“What Exactly is On the Media?”

As a former employee of the Voice of Russia, I watched the Liz Wahl story with considerable interest…and found myself bothered by a lot of the coverage.  One segment caught my eye, wherein NPR’s On the Media asked “What Exactly is Russia Today?”

Unfortunately, the question turned out to be rhetorical.  OTM had answered the question already…and they just brought in Julia Ioffe of the New Republic to fill in the blanks.  Not only had they decided what RT was, they had also decided that anyone who worked for RT were also somehow culpable.

So I wrote them a letter.  Here it is:

 As a huge fan of On the Media, I was excited to see you guys take on this story this week.  I am writing you for the first time to mention some issues I had with how you went about this, in particular the way you conducted your interview with Julia Ioffe.


I am a fan of Ms. Ioffe’s work.  I read her and the New Republic frequently, and even know some people who work there.


But the way this interview was used, apparently to balance the previous segment with Abby Martin, felt very unfair.


First, full disclosure: Not only is Voice of Russia located in the same building as RT in downtown Washington, it is also run in the U.S. by the same agent company (International TV Services) and shares some of the same management, though RT and Voice of Russia are run entirely separately (for the moment) in Moscow.


I do not know either Wahl or Martin personally, but I did feel a personal connection to what they were going through.


I worked at Voice of Russia for six months.  Following journalism school and a paid internship, it was the only full time position offered me.  They were willing to allow me to cover whatever I wished, and offered a reasonable salary plus benefits.


I left in early February amid growing frustration with how the organization was run and discomfort with its direction following the announcement of a massive Russian state media reorganization (which involves sharing an editor-in-chief with RT, the same women whom Ioffe mentions in her interview with you guys).  I left quietly and amicably, appreciative of the chance to develop as a journalist but realizing I needed to move on.


As this story has developed, I have seen a prevalent attitude among established journalists—the most egregious example being Barbara Walters—that anyone who works for state media in any way is committing some sort of journalistic “original sin,” an ethical failing in and of itself.  I resent that strongly.  I understand Walters is a trailblazer for women in the media, but nevertheless the media world she started out in was one with more resources, more jobs, and more opportunities than today.  Couple that with a general stagnation in worker wages and rising cost of living in America’s cities (which is where you have to go to be a journalist), and you have a tough road to hoe for anyone starting out.


Julia Ioffe’s interview not only stoked those frustrations, but brought along with them all new ones.  I feel the segment was pure opinion presented as authoritative truth, and showed an alarming lack of self-awareness on Ioffe’s part both in regards to where she works and the American media in general.  I also found the lack of pushback to a couple of her statements alarming.


Don’t get me wrong—I agree with a lot of what she says.  Yes, RT is selective in its coverage.  Yes, they covered Occupy heavily and ignored protests against Putin in Russia.  I won’t engage in polemics about the American media’s overall coverage, what they choose and don’t choose to cover.  I think that conversation has been had.


RT’s coverage of the Ukraine-Crimea story has been laughable.  Check out my twitter feed (@JstnMtchll) and you’ll see I’ve been first in line to criticize this.  Maybe one or two of my 300 followers have noticed that, maybe not.


But then Ioffe refers to all the “fat paychecks” at RT, and says people who work there all move to Russia.  I did not get paid lots of money for working at Voice of Russia, run by the same business-end management in the U.S., and moving to Russia was certainly never an option.  But Ioffe suggested that’s what everyone does, that instead of working in the United States in Washington or New York and covering mostly domestic stories, people who work for RT move to Russia and join the elite living in some sort of Land of the Dead walled city.


I don’t know what information Ioffe has about what people get paid at RT, but I would be surprised if most people were doing much better than I was, which was fine but not great.  And, once again, most U.S. hires aren’t moving to Russia any time soon.


Next, Ioffe suggests these deeply compromised people who are still apparently working in Russia try to rationalize what they do by saying that since they aren’t involved with the more controversial coverage they can say to themselves, in Ioffe’s words, “what I do is okay.”


