Inside Russia Today’s American headquarters in Washington, across from the receptionist’s desk stamped by a lime green “RT” banner, an ad starring Ed Schultz and Larry King plays on a large screen TV.
Schultz and King, whom he dwarfs, stand opposite one another, marveling at the success of the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, which they both agree is astounding. “Follow the 2016 campaign right here on RT America!” Schultz says. King points at the camera and delivers the network’s slogan, “And question more.”
Founded 11 years ago Thursday in September of 2005, Russia Today is a Moscow-based, English-language news outlet which is funded by the Kremlin and serves to promote Russian state propaganda, like stories about the West collapsing and the CIA being to blame for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, which according to RT, Russia did not invade.
In 2010, RT branched out to the United States, launching RT America. In a 2014 BuzzFeed investigation, Rosie Gray reported former RT America employees describing “an atmosphere of censorship and pressure” at the network—like orders to report on Germany as a “failed state” despite any evidence that the country fits the criteria. One RT anchor, Liz Wahl, protested by quitting live on air. She later described herself as “Putin’s pawn.” Casual viewing of the network shows a focus on negative stories about the U.S., from claims that American Olympians received special treatment which allowed them to take drugs to outward mocking of the Democrats’ presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, despite claiming nonpartisanship.
Nevertheless, the network today broadcasts shows hosted by Schultz, a former sportscaster turned right-wing radio host turned liberal bullhorn; King, the longtime host of Larry King Live; and Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler and governor of Minnesota who promotes 9/11 truther conspiracies, among a handful of other less notable names.
Ventura makes sense in a way—RT is a network, after all, with an Illuminati correspondent. Schultz and King, however, are head scratchers.
Both men left their major American networks—Schultz, when his MSNBC show was canceled in July 2015; King, when he retired from CNN in 2010—amid sinking ratings and dwindling popularity. But that hardly makes them unique in television, where hosts can come and go with the seasons.
Neither was persona non grata in the U.S. media when they decided to work for what amounts to an arm of the Russian government, legitimizing the network with their presence—King, due to his long history as a reliable and trustworthy interviewer, and Schultz, for his reputation as an emotional, liberal populist who says what’s on his mind.
“Endorsements from prominent people can bring legitimacy to unknown brands,” Nicco Mele, the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said. “That’s true of tennis shoes and that’s true of media properties.” Hiring King and Schultz, Mele said, grants RT America a “patina of respectability” although, unlike Al Jazeera English, which was initially feared to be an extension of the Qatari government, RT America has not made it a point to build a robust newsroom or pursue shoe-leather reporting. As for concerns about RT, Mele said, “I don’t feel like it’s been overstated.”
Amid Trump’s decision to appear on King’s program last week—which was criticized by, among others, President Obama—the hosts’ strange association with the Russian government has come into focus just as concerns about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election have reached a fever pitch.
RT America, with its cornfed media personalities serving to soften the blow of blatantly anti-American Russian propaganda, now looks like proof of those concerns, available for viewing 24 hours a day on a cable channel near you.
And the question remains, why would any American work there if they could avoid it?
“Desperation,” Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, said. “To go on RT is—to me—primarily just a desperate move to have a camera in front of you with willful disregard for who’s putting that camera there.”
Schultz had initially been eager to do an interview about his role at RT and provide his own answer to that question.
He scheduled the conversation to take place immediately at his office near the White House after receiving the request on Tuesday afternoon.
“Your story just got better,” he wrote in an email. “Obama just called out Trump for doing an interview on RT. The Russian propaganda channel. We are not propaganda. Yes, I will speak with you.”
But then something changed abruptly.
“I guess I cant do the interview, [sic]” he wrote, just 12 minutes later.
The receptionist said he was at his usual post on the 7th floor, but he refused to come down. “I’m sorry for this… I’m just aware of how unfair the DB has been to RT,” he said, perhaps referring to the sometimes-stormy history between the two organizations. “I’m not willing to take that chance. Thanks Ed.”
When Schultz was on MSNBC, he was an enthusiastic critic of Trump, whom he lanced as a “racist,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he derisively labeled “Putie.” But since joining RT in January, The News With Ed Schultz host has been neutered.
He’s an anchor now, he stresses, not a pundit. But, as Michael Crowley noted for Politico Magazine, his shows often focus on U.S. missteps at home and abroad, from oversized budgets to failing policies in the Middle East. Trump, rather than being called out, is instead given an exceedingly fair shake, characterized as someone who’s “tapped into anger among working people.”
It’s Putin-approved programming, in other words.
Obama, speaking in Philadelphia on Tuesday, said Trump, “just last week went on Russian state television to talk down our military and to curry favor with Vladimir Putin. He loves this guy!”
RT America obsessively covered the remark. Correspondent Caleb Maupip dismissively called it “a standup comedy routine.”
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and even parroted the Kremlin talking point that Russia did not seize Crimea, and the Russian conspiracy theory that Obama founded ISIS. Thousands of Twitter accounts, known for pushing demonstrably-fake Russian news stories, are also reliably on the #TrumpTrain. When his campaign was run by Paul Manafort, a lobbyist who worked for Russian oligarchs (among other unsavory characters), they took the unprecedented step of softening the Republican Party platform’s language regarding how far the United States would go in defending Ukraine against Russian incursion.
And Russia has appeared to exert influence over the democratic process in other ways. The hack of the Democratic National Committee is widely considered, within the U.S. intelligence community, to have been the work of the Russian government. Further, Wikileaks, which is suspected of having ties to Russia, has been working overtime on behalf of Trump, taunting the release of materials that would be damaging to Clinton’s campaign and even, on Twitter (before deleting it), taking a poll of which illness people thought Clinton was suffering from.
