Five years ago, Russia Today made its debut as a news network aimed at enhancing Russia’s image in the West.
Recently, however, the Kremlin-financed television channel has devoted considerable airtime not only to coverage that makes Russia look good, but to coverage that makes the United States look bad. Over the past year and a half, Russia Today has reported with boosterish zeal on conspiracy theories popular in the resurgent “Patriot” movement, whose adherents typically advocate extreme antigovernment doctrines. Its slickly packaged stories suggest that a legitimate debate is under way in the United States about who perpetrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for instance, and about President Obama’s eligibility for high office.
It also frequently quotes U.S.extremistsas authorities on world events or interviews them at length without asking anything more than softball questions. One British journalist called Russia Today “a strange propaganda outfit” after appearing on a show in which the host injected Sept. 11 revisionism.Unlike most U.S.-based Patriot radio shows that do the same, the Moscow-headquartered Russia Today has a large global audience tuning in via cable, satellite and the Internet. In North America, Europe and South Africa, some 200 million paying viewers — including a growing number in the United States — have access to the network. Last year, more Washington, D.C.-area viewers told Nielsen Media Research they preferred to watch primetime news on Russia Today than on such other English-language foreign networks as Deutsche Welle (Germany), France 24, Euronews (France), CCTV News (China) and Al Jazeera English (Qatar). On YouTube, Russia Today ranks among the top 10 most-viewed news and political channels of all time. It employs some 2,000 staff worldwide, including about 100 in its recently opened Washington, D.C., office. (That makes its staff larger than Fox News, which reports a worldwide staff of 1,200, and about half the size of that of cable news pioneer CNN.) Russia Today has launched sister networks in Arabic and Spanish in addition to its flagship English broadcasting service.
Though a spokeswoman for Russia Today declined to give the amount of its annual budget, the Russian government has pumped millions into the network since its inception in 2005.
Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, deputy director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said the network’s target audience appears to be second- and third-generation members of the Russian diaspora in the United States and abroad, along with foreign investors and international media. “It’s clearly a pro-Russian perspective; that’s the purpose of Russia Today,” she said. “Sometimes, a pro-Russia perspective involves an anti-somebody-else perspective — and we’re the most useful target at certain times.”
Plugging 9/11 Plots
Russia Today’s officials, who have long insisted that they operate without government influence despite multimillion-dollar subsidies, contend that the network is simply presenting a fresh take on the news. (Full disclosure: Intelligence Report Editor Mark Potok appeared on the April 26 edition of Russia Today’s “CrossTalk” program to discuss the rise of militias. The network also aired an interview with a militia leader who criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center’s characterization of militia groups.) In a statement to the Intelligence Report, Russia Today Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan called the network’s editorial policy “open and balanced” and dismissed criticism that the channel gives undue airtime to fringe ideas. “We don’t talk about 9/11 any more than U.S. media discusses who was behind the 1999 explosions in Moscow,” she wrote, referring to a series of deadly apartment bombings that helped spark the Second Chechen War. “Moreover, our own journalists have never claimed or even as much as hinted that the U.S. government may have been behind the tragedy of 9/11.”
That last claim is debatable at best. Russia Today has churned out dozens of stories that focus solely on the perspective of “9/11 truthers” — the small minority that, despite overwhelming evidence, rejects the government’s finding that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were perpetrated by al-Qaeda terrorists flying planes into buildings. Last year, for instance, independent producer Lori Harfenist, whose program “The Resident” is carried regularly on Russia Today, interviewed New Yorkers on the street about whether they thought Sept. 11 was “an inside job.” “Eight years after the attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001, questions still loom as to whether there were more people involved or if the U.S. government had anything to do with it,” she said in her introduction to that program. “Do you think the events were purely terrorist attacks or do you think there were conspiratorial forces behind them?” The following statement appeared on the television screen throughout the segment: “New Yorkers unsure whether 9/11 was terrorist attack or inside job.”
