Can a Russian-funded cable network actually promote free press in the U.S.?

Many viewers can’t look past the fact RT America is being funded by a country that severely limits press freedom on its own soil. Reuters

With the recently announced shutdown of Al Jazeera America, the alternative cable news scene is in flux.

Launched as a corrective to the politicized and spectacle-heavy programming of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, Al Jazeera America positioned itself as a fact-based, unbiased news source. Even though the network won awards for reporting, the Qatari government-funded channel suffered from the public perception that it had an anti-Western, pro-Islamic stance. Amid lowering gas prices and reports of other financial woes, the channel announced it would shut down its U.S. operations at the end of April.

As Al Jazeera America closes shop, it’s worth wondering how this change will affect the position of RT America – previously known as Russia Today America – in the U.S. market. Like Al Jazeera, RT America has fashioned itself as a serious alternative to the politicized media circus promoted by the top three cable news stations. Unlike Al Jazeera, it runs ad-free, which arguably gives it even more potential for influence-free programming.

But RT America has some inherent contradictions: it offers a “Russian state perspective” in its news programming while simultaneously airing some of the most progressive shows on U.S. cable. As Julia Ioffe writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, RT America often acts as a “shrill propaganda outlet” for the Kremlin – an identity that clashes with its desire to compete in the international news market.

At the same time, according to Ioffe, RT America understands that in order to effectively compete with other progressive, unbiased networks, it needs “to be taken seriously.” This realization, she explains, has led to some good reporting.

It’s a crazy notion – and a bit mind-boggling to consider – but RT America might be offering some of the most progressive, uncensored cable media programming in the U.S. today.

Certainly some will not be able to look past the paradox that a nation that has one of the lowest scores on the press freedom index could also be funding a valuable alternative to mainstream cable news.

But when it comes to distorting the news, is the network any more culpable than mainstream cable networks? And can U.S. audiences overcome their inherent prejudice that RT America is just a propaganda arm for the Russian government?

The RT America paradox

Thus far, most coverage of RT America has focused on its ties to the Kremlin. But there’s a distinct difference between the news arm of the Moscow-based Russia Today and RT America’s opinion shows.

In short, the opinion and talk shows that populate RT America seem to have editorial freedom, while the news arm of RT does not.

One stark example took place over coverage of the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine.

RT news anchor Liz Wahl resigned on air, citing disagreements with RT’s editorial policy. More recently, Moscow-based Sarah Firth – who worked for RT, not RT America – resigned in protest over the way that the network was covering the Malaysian Airlines crash in Ukraine.

In contrast, Abby Martin, former host of “Breaking the Set,” an opinion show that aired on RT America from 2012 to 2015, openly criticized Russian military intervention into Ukraine in March of 2014. Yet she went on to continue to host her show for another year before moving on. In a note for Media Roots, she explained she was leaving the show to pursue more investigative reporting and added “RT has given me opportunities I will be eternally thankful for.”

This suggests a divide at RT America over freedom of expression in opinion shows versus news coverage. It’s a distinction that is important to note and to critique. But it’s also one that suggests that the assumption that all RT America programming is tainted by propaganda may itself be an unfounded bias.

The RT difference

While Al Jazeera America and RT America both angled to offer an alternative to mainstream U.S. news media, there are many ways that RT has followed a different – and potentially more successful – path.

First, RT America made the smart move to remove Russia from its name. Al Jazeera refused to adjust its name to appeal to U.S. viewers and distance itself from its financial backers.

RT America has also differed radically in the sort of programming offered. Balancing out its daily news programming, RT America airs analysis and commentary shows by Larry King, Thom Hartmann, Jesse Ventura and former MSNBC host Ed Schultz – all established personalities with significant appeal to American audiences.

In addition, RT America has carved out a niche with millennial viewers, with two shows aimed at a younger audience and hosted by younger talent. The first, “Watching the Hawks,” is a news magazine show hosted by Tyrel Ventura (Jesse’s son), Sean Stone (Oliver’s son) and Tabetha Wallace.

When they were announced as new hosts for a show on RT, many dismissed the development. Wallace told me, for instance, that she is often derogatorily called “Putin’s princess,” since it’s assumed the Russian leader controls her.

But I believe “Watching the Hawks” has fed viewers a consistent diet of cutting-edge stories on politics, media and culture. They often target corporate abuse, like pieces they’ve run on HSBC and Dow-Dupont.

Meanwhile, Wallace has reported on the annual gathering of veterans called “The Bikers of Rolling Thunder,” and she covered the 70th Hiroshima Peace Ceremony. In my opinion, both segments are solid examples of stories that had been largely ignored in the mainstream U.S. media.

