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Liz Wahl and Abby Martin: When Journalists Attack

The past couple of days have brought a very public show of journalistic upheaval and rebellion the likes of which hasn't been seen in quite a while. At issue is the kind of news coverage that's being cranked out by RT, a state-run, English-speaking version of Russian television. Abby Martin and Liz Wahl both spoke out against the Russian government, but in much different ways.
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The past couple of days have seen a very public show of journalistic upheaval and rebellion the likes of which hasn't been witnessed in quite a while. At issue is the kind of news coverage that's being cranked out by RT, a state-run, English-speaking version of Russian television. First it was Abby Martin, breaking protocol at RT and saying frankly on-air from the network's D.C. studios that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is wrong. While RT acknowledged that Martin went way off-message, it promises not to reprimand her. But that was the mere appetizer for yesterday's shocking on-air resignation of Liz Wahl, who even more frankly said that RT is little more than a pro-Putin propaganda engine, and one she couldn't in good conscience work for anymore as an American. RT immediately released a blistering but somewhat laughable statement attacking Wahl, calling what she did little more than a self-serving publicity stunt.

Last night, both Martin and Wahl appeared on CNN to make their respective cases about RT and why they said what they said about it. Martin insisted to Piers Morgan that she has "complete editorial freedom" on her show and claimed that RT in general is under no less control than any American corporate media outlet. Wahl, meanwhile, told Anderson Cooper that RT is in fact very strictly controlled by the Kremlin to the point of its being basically an information outlet for the Russian government's point-of-view -- one not interested in the objective truth -- and a place where "bashing America" is all but expected.

So who's right here? Well, each of these women has a different experience at RT, certainly, and to some extent they're both right. Martin's correct when she says that corporate ownership of a media outlet can negatively influence coverage, sometimes in subtle ways and occasionally, though rarely, in ways that are anything but. But the amount of bias often depends on the company owning the outlet -- with Fox News practically being the "America, Fuck Yeah" mirror image of RT, right down to Fox having trademarked the smarmy, backhanded "we wish her well" brush-off of that Liz Wahl got from RT in yesterday's press release -- and the editorial positioning of the outlet itself. NBC notoriously neglected to cover a story three years ago about its parent company, GE, paying no taxes despite making billions in profit; there have also been accusations of a conflict of interest when the network reports on war stories simply because GE makes quite a bit of the U.S.'s weaponry.

To say that corporate ownership, however, is typically as dangerous to a news department's objectivity as being under the top-down control of an authoritarian government -- well, that's staggeringly naive at best, outright horseshit at worst. Certainly there are state-controlled media operations where the state's influence is largely benign: the BBC, Al Jazeera, etc. Likewise it's hugely important, and relatively easy, in the current media climate to get news, views, and opinion from outside one's own country. But Russia isn't benign -- to think so is ludicrous -- and when it comes to points-of-view that either cast the United States in a bad light or work to shore up public support for the Russian government's military adventures, what you see on the network should be at least taken with a grain of salt.

Do American outlets sometimes tend to be negligent in their pushing back against the official word from the United States government? Absolutely. But the issue there is usually laziness, incompetence, and access, not a very stern recommendation from on-high that they not ask any questions. (Although it can be argued that not confronting power when you're not being told that you can't is doubly inexcusable.) Overall, Martin's seeming 1:1 correlation between America's corporate media and Russia's Kremlin-controlled media just doesn't hold water. She accuses "all of the TV networks in the U.S. of being equally compliant with U.S. policy." That's comically untrue. It sounds good as a battle cry and makes for a nice superficial "gotcha," but peel back the layers and look at the facts and it's a crap argument.

Liz Wahl's statement of defiance against RT is exactly that: a suicide run at RT. Unlike Abby Martin, who expressed dissent against one action of RT's government overseers, Wahl attacked the network itself and what she believes it stands for and against. There's simply no arguing that what she did took guts even above and beyond what Martin did (and what Martin did was pretty gutsy, although her PR blitz and defense of the network can be used by the Russian government to make the case that it does, in fact, allow for a certain amount of dissent on RT). Wahl outed the alleged bias within RT's news department, which, it can be argued, would be even more offensive than a slant within the network's opinion shows, since straight news is supposed to be just that -- straight. RT can argue all it wants that the correct tack for a disgruntled employee to take is to send his or her complaints up the food chain, but Wahl knew that if she did that she'd simply be fired and if she went public beyond that there's a possibility few would listen. She did cause a spectacle, but in this case it was probably necessary. Going out in a blaze of glory was what the situation required.

In the end, neither action by Martin or Wahl will do much to change RT's editorial bent -- and that's precisely because it is a Russian government outlet, one immune to public pressure or influence by the market. It's an autonomous organization. You simply have to trust that what it's telling you is the truth. And how do you feel about trusting it right now?