Russia Today also appears to give credence to the Sept. 11 truthers in its news and commentary. For instance, the network reported on Oct. 13, 2009, that a judge would not let New Yorkers vote on whether to launch a new investigation into Sept. 11. “If a government by the people ignores the people, many wonder if here democracy is becoming a hypocrisy,” the reporter concluded. The channel also spoke extensively with Luke Rudkowski, the founder of We Are Change, a group that not only seeks “the truth” behind the Sept. 11 attacks but also frets about a looming “one world order,” a classic Patriot fear. “We go up to members … we shake their hands and we ask them what happens when you meet with the world’s elites and banking media corporations and governments all around the world in secret,” Rudkowski said in the April 13, 2009, interview. The Russia Today host did not challenge Rudkowski’s suggestion of international conspiracies by world elites, a common theme on the U.S. radicalright. On Feb. 11, Russia Today interviewed another We Are Change activist. Manny Badillo claimed that newly released Sept. 11 photos prove that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings.At the time of the last anniversary of Sept. 11, the channel published a four-part series on its website titled “911 Reasons why 9/11 was (probably) an inside job.” The articles, by Russia Today commentator Robert Bridge, report uncritically on discredited notions about Sept. 11, including the possibility that a bomb inside the towers contributed to their collapse and that the CIA had advance knowledge of the attack. On March 10, one of Russia Today’s top stories was headlined “Americans continue to fight for 9/11 truth.” That story, about a Pennsylvania gathering of Sept. 11 truthers, reported incorrectly that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) listed Rudkowski’s We Are Change as a hate group along with the Ku Klux Klan. (In fact, this year the SPLC added We Are Change to its Patriot group listing, which is distinct from the hate group listing and includes hard-line antigovernment organizations that engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing.)
Russia Today’s focus on Sept. 11 “truth” hasn’t gone unnoticed. Douglas Murray, a British journalist and conservative political commentator, posted a withering blog item earlier this year about his “CrossTalk” appearance. “You can probably imagine,” he wrote on Feb. 15, “indeed can see, the look of astonishment that I and my fellow guest felt when the presenter declared to us, in the middle of a discussion about a totally different subject, that ‘the people that perpetrated 9/11 were not even fundamentalists at all.'” (The show’s host, Peter Lavelle, told The Moscow Times that show had been a “fiasco” because bad weather had prevented him from lining up guests to argue both sides of the issue under discussion.)
Russia Today editor-in-chief Simonyan told the Intelligence Report that “the last time we talked about it [the Sept. 11 truthers movement] was in March.” On May 20, however, the channel published another article by Bridge on its website that again questioned the 9/11 Commission Report. The article asserted that the official report “has only served to fuel suspicions about that watershed moment that will dominate U.S. foreign and domestic policy for many years to come.”
Simonyan is by no means a seasoned veteran of the practice of objective journalsim. Born in Russia of Armenian parents, Simonyan was only 25 when the Kremlin named her editor-in-chief of the new network five years ago. Washington Post Moscow correspondent Peter Finn, quoted in a September 2008 article on the website Russia Beyond the Headlines, called the network a “breathless cheerleader” for the Kremlin, one which carefully avoided topics deemed too critical of then-President Vladimir Putin. The article continued: “During the  conflict in South Ossetia, one of Russia Today’s foreign journalists resigned, claiming that his reports were being censored to meet the official line. Even longtime Kremlin adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov at first referred to Russia Today as ‘too amateurish.'”
Birthers, Militiamen and Racists
It’s not just conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 that preoccupy Russia Today. The channel has also reported on the false notion that Obama was born outside the United States and therefore is ineligible for the presidency. The channel in March interviewed Dr. Orly Taitz, an émigré from the former Soviet republic of Moldova and a chief proponent of the “birther” movement who gained notoriety in August 2009 by unveiling Obama’s supposed Kenyan birth certificate — a document quickly exposed as a laughable forgery — and also has made a whole raft of other completely unsupported claims. Though the host noted that major American media outlets have refuted birther claims, he did not state that Obama has made public his birth certificate, even when Taitz asserted that “Obama himself owed allegiance to three other nations.” Taitz has made other appearances on Russia Today.
