You can say a lot of things about reporters, but “savvy” seldom comes to mind. Especially when reading the story of Elizabeth Wahl, an ambitious young reporter who signed on to the state-controlled Russia Today international propaganda network, which the US intelligence commuity has understood to be an operation of the FSB (Federal Security Bureau, Sluzhba Federalnaya Bezopasnosti) since its establishment.
She was shocked, shocked! that a Russian government operation went out of its way to flatter the Russian government and its various client states worldwide, mostly tin-horn dictatorships (Syria, Iran, Nork, we’re looking’ at you) and failed states. When they hired her, she was ripe for the plucking: young, not very bright but very ambitious, stuck in a dead-end job colocated with nowhere:
When RT first contacted me, I was working as a reporter and anchor 8,000 miles away on the island of Saipan, in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a 40-minute plane ride from Guam. I had been there for about two years, reporting for the local news station on topics like immigration and local political corruption. Before making the move across the globe, I had freelanced at a local news station in my home state of Connecticut, and had done several internships in broadcast news, including at NBC and Fox.
If that’s not the resume of a media lightweight, what is?
Island life was a blast, but around the time I decided I was ready to move back to the mainland, RT emailed me out of the blue. Apparently the news director had seen one of my reports—on how Saipan was preparing to handle possible radiation exposure after the Fukushima disaster—on YouTube and thought I’d be a good addition to RT.
Let’s say a few words here about how the FSB recruits, a policy that’s in a long tradition going back through FSB, SVR, KGB, MGB, MVD, NKVD, Cheka to the Tsarist Ochrana and Third Section without differences in the principles of tradecraft, although the TTPs are always evolving. (For some background on how KGB morphed into today’s FSB, this 1997 paper by Jeff Trimble [.pdf] may be useful).
The news director, who was Russian, pitched the network as an alternative news source that dared to challenge conventions.
They tuned it, in other words, to perfect pitch to appeal to shallow and insular media liberals, and their self-delusion that every one is an iconoclast in the mold of Woodward and Bernstein (whereas Woodward and Bernstein were and are dead in the mainstream of conventionality in the trade, including Bernstein’s Communist upbringing, and their reports on Watergate were not the result of hard work, but of being targeted for controlled revelations by a self-serving leaker).
The News Director of course is Russian. He is either an officer or an agent of the FSB, and his position is one where they value loyalty. His underlings, like Miss Wahl, were selected for their disloyalty — that is, to their nations. Or at least, for signs of enough ambition that they would be disloyal for a paycheck, when push came to shove.
“Question More” was the network’s slogan. During our Skype interview and on subsequent emails, there was little talk about Russia, or any indication the news would be influenced by Russian politics. I had some misgivings and asked about editorial independence. He scoffed, and asserted that the network was providing alternative news that mainstream outlets didn’t want to hear.
You notice — if you’re not the sort of naïf who was selected to report on local news based on a comely countenance and a head of hair, but who thinks what they see in you is talent — that our friend from the FSB did not answer her question. This would have been a good time to be skeptical, and she almost was:
I was a little skeptical about the whole thing, but I couldn’t find much concrete information on the Internet about the station and its mission and I didn’t know anyone who’d ever worked there. I figured there are other networks that do respected journalism while getting some form of government funding. Also, the Cold War was over. Weren’t we supposed to be mending ties? It’s not like it was North Korea.
That’s the first few yards on the rationalization treadmill for Miss Wahl.
Here was an opportunity to move to D.C. and work on stories of national and international significance. I knew my other options would likely require moving to some Podunk town to cover rescued kittens and the Fourth of July parade.
And here’s the next bit: they nakedly appealed to her ambition. Hey, it’s foreign propaganda, but they downplayed that, and it wasn’t some “Podunk town” and local news.
Maybe I ignored some red flags. Maybe I should have asked tougher questions. But from my post in the Pacific, RT looked like a good opportunity.
As you can probably tell from the heavy foreshadowing in that sentence, the bloom is off the rose for Miss Wahl, a story she tells in Politoco as I Was Putin’s Pawn. The hammer dropped as soon as she checked in:
The top guys were all Russian, but most of my co-workers were American. Some colleagues warned me that I’d need to let go of any preconceived notions and journalistic principles.
“The top guys were all Russian.” Gee, why do you think that is?
The story’s quite good, recounting how the scales fell from Wahl’s eyes as she was expected to do propaganda pieces puffing up the “Occupy” protests — she notes that many of the protesters were unfocused hippies, something obvious to everyone who was not in the media or the service of the Russian security services, but we repeat ourselves there. After Occupy, she watched as the “news” organization took on boosting Qaddafi, Ahmadinejad, and Boy Assad, and served as a platform for 9/11 Twoofers and other conspiracy theorists.
I was disgusted and disappointed by the whitewashing of brutal dictators—and glad to be covering domestic issues. I tried to pitch stories I felt were important and underrepresented. From time to time, I would report on something I found worthwhile, and feel a little better about the cognitive dissonance I was suffering from. I went inside the country’s largest jail in Cook County, Chicago, to expose how mental health patients flooded the correctional facility, highlighted the victims of the so-called War on Drugs who were unjustly incarcerated for decades for petty drug crimes and consistently covered the Bradley Manning trial in Fort Meade, Md. But I knew the stories would only fly if they fit the network’s narrative that America is a crumbling nation plagued with problems.
One of the most interesting things is her perception of how her American colleagues treated work as the Lord Haw-Haw or Tokyo Rose of the 21st Century.
I heard colleagues repeat various justifications for continuing to work there ranging from “we’re providing a different perspective,” to “everyone has an agenda” to “it’s a job.”
Finally, she was at a point of moral crisis. Those kinds of rationalizations had no bite for her, and there was her family history:
I stopped to think about who I was and what I was doing. On my father’s side, both of my grandparents were immigrants from Hungary. My grandfather arrived in the U.S. around the end of World War II. My grandmother arrived 10 years later as a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising, a nationwide revolt against Soviet forces that eventually forced Hungary into submission.
Wahl went on the air and resigned, with two sentences that slapped her employer of over two years: “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I am proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why, after this newscast, I am resigning.”
Since then, she’s landed no job — not even covering rescued kittens in Podunk. RT has filing cabinets full of resumes of young, pretty, ambitious and shallow reporters, just like the legitimate news agencies, and has had no problem replacing her. After all, most journalists are products of college programs where bashing America is a well-worn pathway to high grades and graduation. And the rest of the American “useful idiots” remain on the job at RT. Indeed, some pro-Putin stooges in the media have a perfect explanation for Wahl’s resignation: it’s all a neocon plot.
It’s hard to say what effect RT has on shaping opinion in the US. It’s likely a very marginal one, but that’s only one of the station’s roles. Its most committed viewers tend to be alienated young men, some of whom are always being evaluated for recruitment. Its computer servers are useful platforms for injecting software on to viewers’ PCs. It also been useful to the neo-KGB in placing Russians and foreigners well disposed to Russian propaganda themes into other media placements including CNN. These include not only on-camera talent but producers and technical people, but that’s another story for another day.