CRF Blog

At RT, News Breaks You

by Bill Hayes

In At RT, News Breaks You, a Bloomberg Businessweek feature story examines the influence of the Russian news agency.

By the time Putin assumed Russia’s presidency in 1999, the country had developed a relatively robust post-Soviet media. Gradually he wrested every major outlet from private control and blanketed the airwaves with Kremlin PR. With the country also enjoying an oil and gas boom, Putin became more popular than ever. Abroad, not so much.

Enter Russia Today, which was developed by former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin as an urbane foreign counterpart to domestic telly. The network would imitate the look of Western cable news while disrupting narratives critical of Russia — or, as Putin later put it, while breaking “the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” Kremlin-funded, but in theory editorially independent, Russia Today was staffed by telegenic Brits and perfectly bilingual Muscovites. Its annual budget started at $30 million and increased 10-fold over the next five years. (By comparison, the BBC World Service’s annual budget is about $450 million; the federally funded Voice of America somehow spends $220 million.)

Most cable channels receive fees from broadcasters for the right to air them, but it wasn’t clear that Russia Today would draw enough viewers to make the prospect attractive to the likes of Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable. So the network paid for access to the largest U.S. cable markets — the same strategy Rupert Murdoch followed when Fox News was in its infancy — and an impossible number of random hotels around the country. It soon became clear, though, that nobody outside Russia cared to watch coverage of its domestic affairs. So in 2009, Simonyan, a wunderkind Russian reporter, pivoted to global news. She created Spanish- and Arabic-language bureaus out of Moscow, plus standalone operations in London and Washington, and dropped “Russia” from the channel’s name, rebranding it RT.

The shift created a new problem. During the Soviet era, Radio Moscow had pushed socialist ideology abroad, but none of the hallmarks of Putin’s Russia — he-man nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, cronyism — were so easily exportable. “Russia doesn’t have a coherent ideology to project,” says Alexey Kovalev, a Moscow journalist and media critic who formerly worked for the state news agency, RIA Novosti. “The only thing we can do is bring others on our level, to tell everybody that Western values don’t mean anything.”

In 2009, McCann Erickson created a slogan for the channel: “Question More.” Rather than foster a message of its own, RT would prick holes in everyone else’s. The next year it launched an offshoot, RT America, on the second floor of a building three blocks from the White House. [more]