Yesterday afternoon I belately sat down with Liz Wahl, the former RT reporter who resigned on the air in protest of the Crimean incursion. We happened to meet up right after the left-leaning site TruthDig ran a piece that connected a bunch of facts that had never been concealed—for example, that the Foreign Policy Initiative was founded by Bill Kristol, and that Wahl's champion James Kirchick worked for it—so Wahl and I ended up talking about that.
A few readers have informed me that this controversy was impenetrable. Let me explain, because it's a deeply strange story and I'd hate for you to miss out.
It's a cable news channel founded in 2005 and backed by the Russian government. In Washington, D.C., it started to get attention when Russia invaded Georgia and this network high up on the dial was running rah-rah coverage of the tank movements. But RT found its footing at the start of the Obama administration, after filling its midday hours with opinion programming that appealed to libertarians and critics of the American government. I found it fascinating that so many Washington pundits and reporters were going on a network that got such low ratings and booked a lot of fringe guests, so I profiled it in 2011. But a network that could offer young journalists plum reporting jobs in D.C. was in no danger of being sunk by bad PR. There was a burst of new attention for RT last August, when reporter James Kirchick appeared on the network for a segment about Chelsea Manning and derailed the interview by putting on rainbow suspenders and talking about Russia's anti-gay legislation.
So why are people talking about it now?
Basically because Russia invaded Crimea. From the end of February, when Russian troops moved into Ukranian territory, RT's website and shows were a surreal source of fuzzy, happy news about how happy people were to be liberated. On March 4, RT opinion host Abby Martin appeared to break protocol when she told viewers she "will not sit here and apologize for or defend military action." That woke up the Internet, and Martin's comments were starting to go viral, along with a cryptic network statement about how its commentator would be sent to report in Crimea. But only 24 hours later, RT correspondent Liz Wahl resigned on the air, saying she could not work for the network as it rallied behind an illegal war. RT's own video of the resignation is its fifth-most-popular clip of all time, and mirrors of the video have been seen by even more people.
I still don't understand the controversy.
The thing is that RT has been pushing back, and two journalists on the American left have interpreted the mockery of RT as a plot by American neoconservatives. In a piece at TruthDig with the promising title "How Cold War-Hungry Neocons Stage Managed RT Anchor Liz Wahl’s Resignation," Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek alleged that Wahl was a frustrated and spotlight-hungry reporter who was goaded into resigning on air by Kirchick, and that this kicked off a coordinated round of negative RT stories by people who either were or had been lobbied by neoconservatives—especially BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray, whose piece about why young journalists work for RT was widely praised. The specific allegations about Wahl came from "six current employees" who were given anonymity to describe their former colleague as erratic but apolitical—i.e., a good target for a neocon Manchurian candidate operation. RT ran its own version of the story the next day, with a sneering tone that must be seen to be appreciated. Wahl, it seems, is the first TV journalist who has ever made a stand that might make more people pay attention to her.
Did the neoconservatives orchestrate the Wahl resignation?
That's a sort of loaded question, isn't it? In Wahl's first interview, the one with Kirchick, the reporter declared quite proudly that he'd inspired Wahl to quit. "Wahl initially reached out to me in August," wrote Kirchick, "after I launched my own impromptu protest on RT against Putin’s homophobic repression." There was little information in the TruthDig piece that wasn't available with a search for Kirchick's bio. That said, Blumenthal/Khalek did expand on a 2011 Ken Silverstein story about Michael Goldfarb and Orion Strategies. Goldfarb, a former journalist who became a strategist for the McCain/Palin campaign then a lobbyist for Georgia (at his Orion Strategies), had also lobbied BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray, author of the "why the hell do people work for RT?" story. (There is no allegation that Orion sold Gray on that story, which was fascinating on its own merits.)
So, absolutely, there are out-and-proud hawks who have wanted a tougher American stance against Russia for years, and one of them encouraged Liz Wahl to quit. To view this as a conspiracy against RT takes a little work.
Why do you say that?
Why are we talking about this at all? Because Russia invaded Crimea. Why did people talk about Kirchick's 2013 stunt? Because it was done to embarrass RT over the anti-gay laws in Russia. Absent Russia's actions, Kirchick is still a hawk, but there's no story. The TruthDig story insists that people who enjoyed the stunts were unwitting dupes of the neoconservatives. But it's not like the dupes (Chris Hayes is named) are calling for anything the neoconservatives want. They (I should say "we") dislike anti-gay laws and invasions followed by elections that don't include "stay as part of the country you belonged to last month" as an option. Wahl told me yesterday that she didn't think one way or the other about Russia when she joined the network in 2011. The invasion and the gay-bashing were still to come.
A few years ago, when it upped its presence in D.C., RT bought ads on buses that bore the slogan "Question More." The connections between D.C. journalists and lobbyists who cover RT negatively are interesting, though a similar story could be written about many groups of journalists who cover industries closely. RT isn't satisfied with a story about "connections." It aims to reassure viewers and readers that everything bad they've been hearing was concocted by people who want a new Cold War.
See? No reason to take it seriously. Pay no attention to the trials of protesters or murders of journalists carried out by our sponsor. Pay no attention to the anti-gay law, because our experts can tell you that far worse laws exist in America—just like President Putin says. Please enjoy this list of memes using "powerful quotes" from President Putin's Crimea address.