Some thoughts on Russia Today‘s Tomorrow
by Ethan S. Burger
Exclusive to La Russophobe
The Russian people have not experienced any significant benefit from the symbolic pressing of the “reset” button in U.S.-Russian relations. Just ask any Russian citizen what they think about the necessity of urging the work force to stay home or establishing 120 “anti-smog centers” in Moscow as a result of the fires near the capital. This situation in Moscow is being well reported by the foreign press and Russia Today, can the same be said of the state-owned media?
I have often wondered what the Russian leadership thinks it gains from placing special supplements of Russia Today in major newspapers like The Washington Post and the New York Times. Most U.S. newspapers are struggling, as Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker, this did not prevent The Washington Post from undertaking a comprehensive investigation analysis of the wasteful homeland security complex (both governmental and private-sector, largely government-funded) that has emerged post 9/11. It is doubtful that any Russian media outlet that reaches a large segment of the population would ever have the courage to undertake a comparable effort about the fires currently spreading through the country.
Russia Today holds itself out as “the first Russian 24/7 English-language news channel which brings the Russian view on global news.” . It also maintains an extensive website. Russia Today is proud of the fact that in 2009, “RT’s daily audience is over 6 times bigger than that of Al Jazeera English while RT’s monthly audience is 5 times bigger than that of Deutsche Welle. That’s despite the fact that RT’s budget is not as big as those companies.”
It is important, however, to understand that Russia Today is not a Russian counter-part to al-Jazeera International. Al-Jazeera broadcasts in both in Arabic and English. Its audience includes both the Arab and non-Arab world. A large share of its personnel has worked for foreign news organizations like the BBC. Not surprisingly, many conservative Arab governments view Al-Jazeera as a potential threat as it provides its citizens information provided by a source that is not state-controlled. Frequently Al-Jazeera is wrongfully equated as being the voice of al-Qaeda since it has been used by Bin Laden and others to relay threats against the West or other “non-believers.” The decision to broadcast such items essentially is an editorial and business decision. The network is not advocating terrorism, but it willingly let’s terrorists use it to get its message out. Ironically, it represents a valuable source of intelligence information in the fight against Islamic extremism.
That is not to say that Russia Today does not employ some excellent journalists, but as it is said “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Russia Today is owned by the Russian government. In a sense, it might be seen as the equivalent of Voice of America. Voice of America is up-front about its function:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
(Public Law 94-350)
Although its website is also available in the Russian language, those Russian citizens with access to the Internet who are so inclined can be exposed of news sources that are not controlled by the Russian government. According to studies I have seen, these individuals are far outnumbered by persons who get their news from domestic Russian television or those who prefer reading about sports to politics.
There are many cynics who contend that media in the West, albeit privately owned are biased and its content of the news that it provides its audience/readership reflect the views (and interests) of its ownership. While in Great Britain, the walls separating news reporting, comment & analysis, and editorials may be low, if they exist at all; the norm in the U.S. is rather different. In the States, the media is primarily profit-motivated and does not see itself as speaking to a particular constituency. Until Rupert Murdoch, bought the Wall Street Journal, there was a clear line dividing its news and editorial operations. Nonetheless, Murdoch’s Fox Television network continues to broadcast “The Simpsons,” who political line is quite incompatible with his own since the popular show generates large audiences and hence large advertising revenue.
It will be a welcomed development when Russia Today as well as well-funded non-state controlled Russian-based Internet sites, newspapers, radio & television stations provide the Russian people comprehensive news coverage and analysis in their own language.
The author is a senior lecturer in law at the Center for Transnational Crime Prevention at the University of Wollongong in Australia