Propaganda, Theirs and Ours
For Americans, the story of Ukraine has become an opportunity to tell ourselves all of the ways we are not like Russia. America is on the side of the people; Russia supports the oligarchs. America is looking towards the future; Russia is trapped in the past. America respects the freedom of other countries; Russia sees them only as mechanisms to spread its own influence.
Russia Today, better known as RT, has become a pivotal character in this narrative. The Kremlin-funded international broadcaster, long a YouTube niche-market for America’s political outliers, has become a symbol for the venality of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s media war with the West, and by extension his entire country’s confrontation with the forces of democracy.
When former RT anchor Liz Wahl resigned on the air, the floodgates opened.
Wahl’s connection to James Kirchik, a writer for the Daily Beast and fellow at the neoconservative Foreign Policy Institute, is what really drove the narrative. Kirchik had already established himself as RT’s most prominent American detractor, but after snagging an exclusive the same night Wahl quit, Kirchik gleefully turned Wahl’s resignation into a battle between the forces of good against evil, us against them, East against West. In story after story, he excoriated RT as a uniquely amoral institution, labeling anyone who worked for them as accomplices, employing rhetoric both boilerplate and inflammatory at the same time.
In his article on Wahl’s resignation, Kirchik drew a contrast between her and her former co-workers. Wahl is out of a job, he wrote, but “that’s the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth.”
In a piece in which Kirchik heckled employees of RT outside its Washington office (and inaccurately claimed RT management called the police on him), he described the network as “a flytrap for cranks, conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites, and defenders of authoritarianism” and the employees as a “mix of opportunists striving to get a job in journalism, willing to make whatever moral compromises are necessary in pursuit of that goal, and those who fully sign onto the network’s witches’ brew.”
Kirchik’s background as an employee of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty makes him a particularly apt example of the eagerness of so many Americans to strap on blinders at every opportunity. But it’s not just him.
Last month, Julia Ioffe of The New Republic went on no less mainstream a program than NPR’s On the Media and not only compared those who work for RT to employees of Communist-era Pravda, but even made a blatantly false statement about the nature and reputation of the Voice of America, the U.S.’s external broadcaster.
Barbara Walters raised the sanctimony to new levels with a screed of her own.
As the weeks have passed, this strange “RT Derangement Syndrome” has snowballed, sometimes to the point of absurdity, as everyone seems eager to get their knocks in while there’s still time. The drama of Wahl’s resignation has meanwhile become a particularly amusing side-show of sophomoric Washington media tribalism at its worst.
A reality check is in order. Criticism of RT is fair, but what is getting lost is that the United States in fact has a long and storied history of using government-funded media to interfere in the events of sovereign countries. Just like RT, American-funded media has twisted, distorted, and outright lied, often costing human lives in the process. I admit, as a former employee of Voice of Russia (one who left, at least in part, for reasons similar to Liz Wahl’s), I have a personal stake in this. But the truth is the truth.
To begin, we revisit not only the same era that Kirchik and Ioffe would have us believe is being replayed—the Cold War—but also Kirchik’s former employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the role that organization played in the 1956 Hungarian uprising.
At the time, Radio Free Europe had broadcasters all over the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe. It was funded by the C.I.A, and its goal was to spread the message of Western-style democracy.
1956 led to a pivotal change in how it went about its work. In late October of that year, protestors clashed with police, leading to about a month of unrest until the Soviets cracked down and Prime Minister Imre Nagy was removed from power, arrested, and later executed.
During this time, RFE Hungarian broadcast every day. The content and style of these broadcasts remain controversial to this day. RFE was widely blamed for ginning up anti-Soviet emotions and falsely promising that the West would provide military assistance to the protestors if they continued their defiance.
After the Soviet crackdown, William Griffith, an official at the Munich RFE, went over the station’s coverage in a now-declassified memo. He pointed out broadcasts that instilled false hope of Western military intervention.
Of one October 27 broadcast, Griffith said:
[t]he program gives detailed instructions as to how partisan and Hungarian armed forces should fight. It advises local authorities to secure stores of arms for the use of Freedom Fighters and tell the population to hide Freedom Fighters who become separated from their units. It advises the population to provide food and supplies for Freedom Fighters. The writer tells Hungarians to sabotage (“disconnect”) railroad and telephone lines. It fairly clearly implies that foreign aid will be forthcoming if the resistance forces succeed in establishing a “central military command.”
On November 4, 1956, the same day the Soviets launched a brutal attack on Hungary that ended up squelching the rebellion, Zoltan Thury, RFE Hungarian’s editor, read a story from the London Observer that suggested Western militaries may feel pressure to support the Hungarians. He ended the broadcast with his own editorial statement:
The reports from London, Paris, and the U.S. and other Western reports show that the world’s reaction to Hungarian events surpasses every imagination. In the Western capitals, a practical manifestation of Western sympathy is expected at any hour.