The inference, of course, is that it is not, and that Ioffe’s glowing light of rectitude had revealed their complicity…which is apparently on par with the complicity of those who worked at Pravda during the Communist era.


Here is where I would like to see some self-awareness from Ioffe or some push back from On the Media.


Ioffe works at the New Republic.  Just weeks ago, that magazine published a cover story by Sean Wilentz that was a rather rickety guilt-by-association screed intended to get people to dislike Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange for their supposed political leanings, none of which were ever proven.  I understand from your interview with Wilentz when the article came out that you don’t necessarily share my view of the piece, but a piece based on no real evidence of anything at all appearing in one of the most prominent center-left publications in the country creates an impression nevertheless.  My favorite skewering of the piece came from AntiWar.com, an avowedly libertarian publication that had a pretty good (and I must admit, righteous) laugh at Wilentz’s expense.


So…Ioffe in her interview suggests that anyone who works at RT is culpable for everything the network does.


So…by extension…wouldn’t Ioffe be culpable for what Wilentz wrote?


And what about the New Republic’s support of the Iraq invasion under the editorship of Peter Beinart (who is a former professor of mine for whom I have a great deal of respect)?


Or what about Stephen Glass’s serial fabrications, one of the most heinous instances of journalism malpractice in history?


Is Ioffe responsible for all of that?


Of course she isn’t!  To say so is absurd.  And that’s why I think Ioffe’s statement on RT journalists is sanctimonious, specious, and ridiculous, and I think deserved a push back.  (And, once again, let me remind you that most Americans working for RT work in the U.S., covering the U.S., and don’t comment on Russian politics anyway).


Next, and most problematic of all, was Ioffe’s statement concerning the Voice of America when Bob Garfield very rightly brought up the U.S.’s propaganda efforts.


“Voice of America doesn’t try to present itself as a news organization, as a straight up news organization, people know what it is,” Ioffe said.


This statement is false.


One need only go back to 2001 and the controversy over the Mullah Omar interview to learn just how blatantly false Ioffe’s statement is.  In fact, I am sure you guys know more about it than me, and about the famous Washington Post article in which VOA employees called out the BBG.


Or one can just go read VOA’s mission statement from their website.


Yes, its mission is to “represent America,” but VOA accomplishes that mission by adhering to strict journalistic standards…or so it says.  Whichever it is, Ioffe’s statement is still false.


And Ioffe made this statement with no pushback at all from Bob Garfield, in the context of a segment discrediting RT (which I have no problem with) and its employees (which I think is a sanctimonious cheap shot).


I feel this points to the central problem here: a cultural insularity that seems endemic to any discussion of state media organizations.  It’s always the other side that doesn’t do it right, but ours—whichever that may be—that (of course!) does.


I am no Russophile, conspiracy theorist, libertarian, communist, leftist, anarchist, Democrat, Republican, or what have you.  I am a fan, as I said, of On the Media, Julia Ioffe, the New Republic, WNYC, NPR, PRI, AntiWar.com, Glenn Greenwald, and Sean Wilentz…I even listen to VOA’s International Edition semi-regularly through iTunes.  In fact, the organization in this discussion I like the least would be…RT!


But as someone who has been where people like Liz Wahl are, and who has, in pursuing a career in journalism, made some difficult and fraught decisions, it would be nice to see these sorts of rickety, contradictory ethical judgments called out by what I believe is the premiere media analysis show in the country.


Thanks for everything you guys do.




Justin Mitchell

Shockingly enough, I have received no answer from On the Media.  I did speak to press representatives for both Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  They both strongly stressed they are journalism organizations.

What this means: Julia Ioffe did, in fact, make a false statement on On the Media, and one of the most prominent media analysis shows out there has chosen not to correct the record.

So…what exactly is On the Media?

– Justin Mitchell is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter at @JstnMtchll.

Screenshot from RT of LIz Wahl, an RT anchor, quitting her job on air.

Screenshot from RT of LIz Wahl, an RT anchor, quitting her job on air.


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One Response to “What Exactly is On the Media?”

  1. Pingback: Propaganda, Theirs and Ours | Capitol Correspondent

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