What would possess an American to work for a Russian propaganda outlet, especially now that the world is on the brink of a potential war in Eastern Europe?
I asked that question of about two dozen people coming in and out of the Washington headquarters of RT, the Kremlin-funded television network that has become infamous in recent days for whitewashing Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. No one would answer me directly. Instead, RT called the local cops on me. (More about that in a minute.)
RT is, in a sense, a new move from an old playbook. American sympathy for authoritarian powers abroad has a long history. The Soviet Union had a serviceable ideology, communism, which appealed to people all over the world. But today’s Russia—in spite of President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to model it as the world’s defender of traditional values standing athwart a tide of liberal, Western homosexualist deviancy—offers no such global appeal. Contemporary Russia apologists define themselves more by what they stand against: America, liberal democratic capitalism, and the catchall of “western hegemony.” And in RT—the Kremlin-funded propaganda network formerly known as “Russia Today”—they have found a willing disseminator for their angry and conspiratorial worldview.
RT has become the go-to network for a particular species of disillusioned American, fed-up with what the “corporate media” is telling them about the world. According to the channel, the new, Western-friendly government in Kiev is chock full of fascists and neo-Nazis. Meanwhile, Russia’s blatantly unjustified and illegal occupation of Crimea—and its potential invasion of eastern Ukraine—is portrayed as a humanitarian mission. RT’s view of the situation has been indistinguishable from that of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s, which is what you would expect of a “news” network that is the personal pet project of Vladimir Putin.
But RT’s coverage of Ukraine has been too egregious for even some of its own employees to stomach. Earlier this week, host Abby Martin made international headlines simply for stating, “What Russia did is wrong.” (That this momentary departure from Kremlin talking points became such a sensation tells you everything you need to know about the usual tenor of RT.) Larry King, the venerable American talk show host who's latest chats are syndicated to RT, made it a point of having Putin's critics on the air on Thursday night. Most dramatic of all was the live resignation of anchor Liz Wahl, who cited the network’s handling of Ukraine as the decisive reason for her departure. “Plenty of things have bothered me about the editorial view but there comes a time when you have to draw a red line,” she told me yesterday. “And for me that time came on Wednesday.”
Wahl had been planning to leave RT sometime this week, but it was the decision of her superiors to distort an interview she had taped earlier in the day that inspired her Howard Beale moment. In a discussion with former conspiracy newsletter publisher and Republican congressman Ron Paul (precisely the sort of fringe figure whom RT loves to present as a mainstream voice, given his belief that America should completely withdraw from the world, all the easier to let Russia act as it pleases), Wahl’s use of the term “military intervention” to describe Moscow’s actions were edited out of the final broadcast.
Curious to find out more about RT, I had only to venture a few blocks from the White House, where in a nondescript office building next to a pizza shop, are the offices of RT-America. There, I hoped to get answers to pressing questions such as, “What is a more appropriate punishment for the women of Pussy Riot: 2 years in a Siberian labor camp or public whipping by Cossacks?” (The correct answer is both).
Moments after arriving outside RT’s offices, Daily Beast videographer in tow, a security guard instructed me to stand clear of the door and stay put on the sidewalk. I uncomplainingly obliged, and after several minutes of politely asking people entering and exiting the building if they worked for RT, two more security guards came out to inform me that they had called the Washington, D.C police. When I asked what law I had violated, I was told that I was “bothering” RT employees.
It wasn’t surprising in the least that RT would call the cops on me. After all, when you work for a government that imprisons and kills journalists, you get accustomed to treating people who disagree with you as criminals. RT brass seemed to have momentarily forgotten, however, that they were in Washington, not Moscow. Unfortunately for the wannabe-thugs at 1325 G St., the friendly officers of the DCPD were not about to do their bidding. They politely told me that I was doing nothing wrong, and went about their no doubt more important business.
