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Vladimir Putin's media strategy in the spotlight

By Jill Dougherty
updated 6:56 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • One RT anchor quits and another criticizes Moscow's intervention in Ukraine
  • Jill Dougherty notes that RT editor said "mainstream media" in war with RT
  • RT is an arm of Russia's media apparatus, and is due for another rebranding, she says
  • She says the intervention in Crimea will overshadow and may tarnish RT

Editor's note: Jill Dougherty was CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief and Correspondent from 1997 through 2005. She also served as White House Correspondent and, most recently, as CNN's Foreign Affairs Correspondent covering the State Department. She is a fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, where she is researching recent developments in the Russian media.

(CNN) -- Two young news anchors for Russia's RT television network -- both Americans -- have blasted Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine, and their editor-in-chief claims the announcements, and the "mainstream media's" reaction to them, are part of a media war.

"We've got a genuine war going on," Margarita Simonyan, RT's editor-in-chief, wrote on RT's website. "No, thank God, it's not in Crimea. It's a media war."

Sitting behind the RT anchor desk on Wednesday, Washington-based Liz Wahl told the audience she "could not be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of (President Vladimir) Putin," adding "I'm proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why after this newscast I am resigning."

Jill Dougherty
Jill Dougherty

The day before, Abby Martin announced on air, "I can't say enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation's affairs ... what Russia did is wrong." Martin, however, did not resign and criticized "mainstream media" for ignoring her previous criticism of U.S. military action in other countries.

RT called Wahl's action a "self-promotional stunt" and, commenting on Martin's move, said RT staff members are free to express their views.

The public criticism of Putin's actions on Ukraine is an embarrassment for RT, but Simonyan is rallying her journalists for a war, which, she believes, is directed by the American government with its foot soldiers being the American media.

"The storm of articles posted about RT over the last couple of days -- literally tons of printed copy -- looks as if it were written to dictation," she wrote. "Hardly any respectable media outlet refrained from lambasting and lynching RT journalists in articles or reports."

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Simonyan works for RT, she said, because, "It's my country. There is no other choice for me."

Depicting itself as an "alternative" voice is part of RT's marketing strategy. Organized in 2005 as an international TV news channel funded by the Russian government, its original name was "Russia Today" and its early mission was to inform the world about events and life in Russia.

That strategy, an RT editor told me bluntly a year ago, "was a mistake, really," because few people around the world are that interested in Russia.

The network soon lost its Russian image, re-branding itself as "RT," its English-language broadcasts featuring young Americans, and concentrating largely on American news.

RT now has 2,500 employees, including editorial, technical and support staff, and five stations: RT International, RT America (English language), RT Arabic, RT Spanish and RT Documentary. This spring RT is launching its own video agency in Berlin to compete with Reuters and APTN.

In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper on Wednesday, Wahl said that, in its reports on the Ukraine crisis, "RT is not about the truth. It's about promoting a Putinist agenda, and I can tell you firsthand, it's also about bashing America." The editorial policy is set by its senior Russian editors. "Middle-management," she said, "is American, and their role is to make sure we're in line."

A senior staff member at RT insists the staff decides RT's editorial policy, not the Russian government, and compares RT with the BBC, France 24, Deutsche Welle, and other state-funded news outlets.

Russia, that staff member says, must constantly fight the Cold War image of the "evil Empire," and that could take years to overcome.

Dmitri Trenin, an expert from the Carnegie Moscow Center who served in the Soviet and Russian military for more than 20 years, says RT's approach differs significantly from news broadcasting in the Soviet Union. "The Soviet system of propaganda talked about Russia. They had Russian announcers, by and large, and they tried to project Soviet ideas, Soviet ideology, Soviet experience."

"This time there's nothing to project, they don't care about it. What they do care about is introducing themselves in the Western media world and challenging the established truths and half-truths of the Western media, of the Western World. It's not about Russia."

Meanwhile, in an ironic bit of timing, the "Russia Today" name is back again. In a bombshell announcement in late December, President Putin issued a decree creating an international broadcasting entity to carry Russia's views to the world, to be called "Russia Today."

He also liquidated two Soviet-era media outlets, RIA Novosti news agency and Russia Today international radio. Details of the new agency's structure and mission are expected any day.

For the past 20 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been struggling to project its ideas to the world. The Sochi Olympics and its opening ceremony were a major step in Putin's revamping of Russia's image.

Now, with the new "Russia Today," he will have both the message -- and the medium -- to present it. His actions in Ukraine, however, are likely, at a minimum, to overshadow the birth of that new agency and, more likely, tarnish it.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jill Dougherty.

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