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RT Anchor’s Riff Not as ‘Rogue’ As It Seems

How Abby Martin’s on-air jab at Russian intervention in Crimea helps Putin

James Kirchick
March 05, 2014
RT's Abby Martin(Facebook)
RT's Abby Martin(Facebook)

Yesterday, Abby Martin, a host on the Kremlin-funded television network RT (formerly known as Russia Today), used the end of her program to voice opposition to Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. “Just because I work here at RT doesn’t mean I don’t have any editorial independence. I cannot express how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs,” Martin said. “What Russia did is wrong.”

RT’s coverage of the situation in Ukraine, much like the mindset of Vladimir Putin (who created the network in 2005 to “break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon mass media,”), seems to exist on a different planet. Buzzfeed compiled a list of “14 Insane Moments” from the network’s broadcasts of the conflict, which range from claims that the Russian military is a “stabilizing force for Ukraine,” to presenting the C-list action star and Putin fanboy Steven Seagal as some sort of expert on the geopolitical consequences of East Central Europe.

And so, on the face of it, Martin’s dissent from RT’s party line was a breath of fresh air, earning her plaudits across the internet. “For all the self-celebrating American journalists and political commentators: was there even a single U.S. television host who said anything comparable to this in the lead-up to, or the early stages of, the U.S. invasion of Iraq?” asked Glenn Greenwald, a frequent presence on the network. The Huffington Post praised Martin as “going spectacularly rogue.” Some have drawn comparisons to my own brief appearance on RT last August, when, invited to talk about the sentencing of Wikileaks leaker Chelsea Manning, I instead launched into a two-minute tirade against the Kremlin’s homophobic witch-hunt, which got me booted off air.

But Martin’s comments, while certainly a departure from the stale Kremlin talking points offered 24/7 on RT, were hardly as rogue as they might initially seem. Martin couched her criticism of Russian policy by stating that “the coverage I’ve seen of Ukraine has been truly disappointing from all sides of the media spectrum, and ripe with disinformation,” implying that the objectively more accurate reporting of Western outlets are somehow on par with her own network’s blatantly skewed coverage.

“Above all my heart goes out to the Ukrainian people, who are now wedged as pawns in the middle of a global power chess game. They’re the real losers here,” she added. Again, this frames the Ukraine crisis as being equally the fault of Russia and the West, when, from the start, the situation has been instigated and inflamed solely by Moscow. There are no EU or NATO tanks occupying Ukrainian soil.

Those praising Martin would do well to acquaint themselves with the entirety of her work. Before being hired by RT, Martin was a prominent voice in the 9/11 conspiracy movement, which seems to be a job qualification for RT given the amount of airtime it gives to fringe views. In a 2008 video of a 9/11 Truth Movement protest, Martin can be seen stating that the attacks were an “inside job.” She knows this, she said, because, “I’ve researched it for three years and every single thing that I uncover solidifies my belief that it was an inside job and that our government was complicit in what happened.” On her program, she regularly gives air to outrageous conspiracy theories, including the notion that water fluoridation is a pernicious government plot to poison unsuspecting American citizens, an old bugbear of the extreme right-wing John Birch Society. She has also accused Israel of using “Hitler’s methods … to maintain a Jewish majority.”

Last February, Martin devoted a segment to the history of American “false flag” operations. The term is a favorite of conspiracy theorists, who employ it to describe hostile acts carried out by rogue states and terrorists groups, which are, they claim, really the work democratic governments seeking a pretext for infringements on civil liberties, war, and other acts of imperialist aggression. Beginning with the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine, which ignited the Spanish-American War, up through the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, Martin, quoting from a website titled, “Israel Did 911,” characterized false-flags as “when a government uses an elite special forces operations cadre to attack that nation-state while falsely bearing the flag of another country or group.”

It would be wrong to conclude that, because it hasn’t publicly reprimanded or fired her for her recent comments, RT is proving itself to be an objective purveyor of credible news and information. “Contrary to the popular opinion, RT doesn’t beat its journalists into submission, and they are free to express their own opinions, not just in private but on the air,” the channel said in response to Martin’s broadcast. They should tell that to William Dunbar, a former RT journalist who resigned after he was prevented by the network’s management from reporting on the Russian military’s deliberate bombing of civilian targets during the 2008 Georgia War. “On any issue where there is a Kremlin line, RT is sure to toe it,” Dunbar said.

Indeed, far from damaging the propaganda efforts of the Russian government, Martin’s momentary act of nonconformity plays right into the Kremlin’s hands. RT will now be able to hold up her 60-second departure from the official script as evidence of its editorial independence, as further proof of its vital role as a “counter-hegemonic” news source in a world inundated by corrupt and corporate “Anglo-Saxon media.” Think of Martin as the puppet opposition in a dictatorship, created and sustained by the powers that be as a façade of democracy with which to dazzle credulous Western observers, a practice that Putin has himself perfected. Like Moscow’s citing its right to “protect” Russian minorities in Ukraine as a pretext for its occupation of Crimea, Martin’s act of pseudo-dissidence is a good old-fashioned false flag.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.