How often is the main topic of the news the inner workings of the news itself? How often is the news industry forced to look inside itself, or at least partake in some mild navel gazing?
But, like any other topic in the news, the events that transpired, and continue to transpire at the RT network, have been hijacked by anyone and everyone looking to use this as ammo in a fight, only tangentially related, taking place on a much larger scale.
On March 5th, Liz Wahl resigned live on air, stating that she couldn’t work for a “network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin,” adding, and closing with, “I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth.” And this was only two days after presenter Abby Martin spoke out against Russia’s invasion of Crimea in the same studio (Martin is still working for the network).
And while there’s tons of backstory going into all those decisions and events, if you look at the way the mainstream media has spun this, Liz Wahl is the journalism industry Messiah who used her red-blooded American ideals to stick it to Mother Russia and their “propaganda machine."
Further down the food chain, other media outlets have painted a far more complex picture as to what went down, but are still molding this story to fit a particular narrative - either Liz Wahl is a hero and RT a propaganda outlet for Russia, or Wahl is a career-hungry sellout being used by elements in the neo conservative movement hungry for conflict with an old foe.
What has become clear is that the fractured relationships in the RT studio between past and present employees are now being used by other media outlets to create narratives that fit their own ideological ideals. It’s a story that, depending on who you believe, pits you either Russia or America’s side. It is a mini cold war being used to fight a real Cold War.
WHAT EVERYONE IS SAYING
In the past week, Slate, Daily Beast, TruthDig, and even listicle-pimping Buzzfeed have released articles that have taken the exact same series of events, and manipulated extrapolated them out to benefit personal belief systems or agendas (and that’s not even touching more fringe outlets like Daily Stormer or FireDogLake, who have latched onto the more absurd threads of this story).
It’s a bit confusing to flesh out, as there are a bunch of moving parts and narrative threads going on, but essentially, very definitive black and white lines are being drawn around both Russia Today’s editorial censorship and Liz Wahl’s on-air resignation, which she claims is a result of the former issue, when in reality both of these topics exist somewhere in between the 50 shades of gray.
The Daily Beast kicked it all off, cheerleading Wahl as a unilateral hero (while also calling Abby Martin a “Russian-government funded propagandist”) and stating that they hope her “act of defiance will inspire a wave of defections from Putin TV.” Then Buzzfeed jumped on the story as a chance to denounce the evil practices of censorship, effectively adopting their description of the “scarred” young journalists that RT lures: “[They] found out how dirty the world of journalism can be. How easy it is to blur the line between journalism and soft-power agenda pushing.” Then it got really crazy, with TruthDig insisting that Wahl had been used by nefarious Cold War-Hungry Neocons, via James Kirchick, “who wanted her to help undermine RT,” which led to Slate throwing their hat in the ring to rail against TruthDig’s conspiracy theory with their own interview with Wahl.
So now there’s a story worth examining about all the different narratives that have sprung from this event that took place because of the coverage of a completely different story.
It’s all pretty meta.
WHAT EXACTLY IS RT?
“If you want to be able to talk shit about the United States government, you can do that there. If you want to talk about drones, or whistleblowers, you can do that. But you just have to hope it doesn’t come around and the state that funds you ends up in the headlines…” - a current RT employee based out of the DC office.
It almost feels nostalgic.
Big, bad Russia invading the headlines and causing an ominous chill in the political climate; our blood subconsciously running just a bit more American red.
And while, the events that have taken place over at Russia Today (RT) may not be “The Shot Heard Round The World” or the straw that breaks the eagle’s back, they’re an interesting look into a complex machine that is simultaneously one of the most unrestrained yet limited outlets in the world.
Putin himself described RT by saying, “When we designed this project back in 2005 we intended introducing another strong player on the international scene, a player that wouldn’t just provide an unbiased coverage of the events in Russia but also try, let me stress, I mean — try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.”
And while the unbiased coverage of events in Russia may be lacking, it has succeeded in “breaking the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams” because, thanks to the intrinsic nature of the network, it not only can question those “Anglo-Saxon” powerhouses, but it’s encouraged to do so.
This isn’t to say that this is necessarily a good thing, but as the Latin saying/Alan Moore graphic novel asks, “Who watches The Watchmen?” Even if the boss is a tyrant and management is terrible, there is the silver-lined opportunity with RT to present worthwhile news that deserves a place in the national conversation but that may not be delivered by the main corporate news outlets.
"It was a nightmare while I was there, but I did love the show I was working on,” an ex-producer at RT we spoke with tells us. "We had a lot of freedom to innovate in the beginning, and you couldn’t do that anywhere else.”
This is the network that broadcasts Thom Hartmann's show, a balanced, thoughtful program hosted by a highly respected pundit and published author.
In fact, Sam Knight, who was a segment producer for the well respected The Alyona Show at RT, goes so far as to say to us:
“[We] engaged in none of that superficial cable show crap. We had no time for that horse race Gaffe-Of-The-Day game-changer double-down bullshit – we explored systemic problems. I think our coverage of Occupy, surveillance, drone warfare, workers' rights, the crackdown on whistleblowers and outlets like WikiLeaks, police brutality, inequality and poverty speaks for itself.”
