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Disinformation: ‘Pravda’ May Be Gone, but Now There’s ‘Russia Today’

Russia’s propaganda machine is stronger than ever thanks to cable network RT. Its Syria coverage offers the proof.

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A Feb. 8 dispatch from Syria on RT. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Andrey Popov/Shutterstock.com and Russia Today.)

According to RT contributors, there’s no doubt that government forces aren’t responsible for the bloodshed. Conspiracy theorist Webster Tarpley, author of the book 9/11 Synthetic Terror: Made in USA, told viewers that the current spasm of violence is a “joint production of the CIA, MI6, and Mossad.” British conspiracy theorist Peter Eyre predictably saw the hidden hand of international Zionism at work in Damascus, explaining that the current crisis “was planned back in 1997 by Paul Wolfowich [sic].”

These deeply noxious claims are presented unopposed, and RT anchors repeat and amplify them. (I made numerous attempts to speak with RT journalists and the station’s Moscow-based editor, Margarita Simonyan, though no one would comment for this story.) The network’s correspondents also don’t attempt to conceal their biases. When Assad’s troops drove rebels from the city of Deir Ez-Zor, an RT correspondent was on the scene, presumably traveling with the Syrian military, to declare the area “liberated,” informing viewers that the “people are welcoming the soldiers.”

So, what of those throngs of protesters demanding Assad step down? RT interviewed “the sole foreign journalist permanently living in Syria,” a Russian sympathizer of Baathism, who explained the provenance of the “unpatriotic opposition” protesting the government: “You spend five minutes yelling ‘Down with Assad’ in a square and leave with hard cash in your pocket.”

And why would the Syrian population demand the regime’s downfall anyway? The impression gained from watching RT is that Assad is a genuinely popular—even progressive—leader. Lebanese journalist Kamal Wayze says the Western perception of Syrian discontent with the Assad dictatorship is a myth, because Syria has “a solid record on politics, on education, on infrastructure, on investment, so there is really solid support for the president.” The country might not be a model democracy, says RT guest Stephen Lendman, a conspiracy theorist who believes Osama Bin Laden died of natural causes, but Assad “wants reform.” Afshin Rattansi, a host on the Iranian state television Press TV, told RT viewers that the West has coordinated attacks against the country because “Syria has stood up for the human rights of Arab peoples.” Again, all these claims went unchallenged.

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In the aftermath of the Iraq War, the act of “questioning” established media narratives was often judged to be a brave act of patriotism. It is widely held that the mainstream media was, in some sense, culpable for the war: It wasn’t the residual shock of 9/11 or a sense that America had unfinished business in Baghdad that motivated American support for the removal of Saddam Hussein, but the New York Times’ erroneous reporting on weapons of mass destruction and the media’s support of the Bush Administration. It was out of this media milieu that RT—and its advertising campaign, admonishing news consumers to “question more”—was born.

RT’s online defenders argue that the network offers an alternative to “Western” news coverage, rather than simply a pro-Kremlin perspective. Which is why, despite receiving funding and editorial cues from a government intolerant of dissent and credibly accused of election fraud, RT’s anti-Western narrative convinces radicals on the right and left and contrarians that it’s the news alternative for those who distrust state power.

A recent RT advertising campaign in the United States juxtaposed photos of Obama and Ahmadinejad (“Who poses the greater threat?”), British cops and yob rioters (“Who is more dangerous?”), American soldiers and jihadists (“Is terror only inflicted by terrorists?”). It’s the same moral equivalence RT stresses between the aggressor Syrian state, with its sophisticated and well-equipped military force, and the ragtag Free Syrian Army. When reporting on the vetoed United Nations resolution, RT’s New York correspondent Marina Portnaya, echoing the position taken by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, stressed that there are “two parties in Syria … responsible for the violence. It’s not just one-sided.”

The Russian propaganda machine has come a long way from the leaden propaganda of Soviet Life magazine, the Daily Worker newspaper, and Radio Moscow. Unlike the ideological diktats spread by the Comintern, RT presents itself as post-ideological— a heterodox news source interested in “questioning more” than the West’s commercial alternatives. Moscow’s propagandists cleverly build on the Chomskyian idea, so popular among college students and paranoid radicals, that America’s corporate media subtly “manufactures consent,” acting as a megaphone for the powerful and wealthy. But viewers who fight the ravenous maw of Western imperialism and the profit-driven media by consuming the counternarrative of RT advance not a hidden “truth,” but the crude foreign-policy designs of Vladimir Putin.

So, remember as you watch the “other side” of the ongoing Syrian massacre, presented by RT’s deep bench of crackpots and Western Russophiles, the act of “questioning more” can turn one, in the words of another famous Russian, into a useful idiot.

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Disinformation: ‘Pravda’ May Be Gone, but Now There’s ‘Russia Today’

Russia’s propaganda machine is stronger than ever thanks to cable network RT. Its Syria coverage offers the proof.

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