Putin’s People Are Not Happy With Us

January 19, 2016
Mashable | Wikipedia Commons

The last two years have been rather tough for the Russian government’s main English-language propaganda outlet, RT.

Following Russia’s illegal and nearly-universally-condemned annexation of the Crimean peninsula, RT anchor Liz Wahl, then anchor and correspondent Sara Firth, quit in protest of what they called “propaganda” which they were forced to spread in order to cover up the Kremlin’s foreign policy activity.

Many of the personalities who remained on the network had their reputations damaged by their own words. The Interpreter alone documented an RT editor who knew information on their website was fake but kept the content up for weeks; a German “expert” and frequent guest who is really a major neo-Nazi leader and publicist; another frequent RT guest who is a 9/11 truther and avowed racist; an RT host who believes that some of the victims of 9/11 knew about the attack beforehand and tried to capitalize on it; a “whistle-blower” and financial expert for RT who thinks that the World Bank and the Vatican are run by a species of non-human coneheads (which is why the pope wears a big hat); yet another RT host who thinks North Korea would be a nice place to live; an anchor who interviewed an entertainer (named by RT as a journalist) who thinks HIV does not cause AIDS; an (already discredited) RT field correspondent who made up a story about being shot at in Ukraine and filmed evidence that proves he was lying; a “human rights expert” who, despite being a holocaust denier who is friends with convicted hate criminals, is a frequent guest on RT; and an RT columnist who is an associate of a now-deported Russian agent and who threatened to sue us just for asking basic questions about his resume. Our work on RT had an effect — basic Google searches of some of RT’s favorite guests and personalities netted our articles exposing these people as cranks. And this, of course, does not even mention our near-daily debunking of Kremlin propaganda, spread by RT, concerning Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, and our special reports tearing apart RT’s coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the shooting down of civilian airliner MH17.

Not only has the network been further discredited by having to defend increasingly-obvious Kremlin deceptions, RT’s claims about its importance and reach have also been undermined. Despite their boasts that they have the largest online audience of any news agency in the world, leaked documents and independent analysis of RT’s own content show that the Kremlin-run news outlet is misrepresenting its viewership and in fact has a minuscule audience in the West. Not only are “its most-watched segments are on ‘metrosexuals, bums,’ and earthquakes,” but its most popular content are video reposted from other news agencies. Many Youtube videos which feature RT’s original content average between 200 and 300 views — hardly comparable to the BBC or private networks like CNN or Fox.

Beyond these problems, 2016 will bring a 9% budget cut for the propaganda station, the result of Russia’s quickly-evaporating wealth as a result of low oil prices, currency devaluation, and financial mismanagement.

So one might understand why Putin’s people are a bit grumpy.

There has been a significant debate about whether RT is worth the attention that many have paid them, especially since very few now take them seriously. In fact, The Interpreter has been told by some readers that they are not worth our time. In principle, we believe that a $300 million Kremlin-directed propaganda outlet, which is consistently proven wrong, is worth writing about. In practice, however, it’s been a very long time since we felt RT was important enough to write an entire article on the topic.

RT, however, seems to think that our magazine — with our staff of three writers and a budget which is less than 1/2000th of theirs — is enemy number one. On Monday, RT’s Crosstalk, which they describe as their “flagship program,” spent a 30-minute show maligning The Interpreter and lying about our funding sources in light of our recent announcement that this magazine is now funded by RFE/RL.

In the segment, titled “offensive propaganda,” there are few facts, a lot of name calling, and a significant amounts of talk about things which have no bearing to The Interpreter or our work. Yet there are still factual errors. For instance, one guest repeatedly states that The Interpreter is funded by Institute of Modern Russia, despite the fact that both our announcement of our new funding and RFE/RL’s clearly state that this is no longer the case. While none of our full-time writers are even mentioned, RT’s guests attack The Interpreter by attacking our “friends” like Russian journalist Masha Gessen whom they describe as “mental.” Not only is Gessen a well-respected journalist and author, she’s never written for our magazine. Journalist Peter Pomerantsev is also mentioned, and while he did co-author a paper about Russian propaganda (a paper which was heavily critical of RT) with The Interpreter‘s Editor-In-Chief Michael Weiss, he is not a member of our staff nor has he contributed other articles to our magazine. Leon Aron is also mentioned by one guest, and not only is he not a contributor to this publication, a search on The Interpreter shows that he has not even been mentioned by any of our writers in nearly two years. Anne Applebaum, Ed Lucas, and other journalists are mentioned who have no association with this magazine at all.

To be clear, these journalists are respected colleagues, hard working, and knowledgeable, and RT does not even make an attempt to point out what is wrong about any of them, but none of the authors mentioned are directly associated with this magazine. In other words, the RT segment is nothing more than a series of substance-free ad hominem attacks against a list of disparate writers, and somehow this is supposed to convince their viewers that The Interpreter is somehow a “dangerous” and sinister government plot to “dissolve” Russia.

It’s almost as if none of RT’s guests have ever even read our content.

RT’s guests also say a series of statements that are so ridiculous that perhaps they require no examination here. One guest argues that the Cold War is over and so “having Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty makes as much sense as having NATO.” Another says that “they” (meaning, I presume, The Interpreter and RFE/RL) often call RT a propaganda network, “but they never give any empirical evidence, they never cite an example of what they mean by that.” Again, these guys clearly don’t read The Interpreter.

This is hardly the first time RT has attacked this publication. In fact, one of their authors, Bryan MacDonald, a “journalist” of questionable credentials, has mentioned The Interpreter at least ten times in just the last year in both articles and video segments. Is that because we are a tour de force of American propaganda, or is it because we exposed some of his own questionable online modus operandi in the past?

In reality, not a single article published by RT or any of its guests has ever disproved or debunked a single thing that The Interpreter or any of its staff members have written. The opposite, as you can see from just a few of the examples we have listed above, is not true.

A debate or a discussion of the facts is welcomed, but that is not what RT has done here (nor do they ever). This is just name calling, and RT’s continual focus on The Interpreter belays the fact that our efforts to carefully document what the Russian government is doing, both at home and abroad, has netted results.

Frankly, we’re flattered.