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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Former U.S. Ambassador Confronts Russian Network’s Editors Over Reporting on Crimea

Michael McFaul returned to academic life at Stanford last month after two years in Moscow as the United States ambassador to Russia, but he has continued to engage with Russian critics of American foreign policy on Twitter in lively exchanges across 12 time zones, despite the attendant frustrations.

It was on that platform this week that Mr. McFaul was sharply critical of the Russian government’s overseas broadcast network, Russia Today, or RT, for its coverage of the standoff in Ukraine.

Responding to goading from three of the network’s editors â€" who called his refusal to appear on their English-language channels “Soviet” â€" Mr. McFaul accused RT of “pushing false information” by refusing to report that thousands of masked soldiers deployed across the Crimean peninsula are Russian. The network’s reports have instead echoed the Kremlin line, that the men with Russian military equipment surrounding Ukrainian military installations in unmarked uniforms are members of “local self-defense units,” who supposedly took up arms spontaneously in response to a threat â€" from “right-wing radicals making their way toward the region” â€" that has yet to be documented by any reporter not working for Russian state media.

One frank exchange began with Marina Buinovskaya, an RT producer, complaining that it was suddenly difficult to book guests because of what her editor has called a “media war” on the network that was set up by the Kremlin’s information office to reinforce its foreign policy.

Mr. McFaul, whom the producer criticized for turning down interview requests, replied that because of “the gross distortion of facts” in recent reports, he had no intention of “pretending that RT is a news organization by appearing there.”

In a second exchange hours later, Mr. McFaul pressed Oksana Boyko, the host of a debate show on RT, and Margarita Simonyan, the network’s editor in chief, to admit that the soldiers driving around Crimea in armored vehicles with Russian military plates were, in fact, Russian. When Ms. Boyko replied that there were “different viewpoints” about events in Ukraine, Mr. McFaul pointed out that there was unambiguous visual evidence on other channels, and on Instagram and YouTube, of the Russian troop buildup that RT had omitted from its reports.

RT’s editors and on-air staff members tend to respond to critics who call the network’s reports partial or misleading by pointing to errors and omissions in the coverage of events on American news channels. Indeed, hour after hour of RT’s programming is devoted mainly to media analysis shows â€" often hosted by young women with family connections to the governing elite of the former Soviet Union or roots on the far left of the Western blogosphere â€" that dismiss reporting from Ukraine and other places as a “frenzy” of misinformation.

One example is a regular “Propaganda Watch,” in which the Armenian commentator Gayane Chichakyan rails against American journalists and officials from an RT studio in Washington.

A recent media analysis segment on RT America, presented by the host Gayane Chichakyan

Another regular RT America series features comic “rants” about irritating aspects of American culture each night at the end of the evening news from a New York video blogger and former cable-access host, Lori Harfenist. Last week, the same night one of RT’s anchors resigned over the network’s lack of coverage of the Russian deployment in Crimea, Ms. Harfenist upbraided ill-informed American “hipsters” for not minding that there are U.S. troops based around the world but objecting to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

“We have,” Ms. Harfenist began, “by far, the biggest military presence in the world. By far â€" by a stupidly large margin.” She continued:

My glass house is in New York City. I can’t imagine walking down Broadway past foreign, armed soldiers on my way to get a coffee. But that’s the reality for many people around the world. They have the U.S. military all up in their faces, all the time. They have the U.S. trying to impose its will on them, constantly, as if the U.S. knows what’s best for everyone.

And, just like their military, many Americans like to pretend that they know what’s best about what’s going on in areas of conflict around the world. Right now, that’s happening with Ukraine. Suddenly, everyone around me â€" in New York City! â€" is an “expert” on what’s going on in Ukraine and what needs to happen next. They listen to the media tell them exactly what the U.S. government wants them to think and then they’re “experts.” Or, even worse, they read a select one to 50 articles online on their own. So suddenly not only are they experts on what Ukrainians want and need, but they’re “journalists” on top of it.

Another report broadcast last week featured outraged commentary by RT’s New York correspondent, Anastasia Churkina, who lambasted Secretary of State John Kerry without revealing that she might have a conflict of interest, as she is the daughter of Russia’s United Nations ambassador, Vitaly Churkin.

An RT America commentary on United States policy from Anastasia Churkina, the daughter of Russia’s United Nations ambassador.

An RT spokeswoman in Moscow confirmed that Ms. Churkina is the Russian diplomat’s daughter, a fact that is not disclosed to viewers, even when her reports on United Nations diplomacy feature comments from Mr. Churkin. A former RT employee, who told The Lede in an email that the identity of Ms. Churkina’s father “was an open secret” in the newsroom in Moscow when he worked there four years ago, said the fact that she was assigned to the United Nations “reflected the general state of affairs at RT.”

The former employee, who asked for anonymity “to maintain professional discretion,” concluded:

As much as it tries to promote itself as an alternative voice in the global media landscape, it cannot be taken seriously. The Churkina case is a perfect example of something a credible network simply would not do, and betrays the truth that â€" despite all their bluster â€" RT bosses are fully conscious of the organization’s role as a cog in the Kremlin propaganda machine.