A Funny Little Story about RT America

Photo:, via CNN Money

By Marisol Cortez

Some months ago, Deceleration received a message to our Facebook inbox from a producer with RT America–the US media arm of Russia Today–requesting permission to use footage we had shot of pipeline protests in West Texas. At the time, the US mediascape was abuzz with discussion of RT as state-financed media organ implicated in efforts to promote Trump’s election, and something about the request felt off to me. I googled the journalist and saw that her most recent gig prior to RT America was for One America News Network, a conservative outlet, producing a short-lived talk show hosted by Sarah Palin. Weird. I googled further and read through several accounts of RT‘s history of courting the U.S. left, presenting itself as activist media along the lines of Democracy Now while masking its real interest in advancing Kremlin policy preferences.

For instance, various reports have noted Jill Stein’s attendance at the 10th anniversary celebration for RT. During election season I was willing to hear Stein out on Russia, which always struck me as an enemy-of-my-enemies kind of thing, as echoed in a posting to Wall Street on Parade from December 2016, which defends RT America for giving a platform to many independent journalists and professors critical of Wall Street corruption, whose analyses would otherwise go unheard: “RT America has allowed independent journalists and professors adequate time to make detailed arguments against establishment group-think in America,” they write, “something that is regularly lacking on corporate-controlled news media in the U.S.”

Fair enough. However, a January 2017 article by Peter Hess in the science and culture news site Inverse situated such ostensibly critical perspectives in relation to a report issued by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, which presented RT as a “‘messaging tool’” for a state-sponsored campaign to destabilize U.S. elections. As just one example, writes Hess, “the DNI report cites coverage such as RT America’s programming that opposes fracking, ‘highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.’”

Well, cool, right? But as Hess goes on to write, “Such programming might not raise eyebrows, since U.S. outlets also cover fracking in similar light. But this report alleges that these RT America stories are motivated by a desire to keep U.S. natural gas interests from competing with Russian company Gazprom’s profitability.”

More recentlyjust this morning, in factI read an account in Salon questioning whether Russia is involved in a more coordinated campaign to fund U.S. anti-fracking work, again out of an interest in protecting Gazprom’s access to European markets. This article cites the same DNI report but also claims by some Republican congressmen that the Kremlin is funding U.S. environmental groups (a claim the Salon article more or less debunks), as well as a transcribed speech Hillary Clinton gave in Canada, released by Russian hackers to Wikileaks.

While U.S. intelligence agencies, GOP congressmen, and Hillary Clinton herself can hardly be considered allies of communities fighting corporate exploitation and state repressionjust ask the family of Berta Cáceres, in the case of Clintonallegations about RT’s real motivations for their anti-fracking coverage gave me pause, given that the producer contacted us specifically about our reporting on pipeline struggles.

Then there was the case of Liz Wahl, former RT America correspondent who quit on live television and later went public about her decision. In an article later published by Politico entitled “I Was Putin’s Pawn,” Wahl writes that, in the guise of “pitch[ing] the network as an alternative news source that dared to challenge conventions” RT‘s critiques of U.S. policy are offered “for the sake of making the Kremlin look better by comparison, while it sugarcoat[s] atrocities by one brutal dictator after another.” For instance, the network featured wall-to-wall coverage of Occupy Wall Street, but ignored massive demonstrations in Moscow over a third Putin term. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was similarly whitewashed, leading Wahl to finally quit:

I decided I could not work for a station that was spewing lies to justify Russian military intervention in a sovereign country. … On the Wednesday I planned to be my last day, every story relating to Ukraine seemed designed to push Putin’s warped view toward the country. I had a pre-taped interview that day with none other than Ron Paul. The news director emailed me a list of questions like this one: ‘Isn’t it fascinating how US officials and the mainstream media are able to quickly arrive at a moral judgment condemning foreign interventionism on the part of Russia while, at the same time, blocking out of their minds all the foreign interventionism on the part of the US government for the past many decades?’

I didn’t ask Paul all the questions I was given, and I substituted some of my own, including what the United States should do in light of Russia invading. How should Washington respond? Later, I saw the video editor cutting out ‘Russia invading’ after, he said, higher-ups ordered him to do so. (Russia is not characterizing its actions as an invasion.) The uncensored version of the interview was posted online briefly before it was taken down and replaced with the edited one.

I’d read enough. We wrote the producer back, curtly: no, it’s not okay to use our footage. We also notified folks in West Texas of our decision so that they could make their own, should RT America come sniffing around offering important-sounding international coverage.

By and large, my analysis of this incident has remained largely gut-levela funny little story. However, during a lunchtime scroll through my phone’s news app earlier this week, I came across a well-reasoned analysis by Matt Yglesias in Vox which gives a broader context for my felt sense. Yglesias makes a convincing case that Kremlin efforts to install a rightist, authoritarian regime here in the U.S. as a means of furthering their own state interests centrally turned on a well-timed exploitation of tensions within the U.S. left.

I ingest so much news so quickly these days, like everyone else, that I’ve come to mostly skip over the avalanche of editorial commentary on the Trump administration. These days, in a weird turn of events, I have become much less anxious about what things mean (which seems apparent) than about what is actually happening and what will happen next. Analysis has become far less precious than breaking news.

That said, I found Yglesias’s analysis quite resonant personally, not only in its ability to contextualize our personal encounter with RT America but on a more mundane, day-to-day level as well.

I thought, for instance, of a woman I work with, who has been estranged from her sister since the election because of Clinton/Sanders stuff. She’s furious that her sister supported Green Party candidate Jill Stein when Sanders lost the nomination, feeling that she thereby helped elect Trump. The sister in turn holds fast to the argument that a centrist, establishment Democratic Party only has itself to blame. Crazy to think that these intimate scuffles at the smallest scales might also have been nourished at the largest.

Ultimately, I am not prepared to say anything definitive about the ever-dizzier web of allegations and counter-allegations about Russian interference in U.S. elections, or to weigh claims about which flavor of limitations on press freedom to critique one’s governmentU.S. or Russian, corporate-sponsored or state-sponsoredtastes worse.

I do know this: movements for earth protection and environmental justice do not need an outlet like RT America to legitimize what they’re doing. We can criticize our own state apparatuses, with their deep and bloody histories of colonialism and economic exploitation, without the assistance of other state apparatuses.

Besides. That RT America producer’s last gig was a Sarah Palin talk show…come on now.