When Russia launched the English-language television station RT in December 2005, there was little doubt about the Kremlin’s motives in pouring millions into this media outlet targeting Western audiences. RT, known as Russia Today before its rebranding in 2009, was conceived as a soft-power tool to address what was perceived as pervasive anti-Russian bias in mainstream Western media.

Despite its undeniable success, RT remains a divisive issue for many. One one side, its penchant for controversy and alleged bias attract numerous critics who question its independence. One the other hand, the West has its own state-financed media outlets (BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, etc.), with mandates similar to that of RT.

Photogenic Putin  

Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and enduring popularity have largely been a result of his success in re-establishing a semblance of order in a country on the precipice of lawlessness and restoring some of Russia’s lost power and prestige in the world. When Putin took office, society was in shambles, the country’s position on the world stage having been severely eroded following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The ensuing decade of chaos saw public services collapse and the vestiges of the State sold off to the country’s emerging class of oligarchs.

A poll commissioned by the Russian government in 2003 is telling of the country’s image problems. The survey notably asked Americans to name ten things they most associated with Russia. Topping the list were communism, the KGB, snow, and the mafia. Flush with oil-money and having consolidated power at home, Putin began devoting significant attention to Russia’s image in the world, conscious that the country’s influence could not only be buoyed by oil prices. Putin himself has proven highly conscious of his image as a politician. He has carefully crafted his personna in the media as a tough guy and sporty outdoorsman, taking part in unusual or dangerous acts, often without a shirt.

As a part of a wider PR offensive masterminded by former media minister and top media aid Mikhail Lesin and Vladimir Putin’s press spokesperson Aleksei Gromov, the Kremlin began pumping millions into an arsenal of new public diplomacy tools, including foundations to promote Russian language and culture, conferences to charm Western opinion-makers and even NGOs that are setting up in Western capitals to scrutinize the failings of their democracies. The main instrument in this effort, however, is the State-owned news agency RIA Novosti.

In 2003, the government appointed a young and ambitious new chairman, Svetlana Mironyuka, a former PR advisor to business-tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ms. Mironyuka described the situation when she took the reins of the former Soviet propaganda machine as desperate. Some writers were still using typewriters from communist days. Now, the agency operates in newly refurbished offices with a high-tech newsroom, boasting flat screens and a circular news desk staffed with some 300 journalists.

RT itself was launched two years after Ms. Mironyuka took over at Novosti as the signature initiative of this rebranding campaign. The Kremlin tapped the 25 year-old former Kremlin pool reporter Margarita Simonyan to lead RT. Simonyan, an ethnic Armenian born in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, neighboring the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, was an ambitious young reporter who had caught the eye of President Putin during her time at the Kremlin. At the age of 18, she had begun working at a local television station while still a full-time journalism student at Kuban University.

Most of Simonyan’s colleagues are not much younger than herself. The average age of the Russian editors is under 30, and almost everyone speaks fluent English. Correspondents invited to rehearsals before the station went live reported an atmosphere in the newsroom comparable to that of a college newspaper. To attract foreign reporters in particular, RT recruits directly out of journalism school, promising responsibility and remuneration to young journalists who are unlikely to find comparable entry-level positions elsewhere.

A balanced alternative or Russian propaganda?

RT describes itself as an autonomous, non-profit organization, but its over $300 million budget comes straight from State coffers through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communication. Launched by Novosti, the two entities shared the same roof until RT moved to larger and more modern facilities in December 2012, although the news agency claims that it is neither a sponsor nor backer of RT, but only helped found the media venture. According to an article published by Novosti, the agency does not influence the network’s editorial policy, or its financial and economic operation, having no representatives on the RT Supervisory Council or any other RT management bodies.

Many anticipated that RT would quickly reveal itself as a revamped mouthpiece for feeding Kremlin propaganda to Western audiences. RT and Novosti officials have been blunt about the organization’s editorial line, saying that RT is completely independent from the government and delivers balanced coverage, but also acts to counter-balance Western media bias and the gloomy perception of Russia held by many. While journalistic purists may find fault with this policy, it is not dissimilar to the mandate of many Western, state-financed media outlets that target foreign audiences.

