As protesters and police clashed across the country over the past months, one TV channel has been broadcasting the chaos with an unseemly glee. It languishes at the bottom of your cable package, amidst such fuzzy foreign news services as France 24, CNC, and Press TV; however, it has a style very much its own.
One minute it will be praising the righteous protesters “battling injustice against racial capitalism in the hands of a militant police force,” the next it will be condemning “woke culture intensifying cringy prostration and humiliation rituals that can be traced back to the Maoist Cultural Revolution,” all the while seeding distrust not just in the U.S. government but in the country’s scientific institutions, its economic centers, and the foundations of democracy itself. Its hosts include Sean Stone, the son of filmmaker Oliver Stone, and Tyrel Ventura, the son of the former wrestling governor Jesse Ventura, Larry King—still alive, and newly single—and dozens of other half-forgotten TV anchors and quarter-remembered journalists. Welcome to RT America, the last bastion of the once-was and almost-were, but also an ominous sign of the what-will-be.
On the face of it, RT America is your typical international television network. It’s part of the RT network that broadcasts in French, Spanish, English, Russian, and Arabic, and can be seen in more than 100 countries. Indeed, it has all the trappings of your typical American 24-7 cable-news channel: the desks, the chyrons, the world clocks, the hyperactive graphics, and the blandly handsome Anglo-American news readers. The key difference is that its estimated $300 million annual budget is paid for by the Kremlin.
The feeling that something is not quite right quickly becomes evident. RT America’s news reports are marked by their pro-Russian jingoism: in a story on the sale of U.S. fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, an American reporter tells us how the F-15 jets “would get crushed by Russia’s S-400 missile-defense system,” while the recent New York Times story about Russian military intelligence paying bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops is roundly and relentlessly mocked. Outright sarcasm: in a story about the war in Syria, a clip of former secretary of defense James Mattis stating, “We are the good guys,” quickly cuts back to a correspondent sneering, “I’m not entirely sure the dead would agree.” And hysteria: “Our culture is awash in lies,” booms a stentorian voice in a promo for the channel, “dominated by streams of never-ending electronic hallucinations that merge fact and fiction until they are indistinguishable.” That last one serves as a pretty good description of RT itself.
“We have become the most illusioned society on earth,” rumbles another promo. “Politics is a species of endless and meaningless political theater. Politicians have morphed into celebrities. Our two ruling parties are in reality one party: the corporate party.” Prison riots given scant coverage elsewhere are headline news here. Police-brutality cases are picked over again and again in forensic detail. Lifestyle stories are no cheerier: “Multivitamins enable cancer to happen.”
On the face of it, RT America is your typical international television network. The key difference is that its estimated $300 million annual budget is paid for by the Kremlin.
When a cataclysmic news story does actually emerge, like the ongoing pandemic, RT is happy to follow along with the doom-mongering propounded by the rest of the media. But its broadcasts are also laced with extreme paranoiac views, interviews with conspiracy theorists who believe the U.S. created the coronavirus as a pretext for increased surveillance, and suggestions that anti-vaxxers are right to be suspicious of any forthcoming vaccine. Meanwhile, RT’s stable of talking heads, such as Max Keiser, a Bitcoin evangelist and critic of the “over-leveraged fake fiat system,” can always be counted on to bring the gloom even on a slow news day.
The tone often verges on satire: “Those who attempt to puncture this vast breathless universe of fake news are pushed so far to the margins of society that we might as well be mice squeaking at an avalanche. But squeak we must.” In short, watching RT America gives you the distinct impression that the U.S. is a failing state, and that this is a good thing. Say what you will about Fox News, at least they want their side to win. RT America seems to want to watch the country burn.
Russia Today, as RT was originally known, was founded in Moscow in 2005 under the editorship of 25-year-old former Kremlin pool reporter Margarita Simonyan. Its mission was to push “Russia’s opinion of the world” into the international-media space. Its novel stance and deep pockets proved a powerful draw for young Western journalists, particularly in an era of vanishing opportunities at home. “We had been told we were never going to get beyond local radio in England,” recalled one former RT correspondent, “so suddenly being offered a job by an international news channel with a reasonably good salary was incredibly enticing.” On the heels of the American invasion of Iraq and the revelations of torture and C.I.A. black sites, RT seemed to offer a refreshing viewpoint. “We were drawn into it thinking it was going to be this bright new light in the world of journalism, breaking Western dominance,” he sighs. “We were very wrong.”
