How Working In Washington Taught Me We’re All A Little Like RT America

In the past week, we’ve seen a searing objection to the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces by RT America’s Abby Martin and even an on-air resignation by the network’s anchor Liz Wahl. 

These actions have elicited praise from most quarters — and they should. Standing up to your own country’s foreign policy is difficult enough on any domestic television station in any country during wartime; just think about how many anchors did similar in the United States (the list isn’t long, and some, like Phil Donohue, were fired for it). It’s even harder to imagine doing it on RT America, which is financed by the Russian government (although has largely American producers and staff). 

I used to go on RT America frequently, particularly on the Alyona Show and The Thom Hartmann Show. I went on the network not to parrot Russian foreign policy talking points, but mostly to talk about American domestic and social policy. I knew that the network had an agenda in many areas, but both Alyona and Thom did great, honest journalism despite the overarching agenda of the network. I always spoke honestly, and never came on to discuss any topic relating to Russia.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post to explain how working in Washington taught me we’re all a little bit like the good folks who work at RT America — struggling against editorial censors, doing our best to follow our conscience despite sometimes suffocating pressures from our publishers and sponsors.

When I started working at ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in 2009, I did so because it was an awesome platform to do good journalism. I knew that I disagreed with CAP on a number of issues, and that I wouldn’t be allowed to write things too harshly critical of President Obama — which half of senior CAP staff had worked for or wanted to work for — or the Democratic Party, or CAP’s corporate sponsors in the “Business Alliance.”

One of the controversial topics that was very constrained in our writing at ThinkProgress in 2009 was Afghanistan. CAP had decided not to protest Obama’s surge, so most our writing on the topic was simply neutral — we weren’t supposed to take a strong stand. Given that I had just moved up from Georgia, and the American South has a much higher proportion of its population in the Armed Forces, I felt particularly strong that we should oppose the continuation of the war. The people who ran CAP didn’t really agree.

Flash forward a couple years, and the Democratic Party’s lawmakers in Congress were in open revolt over the Afghanistan policy. Our writing at ThinkProgress had opened up a lot on the issue, and I was writing really critical stuff. I worked with our art and design team at CAP to put together a chart showing that Obama’s supposed “withdrawal” plan from Afghanistan would leave more troops in the country than when he began his presidency.

The post was one of the most successful things I had ever written to that point. It was featured by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and the Congressional Progressive Caucus used it in their briefings to criticize Obama’s plan. I felt great — like I was actually doing the right thing about Afghanistan for once at an institution that had remained quiet or supportive of Obama’s policy there, which in my view was accomplishing little but more bloodshed.

But then phone calls from the White House started pouring in, berating my bosses for being critical of Obama on this policy. Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes — speaking of a staffer who follows policy set by others for his career path — even made a post on the White House blog more or less attacking my chart by fudging the numbers and including both the Iraq and Afghan troop levels in a single chart to make it seem as if the surge never happened (the marvels of things you can do in Excel!). 

Soon afterwards all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama. It confused me a lot because on the one hand, CAP was advertising to donors that it opposed the Afghan war — in our “Progressive Party,” the annual fundraising party we do with both Big Name Progressive Donors and corporate lobbyists (in the same room!) we even advertised that we wanted to end the war in Afghanistan.

But what that meeting with CAP senior staff showed me was that they viewed being closer to Obama and aligning with his policy as more important than demonstrating progressive principle, if that meant breaking with Obama. Essentially, they were doing the same thing to us RT America is telling its American producers to do now — align with your boss, who is the president of the country.

I left CAP not too long after that, partly for reasons of other censorship dealing with both corporate sponsors and that institution’s fealty to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I wanted to work at a more independent outlet, but every place I’ve worked for since has had its own editorial constraints and conflicts of interest. 

Which brings me to why we’re all a little like RT America. The people who work at ThinkProgress today continue to do awesome, independent reporting. But they have a lot of constraints on them, and I’m sure they wish they didn’t. But it’s an unfortunate reality in many of the journalistic environments we exist today. We can’t criticize certain people, or dig into certain stories, or follow our noses on the trail of corruption if it means upsetting our publishers, sponsors, and donors. 

I’m excited by new journalistic models emerging that seek to get around this problem. But until we can create such a platform for the majority of journalists, we’ll all face environments that are not too different from what the folks at RT America face. 

So we shouldn’t be too self-righteous, judging those who work at RT who just want to do good journalism — like their Emmy-nominated coverage of Occupy Wall Street. That’s the mistake Politico’s Blake Hounshell made by judging Sam Knight for being a segment producer on The Alyona Show.

In fact, in some respects you could argue RT America is more independent than some American networks. For example, when Russia passed a harsh anti-gay law, the network featured a debate about the law that included people who advocated for boycotting Russia. When was the last time you saw an American network argue for boycotts of the U.S. when we passed an unjust law? And this was just a week before Jamie Kirchick, who bravely opposes all human rights abuses exclusively in geopolitical rivals of the United States, claimed he was kicked off the network for protesting the law (rather than going wildly off-topic, which would get you kicked off of any TV network). 

So yes, RT America has its biases and you should know that when you watch its coverage. But don’t judge those who work there, claiming they are just Kremlin Robots out to rebuild the Soviet Empire. They’re not that anymore than I was an Obamabot arguing for a long, pointless war in Afghanistan. True journalists do their best no matter what outlet they work at, and RT America has a lot of those. May they continue to behave bravely despite their sponsors, as should we all.

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  15. heidelberger14 reblogged this from zaidjilani and added:
    I don’t see the comparison between Think Progress and RT. TP, as you stated, was censored and you guys as the bloggers...
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  17. fearandwar reblogged this from zaidjilani and added:
    Zaid Jilani on Center for American Progress and how American media is similar in some ways to RT.
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