In 2005, Alexander Babinsky, head of image improvement for Novosti described the station’s role, saying: “Imagine you hired a defense lawyer, and the first thing he did when you were in court was tell the jury what a monster you were…. On the other hand, if we just say how great the government is, then we will only have an audience of two people. That is the fine line the channel will have to walk between irritating the Kremlin, and boring its foreign audience”.

Opinion is deeply divided on the objectivity of RT’s coverage. The station has ingeniously garnered a faithful following in the West with its “Question More” campaign, which positions RT as an alternative media outlet eschewing the truisms propagated by the mainstream Western establishment. For other observers, however, RT is a crudely wielded weapon in Putin’s diplomatic arsenal.

RT notably came under fire during the conflict between Russia and Georgia that broke out in August of 2008. Coverage of the conflict was criticized in the West as highly critical of Georgia, portraying the country as an aggressor against the separatist governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, themselves valiantly protected by Russian troops. Defending RT’s coverage, Simonyan said in an interview with Der Spiegel in August 2013, “All of the Western broadcasters gave only the Georgian side of the story. Saakashvili was featured on all the networks; his statements were broadcast on all the programs.”

RT’s coverage, though, is largely vindicated by hindsight. If, in the broader context of Russo-Georgian relations, the Kremlin had shown a penchant for being aggressive with Georgia, it is Georgia that started the military conflict. Western media outlets tried to defend their coverage saying that Russia did not create conditions that would have facilitated more balanced coverage in the West.

The Kremlin did meticulously keep foreign reporters clear of the war zone and communication from Kremlin sources was sparse. Meanwhile Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili went so far as to circulate his personal mobile number widely among journalists, taking every opportunity to make a statement. What resulted was , they argue, understandably one-sided coverage in the West, with an almost complete media blackout in Russia. Nonetheless, RT seems to have actually provided much more balanced coverage than the West during the shortlived Georgian war.

More recently, the outlet has taken flak over its coverage of Russia’s relations with its neighbors, notably Ukraine, in the run-up to the scheduled signing of a free-trade deal with Europe, which would preclude the country from the Russian-led customs union. One article warned that an Association Agreement with the EU would be akin to “semi-colonial dependence” for Ukraine. In another telling headline “1,025 years of Christianity: Ukraine hosts Orthodox celebrations while questioning its future”, RT not so subtly hints at one of Russia’s most powerful weapons in its relations with Ukraine: the cultural pull of the two country’s shared Orthodox culture.

At the same time, RT has emerged as something of an alternative news source for political and activist networks in Western society, deeply suspicious of established media and eagerly promoting skepticism on both the right and the left. A highly controversial 2010 advertising campaign that solidified its bona fides among left-wingers, “Question More”, featured one spot showing President Obama morphing into former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking viewers “who posed the greater nuclear threat?” Another spot that ran as part of the same campaign showed a Western soldier “merging” into a Taliban fighter and asked: “Is terror only inflicted by terrorists?”

Many see Putin’s fingerprints on causes frequently advocated by RT that strike a chord with media skeptics on the right and left of the US political spectrum. In the run-up to and aftermath of the country’s controversial ‘anti-gay’ law, coverage oscillated between criticisms of the law and claims of anti-Russian propaganda and touting Putin’s crusade to re-establish the church as a central institution in Russian society, while also bringing attention to the spike in anti-gay attacks in New York City. RT has also taken a special interest in the anti-fracking movement, which Putin is rumored to be bankrolling in Europe in hopes of keeping his monopoly on Europe’s gas supply. Whether or not there is direct political pressure behind these editorial stances, most accusations being unsubstantiated rumors, it is issues like these which have won the outlet many followers.

Editorially, RT has managed to find the balance between a semblance of objectivity and keeping the Kremlin happy. Critics say that this is just enough to head off allegations of bias, however, and that the station’s coverage of these events is itself deeply biased. For example, during the recent mayoral campaigns in Moscow, while media coverage in Russia of the anti-corruption candidate Alexeï Navalny was almost non-existent, RT followed his campaign heavily. On the other hand, coverage was heavy on allegations of illicit foreign funding and hooliganism among his supporters.

