This blog is provided by the Common Sense Society of Budapest as an online, English-language platform for the publication and exchange of diverse and differing perspectives about Hungarian politics, economy, and culture. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSS. The Common Sense Society does not receive funding from any government entity or political party.
April 28, 2015 Washington, DC
Liz Wahl, who pronounces “köszönöm szépen” without an accent, is the first but not last Western journalist to resign from Russian funded RT due to the channel’s obvious disregard for journalistic ethics. She talked about the politics of deception, corruption, conspiracy theories, the troll war and how her anti-communist Hungarian heritage has informed her decision to quit being a cogwheel in the anti-Western propaganda machine of Russia Today.
PaprikaPolitik: You have a Hungarian-American father and you were born in a military base in the Philippines. How much influence did Hungarian culture have on you as you were growing up?
Liz Wahl: Both of my grandparents on my father’s side emigrated to the U.S. during the [1956 Hungarian] revolution so I was exposed to Hungarian culture thanks to them. Both of my grandparents spoke Hungarian, my grandmother made goulash and chicken paprikash all the time. They were also involved in the Hungarian community in Connecticut, so it was very much a part of my cultural upbringing.
PP: When you quit on-air at Russia Today last year, you specifically mentioned your Hungarian heritage. How did it factor into your decision that your grandparents fled communist Hungary in 1956?
LW: That week when the protests were really heating up in Ukraine, it was right around the ouster of Yanukovich, the station was really used as a propaganda tool in the conflict, and that really opened my eyes. By then, I would do a lot of my own research [on the events in Ukraine] and not just the articles and point of views that were given to me that they tried to push me to express as an anchor. The more I researched what was going on, the more I realized that the station was part of this larger organization to deceive, manipulate, exploit and create an alternate reality of the situation in Ukraine. And that didn’t make me feel good about myself, and my role in it, even if it was a small role that I played in all this. When I felt ethically conflicted, I started to really think, well, who am I? What do I stand for? I thought about my family, how they got here to the United States, their struggles and everything they had to overcome to get to where they are, the life they had built in the United States, which eventually allowed me to have the life that I had. And I felt that with Ukraine we were reverting back to something that was reminiscent of that which made my grandparents flee in the first place.
PP: Who approached you from RT originally when you took the job back in the day? What did they pitch to you?
LW: When they had contacted me [in 2011], I was overseas, reporting for a local station in a little island that was part of the Mariana archipelago and I was a regional correspondent for Guam. I was there for about two years and right around the time when I was ready to get back to the US mainland in 2011, RT had just e-mailed me out of the blue. The woman that had contacted me from RT – who didn’t use the word Russia actually– said that, they are an international broadcast news station, that focuses on stories that the “mainstream media” ignores, that they try to do hard-hitting stories, and don’t do the fluffy stuff, and that this is an opportunity to do serious journalism that shows a perspective that is ignored in the US. And so of course I was interested, it was international, it was in Washington DC, and I said well, these are the types of stories that I would like to cover, so it certainly sounded like a great opportunity. After I looked into it, of course I saw the Russian connection, and so in the subsequent interviews, I asked about that, because Russia didn’t exactly have the best track record for freedom of speech. So I asked how much this is going to play into the editorial slant and they laughed at it and said, this is exactly what they are trying to counter, this whole anti-Russian perspective, but that it is not what it’s about, and I will be focusing on US domestic issues for the most part. So I had some misgivings, but they said “this is us trying to be more fair in media.” I saw that there were Western anchors and some of the stories were actually good. And at that time, although I had misgivings, Russia was not in the news so much, nobody was talking about Russia on a large-scale level.
PP: Freedom House’s poor media freedom rankings for Russia and the disappearing of journalists was certainly not in the mainstream news. It was the time of the US-Russia reset and what you had in the air was this cozying up to the Russian government…
LW: Yes, it was a time when politically at least there was this hope that you can have a reset of relations. And perhaps naively I thought that maybe all that is more the past and you can’t live in the past forever and that this international news station with another perspective would be part of this effort. And the way they pitched the job to Americans certainly sounded good, so I took the job. Back then the climate around Russia was nowhere near where it is today.
