Last week, Sophia A. McClennon, Director of Penn State’s Center for Global Studies, wrote in The Conversation about cable news channel Russia Today (RT). “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,” she observed.
RT is a Kremlin financed news organization founded in September 2005 that broadcasts in the Russian, English, Spanish, and Arabic languages. RT America its U.S. arm, broadcasting news programming from RT, as well as talk shows catering to a U.S. audience.
According to McClennon, a number of independent and well-know talk show hosts who have worked with RT America, including Larry King, Jesse Ventura, Thom Hartmann, and former MSNBC host Ed Schultz, have said they have enjoyed complete editorial freedom with the network. According to Hartmann, “No one at RT has ever told me what to say and what not to say.”
McClennon also noted, however, that “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.”
This observation is a crucial one and underscores the reasons for RT’s success abroad. The counter-Western narrative adopted by the network’s hosts drives RT’s appeal among Western audiences. In a 2013 interview with Rain Channel, an independent Russian network, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan explained that presenting an alternative take on world events and showing “what the mainstream media in their countries won’t show” has made RT a big hit with Western viewers.
This is why RT America does not censor its talk shows. By allowing its hosts to provide alternative perspectives from those found on major corporate media networks, like CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC, RT can reach a wider audience abroad.
In contrast to its opinion shows, RT’s news coverage is subject to strict regulation and driven by the Kremlin’s agenda. “We tell more effectively about what Russia is doing and why she is doing that,” Simonyan observed. “I like to say that we are like a Defense Ministry that is not at war, but has to be on the alert,” she added.
For RT, there is no paradox in censoring news while allowing talk show hosts to openly and freely express their opinions. On the contrary, the almost always anti-Western rhetoric of these hosts compliments the uncritical perspective of RT’s news programming.
One might ask then, if RT offers such progressive, censorship-free coverage of the Western world and talks about the problems mainstream American media does not, then why should its intentions matter?
They matter because a journalistic organization cannot credibly promote free expression in covering one region or issue, while strictly prohibiting it for other regions or topics. No matter how alternative and progressive RT America’s coverage of the West is, the network’s intentional failure to offer nuanced and balanced reporting on Russian politics speaks volumes about the purpose of the network, which is to serve as a mouthpiece for pro-Kremlin propaganda worldwide.
RT America does not expose the faults of Western governments because it is a bastion of editorial openness, but rather because such exposure is in line with RT’s agenda – to create a positive and appealing image of Russia overseas – and to lure in larger audiences.