The second millennial-oriented show on RT America is “Redacted Tonight,” a satirical news program hosted by political comedian Lee Camp.

Camp – described by Salon as “Jon Stewart with sharper teeth” – appeals to an audience that has become increasingly dissatisfied with mainstream news.

Since 9/11, satire news has increasingly been taken more seriously than “real” news (even though it doesn’t exactly live up to that standard). Nonetheless, Jon Stewart was voted most trusted journalist after Walter Cronkite died. And viewers of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” scored higher than viewers of network news in knowledge of public issues.

Taking advantage of the fact that RT airs no advertising, Camp goes after any and all corporate and political malfeasance he can uncover. And he makes his audience laugh while doing it.

Recent episodes highlighted how the media claimed Hillary Clinton won the first Democratic debate even though Bernie Sanders won every poll, and pointed to the ongoing inability of the U.S. public to have a meaningful conversation about Israel and Palestine.

Like Jon Stewart, Lee Camp uses humor to criticize mainstream media coverage.

These sorts of shows were missing on Al Jazeera America. The network never attempted to break into the “fake news” market, despite the fact that it’s a growing source of news and entertainment for young viewers. Nor did they provide the sort of hip, inquisitive programming found on “Watching the Hawks.”

Arguably, these two shows could build a young base of viewers for RT America.

A network of independent personalities

While skeptics may think that these shows can’t possibly be free of Kremlin influence, many of the top-billed hosts for RT America – Larry King, Jesse Ventura, Thom Hartmann and Ed Schultz – all share a history of being independent thinkers.

Take Thom Hartmann’s show, “The Big Picture.” Hartmann, a radio and TV personality and author of over 25 books, has made his career as a progressive political commentator. His two writers work in RT America’s Washington, D.C. studio, and they both told me that they have zero restrictions on what they cover each night.

When I asked Hartmann, he said, “No one at RT has ever told me what to say and what not to say.”

Meanwhile he explained that in any given week, “The Big Picture,” covers at least three stories that simply would never appear on mainstream cable news. And yet, despite the fact that “The Big Picture” also airs on the progressive cable network Free Speech TV, his presence on RT America has to contend with assumptions of censorship and control.

King has also done a series of interviews where he’s had to justify his ties to the network. In each case, he has explained that he hates censorship and that his own show is completely free of any editorial control. He has also openly disagreed with Russian policies: “I certainly vehemently disagree with the position they take on homosexuals – that’s absurd to me.”

Larry King. Fred Prouser/Reuters

No one asks anchors on NBC how it feels to work for a weapons contractor. Numerous studies, including one out of the University of Michigan, have shown that the link between GE and NBC has led to biased reporting.

Not only is the U.S. media influenced by corporatations; it’s also influenced by the federal government.

In 2006, journalists Amy and David Goodman reported that “Under the Bush administration, at least 20 federal agencies … spent $250 million creating hundreds of fake television news segments that [were] sent to local stations.” They also documented how the government paid journalists in Iraq for positive reporting, and provided canned videos to air on cable news.

Given these examples of political and corporate influence on mainstream networks, it is worth wondering why RT gets criticized for bias while other networks get a free pass.

Lee Camp says he was drawn to RT in the first place precisely because of the editorial freedom. He knew he wouldn’t have to worry about pressure from advertisers.

As he explained in the opening of one episode:

People [ask] me why Redacted Tonight is on RT and not another network…I’ll tell you why. My anti-consumerism, anti-two-party-corporate-totalitarianism isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms on networks showing 24/7 Wal-Mart ads.

A new cultural Cold War?

RT America has certainly embraced its paradoxical role of pushing media boundaries in the U.S. that likely wouldn’t be tolerated on Russian soil. But before we fall into Cold War dichotomies of U.S. press freedom and Russian media censorship, it’s important to note two key realities in the 21st-century media landscape.

First, while it’s important to hold RT America accountable for its coverage of Russia’s intervention into Ukraine, it’s worth noting that the U.S. media could equally be held accountable for its own coverage of the 9/11 attacks and the lead-up to the U.S.-Iraq War.

In 2015, four out of 10 Americans still believed there were weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq – a level of disinformation that requires media compliance. These statistics show the long-lasting impact of media bias in shaping public opinion.

Furthermore, the current U.S. news media is filled not only with bias but also with outright lies. Fox News, the most-watched cable news network, lies about 60 percent of the time, according to Politifact. For NBC and MSNBC, the score isn’t much better: 46 percent.

One wonders how RT America would compare.

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