Defending Putin’s Propagandists

Defenders of RT, a Kremlin-funded television network, are coming out in droves—and not just in the traditionally conspiratorial corners of the Internet.

Coming soon to a theater near you: A Filipina Drama Queen pairs up with a Subversive Gay Jew to embarrass the Russian government!

No, this isn’t the tagline for the summer’s laugh-a-minute buddy comedy. It’s how some online media outlets are describing last week’s on-air resignation of Liz Wahl, anchor for RT-America, the English-language propaganda channel funded entirely by the Russian government. Wahl cited the network’s blatantly propagandistic coverage of the crisis in Crimea, its “whitewashing Putin,” and her own family history as the descendant of Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet oppression as reasons for her departing the network.

And now, the network’s defenders are coming out in droves—and not just from the dark, traditionally conspiratorial corners of the Internet.

I received the exclusive, first interview with Wahl, published in The Daily Beast just an hour after she resigned. The reason for this was very simple: As I explained in my article, Wahl reached out to me last August, after I staged my own, on-air protest against Russian policies (in this case, the Kremlin’s homophobia). As I wrote last week, “Wahl felt morally compromised working for the network, she told me, but wasn’t yet prepared to quit. We stayed in touch periodically over the past 6 months, and I always encouraged her to follow her conscience in making a decision about her professional future. The network’s absurd coverage of Russia’s invasion, Wahl told me earlier this week, was the last straw.”

Wahl told me that she was going to resign Wednesday afternoon, just hours before she actually did. I had no idea what she was going to say. I wish Liz Wahl—along with every other journalist—had never gone to work for RT in the first place, and I assume that now, in retrospect, she agrees with me. But I can’t say for sure, because, well, I’m not Liz Wahl and I don’t have control over her thoughts and actions.

But for some people on the internet, this explanation is too simple. A neo-Nazi website called “Daily Stormer” (replete with Luftwaffe planes in the banner headline and Paypal donor categories ranging from “Untersturmführer” to “Oberführer”) concludes that, “Clearly, this Jew orchestrated the whole spectacle.” Amidst passing references to “the alleged Holocaust” and “the Jew Kirchick,” the author of this brilliant piece of analysis concludes that my involvement with Wahl demonstrates how “Jews manipulate society to achieve their own ends, almost always by appealing to human emotion.”

I have no interest in responding to neo-Nazis (though the Daily Stormer ends his post with an unintentionally hilarious flow chart revealing the intellectual poverty of anti-Semitic thinking that you would be remiss not to behold). I draw attention to this site merely because of the similarities in analysis it shares with other, more ostensibly mainstream people who see a subversive gay Jew pulling the puppet strings. Over the past week, I have been the recipient of a deluge of attacks on Twitter from RT fans alleging that I was somehow behind Wahl’s resignation. This afternoon, a gentleman identifying himself as Kevin Gosztola, who writes for the left-wing website FireDogLake, left a message on my cell phone. He claimed to be working on a project for First Look Media -- the high-profile investigative journalism start-up that employs, among others, Glenn Greenwald. (First Look's top editor says the Gosztola has nothing to do with the outlet. More on that in a second.) I post Gosztola's missive verbatim:

“So you don’t deny that you encouraged Liz Wahl to resign. We are going to be publishing a story at First Look Media and I know that you’re going to be losing control of the narrative that you’ve managed to create around Liz Wahl’s resignation. We have multiple sources. “It’s fairly obvious that you have orchestrated this as part of some Foreign Policy Initiative [the think tank where I work] agenda. And this is what we’re going to be putting out there. So your fun little charade, public stunt that you’ve been putting on which the media has completely eaten up here in the United States, is hopefully over “If you have any comment and if you’d like to respond to me and prove that this is not how it is, you let me know. But otherwise we are ready to go. And, you know, you like to ‘fuck with the Russians’ and we’re going to respond to that and let people know where you’re coming from as you have worked with Liz Wahl to expose what you call a propaganda network.”

“When did you stop beating your wife,” does not begin to do justice to the nature this rant. The call’s threatening tone is appropriate, though, for someone determined to defend the reputation of the Kremlin. What’s less understandable is why First Look Media—a new journalism venture that’s supposedly dedicated to investigating the excesses of government and corporate power—would join in.

That's because First Look is not, in fact, involved. "Kevin [Gosztola] doesn’t work for First Look Media. He apparently spoke to Glenn [Greenwald] about the possibility of doing a story for [First Look], but Glenn hasn’t given him an assignment or a contract," Eric Bates, executive editor of First Look Media, told The Daily Beast in an email. "Glenn let Kevin know that he shouldn’t be representing himself as acting on behalf of First Look."

Greenwald isn't exactly a RT critic, it should be noted. Last week, when RT host Abby Martin (a 9/11 Truther who believes that water fluoridation is a government plot to poison Americans) briefly spoke out against Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Greenwald took to the website’s blog to defend RT’s editorial integrity, citing her act of pseudo-dissidence as evidence of the network’s editorial independence from the Kremlin. Greenwald even compared the network favorably to American media outlets.

I know it won’t have any effect on the paranoid fever dreams of my critics, but I’ll say it again: Liz Wahl did what she did on her own volition, with no “orchestration” from me. The only way in which I can be held accountable for her resignation is in the sense that my own act of protest on RT inspired her to leave the network. If that is indeed the case, then, I say here that I’m mighty proud to have influenced her and to have played a role in so visibly embarrassing and shaming the cretins who work atop RT.

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That said, “Subversive Gay Jew” has a nice ring to it.

-- with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman