Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times, 18.09.2016
Last week, I caught Larry King on his post-CNN media perch, the RT America television network. His guest, the actress and activist Kamala Lopez, was powerfully emotional as she called for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Just as intriguing was the RT host and former MSNBC personality Ed Schultz. His program on Wednesday, for instance, featured a fairly typical discussion about Colin Powell’s leaked emails. One unique feature of the conversation, however, was what it did not include: any mention of Russia’s suspected connection to the leak.
But what do you expect? RT America is the United States version of Russia Today, the global satellite network financed by the Russian government. You can watch it on Dish Network; on cable in select cities like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia; or online anywhere.
If we lived in normal times — with perspective and some minimal grounding in history — a reader would now ask: “WHAT? Larry King and Ed Schultz are on a Russian state-financed television outlet? Part of the network President Vladimir Putin formed a few years ago to ‘break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams?’”
But, of course, we don’t live in normal times.
These are, after all, the times of Donald J. Trump, who sat for an interview himself this month on Mr. King’s show, “Politicking.” Democrats and uneasy Republicans seized upon Mr. Trump’s RT appearance, in which he said he was skeptical of United States intelligence officials’ high confidence that Russia was involved in hacking Democratic National Committee email.
But what of Mr. King, one of the most famous and recognizable interviewers in American television history? And how about Mr. Schultz?
They are the most visible examples of Russia’s aggressive attempt to use our free press to make mischief in our political process — lending legitimacy to a network that has at times trafficked in Sept. 11 conspiracy theories, posted one-sided news from Ukraine and presented particularly grim views of the United States and its efforts around the world.
That two well-known American cable news hosts would so blithely sign up with a network Russia has financed with the explicit purpose of forwarding its view of the world says something about the extreme — and extremely cynical — media relativism that has fallen upon the land.
With the increase in partisan media and partisan media criticism, suspicions run high that every news organization is working some sort of political angle. These days, the accepted truth of a journalistic statement of fact can depend on the politics of the audience it’s presented to. In this environment, you can see why RT can seem like just another entrant with an agenda.
John Dickey, the chief executive of Ora Media — the production company that owns Mr. King’s Russia Today programming, which is also streamed on Hulu and Ora’s site — told me, “We’re a content provider; we’re doing business with people who want and value our content.”
As for RT’s political bent, he said, “What media outlet isn’t taking sides in this election?”
But, wittingly or not, Mr. Schultz and Mr. King are playing the equestrians to Russia’s Trojan horse (or, as The Daily Beast called them in an article last week, “Manchurian anchors”).
“Their strategy is very clear: to create the appearance of being a legitimate source of news,” Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former United States ambassador to Russia, said of RT. “Having people like Larry King work for them helps them achieve their objective.”
Both Mr. King and Mr. Schultz say RT’s management has never told them what to say or not say.
“I have never — never — been edited or had a show of mine not run,” Mr. King, 82, told me.
Mr. King is not an employee of RT. The network licenses “Politicking” and “Larry King Now” — which was nominated for a Daytime Emmy this year — from Ora, which Mr. King co-owns with the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim (who is also a major shareholder of The New York Times).
Mr. King said that he was not all that familiar with the rest of RT’s programming because he did not get the network at home, and that he might decide against his announced plans to help host its United States election-night coverage.
Why the affiliation? “They pay us a lot of money, and we need money to pay our producers and directors,” Mr. King said.
Mr. King differentiated himself from Mr. Schultz, who works directly for RT and, Mr. King said, has recently seemed supportive of Mr. Trump — “a completely different Ed Schultz to me, which was a shock to me.”
Mr. Schultz generally supported Democrats during his time on MSNBC, which let him go in 2015, and said he did not support Mr. Trump, the presumed Putin favorite. The difference now, he told me on Friday, is that he is the anchor of a straight news program, which makes him seem kinder to Mr. Trump than he would be as an opinion host.
He said he did not mention Russia’s suspected ties to the hacking of Mr. Powell’s emails in the segment I watched last week because “no one can credibly state they have evidence that it’s Russia, and as soon as they do, I’ll report it.” (Security experts in the United States have linked the breach to a notorious Russian military hacking group known as Fancy Bear.)
A passionate defender of RT America, Mr. Schultz likened RT to the BBC, which receives some government funding, in an interview with The Washington Post last week.
Yet the BBC, operating in the wildly free press environment of Britain, has regularly angered prime ministers and members of the government.
Several former RT journalists have complained they weren’t given such a free hand. That was what Liz Wahl said when she resigned from the network in dramatic fashion after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. RT covered the action as a rightful reunification move, echoing Mr. Putin.
“I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin,” Ms. Wahl told the RT America audience.
Another RT America host, Abby Martin, had previously denounced the annexation in an on-air diatribe, which RT pointed to as an example of its openness to opposing viewpoints.
Still, The New York Times reported at the time that the RT editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, conveyed to Ms. Martin that her statement was “not in line with our editorial policy.” The network said it would send Ms. Martin to Crimea for a better understanding. She declined that assignment and has since left the network.
Then there is the way that Russia has exerted increasing control over news coverage within its own borders, in ways that help Mr. Putin maintain the image of the strong leader that Mr. Trump so admires.
Russia has put in place restrictions on foreign media ownership and operations that temporarily forced CNN to cease transmitting in the country and caused several Western media companies to leave.
Moves against the United States government-financed Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty led to their removal from all but one of the roughly 100 Russian stations on which they were operating as of 2005, said Jeffrey N. Trimble, a senior official with the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees them.
“The lack of reciprocity is deplorable,” said Elez Biberaj, the director of the VOA Eurasian division.
RT and its defenders say that the network is no more biased than any other news organization and that its critics are trying to silence an alternative that provides a non-Western viewpoint. As Ms. Simonyan put it in a statementto my colleague Michael M. Grynbaum in July, RT is “providing a perspective you won’t get from the mainstream press.”
It’s a great mark of our democracy that RT is free to do so here. Having a rough-and-tumble oppositional media system may make it harder for our leaders to put on a show of being “strong” like Mr. Putin, but there’s no question we’re all stronger for it in the end.
You can call RT America whatever you want — a news network, a propaganda arm, something in between. Regardless, it’s Mr. Putin’s. Despite their protests, it sure looks like Larry King and Ed Schultz are, too.