A spokesperson for Trump attempted to quell concerns about his RT appearance—during which he criticized the American media and said claims that the Russians were meddling in the election were probably just Democratic talking points—by making the dubious claim that Trump simply didn’t know the show was for Russian state television, but thought it was for King’s podcast. Then Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said the appearance was just a “favor” to his longtime friend, whose CNN show he frequented.
King could not be reached for an interview as of press time, but in response to questions about his association with RT, he’s often claimed that he is not employed by the network and they simply license his material. That doesn’t explain why King stars in at least two ads for the network, where he says the network’s slogan. King’s publicist was unaware of the ads when asked about them.
One former RT America anchor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said King’s claim of independence from RT is suspicious, given his chummy relationship with the Russian news director.
When the former anchor was at RT, King taped his show “a few doors down” from the news director’s office. “They meet and they talk,” the former anchor said. In King’s interview with Trump, King asked questions that were, in the former anchor’s telling, “questions that I would’ve been asked to ask if I was interviewing a congressman or something like that.”
Before King came onboard, the former anchor remembered, “It was kind of like a rumor he was coming on and we were all like, ‘What? Why would Larry King come here?’ It makes no sense.”
The former anchor said, “The Russian news director, I remember he was really, really excited to get him on board.”
For RT, King’s decision to associate with the network was “like Christmas.”
“A big part of the strategy is to use American voices to spread these pro-Kremlin messages or point out U.S. hypocrisy,” the former anchor said. “So, if you have someone like Larry King do that, it really adds legitimacy… The whole thing with RT is kind of, like, using U.S. officials and U.S. media figures.”
Still, Trump’s greatest defender was not a member of his campaign staff or an outside surrogate. It was his onetime enemy, Schultz.
“It should be pointed out that the Clinton campaign has refused interviews on RT America,” Schultz said in a homemade video he posted online. “This is manufactured news by the Clinton campaign to vilify Donald Trump and connect him to Vladimir Putin, and that’s their strategy to win the election.”
He added, “It is so sad and so small and so elementary and I think it’s hurting Hillary Clinton, which I think is even more than sad.”
Meanwhile, Schultz was deciding whether or not to change his mind about canceling our interview. “Let me think on it,” he said. “I don’t need the story. I do this job because I love it, not to be the focus of some story.”
He then told me he could be found at the White House, where liberal activists were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
He stood on the grass outside the protest in a pinstripe suit and royal blue shirt, talking on the phone. He is a tall and broad figure, with rust-colored hair and small blue eyes that fight against his fleshy eyelids to make contact with the world.
“I’m sorry that it kinda worked out that way,” he said about the inconvenience. He claimed it was his decision to cancel the interview, not RT’s. “I have to respect the people I’m working for,” he said.
He stared off at the protest, a troubled look on his face. “Our world is fucked up, isn’t it?” he asked.
He said he’d recently taken a “chance” by talking to The Washington Post, but was unhappy with the attention in the end—though he wouldn’t divulge why, or if it had led to trouble at RT. “I’m just at a point in time in my career where I just, I don’t need any publicity,” he said. “I do this job ’cause I love it. I’ve never really figured out why the media covers the media, you know? I’m a reporter just like you are.”
Just then a protester approached with a stack of signs and asked if Schultz would like one. “No, thank you, sir,” Schultz said. The protester looked at him skeptically. “Your days of signs are over?” he asked. Schultz laughed through a frown. “No, it’s not over,” he said.
Asked if it bothered him when he was criticized for working for what almost everyone outside of the Russian government believes is a propaganda network, Schultz said, “Well, it doesn’t bother me because I know it’s not the truth, you know? There’s so much in the media that’s not the truth. You know, so I go with what I know and I go with my instincts and I go with the facts.”
Schultz emphasized that he’s now “in a totally different role than what I was doing at MSNBC. I was doing an opinion show. I’m a nightly news anchor now, I don’t—if you watch my show, at 8 o’clock—I don’t give opinions.” Although, he was eager to give his critical opinion of Clinton after Trump’s RT interview proved controversial.
Still, Schultz called the alleged change “rather refreshing,” and said the reason he didn’t seek out a job on another American network was because he wanted to do something different and he didn’t want to rival MSNBC, where he said he still has a lot of friends.
“I feel very comfortable about being fair to Trump,” he said, “I think I’ve been very fair to him.”
Reminded how much he used to hate Trump, Schultz said, “Um, well, then I guess that kind of shows my opinions aren’t getting in the way, right?”
Suddenly, a look of concern spread across Schultz’s face.
He never wanted to be interviewed, he said, and despite giving a reporter his location and answering questions for several minutes, he didn’t want to be quoted. He grew incensed and accusatory, but then seemed to try to calm himself by saying he was comfortable with everything he had said on the record.
He said he didn’t want to answer any more questions, but then he ran after me, in a state of total panic.
“I’m asking you professionally to not write anything about me,” he said.
Informed that I couldn’t promise that, since I was there talking to him to report a story partially about him—something he knew—his face turned red.
He moved closer and stared into my eyes, and then he screamed at me, divulging something personal and wholly unrelated to both RT and the conflict at hand.
“This is a hit job, I know it is!” he screamed again.
Later, in an email, he said, “I’m on record asking you not to do s story on me. I did not know I was being recoded. I don’t want any coverage . I’m professionally asking you to not write about me. Thank you Ed [sic].”
A few hours later, he called my phone and hung up.