In case you missed it, see my RT as a Foreign Agent. This was a follow up to Edward Delman’s article at The Atlantic which asked whether RT is a lobbyist based on a suggestion from a member of the Russian Duma. Ilya Ponomarev, currently in exile in California due to his opposition to the invasion of Crimea, had said that RT was not a media organization. ‘I think it’s a lobbying tool,’ he told Buzzfeed, ‘and it should be regulated as a lobbyist rather than media.’
The inquiries by Ponomarev and Delman were fair and valid considering the nature of RT’s operation. Since RT was not trying to change legislation, not even the Magnistky Act (I suggest Bill Bowder’s Red Notice for more on Magnistky), it is not a lobbyist.
Some scholars have asserted that RT is Russian public diplomacy. While neither Ponomarev nor Delman suggested this, I explored the idea in the article. RT is not about making Russia, its people, its policies (foreign or domestic) known. RT is no longer Russia Today but RT because it is not about Russia. It is about everyone else. Thus it is not public diplomacy.
In RT’s own words, it is for ‘viewers wishing to question more and delivers stories often missed by the mainstream media to create news with an edge.’ It is not about the facts, but to ‘Question More’. Uniquely, and quite cleverly, RT has bent the ideological spectrum from linear to circular so that the ‘far left’ and the ‘far right’ are on common ground. The ‘alternative opinion’ they push is not airing inaccessible or hidden facts. On notable events, if you watch long enough, you’ll see more than one — often many more than one — ‘explanation’ of events. They, like the Kremlin’s other information enterprises, produce ’facts’ like widgets, which are in turn tested and kept or discarded. ‘Experts’ and ‘witnesses’ are conjured when convenient. This is not a news operation but an influence operation directly supported by and for the benefit of a foreign government. Therefore, RT is a foreign agent as defined by the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA.
Sputnik’s response to my article is a convenient demonstration of Kremlin propaganda. While they posted a link to my article, Sputnik’s prose indicates an expectation their readers will not click it and read. The unsigned article opened with an attack on the character of the Duma member, recasts the original discussion about ‘lobbyist’, and declared that I was ‘on the Ponomaryov anti-RT bandwagon’.
At least the parallel of Nazi propaganda and Kremlin propaganda wasn’t lost on Sputnik. As Nazi agents were the original target of FARA, invoking Nazis was not a ‘last resort’ in this case.
Regardless, shifting the focus from RT and on to BBG, Sputnik eventually declares, ‘Of course, in the end, Armstrong comes to the conclusion that RT should not, in fact, be reclassified. Which in turn begs the question: Why write the article in the first place?’ The reason was plain in my article: RT is a foreign agent, not a lobbyist nor public diplomacy, but requiring their registration would be a propaganda coup for the Kremlin. True to form, the Sputnik spin is that the article was really about the BBG and how it wants more funding: ‘One could easily surmise that this is part of a long-running campaign by the BBG to drum up fear about alternative media sources in order to shore up funding for its own department.’ Not true, in fact, the BBG and RT are not in competition and comparisons are irrelevant, which I discuss here.
While Sputnik frames the article as a product of the BBG, it was a personal endeavor and not done while wearing my part-time BBG hat. Since Sputnik is (hopefully) not reading my email, they would not have known that BBG staff wasn’t even aware that I was writing it or that I only shared it with staff after it was finished and queued for publishing the night before.
Such details are important to critical thinkers, but not to Sputnik, RT, or (the bulk of) their audiences. I’ll admit that I occasionally watch RT, and I often learn something when I do. For example, several months ago I was watching their program in a hotel room and I learned that the lack of badger rights in the United Kingdom reflected the hypocrisy of the UK and the West toward Africa. True story — that I saw and heard this on RT, that is. I don’t know enough about badger rights here in the UK to comment on that aspect. But it must be true, right?