The story behind the story: Liz Wahl and her high-profile fallout with the Kremlin’s Russia Today.
Editor’s Disclosure: WhoWhatWhy and its writers have been featured on RT on numerous occasions, including in interviews by Abby Martin and Liz Wahl.
Liz Wahl’s on-air resignation as a Russia Today news anchor came amid a perfect geopolitical storm. She announced her departure from RT just as tensions escalated between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.
“I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin,” said the 28-year-old American reporter and show host, who worked at RT America for two-and-a-half years. “I am proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why, after this newscast, I am resigning.”
Wahl’s camera-ready goodbye quickly went viral on the web, and made her a U.S. mainstream-media darling. Most commentators saw the Wahl resignation as a casebook study in how government-sponsored journalism inevitably degenerates into rank propaganda. Yet few have examined what this incident reveals about the mind-set of America’s corporate-owned media.
Wahl did her first interview with The Daily Beast within hours of her live announcement and soon thereafter appeared on Fox News, CNN (three times), MSNBC, ABC’s “The View,” and on “The Colbert Report.” Numerous print media outlets helped tell her version of the story, and she was given space to explain herself in Politico Magazine as well.
Not Taking It Any More
Wahl’s Howard-Beale-like moment came just one day after her colleague Abby Martin, host of RT America’s “Breaking the Set,” committed her own on-air indiscretion. Martin denounced Russia’s military occupation of the Crimean peninsula, which had been part of neighboring Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
Unlike Wahl, however, Martin didn’t quit the network; she is still hosting her daily 30-minute show. Martin’s decision to stay at RT drew criticism from the same reporter who landed the first interview with Wahl after her resignation, The Daily Beast’s Jamie Kirchick.
“Indeed, far from damaging the propaganda efforts of the Russian government, Martin’s momentary act of nonconformity plays right into the Kremlin’s hands,” Kirchick wrote in a March 4 article in Tablet Magazine. “RT will now be able to hold up her 60-second departure from the official script as evidence of its editorial independence.”
While the U.S. mainstream media was initially fascinated by the live on-air outbursts of both women, Martin fell out of favor quickly after she used her first major interview on CNN to denounce that news network.
“I think the real question that should be asked is, ‘Why do I have to work for RT to tell the truth about corporations and the U.S. government?'” Martin questioned on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Show” on March 5. “I mean seriously, you guys are beholden to advertisers that you cannot criticize, and that’s why I work for a station [where] I can criticize [them].”
Enthusiasm surrounding Martin’s s on-air deed waned further after a March 4 New York Times article revealed that she has roots in the 9/11 ‘truth movement,’ though she has distanced herself from those views.
The disparity in the public treatment of Wahl and Martin raises some important questions about the state of the media in 21st century America.
Not surprisingly, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan chalked up Wahl’s on-air resignation and subsequent round of interviews as a “self promotional stunt.”
In a blog post, Simonyan declared the result of what Wahl and Martin did a “media war:”
Every single day, every single hour the guys who work for us are told, “You are liars, you are no journalists, you are the Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece, you’ve sold yourselves to the Russians, it’s time you quit your job, and everybody is laughing at you, so change your mind before it’s too late.”
While RT’s status as a Russian government-funded news outlet has always been public knowledge, the political and financial agendas driving some of the other players in this story are equally revealing.
Case in point: The Beasts’ Kirchick—who got the first interview with Wahl and was critical of Martin after she remained at RT—gets his paychecks from the neoconservative Foreign Policy Institute, where he is a Fellow. FPI has been described as a renascent version of the Project for the New American Century, which is in turn often described as one of the well-connected brain trusts behind the launch of the Iraq War.
A source from inside RT, who spoke to WhoWhatWhy anonymously for fear of retribution, had at one point “observed [Wahl] taking pictures of the office over the summer, asking all sorts of odd questions about my experience, and looking at Jamie Kirchick’s website while in the office.”
This led the RT America employee to believe that Kirchick—with the help of Wahl—was planning to write a hit piece on the organization.
A recently published piece by TruthDig goes further, contending that Kirchick and neoconservative allies orchestrated—in TruthDig’s words “stage managed“—Wahl’s resignation right from the start.
