You might not have even noticed you were watching it, but RT has become one of the most widely viewed news services on the internet.
The network has made inroads with young American viewers with its comprehensive coverage of stories that go underreported by major American media outlets. An early focus on sharing segments of those broadcasts via YouTube made it the first TV news channel to reach a billion views online.
In 2011, RT (which dropped the original name “Russia Today” altogether in 2009) focused a great deal of its coverage on Occupy Wall Street, and has since turned to a strategy of hiring American political commentators and television personalities like Lee Camp, Abby Martin and Larry King.
The Kremlin-funded outlet has practically unlimited resources, which have allowed it to present itself, without advertising, as the alternative to what it characterizes as corporate American media.
At the same time, RT has put an American face on its coverage to offset the notion that it’s the voice of the Russian government. If you turn on RT, you are likely to see the commentary of American celebrities, from Immortal Technique to Steven Seagal.
But intertwined with Russia Today’s coverage of police brutality and NSA spying are attempts to improve Putin’s image when his leadership comes under criticism. Sometimes the pro-Putin editorial line is quite subtle — in a widely publicized segment Abbey Martin even denounced the Russian annexation of Crimea lending some credibility to the argument that RT is an independent network. If anything this was the exception that proves the rule because often the network’s primary function as a Kremlin outlet is blatantly obvious.
One particularly Orwellian example was RT’s coverage of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s assassination. When Putin’s fiercest Russian critic was gunned down in central Moscow blocks from the Kremlin, RT offered a very troubling version of events:
“This assassination is meant to create trouble, and if politicians in Russia or world wide would start playing the blame game and putting it on president Putin or any other force in Russia, then it means the assassins will have succeeded.”
The supposedly independent RT commentator immediately parrots the words of Putin’s spokesman who used the phrase “100% provocation” when describing the murder. The segment goes on to accuse the western media of jumping to conclusions too soon without challenging the immediate insinuation that the assassination was a foreign conspiracy to discredit Putin.
Many of the American guests, who have offered views on Syria and Ukraine similar to Moscow’s, have a much darker side. The news service promotes well-known white supremacists and Holocaust deniers as “activists” and “philosophers.”
Ryan “Ry” Dawson, the producer of numerous films denying the Holocaust is presented as a “political blogger” when asked for his commentary on the crisis in Ukraine.
Dawson is a rising star in the robust American conspiracy culture online. His commentary focuses on familiar conspiracy themes, like 9/11, government surveillance and the New World Order, but it is particularly troubling because of the obsessive focus on a familiar fascist theme of an international Jewish conspiracy.
For years, there has been a segment of the American public that believes in conspiracies about JFK, 9/11, the moon landing and UFOs, but generally these people are not Holocaust deniers or Nazi sympathizers. Dawson’s YouTube channel, however, is replete with content that that would be quite unsettling to most RT viewers in the U.S. His channel contains hours of videos and documentaries with titles like “Holohoax” and “The Holocaust Deception,” as well as interviews with other Holocaust revisionists.
Gordon Duff has been featured on RT numerous times as a commentator on subjects from the war in Syria to the 2013 Navy Yard shooting. While he is presented as the editor of an “independent news site” when he is on RT, the Vietnam veteran is actually an outspoken Holocaust denier with close ties to white supremacists. In an editorial on Veterans Today, Gordon Duff called former KKK grand-Wizard David Duke “a powerful and charismatic speaker with more than a minor sense of honor and a total loyalty to the truth.”
So while RT features a deceptive stream of well-meaning, ostensibly liberal guests like Chris Hedges and Joe Rogan, there are numerous superstars of the far right on RT’s roster.
RT presents itself as a liberal alternative in the United States, but in Europe it is the flagship of resurgent nationalist parties. An editorial line that strongly endorses nationalist parties is apparent in RT’s coverage of European politics: racist parties like the French “National Front” are presented as Euro-skeptics, and in some instances, people who self-identify as Nazis have been given favorable coverage. Alain Soral is a notorious right wing French writer whose work is steeped in an obsessive hatred of Jews and belief in an international Jewish conspiracy. In the intro of one of his books, Soral clearly states that he considers himself a national socialist. None of this stopped RT from presenting him as a political philosopher and focusing on his international policy views, which, unsurprisingly, are pro-Russian.
Marine Le Pen, the head of the French anti-immigrant right, is granted star treatment by the network. The network’s interview with Le Pen begins with what sounds more like a campaign ad than an introduction:
“Marine Le Pen is breathing down the neck of the establishment and challenging patriarchy. In multiculturalism’s graveyard, could she lead the way? Will she have the strength to save the sinking ship and return France to its simple pleasures? We talk to the leading lady of French politics.”
The network’s bias is clear.
The intellectual laziness and sensationalism of major American media outlets is largely to blame for RT’s appeal to younger viewers, and its ability to disguise pro-Putin propaganda as alternative media.
For years, major American news channels have been silent on issues that matter more and more to young people. Issues like police brutality, Israeli war crimes in Gaza, money in politics, and protest movements have been underreported or ignored by cable news. That silence, coupled with a clear shift towards tabloid coverage, has destroyed the credibility of American cable news with younger audiences.
RT excels at filling this vacuum while painting Russian leadership in a positive light.
Despite a very refined strategy, the Ukrainian crisis has proved particularly challenging for the image of the network. The Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, blatant oppression of Putin’s opponents, and anti gay rhetoric coming from Moscow are not likely to endear Putin to American viewers.
RT was rocked by the very public on-air resignation of presenter Liz Wahl who subsequently accused the network of publicizing pro-Putin propaganda. In an apparent case of damage control, RT aired a segment implying that the resignation was part of a neoconservative conspiracy.
Despite these troubles, RT continues to expand. Ironically, the network signed a lucrative contract with the Israeli company RRsat, which distributes RT’s content in the United States. A new UK-based RT channel was also launched last year.
For the time being, RT continues to feature right wing extremists as guests alongside a multitude of American celebrities. While some challenge the network’s credibility, it remains popular with young left-leaning Americans who see mere snapshots of the network’s polarizing content making the rounds online.
There are no signs that the network intends to distance itself from any of its Islamophobic or anti-Semitic commentators at any point in the future, and there is every indication that RT will continue promoting the pro-Putin extreme right in Europe. Even though Putin’s image is increasingly tarnished in the U.S., RT and its guests have his back. As Steven Seagal stated in a bizarre interview with the network, “[Putin] is one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive today.”
Most RT viewers are probably not as enthusiastic about Putin as Steven Seagal is. But the Kremlin’s savvy and sophisticated mouthpiece has the attention of millions of young Americans, whether they know it or not.