In his 1957 memo, William Griffith said this “probably constitutes the most serious violation of all.”
In a 2006 report for the Wilson Center called “Setting the Record Straight,” former RFE/RL executive A. Ross Johnson sought to vindicate the organization’s role in the uprising by arguing RFE did not purposely incite it as many allege. But even he was forced to admit RFE’s coverage reached a huge amount of Hungarians, instilled a widespread false hope for Western intervention, and failed to live up to either RFE’s espoused policy or journalism ethics in general.
But maybe RFE was more misguided than devious in 1956.
For a more clear-cut case of America using propaganda against a sovereign nation to blatantly mislead its people in favor of its own geostrategic objectives, it is necessary to move to another, much more deadly conflict—the Vietnam War—and recall the story of the Sacred Sword of the Patriots League.
The SSPL was the blackest of black ops; military officials decided they would create a fictional nationalist resistance movement inside North Vietnam in the hopes of diverting resources. The operation was a spectacular failure, but instructive in seeing the lengths to which the United States—or any sovereign power—will go to get what it wants.
According to declassified military documents as well as Richard M. Schultz’s book The Secret War Against Hanoi, the U.S.’s tools in this operation included so-called “black radio.”
A special military detachment created a radio station called the “Voice of the SSPL,” supposedly originating from a “liberated” section of North Vietnam but actually broadcasting from a U.S. base in South Vietnam. It was a broadcast outfit from an enemy power pushing an entirely fictitious reading of an ongoing conflict, one far more deadly than anything happening in Ukraine.
But Voice of the SSPL was only one of several such operations.
The Voice of Freedom (VOF) was a slightly more credible “gray” broadcaster providing actual news and cultural programming highlighting the differences between the two Vietnams. Radio Red Flag was another black station supposedly from Communist dissidents. They even created a service that purposely aped the style and format of Radio Hanoi, the North Vietnamese broadcaster.
Among the organizations that provided support to these operations was the now-defunct United States Information Agency, which also ran RFE and the Voice of America, and in the early 60s was run by no less an icon of American journalistic rectitude than Edward R. Murrow. Schultz’s book mentions a USIA advisor closely involved with these clandestine attempts to twist reality into the shape this particular foreign aggressor found most conducive to its objective. At least Ukraine actually has some neo-Nazis.
But this all comes from another era…one we have progressed beyond, while Russia is still trapped in its same puerile Cold War mindset…right?
Wrong. RFE/RL has long ceased to be funded by the CIA, and it and Voice of America now present themselves as legit journalism,. But the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror, and Donald Rumsfeld’s years in the Pentagon saw a resurgence in “information operations.”
George Washington University’s National Security Archive has published extensive documents on the Iraq Media Network, plans for a television broadcaster to operate in the country during the American occupation, using hand-picked local talent to push a pro-American message. In his book The Way of the Knife, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti said the network “was envisioned as a counterweight to Al Jazeera and other Arabic networks that Washington perceived as having an anti-American bias.”
In 2008, USAToday began a long series of stories detailing the Trans-Regional Web Initiative, a stable of news websites funded by DoD and operating from Latin America to Central Asia to this very day.
The Southeast European Times, or SETimes.com, focuses on the Balkan states that used to make up Yugoslavia. Its regional and relative cultural proximity to Ukraine and Russia makes it a fascinating corollary to RT.
While it is impossible to know how closely the operators of this website watch RT or vice versa, a perusal of SETimes.com and RT’s website provide a pendulum-like dance of narrative and counter-narrative.
On March 14, the Southeast European Times published an article titled “European Countries Feel Safer Under NATO protective umbrella.” Ten days later, on March 24, RT countered with “NATO: Coming to terms with America’s Frankenstein monster.”
On March 16, in the days leading up to the controversial Crimea referendum, RT published this article about Serbian observers of the referendum, which in turned pulled from this piece from another Russian state-owned news operation.
Eight days later, SETimes.com countered with this article, “Serbs in Crimea send ‘false message,’ experts and citizens say.” It even asked readers to share ideas on how to combat “extremism” in the comments section.
SETimes.com, like all TRWI websites, does not openly present itself as a DoD operation. To learn this, readers have to click on the “About” link at the bottom of the page. According to USAToday, it is read by hundreds of thousands of people in the region.
In its use of state media institutions, Russia is doing the same thing the United States has done on countless occasions in the past—use the resources it has to push its own interests. For members of the American media to try and present this behavior as anything unique, new, or even unusual shows a dishonest, sanctimonious disregard for the truth. You could almost call it propaganda.
Justin Mitchell is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter at @JstnMtchll.
NOTE: In one line in an earlier form of this article, I suggested both RFE/RL and Voice of America were once funded by the C.IA. In fact, only RFE/RL was. My mistake.