Up To a Point: Binge Watching Putin's Propaganda Network

P.J. O’Rourke delves into RT, the Kremlin-backed American basic cable “news” network, and finds its bizarre, amateurish, far-left programming is good for at least one thing.

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

I’m glad to have the Russians back as enemies. No one else will really do as America’s geo-political opponent.

Fighting Islamic extremists is like battling self-destructive, insane, violent homeless people. It’s all well and good to snap them with drones, crackle them with airstrikes, and pop them into Gitmo. But it’s a little disheartening to know that, if we leave them alone, they’ll all eventually kill each other anyway. The last lunatic standing will light off his suicide vest to canoodle with 72 virgins in paradise.

And the Chinese are too smart. We could, I guess, give them an air power wedgie or stuff them into the locker of a naval engagement. But they’d get out and ace the calculus exam, wreck the curve, and we’d get a D.

The Russians are perfect foes, the inspiration for 1960s professional wrestling heels Ivan “The Russian Bear” Koloff and Krusher Khruschev.

The Russians are powerful enough to be worthy adversaries but clueless enough not to realize that during a tag team match against Dusty Rhodes and Bruno Sammartino, the crowd is going to alert Bruno that Ivan, swinging a folding chair, is sneaking up behind Dusty who’s about to pin Krusher.

Therefore—with the viewer enthusiasm that 50 years ago I reserved for professional wrestling —- I turned on RT to watch enemy television.

They aren’t making enemies the way they used to. If you’re seeking the evil beguilements of Tokyo Rose or the plumy comic bluster of Lord Haw-Haw, not to mention bogus anti-American flying drop kick dramatics, seek elsewhere.

RT is a cable news channel. Cable news channels are boring. After twenty minutes or so, when you’ve been through the news cycle, you’re bored.

The Russians studied cable news channels with expert Russian logic.

Major Premise: CNN is successful cable news channel. Minor Premise: CNN is boring. Conclusion: Successful cable news channel is boring.

“This we can do better,” the Russians said. Then they set about the task with the same grim Russian determination that got Laika, the Soviet first dog in space, incinerated on reentry. RT will bore you in two minutes.

Last week’s RT news cycle consisted almost entirely of Ukrainian perfidy and EU sanctions against Russia. The newscasters went back and forth between these stories with a breathless urgency as if Princess Di’s car crash and JFK Jr.’s plane crash had happened on the same day.

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And there was a crash involved—in Ukrainian perfidy and EU sanctions both. The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MA-17 remains a dark mystery with evidence of an anti-Russian cabal to nobody on earth but RT.

“We are set to show you how any story can be another story altogether… We’re here to bring you another story,” says an RT promo. Which would be a funny description of a news channel except RT has so little sense humor that it produced a comic documentary called “Crimea for Dummies.” Some LA film school grad, a sort of Sasha Baron Cohen with possible head injury issues, goes to the newest member of the Russian Federation and hilariously discovers he can buy a shashlyk kebab at a kiosk in Sevastopol as usual and that nothing much else seems to be going on.

Most of the rest of RT’s programming consists of news clips, feature stories, commentaries, and panel discussions about America’s corrupt capitalism, imperialism, militarism, colonialism, runaway consumerism, and oppressive bourgeois society.

You’d think this would make RT hard to distinguished from MSNBC, but not so. MSNBC details America’s short-comings while offering an “alternative,” which I guess used to be Barack Obama and, when that didn’t work out, became Elizabeth Warren or something.

RT presents a purely Marxist critique. The trouble is, as Nietzsche would have said if he’d lived longer, “Marx is Dead.”

Moscow is the corrupt capitalist capital of the world. Russia is the only major power since WWII to have snatched a chunk of another country’s territory just for kicks. As for militarism, check Russia’s bristle-of-missiles annual Victory Day Parade through Red Square and compare against home video of American Veteran’s Day parades with the Boy Scout band and old fogey vets waving from the back of convertibles lent by local car dealerships.

In the matter of runaway consumerism I was in Moscow’s GUM department store in the late 1980s and was actually trampled by shoppers when a shipment of Bulgarian gym shoes arrived. And oppression? Try running a company that competes with one of Putin’s state enterprises, and see how far that gets you.

So it’s the pot calling the… No, RT doesn’t have a pot to piss in. The sets were stolen from the movie lot where “Anchorman” was filmed and put back together wrong. The cameras are mounted on the backs of Laika’s offspring, which are allowed to wander around the studio without leashes. The control room editor should be tested for meth-amphetamines.

