Why Putin is winning the War of Images

Abby Martin, a familiar face on RT
Abby Martin, a familiar face on RT

Russian President Vladimir Putin has created an anti-CNN for Western audiences with the international satellite news network Russia Today. With its recipe of smart propaganda, sex appeal and unlimited cash, it is outperforming its peers worldwide.

Russia Today uses the source material America supplies to its rivals untiringly and with relish. Even Washington’s relatively minor peccadilloes don’t escape notice. For instance, the show also includes a story about Gabonese dictator Ali Bongo Ondimba, whom US President Barack Obama supports.

Many in the West are also interested in seeing critical coverage of the self-proclaimed top world power. Russia Today is already more successful than all other foreign broadcast stations available in major US cities, such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York. In Washington, 13 times as many people watch the Russian program as those that tune into Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster.

Two million Britons watch the Kremlin channel regularly. Its online presence is also more successful than those of all its competitors. What’s more, in June, Russia Today broke a YouTube record by being the first TV station to get a billion views of its videos.

The station was even more triumphant when it signed Larry King, a legend of American radio and TV journalism who began working for Russia Today this summer. “America’s best known TV interviewer is defecting to the Russians,” wrote the London-based Times in May.

King and his new colleagues have a simple assignment: They are to “break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon mass media,” President Vladimir Putin said during a studio visit a few weeks ago. The Russians’ recipe for success has three ingredients: sex appeal, which has been atypical for most news channel; a rigidly anti-American stance; and a never-ending flow of money from the Kremlin.

The Ministry of Media Defense

Since 2005, the Russian government has increased the channel’s annual budget more than tenfold, from $30 million (€22.6 million) to over $300 million. Russia Today’s budget covers the salaries of 2,500 employees and contractors worldwide, 100 in Washington alone. And the channel has no budget cuts to fear now that Putin has issued a decree forbidding his finance minister from taking any such steps.

The Moscow leadership views the funds going to the channel as money “well invested,” says Natalya Timakova, the press attaché to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. “In addition, Russia Today is — and I hope the Germans will forgive me for this remark — significantly more modern than Deutsche Welle, for example, and it also has more money.”

The government has also spent a lot of money on the new broadcasting center in northeast Moscow, which Russia Today moved into in May. The station, citing confidentiality requirements, isn’t willing to quote an exact price tag. On the grounds of a former Soviet tea factory, the broadcaster is now creating programming in Arabic, English and Spanish. In 2009, it rebranded its English- and Spanish speaking divisions as simply “RT.” The evening news is currently focused on the euro crisis, social protests in Portugal and the NSA surveillance scandal.

Margarita Simonyan
Margarita Simonyan

Margarita Simonyan is the woman who shaped Russia Today into Russia’s most effective weapon in the battle for influencing the opinions of the global public. In her office on the eighth floor of its headquarters in Moscow, the editor-in-chief has Orthodox icons on her desk and a dozen flickering screens around it. Putin made Simonyan the head of the new station in 2005. At the time, she was only 25 and derided as an unknown reporter from the crowd of journalists that accompany the president at meetings.

Simonyan’s mission is to prevent Russia from ever losing a war of images.

CNN showed images of destroyed buildings, allegedly taken after a Russian bomb strike on the Georgian provincial city of Gori. According to Russia Today, however, they were actually shots of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali after a Georgian attack. “There is no objectivity,” Simonyan says today, “only approximations of the truth by as many different voices as possible.”

Mistrust of the domestic media is also greater than ever in the United States. CNN, for example, is struggling to cope with a massive loss of viewers. – Der Spiegel