The World According to Russia Today 2013
Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Misja Pekel
Directed by Misja Pekel
DVD , color, 88 min.
Television Journalists, Russia, Politics, Mass Media
Date Entered: 11/13/2015Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach
It is a common refrain among Russian officials that the Russian point of view in the world is ignored and its policies misunderstood and vilified. Russian officials point to enduring stereotypes about Russia from the Cold War that seemingly inform and direct Western media coverage of Russia’s actions in the world. To combat these negative images Vladimir Putin began a campaign – supported by generous funding – to coopt and shape media and talking-head views of Russia. In 2004 various government-funded think tanks and other institutions launched the Valdai Discussion Club, which aimed to introduce the world’s intellectual elite to Russian leaders, policy makers, and intellectuals. In 2005 the Russian government launched a far more ambitious project, modeled in part on BBC, to start up a news service that would broadcast in English and other languages, and use all the latest technology and slick editing techniques of Western television news broadcasting. Russia Today – RT – was thus born.
The World According to Russia Today tells the story of RT’s creation and its subsequent transformation in response to frustrations with Western coverage of Russia. The story unfolds through past and current news reporters and anchors, all of them young and ambitious American and English journalists looking for a big break into the global news business. These reporters, as one news analyst notes in the documentary, were novices and far from heavy hitters in the Western journalistic world. They leapt at the chance to be thrust into a position on a prominent global television news program that might never materialize for them in Western media outlets. Generous salaries, far above what they could hope to make in the West, convinced them to take the job – and perhaps also assuage doubts about being used as a propaganda arm of the Russian government.
Initially, at least, there was little pressure, overt or subtle, to alter stories in favor of the official Russian government stance. The young American and British employees had a heady sense of being on the cutting edge of journalism, providing a legitimate yet alternative take on world, much like Al-Jazeera. The turning point, according to the documentary, came in August 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia over the disputed Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia. Russian perceptions – which had some basis – that the Western media was reporting the story as an instance of Russian aggression against Georgia, and ignoring the military attacks by Georgia that precipitated the full-blown crisis, led to increasing pressures to ignore anything that might violate the official Russian position on the war. Those pressures mounted as tensions between Russia and the West increased, first with the overthrow of Ukraine’s Russian-leaning president in 2014 and then with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
The documentary recounts the growing pressures at censorship for English and American employees of RT covering those and other events. Two of those interviewed finally quit their jobs, afraid that they had perhaps already compromised their journalistic integrity, while another continued to insist on the legitimacy of the RT enterprise.
There is no doubt, based on the evidence in the film, that RT reporters have faced increasing pressures to spin the news in the direction of the Russian Federation government’s official line. The pressures to make news conform do not come from direct bureaucratic command or censorship, but rather from self-censorship and the reporter’s own instinct for doing what is necessary to keep his or her job. At a certain point, for some reporters, doing what was necessary stepped across a moral line, but not for others, who believed that their reporting was no more biased than the reporting from any television news source. Consciously or not, reporters often toe various party lines from the work culture in which they are embedded.
Only 40 minutes long, the documentary is an ideal length for classroom presentation and discussion. The images and interview subjects are interesting and dynamic. More information about the actual newsroom environment, as well as the actual process of editing, would have helped to deepen the point about self-censorship pressures. It also would have helped to place RT into the broader context of news that claims to be objective – MSNBC or Fox News, for example – but clearly has a political line to promote. Thus while the documentary does a fine job placing RT into the Russian political and cultural context, it is less effective in situating its subject in the other important context of the global news business, where objectivity has become a kind of fig leaf to hide various political agendas of the news funders. As the old journalistic adage puts it, follow the money. That’s usually where the truth lies.