And in Gray’s anti-RT piece for Buzzfeed, she even accepts this.
She admits, "On certain stories, like WikiLeaks and Occupy Wall Street, RT has been ahead of the curve,” only to qualify that with, "But former employees say that even that focus was an attempt to force international news to fit a Russian agenda.”
That’s the point though.
The news has never really been objective. Those that sign the checks are going to get their way, and no one is throwing around the millions that make operations like this run without wanting something in return. Gray’s piece tries to paint the reporters there as victims, young American workers looking to work hard that were sucked into a vicious web of lies and deceit: "Some employees go in clear-eyed, looking for the experience above all else. Others don’t realize what RT really wants until they’re already there.”
Don't realize what RT really wants?
As a current RT employee that we spoke with under the condition of anonymity told us bluntly: “I did my homework before I went in, I know who was writing my checks; I understood there was some sort of agenda.” And Sam Knight tells us that going into his job as segment producer, he "was aware that some of RT's news gathering was, to put it diplomatically, somewhat suspect.”
We are talking about aspiring journalists and reporters here; the people who are supposed to have a nose for bullshit. Maybe there are a few naive young Millennials dropping quotes like Gray recorded, (“I saw a job posting and figured why not”), but those ambitious enough to want to work in a high pressured news gathering operation can't claim too much ignorance.
Because sadly, this is how the real world’s news outlets work.
THE CORPORATE MEDIA IN AMERICA
Journalism is and always has been a tainted industry. By its very nature, it relies on an outside source of income to survive. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
So while it might be appalling on one level that an RT reporter’s editor added "really charged language” to a story, "giving it a tone it didn’t need to,” the reporter claims, "because the story was strong enough on its own,” calling Obama’s policy “schizophrenic” is far from the tactical nuclear strike that some of these stories are characterizing editorial influence as.
And is there anyone really left thinking this kind of thing doesn’t go on everywhere?
We all know Fox News projects a version of the news designed to empower rich white men, and disenfranchise everyone else. MSNBC is owned by mega corporation Comcast, and while certainly to the left in the current media landscape, it won't ever challenge corporate power in a meaningful way.
Sam Knight, the segment producer, may have put it best:
CNN does its damned hardest to not offend anyone in power, and only manages to be skeptical when it's too late – look at its Iraq War lamentations, its pre war coverage and the way its hosts cream themselves over the thought of war with a “nuclear capable” Iran...And most of what you see on MSNBC or Fox News will only be critical of the U.S. through a party lens, with both channels preaching to a choir that desperately wants to affirm its own worldview – that this country would be Shangri-Fucking-La if not for “the other team.”
"Sure, MSNBC hosts will bemoan inequality, poverty and constant warfare," he went on. "But it's almost always either establishment Republicans' or the Tea Party's fault; never deregulation-loving war mongering Democrats who have championed some of the most corrosive policies the U.S. government has been responsible for over the past two decades. And look at the way network practically threw Chris Hayes under the bus when he spoke the truth about military service not automatically equating to heroism. It did throw Cenk Uygur under the bus when he refused to moderate his coverage and tone. Fox News, meanwhile, is such a joke, calling it out isn't worth my time. But the point is this – if you don't play those networks' rules, you're not going to be there long.”
And it doesn’t stop with just the big players.
Coincidentally, the very same day Gray’s piece went live, a Twitter account calling itself @ExMediaMan appeared on the social network, claiming to have worked at Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, and Gawker, and releasing bits of gossip and commentary about how the sausage gets made at those establishments:
Thing of right-wing viral media is their secrets aren't really secrets. Ties 2 Koch/bigbusiness are there 2 see, but in America no one cares
— Media Man (@ExMediaMan) March 16, 2014
@TheAtlantic is basically a front for a lifestyle/advertising company, as if WiedenKennedy started news site. All their content is sponsored
— Media Man (@ExMediaMan) March 14, 2014
Just FTR: @brainpicker is a narcissistic sociopath who tweets through movies in order to make more $ off amazon referrals. Not a journalist
— Media Man (@ExMediaMan) March 14, 2014
Matt Drudge's sexual proclivities are about as open a secret among media as John Travolta's.
— Media Man (@ExMediaMan) March 16, 2014
Many Viral Sites censor stories on Facebook's click-farm problem. If FB was fully outed (only 10% so far) many sites would lose 95% of ad $
— Media Man (@ExMediaMan) March 14, 2014
— Media Man (@ExMediaMan) March 14, 2014
So sure, as Gray’s source alleges, there’s a good chance that an RT editor wanted his reporter to describe Obama’s immigration with “charged” language, but do we really expect anything different? Mr. Knight even recounts, “On the whole, I never really felt like we were being muzzled by the network, any more than any other cable news journalist is.”
