. Literally, the gravestone says Mainstream Media.

Watching the Hawks is a good microcosm of RT America because it was so many different things at once. The general idea of the show was to skewer the military-industrial complex—that is, to watch “the hawks.” It had a chintzy ’90s aesthetic and a rapped theme song I can’t discuss. One co-host, Tyrel Ventura, the son of the TV personality and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, took pride in working at an outlet that would allow him to say anything. “I have no problem criticizing Putin,” he told me. “I was wildly condemning the invasion on RT before RT America was taken off the air.” The Russia of it all was beside the point, he said, because his interest was in highlighting issues that affected American citizens.

The show also featured Sean Stone, a conspiracy-theorist filmmaker who wrote his college thesis on the “New World Order,” and the son of the director Oliver Stone. When I spoke with him earlier this month, he brought up a popular myth about bioweapons manufacturing in Ukraine, and suggested that it’s impossible to know the truth about anything. “The West has been lying about the bio labs, so maybe, could the West be lying about other things?” he asked me. “I mean, you’re literally gonna tell me that I should trust The New York Times.” He said he doesn’t agree with everything that Putin does but appreciates that the Russian president is a “straight shooter.”

Tabetha Wallace, the show’s third host, relished the idea of going on Russia-sponsored television and giving attention to issues like trans rights and abortion. When Watching the Hawks started, she told herself she would say exactly what she wanted, all the time. “If they have a problem with it, that’s when I leave.” And she did leave, she told me—she walked out in the middle of the workday on November 7, 2019, and never went back. But not because of Russia. “It was just a really toxic, chaotic mess,” she told me. Wallace shared with me an 18-page account detailing her allegations of sexist and unprofessional treatment over the course of her five years at RT America, written at the time of her departure from the company. In it, she describes disorganization and inappropriate behavior from top to bottom at the network, exacerbated by the lack of a human-resources department. “If they had a plan to coordinate disinformation, I don’t know where it was,” Wallace told me. “Nothing was coordinated. And I mean that in the most honest way; I’m not just trying to be funny.”

The former RT America social-media specialist Devin Springer had a similar take. “The management was, I think, too incompetent to string together any kind of propaganda campaign,” he told me. I heard the same from Abby Martin: “My boss was obsessed with aesthetics, and he barely cared about what we were even saying,” she said, referring to the news director, Mikhail Solodovnikov. “It actually is like, cartoonishly, the opposite of a tightly controlled Putin propaganda network.”

Whatever its aims, the channel’s influence was likely minimal. RT America may have received plenty of attention from American politicians and other American media outlets, but it did not get much from Americans in general. “They had a minuscule audience,” Ellen Mickiewicz, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, told me. RT’s YouTube strategy was also bizarre. “The vast majority of its views come from wholly apolitical material,” the analyst Monika Richter wrote in a 2017 report. “Namely footage of natural disasters, accidents, animal videos, and the like.” Before the RT America channel was pulled, its list of most popular videos from over the years was full of standard YouTube trash, such as a clip about a couple caught having sex on the Google Street View cameras, and many videos of TSA agents doing things that were annoying or mean.

This struggle to find an audience might have been the result of a crowded field. If RT America meant to be divisive, spur conflict, and make Americans believe bad information, how could it possibly do so any better than the American media outlets and influencers already producing that result so well? Where’s the value (or the hoped-for harm) in distributing a less-effective version of Fox News, One America News, InfoWars, and Breitbart News? Maybe the Kremlin has learned its lesson: As Mother Jones recently reported, Russian state-run media outlets are now under orders to air bits of Tucker Carlson’s show. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Indeed, the outré content on RT America seems to have been more an echo of the existing U.S. media environment than the source of many new, ridiculous ideas. The former RT America host Liz Wahl has argued that Carlson got his Putin-sympathetic ideas from RT, but he could just as easily have arrived at them some other way. And although a 2019 article for The New York Times described the channel’s fearmongering about 5G cellular technology as a new front in the information war, the underlying narrative (5G “might kill you”) was already here: Mainstream American magazines and lifestyle influencers had been encouraging paranoia about cellphone radiation for years; RT America was only further platforming fringe scientists and misguided activists with preexisting followings. The Times also covered RT’s promotion of conspiracy theories concerning Ebola, which was certainly sinister. But these theories were also being pushed by “New World Order” conspiracy communities that have been a presence in the United States for decades, as well as by paranoid figures on both the right and the left who had huge audiences of their own.

The stock of homegrown bullshit that could be amplified by RT America hosts had no bottom. But the channel was less a well-funded, sleek propaganda outfit than a clumsy waste of Russia’s money. “It is hard to tease out the influence of RT America from all the other actors seeking to divide Americans for their own specific purposes,” Bob Orttung, of George Washington University, told me. “The U.S. political system is polarized for reasons that have little to do with Russian propaganda.”


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