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Anchor quits: I can't be part of network 'that whitewashes' Putin's actions

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 8:00 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Liz Wahl says RT is about "promoting a Putinist agenda, "bashing America"
  • Wahl quits state-funded RT on-air, saying she believes in "disseminating the truth"
  • Fellow RT personality Abby Martin had slammed "Russia's military occupation of Crimea"
  • But Martin is still with RT, having made her remarks "in the context of her own ... show"

(CNN) -- Another member of state-funded Russia Today made waves on Wednesday -- not by standing behind Moscow, as the news network is wont to do, but by bucking it.

From the anchor chair, Liz Wahl closed a show -- as seen in video which she later tweeted -- talking about the "ethical and moral challenges" she faces working for Russia Today, also known as RT. She spoke of being from a family who fled to America to escape Soviet forces during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, being the daughter of a U.S. military veteran and being the partner of a physician who works at a U.S. military base.

"And that is why, personally, I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin," Wahl said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I'm proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth," she added. "And that is why, after this newscast, I'm resigning."

Not that she would've necessarily lasted much longer, after her comments. In a statement, RT said, "When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional."

"But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt," said the network.

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Talking Wednesday night to CNN's Anderson Cooper, Wahl said the idea she did this "for personal gain ... couldn't be farther from the truth." She said she'd "hesitated to speak on this for a while for fear of repercussion," but decided to act now based on her belief "the propagandist nature of RT (had come) out in full force" over its coverage of the Ukraine crisis.

"RT is not about the truth; it's about promoting a Putinist agenda," Wahl told CNN. "And I can tell you firsthand, it's about bashing America."

Wahl, who characterizes herself as a Filipina-Hungarian-American and RT America correspondent on her Twitter feed, became the second personality from Russia Today to defiantly, publicly challenge the government that effectively signs their paychecks.

Her resignation announcement didn't explicitly mention the crisis in Ukraine, though she mentioned it later in her CNN interview. Backed by Western diplomats, officials in that Eastern European nation claim that Russian troops have violated their sovereignty by effectively invading the Crimean peninsula.

Putin, meanwhile, has denied sending any more of his country's troops into the country, or that any of the up to 25,000 troops who are stationed there have played any part in the standoff, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

But that situation is central to RT's coverage, which leans toward Moscow's point of view. On Wednesday, for instance, its website featured stories with headlines such as "Kiev snipers hired by Maidan leaders," "'Cold War stereotypes': Russia condemns NATO plan" and "Questions on Ukraine the West chooses not to answer."

Two days ago, another RT personality -- Abby Martin -- referred directly to "Russia's military occupation of Crimea" while seemingly going off this pro-Russia script at the end of her "Breaking the Set" program.

News anchor: 'What Russia did is wrong'

"I can't stress enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation's affairs," said Martin, a California native who, like Wahl, is based in Washington. "What Russia did is wrong."

While Martin refused to "defend military aggression," she didn't leave RT.

In fact, she returned to the air the following night and wasn't even reprimanded, according to the network. As RT noted in a statement, Martin called it "kind of a sad commentary that" -- while she's regularly spoken out against military intervention -- "my only criticism of Russia's actions was picked up" by the media.

On Wednesday night, Wahl said she'd recently become upset over portions of one of her interviews being cut, what she called a "very dangerous" segment on neo-Nazi elements among the Ukrainian opposition and "very, very loaded" questions being planted by RT's management.

"I felt that I could no longer work here and go on television and tell the American people that this is what's happening and have it pose as news," Wahl said. "It's something that I don't feel comfortable with."

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Both Wahl and Martin's remarks shined a spotlight on what exactly RT is -- in terms of its purpose and its viewpoint, especially for its U.S.-based, English-language programming.

The Russian foreign ministry's website points to the network as a top media source. And the Columbia Journalism Review says it is best "known as an extension of former President Vladimir Putin's confrontational foreign policy."

In its statement on Martin, the network said that "RT journalists and hosts are free to express their own opinions."

What makes Martin's comments different from those of Wahl, according to RT, is that the former "spoke in the context of her own talk show, to the viewers who have been tuning in for years to hear her opinions on current events, the opinions that most media did not care about until two days ago."

"For years, Ms. Martin, has been speaking out against U.S. military intervention only to be ignored by the mainstream news outlets," RT added. "But with that one comment, branded as an act of defiance, she became an overnight sensation."

The network then seemed to suggest that Wahl -- who cheered Martin as "my girl" after her commentary -- paid attention to all the hoopla.

"It is a tempting example to follow," RT said.

Wahl said many who do follow the lead of network management -- the senior members of which are in Moscow -- are young, "inexperienced" and "eager to please" their bosses.

"Eventually, you learn what management likes, what management dislikes," she said. "... They kind of make sure the narrative is delivered in one way or another."

READ: Five possible ways to end the Ukraine crisis

READ: U.N. envoy to CNN: Situation in Crimea 'dangerous'

MAP: How Ukraine is divided

READ: Live updates from the crisis in Ukraine

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