Last Friday, Sara Firth announced via Twitter that she had resigned as a correspondent for RT, an international, multilingual news network entirely funded by the Russian government. “I couldn’t do it any more,” the London-based reporter told Buzzfeed. “Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it.”
Firth’s resignation came a day after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed into the fields of Eastern Ukraine. Aside from Kremlin dissimulators and professional conspiracy theorists (often one and the same), nobody at this point doubts that Russian-backed separatists, using military hardware at the very least provided to them, if not operated, by Russian agents themselves, shot down the plane. Yet watching RT in the aftermath of the disaster, in which all 298 passengers were killed, one would have learned a very different story.
One hypothesis, floated insistently by the RT anchors and guests, was that the Ukrainian military shot down MH17, under the erroneous impression it was actually Vladimir Putin’s presidential jet. Forget the absurdity of accusing the Ukrainians of trying to assassinate the Russian president, thus bringing upon themselves a full-on, open invasion of their country (in contrast to the limited and largely covert operation that the Russians have been waging). As the separatists have not been in command of any planes, the Ukrainian military has not deployed air defenses in the area under contestation.
But RT never lets such things as basic facts get in the way of crude propaganda. In one segment I watched, an RT anchor incessantly asked an aviation expert if it was conceivable that the Ukrainians mistook MH17 for Putin’s due to the fact that both aircraft are painted in red, white and blue. That these are the colors of British Airways, Air France, Aeroflot and untold other national carriers did not give the host pause. Nor did the fact that his hypothesis attributes super-human eyesight to the would-be Ukrainian mass murderers, who must have somehow been able to discern President Putin’s plane from 33,000 feet (the height at which MH17 was flying when it was struck). Finally, if they could detect the colors of the plane’s exterior from such a distance, would they not also be able to see the “Malaysia Airlines” lettering?
It has been an embarrassing year for RT, the network formerly known as Russia Today. Founded in 2005 to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, RT – which broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish – aims to counter the influence of what Putin calls the “Anglo-Saxon mass media.” It does so via a poisonous admixture of hysterical anti-Western propaganda, financial alarmism, conspiracy theorizing and the promotion of political extremists from left and right united in hatred of America and liberal democracy.
I had my own run in with RT last August when the network invited me on to discuss the sentencing of Chelsea Manning, the former Army private who leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Donning a pair of rainbow suspenders, I proceeded to protest the recently enacted Russian law prohibiting propagation of “non-traditional sexual relationships to minors.” In March, RT host Abby Martin made headlines when she criticized Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, her mealy-mouthed, morally equivocating 60-second statement newsworthy only in the sense that opinions diverging from the Kremlin line are all but nonexistent on the network. Days later, RT anchor Liz Wahl quit live on-air, citing her grandparents’ fleeing the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary as one of several reasons why she could no longer “be part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”
A particularly egregious example was the most recent episode of the Truthseeker, an inaptly named program seeing that its host, Daniel Bushell, never finds it. Titled “Genocide in Eastern Ukraine,” the 14-minute segment alleged that the Ukrainian government is conducting a crime on par with the 1994 Rwandan genocide (responsible for 500,000 to 1 million victims), which, for good measure, the United States enthusiastically supported. The Ukrainian government (“the most far-right wing government on the face of the Earth,” a description that far better suits the current Russian regime), whose leaders “repeat Hitler’s genocidal oath,” is “bombing wheat fields to ensure there’s famine,” a perverse claim in light of the Soviet-orchestrated Holodomor, the killing by starvation that took the lives of millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. The segment featured an interview with crank “historian” William Engdahl, a regular columnist for the virulently anti-Semitic website Veterans Today, where he has suggested that terrorist bombings in Russia earlier this year were conducted by Israel in retribution “for Putin’s role in winning Obama away from war against Syria last fall and openly seeking a diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear problem.”
Such ravings are par for the course on RT, but what happened afterwards surprised observers who have grown accustomed to the network’s practice of throwing out an endless stream of indefensible allegations in hopes that some of them will stick in the media ecosystem. Two days after the program aired, RT announced via Twitter that it had removed the episode from its website due to “uncorroborated info.” If this were to be the new standard by which RT determines what material to air, it would have no choice but to shut down altogether.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.