The media has become a key battleground in the current conflict between Russia and the West, with Russia’s two state-funded, U.S.-based media outlets at the forefront.
RT America and Sputnik are responsible for crafting the Russian narrative for millions of Americans. Their roles are divided, with Sputnik handling most of the digital news content, while RT America leads broadcast “news.” Ironically, it’s often Americans themselves who craft these stories that make up the RT/Sputnik narrative. They both employ a large cadre of U.S. citizens, hiring individuals whose ideological biases are useful to propping up the Russian narrative.
“It wouldn’t be terribly inaccurate to say that the (editorial) employees at RT America fit into either of a few different molds,” a former RT America employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “A good chunk of us (myself included) could easily be described as young, budding journalists with at least a college degree and a couple of previous journalism gigs prior to being hired.”
Sputnik has a similar preferred archetype. Many of its journalists are young and have little to no journalism experience, many are straight out of college and are jumping into their first job. Journalism is a competitive field for young graduates, and an opportunity to work for an outlet with a sizable audience is for some too much to turn down. Both organizations also pay fairly well, $50,000 to $60,000 starting in some cases.
Of course, there are reasons the organizations hire the way they do.
“Background — anti-American primarily — matters,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate and the chair of Carnegie Moscow Center’s Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program, told TheDCNF. “But in some cases it’s [the] only possibility to find a job.”
A well-paid journalism job in D.C. covering international news is apparently not enough to put up with Russian media’s questionable practices for some journalists. RT America suffered an embarrassment in June 2014 when former anchor Liz Wahl quit on live television. Wahl, staring into the camera, noted she often faced “moral and ethical challenges” while working for the organization. Her on-air resignation followed fellow employee Abby Martin’s live condemnation of Russia’s intervention in Crimea.
The outlet had spent the last few years slamming U.S. intervention in any conflict. Meanwhile, Russia was mounting incursions in Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and openly supporting for the Assad regimes worst crimes. The behavior was at odds with RT’s line on the U.S.
The cognitive dissonance was, at least for some, too much to bear.
“Turnover was laughable,” the RT America employee told TheDCNF. “It wasn’t odd for more than one anchor to abruptly quit within a few days of each other.”
High turnover requires constant “cookie-cutter” job listings, which the employee said are re-posted “every other week.”
Joe Fionda, a former tech and astronomy writer for Sputnik, described a similar experience to TheDCNF. Sputnik initially offered him a spot for a radio show, but he was then transferred to writing after the show failed to materialize after several several months of delays in studio construction. He ran into another early issue with company after he told his boss, Sputnik’s Editor-in-Chief Mindia Gavasheli, that he needed a Screen Actor’s Guild contract to do the radio show.
Fionda brushed off the initial issues with the company and took the writing job anyway.
“It was a paying job,” said Fionda. “I figured I was taking a risk … working for the Russians, but didn’t want to turn down a job opportunity. I didn’t realize they would be so stupid, and that they were so successful at influencing America until I worked there myself.”
Ineptitude is apparently a common theme in both Sputnik and RT America. “The whole thing is as poorly operated as imagined,” said the former RT America employee.
The source explained that RT America staffers are paid by a D.C.-based company owned by the network’s news director, Mikhail Solodovnikov. The company, known as T&R Productions LLC, is registered in Washington, D.C. with Solodovnikov listed as its agent. The registration was filed several months before RT America was transferred to T&R after its former president and owner was charged with federal tax fraud.
The former RT America employee claimed T&R acts as a middle-man between RT America and RT Moscow. Essentially, RT America creates content which is then sold to Moscow through T&R. Despite being technically separate companies, the two organizations often work under the same roof.
TheDCNF was unable to independently verify these claims.
The former RT America employee described the office as a “sitcom-worthy mash-up of straight-from-Russia implants from HQ in Moscow” and the young American journalists.
“The fucking Moscow-sent people who work out of the D.C. office [were] ethically clueless and otherwise mindbogglingly ignorant retards whose no matter how slight ability to influence public opinion as supposed journalists would terrify most everyone on earth if their sheer ineptitude and idiocy was more obvious to outsiders,” said the former employee.
