Pravda Lite: Why Are Liberals Lending Credibility to a Zany Russian TV Station?
As international outcry grows alongside the body count in Syria, one news network has taken a decidedly unconventional approach to covering the crisis. Featuring a regular barrage of stories such as “Qatar Is Aligned With US in Destabilizing Syria,” “After Libya, ‘Syria Next Piece on Geopolitical Chessboard,’” and “West’s Policy on Syria Could Ignite WWIII,” the English-language news channel RT (formerly, Russia Today)—available via cable or satellite in tens of millions of American homes—has held to its steadfast view that civilian casualties in Syria are minimal, foreign intervention would be disastrous, and any humanitarian appeals from Western nations are a thin veil for a NATO-backed move to isolate Iran, China, and Russia. “President Obama is acting on a British geopolitical plan to force a confrontation with Russia and China, a military confrontation of which Syria and Iran would merely be the ignition point,” explained expert guest Lawrence Freeman, a Lyndon LaRouche devotee, in one typical segment.
Of course, it isn’t remarkable that eccentrics like Freeman are willing to appear on the Kremlin-funded station. What is surprising, however, are the number of decidedly non-crazy American experts and journalists who appear regularly on the channel’s news programs as guest analysts. Indeed, whether it’s playing host to contributors from respected outlets like The Nation or Reason or the Center for American Progress, RT has excelled in cultivating American liberals and libertarians eager to criticize the United States for its adventurism abroad and sermonizing posture toward other nations.
Between the outrage following allegations of fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections last December and the country’s more recent veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria, it’s clear why RT would want Americans to supply a counter-narrative that makes the United States look out of line for lecturing Russia. The bigger mystery is why American journalists and academics continue to go along for the ride.
RUSSIA TODAY WAS FOUNDED in 2005 on the heels of Vladimir Putin’s famous declaration that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” From then on, as Julia Ioffe noted in Columbia Journalism Review, both the network and the regime came to embrace an ideology of “sovereign democracy,” a concept meant to promote Russian “independence of an externally imposed Western morality.” The network’s insistence that the United States is a bad-faith arbiter of global affairs can be seen as a direct extension of this philosophy.
“They spend a lot of time on stories that come and go here in the U.S. because they think they reflect badly on us, and they’re particularly aggrieved by American sermonizing abroad,” Stephen Cohen, a professor of Russian studies at New York University, told me. “They’ve spent a lot of time on the Occupy movement, and, when the Kremlin decided to let protesters gather in large numbers, RT juxtaposed that with authorities rounding up Occupiers around the U.S. You didn’t need a lot of narrative to get the connection, and they were able to say: This is how the Americans treat their protesters and, by comparison, we’re flower children.”
And yet Cohen, a frequent analyst on RT who is often accompanied by his wife—The Nation’s editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel—says he feels no qualms about his appearances on the channel, where he can often be heard blaming U.S. policies and NATO expansionism for strained relations with Russia. “I know they come to me because I’m well-known here and in Russia, and my point of view is unconventional,” he told me. “I feel comfortable that what I say to TNR or CBS or NPR is what I say on RT. I just say what I say anywhere on whatever media environment I’m in.”