American journalist Liz Wahl just made Vladimir Putin’s enemies list.
Wahl, an American anchor for RT-America, a cable news network funded by the Russian government, stunned viewers Wednesday, when, at the end of her 5 PM broadcast, she announced her resignation from the channel.
The announcement was stunning. But Wahl’s decision to quit the network was a long time coming. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, she says that, “When I came on board from the beginning I knew what I was getting into, but I think I was more cautious and tried to stay as objective as I could.” Yet repeated attempts by her superiors at the network to censor her work and distort the truth ultimately convinced Wahl that, to keep her integrity intact, she would have to depart.
“As a reporter on this network I face many ethical and moral challenges especially me personally coming from a family whose grandparents came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically to escape the Soviet forces,” she told network viewers, immediately following a report claiming that the new Ukrainian government, which ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, is composed mainly of fascists and neo-Nazis. “I’m very lucky to have grown up here in the United States. I’m the daughter of a veteran. My partner is a physician at a military base where he sees every day the first-hand accounts of the ultimate prices that people pay for this country. And that is why personally I cannot be part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I am proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth and that is why after this newscast I’m resigning.”
Wahl then stared resolutely at the camera for a full five seconds before the network cut to a commercial break.
Wahl’s announcement comes on the heels of another on-air act of straying-off-the-Kremlin-script. On Monday, RT host Abby Martin ended her program “Break the Set” by denouncing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. RT management said that they would send Martin to the Ukrainian region of Crimea currently occupied by Russian troops, an offer which she refused. Yet while Martin was praised in many quarters for her independence, she remains an employee of the network, and there are no indications that she has been punished.
Wahl initially reached out to me in August, after I launched my own impromptu protest on RT against Putin’s homophobic repression. 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.
(In a statement, RT said that Wahl's on-air defection was "nothing more than a self-promotional stunt.")
Wahl, for her part, says that while the Kremlin influence over RT isn’t always overt, that journalists there understand what they have to do to succeed and fall into line accordingly. “I think management is able to manipulate the very young and naïve employees,” she says. “They will find ways to punish you covertly and reward those that do go along with their narrative.”
“It’s interesting that our motto is ‘Question More,’” she says of the RT slogan. (It once adorned posters showing President Obama morphing into former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the words, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?”)
“In order to succeed there you don’t question… In a way you kind of suppress any concerns that you have and play the game.”
Wahl recalls a story she attempted to report about last year’s French intervention in Mali, aimed at repelling an al-Qaeda takeover of the country. She interviewed a Malian man who “talked about what it was like to live under sharia law, people getting limbs amputated…And I thought it was probably one of the best interviews that I’ve ever done. I was touched by what he said as a first hand source, but he also talked about how the French were well-received there and how they were waving French flags and how they should have come sooner, how grateful a large part of the population was, having seen people being literally tortured and having their limbs cut off.”
That story, however, didn’t fit the RT narrative, which portrays every Western military intervention as an act of imperialism while depicting Russian ones as mere humanitarian attempts at “protecting” local populations, as the network constantly describes Moscow’s role in Crimea. Needless to say, Wahl’s interview with the thankful Malian never aired. “I was told after that it was a ‘weak’ interview,” Wahl said.
Though RT America has many American staffers, Wahl says that Russian expatriates call the shots. “They’re definitely at the top, the Russians, they’re kind of able to pull the strings… I just think it’s absurd that we’re just a few blocks away from the White House and this is all able to go along,” she says.
Having worked on the inside, Wahl perfectly understands RT’s marketing strategy, which is to appeal to a young, Western demographic cynical about mainstream media outlets and traditional political authority. “I think some of them are kind of like this hipster generation, they just kind of think it’s cool to question authority,” she says.
But what the network’s many young viewers don’t understand, or refuse to understand, is that the channel’s message emanates from the most authoritarian of sources: the Kremlin. “I don’t think it’s a service to anybody to push a narrative that’s not true or actively twist the truth.”
“It actually makes me feel sick that I worked there,” Wahl says. “It’s not a sound news organization, not when your agenda is making America look bad.”
As much as Wahl had to suppress her guilty conscience during the two-and-a-half-years she worked for RT, she believes it’s the networks viewers—1.2 billion on YouTube—who are hurt most by its constant and deliberate distortion of the truth. “In a way I feel bad for those people because they really believe strongly that we’re telling the truth and we’re on the right side. And that’s crazy to me.”
Wahl did a very brave thing. Unlike Martin, who will continue to cash Putin’s paychecks, Wahl is now out of a job. But that’s the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth. Hopefully, Liz Wahl’s act of defiance will inspire a wave of defections from Putin TV.