If you turn on RT, the Moscow-run cable network, it often has the familiar-yet-different feel of a foreign network like the BBC or Al Jazeera America or France 24. It’s familiar because they have genial sportscasters. It’s different because no one is named Chad. Instead the channel has attractive, exotic presenters with cool names. There are plenty of earnest, investigative reports of the kind one used to see on, say, CBS, 40 years ago like one RT did on seafood safety with the somewhat ungainly title “Filet Oh! Fish.”
But when it comes to Ukraine, RT is like going to a Cold War theme park, only without the bread lines. It is “living in another world,” to use the phrase German Chancellor Angela Merkel used to describe Vladimir Putin. On RT, which is available to some 85 million Americans, a legitimate-and-wise Ukrainian president was tossed out of office by Western-backed, fascist thugs who launched marauding hordes to terrorize the Russian population in Crimea forcing a valiant Vladimir Putin to mobilize forces to stabilize the situation. Reports constantly speak of the Kiev “regime” and commentators denounce them as fascists--all of which by coincidence echoes the Russian foreign ministry.
RT, formerly known at Russia Today, was started by the Russian government in 2005 to promote the country’s image abroad. And in some ways it works. At 80, former CNN host Larry King has a show with a familiar feel. And there are lots of looks at Russian industry and cultural life which are light on oligarchs and Gazprom but still interesting. “Question More,” the network’s witty slogan, tries to encourage a new look at Russia. It also tries to position itself as a sensible alternative to U.S. cable news. One ad for the network show Break the Set shows the sleek host helicoptering into New York and besieged by billboards of MSNBC, CNN and Fox stars before she finally covers her ears. Ratings aren’t going to rival The O’Reilly Factor although it has good traffic on platforms like YouTube
When I poured coffee and settled in for an afternoon of RT and more often than not, the network seems more like the Soviet Union’s Pravda, an absurd mouthpiece. Sophie Shevardnadze, the Western educated glamorous granddaughter of the former president of Georgia, has a talk show on RT. On Monday she interviewed one of the members of Russia’s upper chamber who voted to authorize force. He repeatedly charged that the West had created the crisis, she never questioned that premise. On another show, a commentator, Mark Sloboda, who teaches at Moscow State University, attacked the Kiev revolt which ousted the Russian-backed president as a Western “putsch,” a word that invokes Hitler’s brownshirts. Recalling an earlier era, an American anti-war activist also bashed the U.S. for “promoting fascist and semi fascist elements” to overthrow the Moscow-backed Ukraine President.
The irony of course is that while the network relentlessly denounces the revolt in Kiev as a violation of constitutional order they endlessly cheer on Russian nationals taking over government buildings in Crimea. “Just when the self proclaimed leaders in Kiev thought they had won, the people spoke,” one reporter said.
The slew of well spoken Western reporters reminds one of Vladimir Posner, the suave urbane face of the old Soviet Union. There are plenty of Westerners at the ready. Jonathan Steele, a columnist for The Guardian, recently wrote “at the back of Pentagon minds, no doubt, is the dream that a US navy will one day replace the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimean ports of Sevastopol and Balaclava,” which seems about as likely as a Russian fleet stationed on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. He denounced the idea of economic penalties being imposed on Russia. From Washington, a fellow at a pro-Belgrade outfit called the Reiss Institute named Nebojsa Malic denounced the U.S. and likened the current situation to what he described as aggression against Serbia in the 1990s.
It’s not as if there isn’t a counter narrative that takes into account Western miscalculations about Ukraine, and the new Kiew government rescinding laws that allow Russian to be an official language. But by applauding the march of Russian soldiers with unalloyed approval, RT seems, um, bizarre.