BOB GARFIELD: But what exactly is Russia Today? If a journalist criticizing the government is a shock, how much journalism is happening there, in the first place, as opposed to PR? Newsweek’s Matthew Cooper wrote that “When it comes to Ukraine, RT is like going to a Cold War theme park, only without the breadlines.” At the National Journal, Lucia Graves wrote that, according to RT, the crisis in Crimea is an adventure filled with, quote, “tea, sandwiches and selfies.” BuzzFeed’s list of the most insane moments from RT’s coverage included this accusation of American hypocrisy.
RT CORRESPONDENT: Double standards, galore. Washington suffers sleepless nights and paranoia when it comes to the nuclear capabilities of countries like Iran.
US CORRESPONDENT: Iran’s nuclear program.
US CORRESPONDENT: Iran’s nuclear program.
US CORRESPENDENT: Iran’s nuclear program.
RT CORRESPONDENT: But the US turns a blind eye when it comes to provocative statements coming out of Kiev.
[CROWD HUBBUB][END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Because Ukraine is such a threat to neighboring – wait, what? According to Julia Ioffe, senior editor at The New Republic, RT's coverage is perfectly balanced, between promoting Vladimir Putin and ridiculing the West.
JULIA IOFFE: They love running stories about American homelessness, the American government and the British government spying on their own citizens, as if the rest of the media is not reporting critically on this. They ignore the things that are not convenient. So, for example, Russia Today was all over covering antiwar protests in the US and in the West this summer, when there was a threat of Western military intervention in Syria, to show that Western governments kind of drag their own people in - kicking and screaming into war because, you know, that’s what the corrupt West does.
However, there were antiwar protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, when Putin asked for the authorization of the use of force in Ukraine. Those protests were brutally broken up by police. Hundreds of people were arrested. Was there a single mention of that on Russia Today? The answer is no.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any real news that kind of launders the propaganda that’s at the heart of the channel?
JULIA IOFFE: Well, they’re able to get access to people that other media doesn’t, so they were one of the first, for example, to broadcast a long interview with Bashar al-Assad, you know, obviously, drawing on their sponsor’s close ties to him. And I find myself, for example, retweeting some of their breaking news. But often, I find their coverage quite comical. It’s like watching Colbert without the irony. [BOB LAUGHING]No, I’m serious. They had, for example, when Julian Assange - who is quite a complicated figure - when he was trying to be extradited to Sweden to face charges of sexual abuse, Russia Today did a long exposé about how Sweden had actually become a colony of the US, and they had some strange professor in Coke bottle glasses talking about how they were showing reruns of Deer Hunter on Swedish TV and this was proof. And they called it "the United States of Swedamerica.”
BOB GARFIELD: You did a piece where you interviewed staffers at Russia Today.
JULIA IOFFE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: And they said, yeah, we understand it’s not exactly a news organization, but the checks don't bounce. Surely they understand what the role of this organization is. How do they go work in the morning?
JULIA IOFFE: They started hiring during a really intense media crisis in the West, and people were coming out of journalism schools with very dim job prospects. And here comes Russia Today offering really fat paychecks and a really cool experience. You know, go live in Russia, of all places, and you get to be on TV.
The problem is that these people in Moscow, as I saw it, led pretty sheltered lives and didn't really understand the country around them very well.
The Russians who worked there, you know, there’s fewer and fewer jobs to go around there too, and that’s because the Kremlin is cracking down on independent media and forcing outlets to close or having them taken over by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. So you kind of start to do the things that people did in the Soviet Union, where you try to walk a really fine line, and you work for this organization but you try not to do the really odious stories. You try to do things like, oh, I just focus on culture and theater. And so, what I do is okay.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of crossing that line, earlier in the week one of RT’s hosts, Abby Martin, in the middle of her broadcast took the opportunity to condemn the invasion in Crimea, declaring that she has the journalistic independence to say so.
JULIA IOFFE: They said, oh look, we really have freedom of speech but most people haven’t read the Russian response of Margarita Simonyan, who’s the editor-in-chief of this channel and is just a vicious attack dog in defense of Kremlin policies. She wrote that this is how good the Western propaganda machine is, that they’ve managed to sully the mind of even the most ardent Russia Today employees and we need to work that much harder to defeat the Western propaganda machine. When your editor-in-chief talks like that, you’re not a news organization. You’re a propaganda machine, yourself.
BOB GARFIELD: Can Russians see RT?
JULIA IOFFE: They can, online. But it’s for the West, and now they also have a Spanish language channel and an Arabic language channel. I don’t know where Americans, frankly, can see RT outside of hotel rooms.
BOB GARFIELD: It makes me wonder whether we are getting our skivvies in a wad over essentially nothing, right? If propaganda falls in the forest and everybody is watching the Game Show Network, does it really matter?
JULIA IOFFE: I think it does matter, because RT, especially as it expands its US bureaus in New York and Washington, has been trying for years to show itself as a serious newsgathering organization and trying to get more people to watch them. And it’s fine to watch them. You just should know what you’re watching, that this isn’t analogous to say, CNN, or even to MSNBC or Fox.
BOB GARFIELD: The United States has Voice of America. It has a 24-hour news channel called Al Hurra. We’re not shy ourselves about putting across the US point of view. Is there a difference between our version of propaganda and, and Russia’s?
JULIA IOFFE: Voice of America doesn’t try to present itself as a news organization, as a straight-up organization, and people know what it is. Russia Today is trying to fly under the radar and kind of have it both ways.
The problem is that this is also a classic Russian tactic. They love to spend money on changing their image, rather than to focus their efforts on changing the things that drive the perception, their actions, their corruption, things like that. This reminds me of this Russian blogger, a photographer who does a news photo blog. And one day he was photographing a bunch of paratroopers celebrating Paratrooper Day in Russia and frolicking in the fountains in their underwear, kissing each other and just being drunk and almost naked in public. It happens once a year in Russia. He was approached by a cop and the cop said, why are you making Russia look bad?
So it’s not the guys frolicking in the fountain and just being obliterated in public. It’s the photographer getting those images out that makes Russia look bad. And this is very much the logic in which Russia Today was created and operates.
BOB GARFIELD: Julia, thank you so much.
JULIA IOFFE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.