Managing the Resignation
Part of the “stage managed” claim rides on a confidential source who reportedly told the TruthDig reporters that, in the months before her on-air resignation, “[Wahl] said to me, ‘I’m working with someone right now who wants to take down RT and wants me to write this hit piece.’ She asked me what I thought and I told her it would be really messed up and not to do it. She said, “You’re right.’”
That “someone” targeting RT for a takedown, reported TruthDig, was Kirchick.
During Kirchick’s initial exclusive interview with Wahl, he said she had first reached out to him after he vehemently protested Russia’s anti-gay laws in a contentious appearance on RT back in August 2013.
“I admired him for that, I believed in the message that he was sticking up for and that was right around the time I was thinking about leaving,” Wahl told WhoWhatWhy. “That was the only reason I reached out to Jamie, because he had staged that protest against anti-gay propaganda laws.”
In an interview, Kirchick said Wahl originally used an anonymous email account to get in touch. Only after that contact led to a phone conversation did Wahl reveal her identity to Kirchick.
According to Kirchick, the two spoke only occasionally over the next several months. Wahl’s Twitter feed shows that during this time, she grew increasingly skeptical of Russia’s foreign policy and Putin.
Kirchick told WhoWhatWhy he reached out to Wahl after the Abby Martin incident took place to ask what type of reverberations were going on in-studio in its aftermath. He said he was initially interested in telling the story of what was going on inside of RT.
But the RT “inside story” plans changed when Wahl told Kirchick during that phone call she would be stepping down “this week,” but did not go into any more detail. Kirchick asked for the first exclusive interview after she resigned, and she agreed.
So, Kirchick knew it was coming. He just didn’t know how or when—at least not yet.
Then hours before she made the big announcement, Wahl contacted Kirchick to let him know she would be doing it on-air that day.
A large part of TruthDig‘s contention that Kirchick and the Foreign Policy Institute “stage managed” the whole thing relies on FPI’s Twitter feed activity in the minutes leading up to Wahl’s on-air resignation.
FPI’s feed that day telegraphed “something big might happen on RT” and teased “you’re really going to want to tune in to RT” within 19 minutes of Wahl’s stepping down. Then, as soon as Wahl made her announcement, FPI tweeted, “RT Anchor RESIGNS ON AIR. She ‘cannot be part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin.’”
Asked about the feed and timing of the tweets by WhoWhatWhy, Kirchick responded, “I am an employee of FPI. Liz called me [while I was] at work. I told everyone in the office to watch. We did.”
Wahl corroborated Kirchick’s account of how events unfolded.
“When I knew I was going to do it I reached out to Jamie and I said ‘I think today’s going to be the day,’ I told him ahead of time ‘I think I’m going to do it publicly and I can’t go out silently—that’s what they want me to do—they want to continue propaganda as usual,'” she said.
According to Wahl, her final “red line” came on March 5 (the day of her resignation) when an interview she conducted with former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul was initially edited to remove her words “…with Russia invading, how do you think the U.S. should respond to that?”
RT later released the uncensored version on YouTube, but the censored one remains on its website (see around the 7:30 mark of both interviews). RT defended its action by noting Paul publicly stated that nothing he said in his interview was edited out. But that was never Wahl’s claim to begin with; it was her mention of “Russia invading” that got snipped. Ron Paul and his assistants at the Ron Paul Institute and Campaign for Liberty denied a request for comment from WhoWhatWhy.
Made for TV
Kirchick denies helping Wahl make the rounds of major U.S. broadcast media outlets after his initial exclusive interview with her, saying there was no need to because her story simply “makes for good TV.”
In a sense, both Wahl and Kirchick had aligned interests, even though Wahl told WhoWhatWhy “I don’t endorse Jamie’s views and don’t control what Jamie does. I don’t have any ties to [FPI], everybody has different political views and I’m not endorsing the views of [FPI].”
A different anonymous source at RT told WhoWhatWhy that rather than some sort of grand orchestrated event in which puppeteer FPI pulled the strings of puppet Wahl, as has been claimed in some accounts, it was “probably more mutualistic, with Wahl and Kirchick using each other for their own interests.”
As Wahl said in the autobiographical note accompanying her piece in Politico Magazine, her agenda at this point is “in rejoining the labor force with a news organization dedicated to reporting the truth.”
Kirchick, as an FPI employee, had his own motives for ensuring that Wahl’s story reached a large audience. A quick glance at FPI’s website shows the organization has a fairly hostile posture in relation to Russia’s activities in Ukraine.