The source also did not hold former American colleagues in high regard, describing them as “useless idiots hired either because they look good on camera or can otherwise amplify the network’s content.”
William (Bill) Moran, a former editor and writer for Sputnik, told TheDCNF in an interview that he also occasionally worked with Russian nationals, albeit online. He described them as young, around the ages of 20 to 25 years old. They were based in Russia, but wrote stories in English.
Despite Sputnik’s alleged incompetence, it too was still very successful at influencing American opinion, according to Fionda. He pointed to Cassandra Fairbanks, one of Sputnik’s most popular writers, as an example.
“It sounds almost incredible to say but so many people hinge on the things Cassandra says as gospel,” said Fionda. “It’s basically all her on the American end … her influence seems to be pervasive, based on what I’ve seen.”
Gavasheli spoke highly of Fairbanks to TheDCNF, describing her as a “great reporter who proved her skills in very complicated conditions.” He claimed that in conversations with her she told him she enjoys working at Sputnik because she is not censored, regardless of her views at the time.
Fairbanks has a substantial social media presence and is one of the few Sputnik writers who has her name attached to some of her work. Neither RT America nor Sputnik typically include by-lines on their pieces.
“Way easier to avoid accountability that way,” according to the former RT America employee.
Fairbanks’ influence was apparently substantial enough to help Fionda secure his job at Sputnik. The outlet was interested in Fionda due to his connections to the Anonymous movement, which he said was a favorite topic of Sputnik’s. He noted the Anonymous-Sputnik relationship was “a lot closer than a lot of people would like it to be.”
“Sputnik loves to quickly distribute Anonymous press releases,” said Fionda. “I assume [it’s] part of their own cointel (counter-intelligence) campaign, where they seek influence amongst the counterculture and the disillusioned.”
Gavasheli said Sputnik’s coverage of Anonymous was no different than any other news organization. He also denied distributing the group’s press releases and said Fionda was the only connection Sputnik had to the group.
Fionda said he believes leadership expected him to deliver stories on Anonymous, but he refused after he noticed some details were “erased” from an article on Guantanamo Bay detainees sent back to Russia. He also recalled being told to get in touch with a wanted hacker in order to retrieve stolen emails from CIA Director John Brennan, which he refused to do.
Gavasheli told TheDCNF that Sputnik’s editors regularly fact-check and proof read stories for accuracy, but he could not immediately recall the Guantanamo Bay story.
“Anything critical of Russia was verboten (forbidden),” said Fionda, who added Sputnik falsely claimed Russia was bombing the Islamic State in places “they clearly weren’t.”
Moran claimed he “not once” felt pressure to write pro-Russian articles at Sputnik. He said there were often articles critical of both the U.S. and Russia. Moran noted the organization simply did not have the resources to overly editorialize pieces during his tenure.
The experience at RT America was slightly different for the former D.C. bureau employee.
“No one is ever explicitly told ‘do this story that makes Russia look great.’ But if you work there long enough you start to see that the bulk of content can be described as ‘things that, if viewed from this specific context, makes America seem like it’s falling,'” said the former employee.
The source added that RT America rarely engaged in original reporting. The organization’s news comprised of days or even weeks-old stories “from fringe bloggers and the likes of Infowars.”
The former employee noted that, as time went on, employees were forced to cover the same issues over and over again, despite the fact there was nothing new or relevant to the story. RT America would apparently devote a week of coverage for every meeting of the Bilderberg group and Bohemian Grove, two topics generally favored by anti-establishment conspiracy theorists.
RT America’s Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment regarding the former employee’s allegations by the given deadline for this story.
Though RT America and Sputnik allegedly lean on questionable sources, their relationships in U.S. media are not limited to so-called “fringe bloggers.” A spat between Moran and Newsweek Senior Writer Kurt Eichenwald in October exhibited Russian media’s close ties to Western outlets.
The conflict began in October when Moran wrote a piece for Sputnik based on what was later found to be false information from a Twitter account that plagiarized an earlier piece written by Eichenwald. The piece was pulled from Sputnik’s within an hour.