But this is all nothing compared to the hijacking of the Liz Wahl storyline in this saga.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT LIZ WAHL
Depending on who you ask and what you read, Liz Wahl is either the hero for our time, a masterminded villain, a ruthless self-promoter, or a complicit puppet. She’s somehow simultaneously star pupil, scapegoat, and straw dog.
[And while we’d love to give Ms. Wahl’s take on the situation, she unfortunately didn’t respond to our attempts to connect with her.]
If you ask her former bosses, they’ll tell you she’s a “a self-promotional stunt” woman. If you ask Abby Martin, she’ll talk to you about the ethics of “throwing [your] work and fellow colleagues under the bus on the nightly news.” And according to multiple sources, there's not a lot of love lost for Wahl amongst her former co-workers.
If you ask the Slate-level outlets of the world, you’ll hear that while it may seem complex, in reality, she is the pure, unadulterated icon for journalistic integrity/shameless self promotion/patriotism/treason.
But if you ask the major news outlets, the complexity of the events get ironically whitewashed to portray a “badass” who stuck it to the oppressive Russians, and the rhetoric becomes: “Here in America, if you can stand on principle, stick up for free expression, quit your lousy job and advance your career all in the course of 74 seconds, you do it.”
Despite all nuance and motive behind all the actions leading up to Wahl’s resignation, the story is now “American journalist exposes abhorrent Russian censorship. Yay America, Russia bad.”
And Wahl seems happy to play the part. “RT tends to hire people who are young, and who they think are malleable. The station is in a lot of turmoil and some people on the inside are becoming more resistent [sic],” she tells Slate. And it seems like Wahl is right. The ex-producer we spoke with said, “From everything I have been hearing it has been falling apart. people have been leaving in droves, going to CCTV, Huff Post, Al-jazeera and other places like that.”
The current employee tells us, "It's like there was a tiny elephant in the room before, when Russia wasn't in the headlines, and ever since - I would say - the Olympics started, the elephant has just gotten bigger and bigger and now it's enormous and still, no one's openly talking about it."
That's what we know about RT.
But what do we know for sure about Liz Wahl? What can we at least all agree on, before we start branching off into what this means on a thematic level or what kind of conspiracies might be in play.
WHAT WE ACTUALLY KNOW ABOUT LIZ WAHL
We know that Wahl had previously butted heads with management at RT prior to her on-air resignation. She claims this was because of editorial censorship, which it very well could have been. But a current employee at the network who first told us of Liz’s “conflict with management,” told us that they “get the sense that it wasn’t her ethical conflicts with the editorial line” that had her upset. Either way, in the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively inconsequential.
We know that Wahl has been in contact with RT-hater James Kirchick since at least August (as that’s the date he said in his article at The Daily Beast). From there, anything else is speculation, hearsay, or yet to be confirmed.
We know that two days before Wahl’s infamous resignation, RT anchor Abby Martin openly defied the owners of her network and condemned their aggression in Ukraine. We also know that Abby Martin is still currently employed by RT, and if we are to take her and the network’s word for it, they’re all happy as clams with one another.
We know that in the wake of Wahl’s resignation, her and Abby seemed cordial to one another. And we know that is no longer the case now, with Martin accusing Wahl of throwing her co-workers under the bus and Wahl being quoted as saying, “Abby is RT's puppet,” in the Slate article. In addition, according to a source we spoke to at CNN, when Martin and Wahl came to the studio just days after the event the two were kept apart given the potential for conflict, despite being on the same show [Piers Morgan Tonight].
But in between what we do know, there’s a lot of attempts to fill in the gaps. And none of it is digging deep enough to look at what is clearly a more complex story once the blinkers of ideology are removed.
THE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH
Daily Banter editor Ben Cohen saw Liz Wahl while at the RT studio in DC to film a spot on the Thom Hartmann Show days before her on-air resignation, and noticed that something seemed odd when he spoke to her about the conflict in Crimea:
“I saw Liz on Feb 28th at the RT studio in DC after appearing on the Thom Hartmann show, the Friday before she quit,” he says. “We know each other socially so I stopped by her desk to chat. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked me what I thought about what was going on in Crimea. I joked that it was the beginning of World War III, and that people didn’t really understand just how much of a gangster Vladimir Putin was. She asked me whether we had discussed it on Thom Hartmann’s show, and I told her that we had touched on it briefly, but not in-depth. ‘It’s 'Russia Today,’ I joked again. I noticed Liz wasn’t really laughing. She looked genuinely troubled, as if she was having a very hard time with what was happening. I didn’t push the issue further and changed the subject.”
It’s funny. On Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, Liz Wahl said she didn’t like “being used as a tool to promote Putinist propaganda,” but whether she likes it or not -- though she does seem to be liking it -- she is now the tool of many other causes. And the same could be said for Abby Martin, whose crusade to expose the evils of the American government is clearly being used as a weapon in the Kremlin's arsenal to disrupt the narrative in the US media.
In Martin’s now barely remembered “attack” against RT, she says, "Above all, my heart goes out to the Ukrainian people, who are now wedged as pawns in the middle of a global power chess game. They’re the real losers here.”
You see, it’s all pretty meta.