The year 2008 was important to understand RT’s evolving purpose in world affairs. After relative obscurity following its 2005 launch, RT began countering American and NATO news regarding Russian intervention in South Ossetia, Georgia. RT offered a counternarrative: Russian intervention was defensive and humanitarian, and Russia as a benevolent actor in world affairs. Most importantly, RT framed itself as an underdog in a battle for truth in the murky world of global politics and war.
A profile of RT in The New Statesmen in 2013 noted how “Russian journalists fought back” by aggressively portraying Russia’s humanitarian intentions and citing examples of American news stifling or suppressing Russian perspectives:
Some western channels, particularly Fox News, were hardly less biased in covering the war. RT repeatedly aired a Fox interview in which two South Ossetians from California tried to thank the Russian government but were cut off by the anchor. Fox’s many detractors could watch the take-downs on YouTube, which started carrying RT in 2007. Simonyan’s channel began to win a whole new audience.
This period in RT’s development illustrates how a war over framing international conflict led RT its unique style of international journalism: flashy, daring, brash, anti-establishment, populist, etc. But RT also made the battle over news narratives a part of their coverage. The channel’s turn to media criticism appealed to the growing suspicions of media bias and offered RT’s coverage as a way to escape corporate media.
Was the Georgian war a turning point for the coverage and tone of RT? Perhaps. By challenging the coverage of Western news media giants, RT tapped into the growing suspicion of American news media. There was a market for those suspicious of mainstream journalism. Much like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes filled a market for conservative opinion with Fox News a decade earlier, RT saw an audience they could develop by portraying the channel as the uncorrupted truth-teller in a world of insider politics and patriotic stooges . . . all while thumbing their nose at authorities. Russia has continued to play media critic, self-righteously dressing down UK regulators for violating RT’s right to broadcast after complaints.
By portraying itself as the “anti-Fox,” RT made the meta-turn to commentary on news as an extension of the critique of America and American leadership. By the 2010s, RT had embraced the anti-establishment tone reminiscent of a sarcastic teenager rebelling against the overbearing father. The host of RT’s The Resident roams the streets of New York, interviewing passers by about their suspicions of media. “Special reports” have a cynical edge as the reporter reviews the considerable number of U.S. military and intelligence officials on MSNBC’s payroll for news commentary.
For a bulk of the 20th century, professional broadcast journalism organized public opinion guided by “professional” standards of newsworthiness and neutral reporting (Hallin 1994; Schudson 2001). Professional, neutral reporting was well suited to the needs of journalism of the network and early cable era. U.S. networks wanted to speak to mass audiences and maximize advertising revenues. As a business model, it was best not to offend any region of the country. Informative, factual news about matters of broad interest was a safe bet for these networks. Walter Cronkite intended to speak to and for a nation.
Though producers have moved online, the demand for neutral reporting remains, somewhat like a vestigial tail. The cultural expectation of neutrality and objectivity that underlie common public criticism of newsrooms works well for RT. The expectation has outlasted the conditions that made it possible during the “gatekeeper” era of professional news. I’m reminded of Max Boot’s concern over conspiracy theory in the digital age:
“The online world is a post-truth space where there are no undisputed facts, only competing narratives, and even the most deranged claims (e.g., QAnon) can aggregate an audience.”
This is when RT’s motto makes the most sense as effective branding: Question More. The network doubles down on this outsider credibility in both branding and self-referential reporting. When regulators or critics accuse the channel of bias in coverage, RT’s apologists can reasonably retort that all media are biased. That all news is framed in narrative. But this sidesteps the real question . . . Is RT offering criticism of journalistic failures or a merchant of doubt availing itself of the ultimate unmooring of truth in public discourse? How might Russian interests be served by a post-truth American public?