Admittedly, the most controversial content often comes in the form of interviews and op-eds, which makes the charge of editorial bias much harder to substantiate. Critics of RT often leave out the caveat when providing anecdotal evidence to substantiate a perceived bias. While it’s possible to get a sense of RT’s editorial stance on particular issues, it would take much more substantial analytical work to try and pass more definitive judgment on its coverage. This has yet to be done.

Is the West losing the information war?

Many commentators agree that the Russian government harbors more strategic motives beyond improving its image abroad. During a visit to RT studios, Putin said that the station had one goal, to “break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon mass media.” What critics often fail to point out, however, is that the West, too, pours hundreds of millions into improving its image abroad through state-financed media outlets and all the other trappings of cultural diplomacy, such as cultural and language centers.

Journalistic standards aside, another group is worried that the West is having trouble keeping up in the information war. In 2010, Walter Isaacson, Chairman of the US Government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Free Asia), pleaded for more funding for government programs, warning: “We can’t allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies,” mentioning specifically RT and other state-run outfits, such as Iran’s Press TV and China Central Television (CCTV).

RT has been able to play in the same league as more established heavyweights such as the highly successful Doha-based Al Jazeera, which recently launched operations of an affiliate in the United States. While attracting a great deal of pushback from US conservatives, Al Jazeera is lauded by many as providing more balanced and comprehensive coverage of the Middle East. While Western outlets are facing budget cuts and closing bureaus the world over, these state-run organizations benefit from the endless supply of government money and are expanding rapidly. RT’s resources have been ensured for the foreseeable future by Putin, who has decreed that the budget cannot be reduced.

Whether you consider it a “counter-hegemonic” news source offering a refreshing alternative, or a propaganda tool for manipulating foreign audiences, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to its ascension to one of the most watched foreign news sources in the West. Today, RT’s news bulletins, documentaries, talk shows, and cultural programs are carried by 22 satellites and over 230 operators, which allow some 630 million people to watch the channel in more than 100 countries according to RT statistics.

The United States and the UK have been RT’s principal target markets. It launched RT America in 2010, which claims it reaches an audience of 85 million. In an interview given to the Washington Times in 2008, Margarita Simonyan, who spent a year studying abroad in the United States, said, “It [Russia] is absolutely not any different from the USA at all. We are so much alike in terms of culture, in terms of family values, ways of life, reactions, sense of humor.” In the years following its creation, RT has also launched an Arabic language channel Rusiya Al-Yaum (2007) and a Spanish language channel RT Actualidad (2009), as well as the RT Documentary channel (2011).

The station has grown into one of the most watched foreign news channels in the West. Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, France 24, Euronews, CCTV of China and the Press TV of Iran have all developed impressive foreign followings, but RT leads the pack. It is reportedly the most-watched foreign TV channel in five key U.S. urban markets, according to the Nielsen statistics. The channel also claims over seven million viewers across Europe, including around two and a half million in the UK.

The growth in viewership has been boosted by recruiting a number of big names for its programming and an aggressive online strategy. In April 2012, RT began broadcasting World Tomorrow, a news interview program hosted by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and, in 2013, management announced that former CNN talk show host Larry King would be anchoring a new talk show. The channel has also secured exclusive interviews political leaders rarely interviewed by Western outlets, such as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Online, RT has deftly used social networking to build up an impressive presence. Its YouTube channel has over a billion views and its Facebook page recently topped one million followers.

It is unclear if RT and Russia’s broader rebranding efforts have made or will be able to make much of a dent in Western perceptions of the country. For the Russians, though, money spent on RT is money well invested. Western ideas of Russia may be well engrained, but Putin seems to be succeeding in his efforts to undermine the monopoly of Western media.

With the emergence of new state-financed outlets in the developing world, information and narratives are becoming much more multifaceted. The popularity of RT and similar networks has largely been founded on widespread distrust of Western mainstream media, but examining RT’s coverage suggests that the objectivity of the station is often questionable. On a strategic level as well, Western governments are beginning to reflect on the ramifications of the development of a pluralistic global media.