Uncle Sam Got a Shiny New Propaganda Bullhorn for Christmas
A new partnership is bolstering Radio Free Europe as an anti-Russian propaganda machine
As we begin 2016, with the American mainstream media’s anti-Russia bias as deeply entrenched as never before, comes the news that the US government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has partnered up with the online magazine the Interpreter.
Previously, the Interpreter had been a “special project” of the Manhattan-based Institute for Modern Russia (IMR), a think tank funded by the exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khordorkovsky. In announcing the change, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, the journalist and CNN fixture Michael Weiss, said his organization was “excited to serve as an outpost of such a venerable news organization.”
An RFE/RL official told The Nation that the deal stipulates that RFE/RL will have exclusive rights to publish and translate articles from the Interpreter for RFE/RL’s audience abroad, while The Interpreter will be, in turn, obligated to publish each installment of ITS intractably Russo-phobic “The Power Vertical” blog.
According to Weiss, given his “magazine’s trajectory, a partnership with RFE/RL makes perfect sense.” That is only too true, given the marked decline in RFE/RL’s standards since the heyday of the Cold War.
Thereafter, funding came via the CIA, but according to RFE/RL, it parted ways with the agency by 1971. For most of its history, RFE/RL abjured the temptation to call for revolutionary movements abroad, focusing instead on broadcasting news stories that otherwise would not have been allowed to air in communist Eastern Europe.
Yet the propaganda RFE/RL had for so long avoided is something of a specialty of The Interpreter. As I pointed out at length in the pages of The Nation this past June, in addition to smearing a former US ambassador to Russia as a Kremlin “agent of influence” within the NATO hierarchy, the Interpreter has imputed treasonous motives to those with whom they disagree, all the while airing some of the more outlandish accusations against the Russian government.
For its part, RFE/RL has, of late, routinely published interviews and op-eds to audiences in Ukraine that only serve to reinforce the deep divisions racking that country. The most recent example of this was an interview given by a former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, in which he flatly declared “Обаме с Путиным просто не о чем говорить”: “Putin and Obama have nothing to talk about.”
So much for diplomacy.
More interesting, however, is what the Interpreter’s move to RFE/RL says about how easily Congress has been fooled into believing the rank alarmism regarding Russian-funded media that it and its many friends in the mainstream media have so enthusiastically propagated. Throughout 2015, The Economist’s Ed Lucas (who recently co-authored a report decrying the supposedly far-reaching effects of Russian propaganda for the Center for European Policy Analysis), the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum and other lesser lights, have been ceaselessly ringing the alarm over the civilizational threat posed by Russian state–funded media outlets like RT.
More often than not, critics of Russian state–funded media operate under the false assumption that Vladimir Putin is the moving force, if not the actual author, of each and every piece of propaganda that Russian media produce. This week The Washington Post published the utterly fantastic claims of former Reagan and George W. Bush officials David B. Rivkin Jr. and Paula J. Dobriansky that “Nobody in Russia gets to freelance propaganda-wise. Thus, anti-Obama rants, even when coming from prominent individuals outside government, have Putin’s imprimatur.”
Yet another notable example of this rapidly expanding genre of propaganda-alarmism came courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron, who took to the pages of The Weekly Standard in August to complain that RT, unlike RFE/RL, is “generously funded, slick, and unconstrained by moral scruples.” Unsurprisingly, Aron—who currently serves on the board of RFE/RL’s parent organization, the Broadcasting Board of Governors—made it clear that he believes that compared to RT, RFE/RL is woefully underfunded.
Meanwhile, the journalist Peter Pomerantsev, who, with Weiss, co-authored their own report on Russian propaganda for the Interpreter in October 2014, has been busy appearing before congressional committees as an “expert witness” on Russian propaganda. Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April, Pomerantsev declared, “Russia has launched the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen.” In November, Pomerantsev appeared again before Congress, this time as a witness before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Russian propaganda, alongside none other than Leon Aron.
Pomerantsev’s message was eagerly picked up by California Congressman Ed Royce, who with New York Congressman Elliot Engel co-sponsored the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015 (HR 2323). Longtime Voice of America correspondent Al Pessin strongly objects to Royce and Engel’s bill, noting that “You can’t win respect and communicate if no one is listening, and people will stop listening if Congress transforms VOA into a Russian- or Chinese-style state broadcaster.”
In any event, The Interpreter has now come full circle: The two-year campaign by the magazine and its friends to scare the Washington establishment over the alleged threat posed by Russian state-funded media, has made it, in the eyes of RFE/RL anyway, an indispensable agent with which to battle the phantom challenge posed by Russian state media.
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