Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on July 4, 2017 in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on July 4, 2017 in Moscow.

Americans are free to believe anything they want — even what’s reported on a cable news channel funded by the Kremlin. The U.S. federal government considers Russia Today (RT) propaganda and wants it to register as a foreign agent.

But RT says there’s no difference between it and the BBC in the UK, and that many of the stories they report — like the Seth Rich murder conspiracy — also receive coverage on Fox News.

How is Russia influencing what we know? And will we see more propaganda popping up on-air and online soon?

Check out this episode of “The Daily” podcast from the New York Times with reporter Jim Rutenberg on Russia’s information war against the West.

Guests

  • Kimberly Marten Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University; she specializes in international relations and Russia
  • Jim Rutenberg Media columnist, The New York Times; former chief political correspondent, The New York Times Magazine
  • Alexey Kuznetsov Deputy Head of News at RT International
  • Garland Nixon Co-hosts the show "Fault Lines" on Sputnik Radio
  • Andrew Feinberg Former White House correspondent for Sputnik International.

Interview Highlights

What are RT and Sputnik?

Rutenberg: [RT] is state-financed, but not directly under state-control or state-run. … Sputnik is state-owned. It shares an editor with RT. It’s a lot like Buzzfeed, it’s an online play. It’s kind of brash, it’s very active on Twitter.

Kuznetsov: [RT is] a different voice, that plurality should be welcomed. Apparently what we’re seeing is that there are a lot of forces inside the United States, both at the political establishment level and at the media who are trying to basically silence that voice.

Why are we talking about them in the United States?

Rutenberg: I think it’s not that they should be or shouldn’t be [on American’s radar], it’s that they are … The US intelligence community released a report in January report about what they said were Russian efforts to affect our elections and interestingly to me and fascinating to me was that many of those pages were dedicated to a basic cable network that any American can see — not the underground alleged bot network of Twitter and Facebook.

Is RT a foreign agent?

RT announced last week the Department of Justice asked the company to register as a foreign agent. Kuznetsov said the U.S. journalist community is rallying for the removal of the cable news network.

Kuznetsov: The company that provides services to RT which is a legal entity in the United States received this letter saying that we’re obliged to register under FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] … We feel that it’s pretty strange someone would invoke an obscure 1938 law that was designed originally to counter Nazi propaganda to be invoked against RT because we’re not propaganda and we are not Nazis. I can only imagine what kind of hysteria and a storm would happen in the United States if Russia did the same, it’s just amazing, it makes one’s hair stand on end.”

Rutenberg: Before any governmental action happens, I mean that’s a big debate this country will have to have and, of course, there will be huge concern from the journalistic community. So there was sort of, I think, an unfair assessment that the US journalistic community wants RT shut down. I haven’t seen the US journalist community do that in any fulsome way.

Marten: [Something] to keep in mind when we’re thinking about calling organizations foreign agents is that Russia has had a pattern of doing that for the last several years with just about every nongovernmental organization that has any western connection inside Russia … We know that the Soviet intelligence agencies infiltrated the Soviet journalism organizations abroad [during the Cold War] … But we also know that they had multiple purposes, not just spreading propaganda. It was also the idea of creating havoc and confusion in western societies to try to cast doubt on the legitimacy of their political systems.

The whole concept of information war is coming from the Russia government staff. It’s coming from the military organization in Russia.

Is it Russian propaganda?

Kuznetsov: We actually don’t notice any Kremlin interference here in Moscow. It’s hard for me — I’m being totally sincere here — it’s hard for me to speak about what’s happening on the US end because it’s thousands of miles away, but I can vouch for what’s happening in Moscow. It’s a collective decision of editorial managers … not once have we received a critical phone call from anyone in the administration saying that we cannot or should not do this or that story.

Nixon: Before the show, we [at Sputnik] get together and scour the news, we go over what are the current news issues … we try to do both domestic policy and foreign policy … And no one tells us what we can or can’t talk about.

Feinberg: I was given certain assurances about editorial independence and that I’d be able to not write propaganda. I’d be covering stories that matter, that might be overlooked — things that any report would want to do and want to have and those turned out to be false promises … They didn’t want reporters to have bylines on their stories. … If there’s no name on the story, there’s no one responsible for the story. If there’s no one responsible for the story, you can really print whatever they want.

Another platform

Marten: Something that should be a basic part of the social studies curriculum starting in junior high school, at least middle school in the United States, is talking about how you analyze things that are coming in and how you make a decision about whether it’s something you want to pay attention to, how you find out whether the evidence they’re using is good evidence or whether it’s all made up and therefore just propaganda and so I think the more that we talk about it, the more we allow people to think for themselves about things I think that the more conversation we have, the better for everybody.

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