Nothing is true, everything is permitted – the US establishment’s attack on RT
“We are facing a number of challenges from entities like Russia Today which is out there pushing a point of view, the Islamic State in the Middle East and groups like Boko Haram” – Andrew Lack, the newly-appointed chief of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
I swear this is not a misprint. The head of a notionally independent US federal agency, responsible for the supervision of all US government-funded international media actually said this in a New York Times interview. The BBG supervises US propaganda networks such as RFE/RL and the Voice of America and had a 2014 budget of $733 million. He believes that little RT (2014 budget $291 million) is not only an existential threat to the US media but he equates the danger it poses to that of barbarous terror organizations.
The US Secretary of State designates Boko Haram as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ and I’m not arguing with that. According to the UN, the Islamic State had murdered 24,000 innocent people by October 2014. What has RT done to deserve mention in the same breath as these groups? The answer to that is somewhere deep in the mind of Andrew Lack and a few, frankly, deranged neo-cons who often masquerade as ‘journalists.’
RT was conceived as a method to give Russia’s point-of-view in the extremely crowded international media-landscape. Whilst once the US and UK (via the BBC) held a monopoly on English-language news information, this has changed markedly in the last decade. France 24, CCTV (China), Press TV (Iran) and Al Jazeera (Qatar) are just a few state-backed entities in a jam-packed marketplace.
There are manifold reasons for what makes RT a more frequent target of US bile than the others. Notably, the historic competition between Moscow and Washington for global favor and RT’s relative success compared to similar projects. While the other government funded stations have, largely, settled for a mixture of rolling news and advertorials about the host nation, RT has genuinely attempted to throw a few jabs at the media giants in the UK and America. To say they aren’t too fond of this is similar to arguing that dogs don't like fleas.
The secret of this network’s, relative, success has been its willingness to focus on stories and topics that the mainstream are either disinterested in or ignore for commercial reasons or those of diktat. RT was already barely tolerated by the US elite as it devoted resources to covering ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and Guantanamo Bay and the like, but sections of the public were grateful for its efforts. However, in late 2013, the Ukraine crisis erupted and grudging sufferance swiftly vanished.
The ‘indispensable nation’
The US is not used to being challenged in its foreign policy adventures. From Vietnam right up to Iraq, the White House only had to worry about dissenting voices in its own domestic media. These ‘problems’ were relatively easy to deal with - a word in an ear here, a letter there. In Ukraine, it was a different story. There was a professional Russian-backed network with a team of talented journalists ready to challenge the US narrative.
In Yugoslavia, for example, the State Department was assured that TV viewers would only be told what suited its position. If RT didn’t exist, as many in the US establishment would prefer, the same would be true of Ukraine. However, RT’s presence ensures that coverage cannot be restricted to the DC Comics-style simplification of ‘goodies and baddies.’ Cable viewers now have access to information about atrocities carried out by Washington’s allies as well as their enemies.
Elements in the 'looney-tunes' wing of the US media world have accused Russia, through RT and the other foreign-language state news agency Sputnik, of ‘weaponizing information.’ You can understand this as meaning that Moscow (and others) are doing exactly what Washington has been at for over half a century. It reminds me of when England wouldn’t play in the initial soccer World Cups, sore that foreigners were in charge of organizing the game they’d invented.
The fight against RT
Of course, there are ways the US could launch a ‘counter-offensive’ against RT and the myriad other national English language stations that have emerged. A TV version of RFE/RL (in Russian and other languages) is one possibility. Of course, this will cost money, quite a lot of it, and this might be what Lack is playing at. By creating the impression, no matter how disingenuous, that the US is faced with an ‘information war,’ the powers that be can, perhaps, be persuaded to increase funding to the BBG.
Andrew Lack is no fool. A former CEO of Bloomberg and President of CBS, he’s one of the most qualified media operators out there. Responsible for 16 Emmy Awards at CBS, the Boston University alumnus (who also attended Paris’ Sorbonne) knows the workings of the US power structure better than most. By equating RT to terror organizations, he plants seeds of hysteria in minds that matter. This wouldn’t be the first time that a ‘Russian threat’ was used to generate a funding increase by a US entity, in fairness.
Over a decade ago, I occasionally wrote for the late, lamented Dubliner Magazine in Ireland. The periodical published a cover story entitled ‘The New Establishment,’ with a bunch of insufferable non-entities pictured. The editor asked me what I thought. I replied that it was useful as a guide to people to avoid in Dublin, pointing out that the gift of youth was to be able question the establishment and the ideas of the older generation. Any newbies who wanted to immediately join the existing order and replicate it were about as interesting and useful as an ice sculptor in the Sahara.
RT’s role in the media welkin is to be disruptive. Not of the mainstream, nor hoping to be accepted by it. As RT’s budget, while small compared to BBC or CNN, is sufficient to produce professional TV and web output, this scares the establishment media stiff. RT is both everything they hate and everything they’d secretly like to be, but never will. It’s akin to wealthy schoolboy who enjoys the luxury of tennis and piano lessons, secretly envying the poorer classmate who’s taught himself guitar and still gets the girls.
The BBG, and many of the powers-that-be in US society genuinely consider RT a challenge to the propaganda network that Washington has built up over decades. It’s also a convenient bogey-man to use when looking for more cash. Most of this activity is subtle. Andrew Lack, with his ludicrous comparisons, displayed all the nuance of an angry man with a sledgehammer. He should apologise. Journalism is not terrorism.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.