The computer graphics are monotone overlaid in Lucky Charms leprechaun green. The video feeds are butt-dialed on an old Nokia phone. If you watch RT on line, as I did, the video streaming is almost up to “iCarly” standards when Gibby takes over to give Freddie a day off.

No hair or make-up artist has ever been hired. Or maybe they’re out on strike. A close-up shot of Vladimir Putin without benefit of blush or brush made him look ready to put a pinky to the corner of his mouth and say, “One million dollars!”

RT’s female newscasters all look like Ann Coulter’s younger, less attractive sister—or possibly Ann Coulter’s brother in a dress. RT’s male newscasters are… Well, it’s a good thing smell-o-vision hasn’t been invented. These guys emit a strong order of previous unemployment. And I don’t mean Boston Globe buy-out or local TV morning show staff-cut unemployment. I mean fired from the grocery store giveaway.

But I must be missing something. According to Wikipedia RT is “the second most-watched foreign news channel in the United States (after BBC World News)” and “the number one foreign network in five major U.S. urban areas” and “the first television news channel in history to reach 1 billion views on YouTube.”

Perhaps it’s one of those urban hipster things. I live in rural New Hampshire, where we’d watch Russian television like we’d watch Berkeley, California, television. And my hipster credentials expired with The Kingston Trio.

Fortunately I have an urban hipster in the house, my teenage daughter Muffin, who hates living on a farm, hates being called “Muffin,” and is so hip she can tell you all about “organic,” “vegan,” “free-range,” “locavore,” and “certified fair-trade” without knowing the difference between hay and straw.

She jumped at the chance to watch RT, or jumped at the chance to skip calculus homework. Whatever, she gave up eye-rolling, mumbling, nosing in her iPhone, and saying, “whatever” and started talking to me as if I were a person instead of a dad.

“Ohmigod,” she said when the RT computer graphics came on, “Sixth to eighth grade boys! When they first discover Power Point!”

A newscaster appeared. “She looks just like Mom,” Muffin said, “cleaning house when the doorbell rings. ‘I’ll just throw a sweater over this.’”

The newscaster droned a bit. Muffin said, “This is a failed school project.”

A jumble of split screen video, audio snippets, on-site reporting, and commentary cut-aways followed. “There’s too much going on,” said Muffin who’s capable of simultaneously watching Lena Dunham in “Girls,” looking at a movie on her laptop, texting on her iPhone, talking on the land line, Tweeting and checking Facebook on her iPad, and doing her calculus homework while wearing ear-buds to listen to rap.

“They’ll show video of anything,” she said. “Sixth to eighth grade boys again. Anytime a subject came up in class they’d go, ‘Ooooo, can we make a video?’”

Muffin concentrated on the commentators. Her comments:

“Where are his front teeth?”

“You know how some people can speak English with an accent and it makes them sound intelligent?”

“Doesn’t know where to look.”

“Weird uncle in the family.”

“Really a hand-talker.”

“Pig with mumps.”

Muffin concentrated on the newscaster. “Hair by the ‘90s. And she should wash it. Looks bored.”

“I don’t blame her,” I said. But Muffin wanted to keep watching. We clicked around the website for a list of RT programs.

Question MoreIn the NowWhy Should You Care!Boom BustWorlds ApartCrossTalkOp-Edge

Muffin said, “It’s like they used a random TV show name generator.”

Then there’s Larry King Now. I didn’t have the heart to see octogenarian Larry asking Kremlin-picked guests the tough questions. “So… Do you like kosher pickles?”

Muffin and I looked at Breaking the Set with Abby Martin. Abby is RT’s “it girl,” famous for her courageous, independent, live, on-air protest against the invasion of Crimea. (Unless that was a put-up job to make viewers think that RT broadcasters have courageous, live, on-air independence. I don’t usually go in for conspiracy theories but Abby does happen to be a Truther.)

“Ohmigod her hair,” Muffin said. Abby’s hair was pulled back into a Soviet ICBM payload or Russian Orthodox onion dome and was showing highlights in colors visible only to bees. “It’s like if the Coneheads had hair but in Avatar,” said Muffin.

We watched in companionable silence as Abby nattered—something about how the “Ice Bucket Challenge” is wasting the world’s precious water resources.

“Thinks she is,” Muffin said.

“Thinks she is what?” I asked.

“Hot,” Muffin said, “cool, smart, good on camera, whatever. You know, like in high school yearbooks, ‘Best Dressed’ and ‘Thinks She Is.’”

What good RT is to opinion-shapers, even those who hate America, I can’t imagine. But urban hipsters may be onto something. They have kids too. And RT is a delightful way (as geo-politics and professional wrestling are not) to bond with your teenage daughter.