Sometimes Russia Today seems to want to have it two ways. A July 31, 2009, article on its website reported that Hawaii officials had confirmed that Obama was born there. It went on to state, however, that Obama was “being asked a lot of questions,” including the “particularly embarrassing” one about his birthplace. It quoted a correspondent for the far-right website World Net Daily who suggested that, if the birth certificate exists, Obama should display it. The article didn’t mention that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told World Net Daily that the birth certificate is posted on the Internet.
In addition, a Nov. 25, 2009, Russia Today story reported that James David Manning, the black pastor of a Harlem church, not only sees “pure evil” in Obama — but also contends he’s not a U.S. citizen. The story noted Manning’s views are controversial, but concluded, “Pastor Manning remains undeterred in his rhetoric, despite the criticism of his community.” (Manning is apparently a friend of Taitz, joining her for a tiny 2009 protest in front of Fox News’ offices in New York after Fox’s Bill O’Reilly called Taitz “a nut.”)
Manning isn’t the only fringe figure to whom Russia Today has given exposure. Conspiracy-minded radio host Alex Jones makes frequent appearances. In a softball interview last year, Jones rehashed a signature Patriot conspiracy theory when he described the United States as a tool of the “New World Order” and asserted that the world is “controlled by the Bilderberg Group.” (The Bilderberg Group is an international, invitation-only group of influential business and government figures that meets privately every year. Many on the American radical right, including a number of anti-Semites, have long seen the Bilderberg group as being behind all kinds of nefarious plots.) “The New World Order,” Jones said in his April 7, 2009, show, “is just a super-rich international mafia of oligarchs that are playing God, who want to abolish and bankrupt nation states so they can set up an international order, where the planet is owned by a private bank.” The host, Anastasia Churkina, did not challenge any of Jones’ claims. In fact, Russia Today has sought Jones’ opinion on topics ranging from Internet security to a Philadelphia school district’s webcam spying scandal to the BP oil spill response. (He sees a federal conspiracy in all these cases.) An April 16 story headlined “Alex Jones reacts to news of potential oil shortages” gives odd weight to the opinion of the self-described truth teller. Consider the story’s opening paragraph: “In a new report, U.S. military officials are warning of a drop in oil production as early as 2012, but Alex Jones says that this may be true, and if so, it is the result of a conspiracy.”
Longtime militia organizer Jim Stachowiak — a controversial figure even in Patriot circles — also is a regular guest on Russia Today. Earlier this year, the Georgia-based radio host appeared on the network to defend Charles Dyer, a prominent associate of the Patriot group Oath Keepers until Dyer was charged with child sex abuse in January. “We’re standing by Dyer,” said Stachowiak, who wore a “Don’t Tread on Me” hat and referred to the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) as the “American Terrorism Force.”
Even white nationalist Jared Taylor has found a platform on Russia Today. On Feb. 8 of this year, when Taylor participated in a “CrossTalk” discussion of whether Obama is a post-racial president, host Lavelle introduced him as an author and editor of American Renaissance journal but made no mention of his blatantly racist views. (In 2005, for instance, Taylor wrote in his journal: “Blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears.”) Russia Today was also the only major media outlet to interview Taylor after multiple hotels cancelled his magazine’s biannual conference in February. It did not seek comment from the activists behind the campaign to shut down the conference, which brings together prominent white supremacists and academic racists from the United States and abroad.
But editor-in-chief Simonyan denied the channel is providing a forum for extremists. “We don’t give airtime to public figures who you call extremist any more than CNN and other channels give airtime to people who many in Russia consider extremists,” she said.
Yet Russia Today is clearly serving the interests of those who promote the ideas that animate the burgeoning Patriot movement. The channel gets rave reviews on Patriot websites, including Jones’ Prison Planet Forum. “This is what mainstream news should be like,” one forum poster declared on May 7 — ironically overlooking that his ideal media outlet is heavily subsidized by and very likely beholden to a government. “Russia Today,” he said, “gets many kudos from me.”