Who’s afraid of non-western propaganda channels?

Preface to Who’s Afraid?

King PutinWestern responses to RT, Russia’s English-language news channel, have rekindled debates surrounding media globalization. Some relate to perspective diversity in a democratic media system. Should Western media regulators limit the ability of foreign news to reach audiences in Britain or the United States? Some relate to the contrasting definitions of what news is in a global media environment. If RT (formerly Russia Today) frames world events according to the Kremlin’s political or economic agenda, is it news or propaganda?

RT is state-sponsored and, by Western standards, departs from traditional assertions that news production should be independent of government. However, placing limits on viewpoint diversity violates basic principles: democratic publics deserve a media environment in which all views appear. The people will sort truth from falsehood. If government regulators were to limit RT, would it not be dictating what the public can or cannot see? Would that not commit the same sin that underpins criticism of RT as propaganda?

My colleagues and I sort through these questions in the following discussion of international news. We assert that even the modern hybrid of propaganda and news can make for a healthy public debate.

Who’s afraid of non-western propaganda channels?

The revelations early this year regarding editors at the British Telegraph newspaper pandering to the interests of megabank HSBC once again demonstrate the commercial limits to freedom of the press in the west. The good news is that the rise of non-western news channels has the potential to alleviate the western media’s weakness.

Western journalists, media critics and officials frequently lambast non-western, state-sponsored news channels like the Russian RT for distorting the truth in the interests of their financial backers. Fair enough. Yet such channels also serve a valuable, often-overlooked function. They provide reporting and perspectives on the west that its commercial media do not.

American Secretary of State John Kerry has denounced RT as a “propaganda bullhorn” that “has been deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground in Ukraine.” There is indeed strong evidence that RT’s editorial line bends toward the Kremlin. RT anchor Liz Wahl resigned in protest against her channel’s pro-Russian coverage of the unrest in the former soviet republic. Another RT anchor, Abby Martin, also protested on air but did not quit her job.

Propaganda: deception or perspective?

But occasionally RT reports truths that are absent in mainstream western journalism. For example, western outlets have consistently heralded the Maidan Square protesters, who ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in 2014, as opponents of corruption and supporters of freedom. By contrast, RT has emphasized the role that pro-fascist groups have played in the Ukrainian revolution and how they have been tolerated, if not supported, by western governments. RT’s coverage was also more likely to highlight the grievances of  Ukrainians in the east.

Neither the western nor non-western journalistic story is complete, but RT’s existence provides western news consumers with a fuller picture of the events in Ukraine.

In short, the appeal of non-western propaganda channels is that they ameliorate structural weaknesses of the western media, like an over-reliance on official western sources. The failed western coverage of the war in Iraq provides only one, though jarring, example.

Western officials of course view the challenges to their hegemony over global news as a threat to their ability to mold public opinion. In the aftermath of 9/11, then US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, derided Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite broadcaster funded by Qatar, for its “pattern of playing Taliban propaganda over and over and over again.” Senator Richard Lugar denounced the Latin-American Telesur as aiming “to spread [Venezuelan] President Chávez’s authoritarian propaganda.”

Such fears have grown especially acute after foreign news networks set up English-language channels, thereby directly challenging elite control of western public opinion. RT is perhaps the most prominent example, but the list includes Al Jazeera English, TeleSur English, Iran’s PressTV, and China’s CCTV America.

These outlets have not just been derided. Some have met concerted resistance from pressure groups who oppose their entry into western markets. For example, Honest Reporting Canada has filed complaints with Canada’s media regulator, expressing the fear that Al Jazeera would undermine political support for Israel.

Limits on foreign news

In the US, the greatest barrier to entry has been the disinterest of major commercial distributors. Al Jazeera America had such a hard time entering the US market that the network ultimately decided to buy Al Gore’s Current TV, solely for its distribution agreements with companies like Time Warner Cable.

Western audiences are warming to the different perspectives now available. While major US cable news networks have hemorrhaged viewers, foreign channels have grown their audiences and gained entry to more US markets. They also attract significant attention online.

RT’s online popularity has outstripped many Western media operations. It boasts over 2 billion total YouTube views and 1,496,784 subscribers, dwarfing The New York Times’ 489,476. In 2012, RT captured 8.5 percent of the top five Youtube news videos, compared to Fox at 3.5 and the BBC at 3.1. The Ukraine conflict raised the number of viewers even higher.

Americans are watching. Thirty percent of Youtube viewers and 50 percent of RT’s website traffic came from the US in 2012. RT’s success goes beyond new media as well. In Washington DC, RT’s cable channel attracts 13 times more viewers than Deutsche Welle.

The appeal stems in part from a crisis of confidence in commercial news. Many western viewers have become disaffected with their own media. They realize that channels backed by non-western governments offer value by creating space for critical journalism and providing a platform for activist and dissident voices.

Rather than demonizing or blocking outlets like RT, Al Jazeera, and Telesur, we should engage their perspectives. If their facts are wrong, we should counter with better information. If their arguments are illogical, we should counter with higher sense. Of course, adopting more speech as a solution for wrong speech ultimately requires that we trust the public to be able to come to sound conclusions about important matters.

Foreign news channels are here to stay. We can respond with derision and suppression, or we can renew our democratic commitment to sound journalism and widespread media literacy. By choosing the latter, such channels might end up enriching our democracy — even if that is far from the intention of their owners.

Ian Kivelin Davis teaches communication studies at Augustana College-Illinois, Rich Potter at the American Jewish University, and Tabe Bergman at Renmin University.


Foreign ownership of US broadcasting

Variety reports that the the Federal Communication Commission has relaxed longstanding prohibitions on foreign ownership of US broadcast stations. The move is a sign of the “global” times. It is also an opportunity for diversity, FCC officials were quick to point out. But what kind of diversity?

The restrictions had established a 25% cap on foreign ownership as a means to retain national control of telecommunications infrastructure. Advances in communication have made broadcasting less a concern for national security. The rule change points to the growth of international stakeholders and the growing pool of those with stake in US policy.

The move opens up the market for Spanish-language conglomerates to strengthen their holdings in companies like Univision, but it also changes the marketplace for the growth in foreign news broadcasting operations. Al Jazeera’s purchase of Current TV cable slot might indicate a the future of broadcast stations. The network reported $330,000 in lobbying expenses with the Senate Office of Public Records for 2013. And Al Jazeera is not alone. Foreign news broadcasters have a growing thirst for US audiences and the capital to reach them.

It is tempting to view this process as another example of ubiquitous “globalization,” but the relaxation of these caps comes at an interesting time for US national security. Even as this move frees transnational investment in communication infrastructure, the US Congress has veered in the other direction. In 2012, a House intelligence committee warned businesses to be wary of Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE and questioned whether the firms’ equipment could spy for the Chinese Communist Party. Both tech firms have strong ties to their home government, but the House committee’s suspicion stems from the long-held belief that China tolerates patent and copyright violations. Industrial espionage is, in many cases, a national security priority.

This is an issue of shifting policy priorities. Will fear of Manchurian technology and surveillance of corporate networks displace older fears for radio? It remains to be seen. But these will be competing impulses as media and telecomm integration continues.