That didn’t stop a slovenly RT employee from stepping out to take photographs. Another, political commentator Sam Sacks, peered out from his office window and posted an image of us on Twitter, inviting a torrent of abuse from RT’s well-informed and eloquent viewership. Judging by my Twitter feed, their collective vocabulary seems to consist entirely of vulgarity, “neocon” and, well, that’s about it. Unfortunately, no one from RT would actually stop and speak with me; the only people who did were groups of Ukrainians walking home from a demonstration outside the White House, astounded that Putin’s propaganda headquarters is just steps away.
RT, both in its employment and viewership, seems to attract a particular type of person. You know the man who writes political chain emails IN ALL CAPS or the bag lady shouting on the street corner about the metal device the government has implanted in her head? Under normal circumstances, no one would give them a television show. But these are the people who appear on, and watch, RT. Do you record a podcast for the Occupy movement out of your parents’ basement? Head up a fringe neo-fascist party in the United Kingdom? Have you publically praised a mass-murdering Arab dictator for his “strength and indefatigability,” and in his own court, no less? Then you have an excellent chance of getting your own show on RT.
The network is a flytrap for cranks, conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites, and defenders of authoritarianism. Which is not to say that every staffer can be described as such. Wahl told me that the network’s employees are a “medley,” a mix of opportunists striving to get a job in journalism, willing to make whatever moral compromises are necessary in pursuit of that goal, and those who fully sign onto the network’s witches’ brew of 24/7 anti-Americanism, robust defenses of Russian chauvinism, and conspiracy theories. And it’s the latter—like 9/11 Truther Abby Martin—who succeed at RT. “Their narrative is one that RT likes,” Wahl told me. “As long as it fits RT’s narrative, it flies.”
RT personalities love to complain that their views are “marginalized” by the American “mainstream media.” But if you’re a Holocaust denier or a defender of the North Korean slave state—individuals both recently given airtime by RT—the reason you’re not getting booked on CNN or having your pieces published in the New York Times is not because of the media cabal that supposedly squashes American “dissent,” as Martin’s fans put it, but rather because standards, thankfully, still exist in the American media. Not so for RT, of course, which is eager to parade the most disgraceful bigots and liars if they can help to make the West look bad or hypocritical.
And savor the irony of RT personalities, who style themselves “dissenters,” sucking at the teat of Vladimir Putin, a man who throws real dissenters into Siberian labor camps. “About six corporations control 90 per cent of what Americans see,” Martin fulminated earlier this week on Piers Morgan. I have no idea if that figure is accurate, but even if it is, it’s certainly better than Russia, where nearly 100% of what the populace sees is controlled by one source, which doesn’t even have the virtue of being privately owned: the Kremlin.
For the past 9 years, RT has provided steady paychecks and frequent media appearances to a veritable insane asylum of the great unwashed and unemployable dredges of the American fringe. There’s Max Keiser, praising Putin’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and issuing doomsday warnings about the impending collapse of the Western financial system.
My personal favorite American RT host is Peter Lavelle, a toad-like man who's become an international star for the angry basement dwelling-set. Lavelle is meant to be the Tim Russert of RT, but he’s really the poor man’s Bill O’Reilly, just a lot dumber and with a man-crush for Vladimir Putin. Despite having lived in Russia for 17 years and working for a Russian government-owned network, Lavelle cannot even speak serviceable Russian, as evidenced by his need for a translator during a fawning interview with the new Tsar himself. In a colloquy with a Putinist blog called “Da Russophile,” Lavelle attacked critics of the Russian regime as “the worst kind of people— they get along by going along. When it comes to writing about Russia, the majority of them don’t have the guts to stand alone and speak up.” Of course. Critics of Putin, especially those living in Russia “don’t have guts,” unlike Peter Lavelle, the Lord Haw-Haw of the new Cold War.
It’s always difficult for failures and cranks to admit that they are failures and cranks. Better to blame the Zionists, the “military-industrial complex” or the “Corpotocracy” for one’s lot in life. And with RT, these losers have a global platform through which they can inflict their psychoses on the rest of us. That is, when they're not calling the cops on the people asking them questions.
UPDATE 2PM: "RT America did not contact the DC police at any point," Anna Belkina said in a statement. "The building's security personnel called in the police after an intruder has been reported inside the building. The police questioned Mr. Kirchick as part of the investigation of that incident."