At first the channel seemed to take its mission seriously. Admittedly, conspiracy theories were being given significant airtime—9/11 truthers, Obama birthers, anti-fluoridation fanatics—but to many of the journalists working there, this was just a bit of color. That changed with the Russo-Georgian War, in 2008. It was then that, in the words of Rory Challands, a former Moscow correspondent for Al Jazeera, “its true colors were no longer possible to ignore.” In what proved to be a war of information as much as a ground war, RT became an overt propaganda factory, churning out questionable statistics and unsourced rumors.
Say what you will about Fox News, at least they want their side to win. RT America seems to want to watch the country burn.
RT soon began to spread its reach, setting up offices in London and Washington, D.C. RT U.K. had its own motley crew of washed-up but vaguely recognizable names. George Galloway, a pro-Brexit former Labour M.P. and Saddam Hussein apologist, found a home there. So, too, did WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who hosted a show while under house arrest for suspicion of rape and sexual misconduct (charges that were eventually dropped). Alex Salmond, the former first minister of Scotland, was given his own show shortly before he, too, was accused of attempted rape. (He was later acquitted.) The strategy seemed less to bolster the channel’s journalistic credibility than to parlay these notorious names into increased viewership.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and RT’s blatantly biased reporting of it, the channel began to be perceived by other journalists as “shit stirrers, plain and simple,” as one put it. Working for RT was now considered a black mark. Some left, with one anchor quitting live on air. Those who stayed often found themselves promoted to senior jobs in Russian-government communications.
To excuse her channel’s steeply slanted coverage, Simonyan had always been quick to declare that “there is no such thing as objective reporting.” Before fake news and post-truth politics became household phrases with the election of Donald Trump, RT was referring to them on a daily basis. While RT would pay lip service to breaking the hegemonic Western worldview, it was increasingly intent on making viewers doubt objectivity itself.
According to Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a chronicle of Russia’s “black P.R.” operations, RT is just one part of a never-ending, multi-front disinformation blitz across social media, radio, and television. For hour after hour, RT spouts that all mainstream media are propaganda, that conspiracy theories are just as valid as any other theory, and so forth, until the viewer is beaten to a relativist pulp. The new propaganda has no need for censorship. Instead, the audience is deluged with so much contradictory information that they despair of ever knowing the truth. Annoyed? Addled? Apathetic? This is your brain on RT.
The strategy seemed less to bolster the channel’s journalistic credibility than to parlay these notorious names into increased viewership.
It should be no surprise that the Russians are so good at this. After all, they coined the term “disinformation” (dezinformatsiya) back in the 1920s. But whereas in the past the Kremlin needed to covertly plant false stories in the Western press, now, thanks to RT and the vast reach of social media, it can spread them overtly and with impunity. Across the world the same Kremlin-honed techniques are cropping up, whether in the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or the Brexit referendum. The confusion of fake and real information churned together by government-backed news stations and roaming bands of trolls, bots, and hackers has quickly become the political tactic du jour. And with Russian president Vladimir Putin brazenly seeking to extend his presidential term for another 16 years, such methods aren’t going away anytime soon.
There has been some pushback. The revelations that Russia had spent millions of dollars on politically targeted advertising on Facebook during the 2016 election brought some of this disinformation to light. And in 2017, RT America was forced to register as an agent of a foreign government.
This has not, however, stopped it from broadcasting. And although Congress passed the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act in 2016, the agency created to enact it, the Global Engagement Center, has been strangely quiet. In a hearing before a House panel last year, Lea Gabrielle, a former Fox News correspondent appointed to lead the center by the Trump administration, was stumped when asked to describe a single example of Russian disinformation anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, RT’s sister radio station, Sputnik, went live in Kansas City earlier this year. With such weak defenses and with RT’s ever-increasing scope, and with the upcoming presidential election in the United States, we’re set to be deluged with more Russian disinformation than ever before.
When he’s not on RT, Sean Stone has a side business hawking meditation videos (or “Medita-Sean,” as he terms it). These videos, which feature Stone sporting a light beard and spouting vague New Age pablum in an affectless voice, initially appear a world away from the hyperkinetic sphere of RT America. Or are they? Speaking to the camera as he preaches the Buddhist mantras he learned from his director father, Stone softly intones that “even what was right yesterday does not apply today because the circumstances, the conditions, are always slightly different.” With a beatific look on his face he declares, “There is no objective universe anyway.”
George Pendle is a contributing writer for Air Mail