Earlier this year, an acquaintance of mine from college left his job at a local news station for a job at RT, which for those who do not know is Russian state-controlled media previously known as Russia Today. I could not understand why a respected American journalist would go to work for Putin’s propaganda machine.
Well, he no longer does. Following a decision by DirecTV to pull RT from its channel lineup — a move that followed the European Union banning the network outright — RT America announced today that it is ceasing production and laying off the majority of its staff. “Unfortunately, we anticipate this layoff will be permanent, meaning that this will result in the permanent separation from employment of most T&R employees at all locations,” Misha Solodovnikov, the general manager of T&R Productions — the studio behind RT America — wrote in his memo to employees, which was obtained by CNN.
I don’t want to pretend that I’m happy that this old acquaintance lost a job he just took. I’m not. I’ve been laid off before, and it sucks. But ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fate of RT has looked increasingly perilous in the west, as it became impossible to ignore RT for what it actually is: Russian state propaganda.
Even Twitter started labeling it as such, much to the consternation of Rachel Blevins, another American journalist for RT who complained in a now-deleted tweet earlier this week that “Twitter just added the ‘Russian state media affiliated’ label to my account. I am asking for the immediate removal of this label, due to the fact that I am an individual journalist who does not speak for Russia or Russian media.” Blevins said she removed her tweet because she faced threats from people angry at her work, but stood by the sentiment of what she’d said. Just now, in response to RT America’s announcement that it would cease production entirely, she tweeted: “I’m heartbroken. My RT America colleagues are some of the most incredible people I have had the privilege of working with. These are real people whose lives are being impacted.” She ended her tweet with a quote from George Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published — everything else is public relations.”
I’m not about to cry tears for RT. As a private company, DirecTV had every right to pull it from its lineup, just as Twitter has every right to correctly call a spade a spade, not a gardening tool. But it isn’t just RT facing calls for cancellation. And there is something in that George Orwell quote that we should bear in mind.
Last year, VoteVets — a progressive veterans’ organization — called for Fox News to be banned from US military bases. In an op-ed last month for the non-profit newsroom Common Dreams, documentarian Jen Senko and former GOP congressional staffer Mike Lofgren echoed this call. “Allowing Fox News to blast into every barracks, orderly room, and enlisted club makes no more sense than allowing Radio Moscow to propagandize new recruits during the Cold War,” they wrote.
I share their fury. I do not, however, share their belief in government censorship.
I know it is infuriating that the likes of Tucker Carlson are using their platform on Fox News to spread misinformation. Indeed, clips of Carlson have begun to appear on Russian state media because of his pro-Russia monologues, effectively making him a cog in Putin’s propaganda machine.
Even at the height of the Second World War, American soldiers were trusted enough to listen to Tokyo Rose, a notorious American propagandist for Japan. She would try to destroy the morale of the American troops in the Pacific — much as Lord Haw-Haw and the American-born Axis Sally did in the European theater — by spreading Axis propaganda over the airwaves. American troops would tune in, fully aware that what they were hearing was misinformation but nonetheless amused by the personalities.
A lot has changed since 1945. The media landscape is far more crowded — especially since the advent of the internet — meaning that your average consumer is less likely to know the editorial slant of the news they’re consuming. That’s a problem at the best of times. When it comes to war and propaganda, though, it is downright dangerous.
For that reason alone, I welcome Twitter’s decision to clearly mark accounts affiliated with RT as state-controlled media. There is an argument to be made that they should apply this notice evenhandedly; for example, Voice of America — a US state-owned broadcaster — is not marked in the same way, and neither is the British state-funded BBC. But overall, calling a thing what it is does not violate any democratic principles.
Nor does the decision of DirecTV to cease carrying RT. DirecTV is an independent company that can decide which channels it does and does not wish to broadcast. Whether it should have dropped RT is a matter open to debate, but the fact that it did is irrelevant to any discussion about government law.
Banning Fox from military bases, or banning RT from broadcasting in the United States (which I must stress has not happened), however, would violate democratic principles — chiefly, the First Amendment. Disinformation is no doubt a problem, as is the spread of Russian propaganda, even given RT’s demise in the west. Indeed, if the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that they are often one and the same. But we cannot afford to overcorrect as we combat a problem.
Simply put, we cannot afford to lose sight of who we are in this battle against what we’re sure we are not. If this truly is a war of values — democracy versus autocracy — as we are being told, then surely it is more important than ever that we stand resolute in ours. That means defending, with the full force of the First Amendment and all its majesty and power, the right of everyone to have a voice.
Calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “battle between democracy and autocracy,” President Joe Biden said in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address that “democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.” He reaffirmed our “unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.” I believe this too. Putin represents an existential threat to the world order which has served us incredibly well for more than 75 years. And it’s hard to sit back while his sympathizers spew lies and propaganda on our own airwaves.
I may not understand what prompted Americans to work for Russian propaganda or go full-on Putin apologist. It may make my blood boil. But these folks have the right to be wrong, so long as they are not treasonous. How we handle our dissenters is what sets the free world apart from the world Putin hopes to create.
For this reason, any attempts to ban any news outlet in the United States should always be met with loud and vociferous disapproval. It would be a clear violation of the First Amendment. Beyond that, though, it also violates the very ethos we ought to be fighting for: freedom and liberty.
Censorship is Putin’s way, not ours. We must stand firm in our principles, resolute in the belief that our way is the right way. That is what freedom requires. RT America may have chosen to cease operations today, but we would’ve been in a very different place if President Biden had shut it down.
Democracy is not yet dead. Liberty’s flame is not yet extinguished. And the world is watching. Let’s show them how it’s done.