Mutual agendas aside, what does this tell us about the devotion of U.S. news organizations to “reporting the truth?”
Conspiracy, Coincidence or…?
American University Professor of Journalism Christopher Simpson—author of the book “Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare“—says it’s important to take a bird’s eye view of the media coverage of Wahl’s big day.
“What’s remarkable is the uniformity of the major media response to it and the enthusiasm with which the major media outlets took it up. You’ll find amazing consistency across the board about how the incident was played,” he said.
According to Simpson, this was not the sign of an organized conspiracy but rather the result of aligned interests by reporters, producers and editors at corporate-owned media organizations.
“I think what explains it is the extent to which major media—in any given country, but major media in the United States included—has a single narrative that they explain again and again and are always looking for opportunities to tell that narrative,” he said.
Simpson said Wahl “makes for good TV” because her actions could be presented as a case of “individual heroism” and a “decision of conscience against a major competing power center.”
Wahl testified to this herself in her interview with WhoWhatWhy:
“These media were contacting me through my Facebook page, through my email, they contacted my family, they contacted my grandparents in Florida,” she said. “The story resonated with people, people want to see people stand up and do what’s right, stick to their morals, stick to their beliefs.”
Back to the Cold War
Of course, it also helps that the enemy of the “heroic protagonist” in this tale was a long-standing geopolitical rival of the U.S.
“We’ve had a vacation from the Cold War narrative for a number of years, which gives it sort of a nostalgic quality,” Simpson said. “This slotted in so smooth, it was an easy narrative, an easy myth, an easy fable.”
But perhaps the main reason big U.S. media outlets flocked to this story, he said, is because it absolves them of their own sins.
“It also reaffirms the claim of integrity of American media, that the American media is so different from the Russian media. That the American media would never be taken in by a power grab of one of its own owners because it’s supposedly smart and critical and independent-thinking.”
In fact, numerous U.S. reporters have fallen victim to such in-house pressures. Examples include (but are not limited to):
–Phil Donahue was fired by MSNBC in 2002 following his criticism of the build-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
–Amber Lyon was prevented by CNN International from publishing her on-the-ground reporting on the Bahraini regime’s U.S.-backed repression of human rights activists participating in the Arab Spring. She eventually stepped down.
–Cenk Uygur quit his gig at MSNBC claiming that CEO Phil Griffin told him, “We’re the establishment, and it would be cool to be like outsiders, but we’re not, we’re insiders, and we have to act like it.”
Wahl told WhoWhatWhy she had no idea how her story would be handled by U.S. mainstream media outlets – though guests on her own RT America show had often questioned the agendas and coverage decisions of mainstream media corporations. These guests included Amber Lyon and Cenk Uygur.
“I did what I did because I wanted viewers and people to know what was going on in Ukraine.” Wahl said. “I didn’t know what would happen, I didn’t know what the fallout would be after I did it.”
Throughout the most recent debate over RT, its critics have consistently denigrated its offerings as Kremlin “propaganda.” Other observers, noting the failure of American mainstream media to question the actions of the U.S. government and large corporations, have credited RT, for all its shortcomings, with providing a useful alternative.
In this debate, Simpson says, the dictionary definition of the word “propaganda” has gotten lost in translation.
“Propaganda is commonly used as an insult. It’s basically saying I don’t like your media, I don’t like your messages, I don’t trust it, I don’t think it’s legitimate, and so forth,” he explained. “But the origin of the term ‘propaganda’ goes back to a Catholic Church initiative starting in the 16th Century ‘to propagate the faith’ and that wasn’t just any Christian faith, but rather the particular faith of the Roman Catholic Church.”
“The point here is that propaganda was a system of thinking and trading, media and teaching…and even public administration, to reinforce [a] particular worldview that was in conflict with other worldviews.”
With the situation in Crimea and Ukraine prompting talk of a revived Cold War, Simpson says it’s instructive to look at the roots of propaganda’s cousin word, “communicate.”
“[If] you look at its origin, it means ‘the sharing of burdens.’ It emphasizes sharing, which is a very different approach than propagating and it’s a very different approach to how society works.”
The implication seems clear: the return to knee-jerk belligerence between two nuclear-armed powers may be short-circuited if both sides do more communicating and less propagandizing.
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