Eichenwald published a piece outlining the predicament, which Moran responded to in an op-ed for Sputnik, defending his mistake and the organization, despite having been recently fired due to the fallout. Gavasheli refused to comment on the nature of Moran’s termination, despite several requests from TheDCNF. Moran would later decline an offer to return to Sputnik, though he described his experience at Sputnik as positive and disagrees with many of the accusations against the organization.
“As you can see from Bill’s mistake, I don’t think we are being overcautious,” Gavasheli told TheDCNF regarding Sputnik’s editorial process. “When due to lack of staff, we miss that part of editorial process, interesting things happen.”
The spat resulted in a heated back-and-forth argument between the two parties over email, phone calls and social media, which included Moran slinging accusations of slander, bribery and other illegalities.
TheDCNF became aware of the disagreement after receiving an email from a Donald Trump campaign staffer pitching the story. The staffer noted that Moran had evidence he was being “bribed” by Eichenwald and included a link to Moran’s Sputnik op-ed.
Several outlets published pieces sympathetic to Moran’s cause, including Paste Magazine, New York Observer and The Intercept. Sputnik’s own Cassandra Fairbanks also wrote a piece on the debacle. Follow up stories were coordinated over email between journalists affiliated with some of the same organizations, including The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald. Gavasheli and Simonyan were also copied on one of the email chains.
RT America will often aggregate Sputnik’s work, according to the former RT America employee.
“They are just like step-sisters in Putin’s propaganda family,” the source added.
Gavasheli told TheDCNF that RT America does not promote Sputnik. “Although I wouldn’t mind,” he added.
RT America and Sputnik are crucial elements of the Kremlin’s media strategy, according to Kolesnikov. He characterized the organizations as engaging in a sort of “missionary work” for Moscow. That said, it is important to note that many of the so-called “missionaries” at RT America and Sputnik are not necessarily aware of the part they play in the overall strategy.
None of the former employees interviewed by TheDCNF said they joined Russian media to engage in a propaganda war against the U.S. Most simply wanted an opportunity to work in international news media. It is also clear that the staffs of both organizations had a fairly diverse range of viewpoints.
Russia’s U.S. media arm appears to follow a top-down approach, so it is not particularly surprising that most of the journalists working at the bottom of the system are unaware of the machinations at the top. It is also unsurprising that many of the individuals in leadership roles have a Russian background.
“This is part of the Russian ‘soft power’ and a sequence of the Soviet style understanding of propaganda efforts,” said Kolesnikov.
The control of information both inside and outside of Russia is a top priority for Kremlin leadership. The country is known to have remarkably strict laws governing media domestically. Given that it cannot do the same abroad, state-run news services in foreign languages help propel a preferred narrative.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly aware of the power of media, having cut his teeth in Russian politics during the tumultuous post-Soviet era where media magnates were practical kingmakers. As a former intelligence officer, he is also undoubtedly aware of Russia’s long history of information warfare, or “dezinformatsiya,” the process of creating false information that is fed into friendly channels. Information warfare campaigns are the favored tactic in what Russian intelligence circles call “active measures.”
Information warfare was so prevalent in the Soviet era that Russian intelligence agencies are rumored to have spent more time on misinformation campaigns than they did on actual intelligence gathering. Retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin once referred to active measures as “the heart and soul of Soviet intelligence.”
“Not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West,” said Kalugin, “to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs.”
With the U.S. and Russia at the dawn of a digital Cold War, control of information abroad is as important as ever, and media is the new battleground.
(Note from Bill Moran: I’m named in this story due to a dispute with Kurt Eichenwald. Mr. Eichenwald offered to get me a job and sent menacing emails to silence me from challenging a false story he wrote. Eichenwald further made false allegations about me in Newsweek. I sued Newsweek and that matter was settled to my satisfaction. After the settlement his stories were removed. I’m not a “Russian Cold Warrior” – I’m an American. I wrote stories critical of Russian government actions – those stories remain up (CNN even cited one). Furthermore, journalists who listened to my side did nothing wrong or disloyal.)
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