What is Russia Today and Who Is Paying the Bills?

Christian Sager

© Dzhavakhadze Zurab/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

The most popular video on YouTube last week was an on-air recording of Liz Wahl quitting her position as a correspondent for RT-America. Wahl denounced the news organization because of how it covered President Vladimir Putin's decisions regarding Ukraine. While quitting she said, "I cannot be a part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin."

My first thought was, "What the heck is RT-America?"

My second was, "Is it really funded by the Russian government?"

I get my news from online newspapers, RSS feeds and blogs so it's possible I just missed this network's existence entirely. After a little research it turns out the channel is available to 120 million viewers across the world. In the United States it's available to 20 million people because Time Warner Cable added it to their New York City regional digital package. When I asked others about it, they said they'd only seen it in hotels when visiting New York. Reports indicate it's also now available in Washington D.C., San Francisco and Chicago.

RT called Wahl's statement a "self-promotional stunt." They responded to her with the following: "When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievance with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional."

We tend to have unreasonable expectations of objectivity from our news, but this is much more complicated than whether an organization leans right or left politically. In the interest of knowing more about the complex ecosystem of our news media I'd like to address my initial questions here.

What is RT?

RT actually stands for "Russia Today," and on their website they claim to be an autonomous non-profit organization." It turns out that Russia's state-owned news agency RIA-NOVOSTI launched RT in 2005 in an effort to improve Russia's image abroad. It's currently broadcasting in English, Spanish and Arabic.

Russia Today launched with a mission to cover international news with a Russian outlook and while insiders have praised its staff's work, many seem to be in agreement that objectivity is not the network's goal. It's been accused of both a strident anti-American stance and towing the Kremlin line by repeating government talking points. Regardless, RT is more successful than any other foreign broadcast stations that are available in the United States.

Is Russia Today State Sponsored?

Without a doubt RT is receiving its funding from the Russian government. In 2005 they started with a $30 million budget that has recently skyrocketed to over $300 million. So saying they're an "autonomous nonprofit organization" is like saying the same thing about the Pentagon. Citing a Western news bias against Russia, the channel sees itself as balancing the equation. During a studio visit, Putin himself said that RT's goal was to "break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon mass media."

So... what Liz Wahl said when she quit RT was basically an open secret about the network. Some insiders say the Kremlin supplies RT with a stop list of political opponents and government critics that are barred from the channel. Others say there isn't actually a list per say, but that RT's informal mission is simply public relations for Russia. When asked about a stop list, the Kremlin says there's no such thing. Their contention is that government detractors just don't appear on television because they're not newsworthy.

When RT says that Wahl should have addressed her grievances with an editor, instead of announcing them on-air, the buck would have stopped with Margarita Simonyan, the Director General of Russia Today. Simonyan's been quoted saying the station's aim is to counter "the Anglo-Saxon domination of global television news" offered by organizations like the BBC and CNN. At the same time she's maintained the station has independence from the Kremlin, despite its funding. Her argument is that western reporters are incapable of seeing the truth about Russia, so RT offers an alternative view.

Is U.S. Media Biased Against Russia?

Let's step back and consider Simonyan's claim that western news is inherently biased. In a 2012 editorial piece for Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald pointed out that while RT is funded by the Kremlin, there are also news organizations owned by the U.S. and British governments. He also argued that we also get news from media companies owned by weapons manufacturers, banking corporations and loyalists to political parties. So if RT's journalistic integrity is in question, what about these other stations?

In a 2012 journal article examining how television programs cover post-communist nations, researchers Ivan Katchanovski and Alicen Morley found that American broadcasts favored U.S. allies (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) to non-allies (Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). Their study also indicates that these broadcasts have a prevalent anti-Russian bias, dominated by negative stories about tense diplomatic relationships, crime, spying and undemocratic developments. They cite that previous studies conducted between 1992 and 2006 show that such media coverage affects the attitudes of both the American public and the United State's foreign policy agenda toward Russia.

So where does that leave us? Well, Wahl wasn't wrong. RT is a Kremlin sponsored network with a stated mission to provide an alternative to western media. While RT may be guilty of pro-Putin bias, there seems to be evidence that their competitors aren't objective saints of journalism either.

One last thing to keep in mind is that many news sources are closing their bureaus in Russia and reducing their foreign correspondents to the region. That makes it tremendously difficult to provide well-researched investigative journalism about Russia. So audiences (whether they're in Moscow or New York) are inevitably going to turn to a biased organization like RT for information when international crises occur in Russia, Ukraine or Crimea. Because at the end of the day they're one of the few providing deeper (albeit subjective) coverage in these post-communist states.