Abby Martin, an anchor for the Kremlin-funded news channel Russia Today, launched herself into the headlines this week by sternly denouncing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. On her show Breaking The Set, she said: “Just because I work here, for RT, doesn't mean I don't have editorial independence and I can't stress enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in sovereign nations' affairs. What Russia did is wrong.” Given that RT is widely regarded as a 24-hour propaganda machine engineered to polish Russia’s image abroad, Martin shocked many with her outburst. Bob talks with Martin about why she wasn't afraid to speak out.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
This week, as the global media fixated on Russia's military takeover of Crimea, two American journalists for the Kremlin- funded news channel Russia Today launched themselves into the story. On Wednesday, RT anchor Liz Wahl announced her resignation live on air.
LIZ WAHL: Personally, I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth and that is why, after this newscast I’m resigning.
BOB GARFIELD: Her departure followed the sensation triggered by another RT host, Abby Martin, who ended her daily program Breaking the Set, on Monday with an off-script denunciation of Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
ABBY MARTIN: Just because I work here for RT doesn’t mean I don’t have editorial independence. And I can’t stress enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs. What Russia did is wrong. I admittedly don’t know as much as I should about Ukraine’s history or the cultural dynamics of the region, but what I do know is that military intervention is never the answer. And I will not sit here and apologize or defend military aggression. Furthermore, the coverage I’ve seen of Ukraine has been truly disappointing, from all sides of the media spectrum, and rife with disinformation.
BOB GARFIELD: Given that RT is widely regarded as a 24-hour propaganda machine, engineered to polish Russia's image abroad, Abby Martin shocked many with her outburst. However, the firebrand media critic who caught RT’s eye while an Occupy activist and a 9/11 Truther, says she wasn’t afraid to speak out, despite RT’s pro-Russian slant.
ABBY MARTIN: I knew that there would come a day when I wouldn't agree with what Russia was doing and I knew that I would have to speak out when that day came and risk my job. And that day came on Monday. And it was really, really incredible to see everything that happened in the aftermath and just be able to keep my job and have my network recognize that it’s good to have dissent. And I will continue to speak out against what I think is wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: The response by your RT management has been kind of all over the place.
ABBY MARTIN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: First, they said it proves their editorial independence, then that you’ve been somehow brainwashed by Western media coverage. But then they said they’re going to dispatch you [LAUGHS] to Crimea, I guess for a first-hand reporting on the subject, but it sounded kind of punitive, in a sort of Russian frontish way.
ABBY MARTIN: That was a strange one. I woke up to kind of the statement that was already circulating saying I was being shipped to Crimea. And I said, that’s funny, I haven’t been asked. [LAUGHS] So I go in, into the network and, and, you know, they, they kindly asked me, they said, we’d love to send you there today. And I just said, look, I would never go unless I could have the time to make my own contacts in Kiev, on the ground, get proper training, that I would reconsider in the future if I could do my independent research and have an independent trip, other than taking the chance of having a vetted experience, not that they said that it would be. I didn’t want to take that chance.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm. Now, from here, your denunciation of the Kremlin's policy had a sort of shock, shock. There’s gambling going on and this establishment vibe to it. I mean, you do, after all, work for a Kremlin-funded channel that puts a Putin-friendly gloss on almost everything it reports.
ABBY MARTIN: I mean, you’re working on a network that accepts money from oil companies, I mean, and you – you guys omit information about different things happening in the Gulf of Mexico oil spills. I think all of us in the media understand that the payment comes from somewhere, and there’s a lot of self-censorship going on. But, like I said, I knew that there would be a time where I couldn’t not speak out against Putin and against Russia and I would risk losing my job. In fact, people have, I mean, established media, they’ve gotten fired for it. And RT gives me a lot of freedom.
BOB GARFIELD: Just for the record, I’ll say there’s no self-censorship going on, on this end of the microphone.
But before this episode, Abby, you were like nobody’s idea of a wallflower. You’ve railed against both US policy and US media. I understand in your promos for the media criticism show you host, you smash a television with a sledgehammer?
ABBY MARTIN: Indeed. I think what the US was doing in Ukraine, meddling and helping kind of fund the opposition movement was wrong, and I called it out. And the second that I saw Russia advance with its military, I said, you know what, this is wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: After your denunciation of Putin’s actions in Crimea, your colleague Liz Wahl resigned [LAUGHS] live on the air, calling RT’s coverage of Ukraine a whitewash. What was the reaction among your colleagues?
ABBY MARTIN: I can only speak for myself ‘cause she kind of left right after that happened. But all my colleagues were really proud of me. Everyone really supported what I did. And I work with pretty much all just really passionate American journalists who work at this network so we can speak out against different things that other corporate entities can't speak out against that are beholden to their advertisers or parrot the establishment line.
BOB GARFIELD: I certainly get that you believe a big swath of western media is sort of corporate-funded propaganda, including NPR. But has this episode made you think about the wisdom or practicality of fighting one kind of propaganda with explicit propaganda from the Kremlin?
ABBY MARTIN: Come on, man! That’s such a cheap shot. You guys are doing the same thing, as well as every other person working in a media outlet that is funded by questionable entities. I mean, come on! I have total journalistic integrity and editorial freedom to say what I want to say. So are you saying that I shouldn’t have the platform to do that just because the Kremlin, or whatever you’re saying, even though it’s grants in Russia, just like BBC and Aljazeera, I mean, if I can’t speak out about those things then, of course, I wouldn’t work here. And if I got fired, then that would be a bigger story.
You have to ask the question, why do I have to work for RT? To tell the truth [LAUGHS] about the US establishment and what’s really happening. You try to hold corporations accountable for their actions.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you going to keep our job?
ABBY MARTIN: I don’t know.
BOB GARFIELD: We know about the avoided attempt to send you to [LAUGHS] Crimea, but what have your bosses said to you?
ABBY MARTIN: My boss just said, I support your decision to speak out. We value your show and we value your integrity.
BOB GARFIELD: Has anything taken place in the aftermath of your on-air statement that particularly surprised or amused or horrified you?
ABBY MARTIN: I think the most amusing thing is how it got viral just because it fit this insane cold war resurrection going on all across the establishment press, trying to just demonize everything about Russia right now. They latched onto it, and then when they realized my politics were too radical to fit into their paradigm, they just smeared me.
BOB GARFIELD: Smeared, how?
ABBY MARTIN: Oh, just dredging up everything that I’ve ever done in the last ten years, totally misquoting me, mischaracterizing who I am, just to try to tear me down and say, this is all staged. I mean, it’s just absurd, the level that people would go to, to try to minimize risking a job on a network paid by the Kremlin to speak out against Russia. And that’s really the bottom line of the story. And, unfortunately, a lot of people, you know, took off with it and tried to make their own stories out of this.
BOB GARFIELD: Abby, thank you so much.
ABBY MARTIN: Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Abby Martin is host of “Breaking the Set” on Russia Today.