Why has a Kremlin-controlled news network become a hit in the West?
When in early January U.S. intelligence agencies issued their report on Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election, Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Kremlin-funded international TV channel RT, was amused. “Laughter of the year,” she tweeted in Russian about the declassified report much of which — seven out of 25 pages to be precise — was dedicated to her 24-hour news network.
For Simonyan, who has run the channel since it was founded in 2005, dealing with controversy is part of the job description: RT’s journalists have quit on air in protest of being forced to toe Moscow’s line, the network has been caught redacting its footage to conform to the Kremlin’s narrative of its actions abroad and the western press enjoys pointing out that Simonyan even has a direct line to the Kremlin on her desk.
So why does RT appeal to western audiences?
Despite its reputation, RT is a remarkable success story. Set up to provide a “Russian perspective” on world events, today the network is watched by 35 million people daily in 38 countries with over two million people subscribed on YouTube, many of whom are tuning in from Western Europe and the United States.
Coda has reached out to over a hundred RT followers in Western Europe and the U.S. to understand why they tune in. Several dozen responded. They were mostly men, of diverse ages and professions: from a university professor in Nebraska to a young journalist in Alabama and a currency trader in Phoenix. Here are four opinions many of them share:
TREND 1: RT is honest about lying
Few claimed that RT was objective or broadcast truth. This didn’t seem to bother them either. Simon Wood, 46, from Manchester, England, believes that by definition RT is biased. The network’s mission statement spells out that RT provides a Russian perspective on world affairs. Simon finds this honesty refreshing and often shares their content on social media as well as reporting from other news sources that present alternative viewpoints. “Is there bias? Most certainly there is – I think viewers are well aware of this,” Simon wrote to Coda. “The same applies to Western media, but their mission statements are misleading -they claim to be ‘fair and balanced’ when they are patently not.” Simon has been residing in Japan for over twenty years now but closely follows the western press and often criticizes its reporting in his blog posts.
Like Simon, Brandon Schmidt, 19, from Alabama is also cautious about what he sees on RT. “I don’t trust their news about what they’re saying about what the Russian government is doing. It’s been proven that they lie.” But he says that he trusts the network’s news about the U.S. and exclusively uses RT’s content for a podcast he runs. He also regularly shares their posts on his Facebook page. Brandon finds that RT constantly breaks stories that he doesn’t see anywhere else, especially international reports on ISIS and the U.S. bombing campaign in Syria. As with many RT viewers Coda spoke with Brandon doesn’t align himself with a political party or news outlet that is perceived as more Republican or Democrat friendly. Instead, Brandon said: “Truth wise I’m smack dab in the middle. I don’t like crap being shoved in my face.” That’s what he says Western media does.
TREND 2: Iraq and Occupy Wall Street drove me to RT
David Pabon, 32, from Brooklyn, New York is still bitter about how mainstream channels covered the Occupy Wall Street Movement, in which he participated. “The mainstream media was calling the Occupy Movement by derogatory names such as dirty hipster,” David said. RT, on the other hand, “was reporting the reasons why we were there instead of sensationalizing it.” The network’s coverage, which likened the Occupy Wall Street movement to America’s Arab Spring, earned RT an Emmy nomination and many fans among left-wing Americans like David.
One of them is Paul Saulburg, 23 from El Paso, Texas who was impressed when RT told him about things that he found shocking about U.S. foreign policy, such as the use of phosphorus for smoke screens in Iraq. “Wow, I didn’t see that anywhere else,” he remembered thinking, “RT does a good job of showing the true face of United States foreign policy.” Paul feels that the U.S. media whitewashes America’s actions abroad and finds the onslaught of criticism against RT from Western media to be hypocritical, especially when it comes to Iraq. He says none of it means that he trusts RT when it comes to Russia’s actions abroad and he is familiar with one case this past summer when RT redacted its footage showing Russian planes bound for Syria armed with cluster munitions, a weapon banned by the UN that Russia has denied using.
TREND 3: Putin isn’t as bad as they want us to believe
Nickoli Schreiber, 28, from Phoenix, Arizona, looks at RT every day and after a year of tuning in he has concluded that “Putin is not a monster as our country portrays him.” Nickoli, a currency trader, now thinks of Putin as “a leader who does not let other countries such as american bully him,” Nickoli wrote to Coda.
Across the Atlantic in Solihull, England, Philip Bullen said he knew nothing about Putin before he started watching RT. “The British news Never reports what he says verbatim,” Bullen wrote to Coda about the Russian president. “We get a ‘version’ of the meaning. Which is usually wrong.” He compares American and British politicians who are critical of Russia to “beavis and butthead.”
Sherrie Dahl from Poulsbo, Washington not only agrees with Phillip, she even has Putin’s photo as her Facebook cover photo. “I chose it, because in this time of ineffective national leaders, Putin stands out…We should be so fortunate as to have an Americanized version of him,” Sherrie wrote on her page last September. Sherrie was pleased with the results of the elections and thinks Americans are fortunate to have President Donald Trump as a leader. “Like Putin, there is resolve and consistency,” she wrote about Trump’s values. “I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long while.”
TREND 4: We’re on the cusp of WWIII
One of the most startling themes that emerged from conversations with numerous RT fans, from reading over a hundred public social media accounts of RT followers and from posts from RT viewers in various Facebook groups was fear over the imminent breakout of WWIII. Nickoli from Phoenix believes that “we’re on the cusp of a World War III.” Paul from El Paso shared a link to a YouTube video called “A Vote For Hillary is a Vote For World War 3.” Another RT follower, Aaron Klein from Marietta, Georgia, expressed the same pre-election urgency to Coda in a message. “Everyone around the world is stancing up for ww3 and were sitting here with non stop coverage of a political race that is absolutely ridiculous,” Klein wrote close to the November election.
These concerns seem to have subsided with the election of Donald Trump as president. As one RT fan wrote about RT’s editorial, With Trump’s win we might’ve dodged nuclear bullet: “This election wasn’t only about the U.S., it was about preventing WW3.”
Responses from RT followers to Coda are reprinted as they were originally written.
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