Placing Russia Today (RT), the Russian government-owned English-language media outlet under the lens of critical examination gives some insights into the question: What does Russian propaganda look like? The television broadcast service came to the American public’s attention on March 5 just after the invasion of Crimea.
RT television broadcasts from Washington, D.C. by Americans Abby Martin and Liz Wahl, were critical of Russian actions. On the air Martin called Russian actions “wrong.” Liz Wahl announced her unwillingness to continue working for a broadcaster that “whitewashes the actions” of Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Then she resigned live on the air. Both women were praised widely for their courageous words. The next day Martin was back on the air, turning her radical voice against the American mainstream media, which she condemned for its hypocrisy in failing to come out against the 2003 Iraq invasion. She thereby incurred the wrath of the New York Times, CNN and the blogosphere. The most pointed instrument of attack on her was as a shill for Putin.
In the last week the range of reports on RT’s website offers valuable insights into events in Russia and how they are spun. Under the divergent lenses of Western and Russian perception, what ‘Russia Today’ offers looks like reassurances of security to some and propaganda to others. In comparison with the Soviet era, current propaganda is “slick” and not “ham-handed.” The politics page with blurbs of featured stories gives a thumbnail view of the actions of the Putin government, with each clearly intended to speak to a specific concern.
Each story is legible to critical readers who ask: what does this contribute to the propaganda aims of Putin? One story describes the proposal of the Interior Ministry to grant “anti-terror certification” and “anti-terror passports” following security assessments, to public places where large crowds assemble. This provides control to police to manage where people assemble, while at the same time the announcement gives an impression of Russia being on top of the security issue. Another story describes Putin’s urging of Russian senators to consider events of the Ukrainian unrest and other “color revolutions” to “protect the people from radicals and terrorists.”
A claim by the mayor of Yakutsk in Siberia based on research in an archive in Juneau, AK asserts the rights of ownership of Spruce Island in the US Kodiak Archipelago by the Russian Orthodox church in perpetuity: a key symbolic campaign for reclaiming territory like that made for Crimea. Another story announces that the software glitches in the development of the American F-35 joint strike force fighter will delay its delivery for a year. This story is noteworthy as the details are factual and without editorial insertion, relaying however the salient point that the plane will not make its scheduled Jul. 2015 operational readiness date.
Even with the diversity of voices available on social media and online journalism, the authoritative voice of Putin’s media stands tall. If one does place ‘Russia Today’ under the lens, Russian propaganda looks like what one might have expected from Soviet days, but much more sophisticated. The ability of Russians to “unspin” this spin varies. For the public in the West knowing how to understand the diversity of journalistic voices amid ferocious rhetoric remains daunting.
Commentary by Lawrence Shapiro