The ongoing crisis in Crimea hasn’t brought only Russian foreign policy into the news. It has also thrust RT, a network funded by the Russian government and formerly called “Russia Today,” into prominence. Despite RT’s slick image and array of young, fluent English-speaking hosts, many international observers have noted that RT’s coverage of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, um, differs from other news organizations.”Though the station is frequently cartoonish,” Dan Murphy wrote earlier this week, its positive coverage of the Russian military intervention in Ukrainian territory “is nonetheless a reflection of how the Kremlin sees the world and/or wishes it to be.”
But leaving aside RT’s value as a window into the worldview the Russian government seeks to advance, I’d like to focus on the ineptitude Murphy highlights. Early this week RT host Abby Martin closed her show by apparently going off-script and denouncing the Russian invasion.
Martin’s message attracted wide attention on social media, with Glenn Greenwald acidly commenting that the Kremlin-owned RT hosts more dissent than private US news media did during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, RT segments where Martin denounced water fluoridation and questioned whether the 9/11 attacks were what they seemed — in other words, classic conspiracy theories — quickly surfaced. Martin has also claimed that there is no difference between RT and US corporate media, a view which is somewhat defensible but marginalizes the highly-relevant fact that RT directly answers to the autocratic Russian state in a way US private media does not.
Martin’s statement was followed by the Wednesday on-air resignation of another American RT host, Liz Wahl. Despite Wahl’s public recognition of the “many ethical and moral challenges” of working at RT, her and Martin’s actions strengthen, rather than weaken, RT’s mission as a propaganda arm of the Russian government. After all, a real propaganda network wouldn’t allow such dissent, right? Disconcertingly, this view is already being repeated by some Western commentators.
But why does RT host conspiracy theories, anyway? After all, RT’s mission is propagating a sympathetic view of Russian political aims internationally. Unlike Martin and Wahl’s denouements of Russian foreign policy, hosting stilly conspiracies sabotages this mission, because it illustrates that RT is not a trustworthy news source. Instead, we would expect that RT do everything it can to conceal what it really is by mostly broadcasting unbiased analysis, so only dedicated viewers are aware of its biases. RT’s Iranian analogs, Fars News and Press TV, broadcast their bias through cartoonish ineptitude, but this seems to be due to incompetence; a general incompetence RT’s polish seems to contradict. Notably, even if taking the most cynical possible view of US government-funded broadcasters, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty do not host conspiracy theories.
So why the conspiracy theories? A few, um, theories of my own:
- RT doesn’t care. Perhaps RT feels that broadcasting conspiracy theories doesn’t sabotage its mission of disseminating pro-Russian viewpoints. After all, RT doesn’t demonstrate any real commitment to subtlety anyway, so maybe it makes no effort to conceal its true type at all.
- All bad press is good press. Maybe RT producers green-light broadcasting 9/11 conspiracy theories because they judge that all coverage critical of the United States, even discredited conspiracy theories, furthers its mission.
- Lack of oversight. It’s also possible that RT’s overseers don’t exercise particularly close oversight over its segments. As long as stories dealing with Russia and US foreign policy stick to the script, perhaps producers and hosts are otherwise allowed creative freedom. It’s also possible that RT itself attracts unconventional thinkers — cough, cough — who are susceptible to conspiracy theories and otherwise unable to find a job in mainstream media, though I would suspect that given the difficulty of succeeding in the broadcast news industry RT’s staff are no different than their more successful mainstream peers.
- Know your (receptive) audience*: It has been suggested that online confidence tricks like “Nigerian prince” scam emails contain many spelling errors or other implausibilities as a means of filtering out all but the most gullible early on, before the more labor-intensive stages of the scam. Perhaps RT follows a similar logic, deciding that an audience who values and shares stories on conspiracy theories are more likely to accept the narrative RT is actually interested in promoting, while driving away less credible viewers.
My familiarity with RT is basically limited to occasionally watching Robert Farley’s appearances on Alyona Minkovski’s show (Minkovski has since left the network, and is now at HuffPost Live). Does anyone more familiar with RT broadcasting have a theory?
Finally, it is worth noting that the groupthink tendencies and access-driven nature of US media is a real concern, and recognizing RT’s nature should not be seen as an endorsement of the dominant US broadcast news culture.
*I added this fourth possibility as an update.