PP: How big was the staff at RT and what was the environment like? How much editorial leeway did you have?
LW: I would say there were about 70-80 employees at the bureau in Washington DC – mostly Americans. But the people running it are Russian. It’s interesting because you didn’t get this strict editorial directive; you kind of had to figure out yourself how to make your Russian bosses happy. For example, when I started my job, it was the first week of the Occupy Wall Street movement and we became obsessed with covering this story. Even when it wasn’t really a story anymore, it was our top story and we put a correspondent on the West Coast on it, we put one here in DC, one in New York, and we went really heavy on this story.
PP: Did the editors tell you why it was so important to cover this particular story?
LW: The reason, they said, was that the “mainstream media” was ignoring it, and we are covering it because there are important viewpoints that are being expressed [by the protesters]. But after a while, when we really went heavy on it for months, then I started to ask myself: OK, so why are we so obsessed with this story? And then everything started to fit into place in terms of why we were doing it. Because it made the US look really bad: look at democracy failing us, look at the people that are rising up in the streets, almost comparing it to the protests in Russia, and they of course didn’t want to pay attention to those, but instead focus on the hypocrisy within our Western governments and within the US. And we put up pictures of people pitched in tents and police being heavy-handed, and it all gave the impression of a….
PP: …declining and corrupt West.
LW: Exactly, but there was no context there. We had to really show every weakness and blow it up and make it all seem as evil and corrupt. And so I realized that if you wanted to be successful, your stories had to fit in line with this narrative of the US system being in shambles. So the general agenda was just to make the US and the West look bad in any way possible, and the better you fulfilled that editorial mission, the more you fell in favor with the Russian bosses. If you pitched something that was not along those lines, it just wouldn’t see the light of day and it just would not work.
PP: Did you do any stories that never made it on air because it didn’t make the US look bad enough from the Russian perspective?
LW: Yes, and there certainly is this anti-American sentiment that you need to adopt in order to thrive there, which I guess I never really acquired. There was one interview that I did when the French had invaded Mali to stop the terrorists that were gaining ground there. So the [news director] said: find somebody on the ground in Mali that can talk about what it’s like to have NATO intervening and get a first hand account. And so I did a pre-taped interview with this very well spoken gentleman, and my colleagues thought it was a great interview because he really explained what it was like to live under the threat of Sharia law. But basically what he had said was that the French forces were seen there as heroic and people were waiving French flags, and that the intervention was welcome and he would have wanted for NATO to do more. And after this I was called into my bosses’ office and he said “That was a weak interview. We’re not showing it.” That was one thing that really really got to me because it was clear why: it didn’t make the West look bad enough. It made NATO seem like they were actually a positive force. That was not the narrative that they wanted me to deliver. Despite getting this really compelling story from somebody on the ground there who knew what it was like being faced with the horror of terrorist networks – it never saw the light of day. So there you go. If you don’t guess right, and if you don’t ask the questions that fall in line, it gets censored and you are not going to be looked upon favorably by the Russian bosses. And that really bothered me.
PP: When you actually watch RT, it looks like CNN, it talks like CNN, it almost could be CNN, or any one of the major American cable news networks…
LW: That’s exactly the impression they wanted to give. And that’s why although originally they called the station Russia Today, they dropped “Russia” and started to just call it RT because they really wanted to create this sort of separation and give the impression that they’re not really affiliated with Russia. So they get Western presenters to provide this visual of RT being “just another alternative” to your CNN or Fox News or MSNBC. They take a page out of the playbook of the Western media outlets and they try to make RT look like them. And this is why it’s problematic, because at the same time, for example, when you get to a story that is about Russia or one of its allies, as a journalist you need to get this snippet of information in the story here, or a twist in a story there or just ignore certain things, so it can become really far from the truth. And especially when it came to Ukraine, it got so far from the truth that it became a lie.
PP: It seems like RT is just trying to provide “another viewpoint of the truth”, but at the same time you get this feeling that maybe truth doesn’t exist at all. The impression you are ultimately left with is that everything is a matter of interpretation and that has a very important moral message.
LW: Yes, RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, has actually said that everything is a matter of perspective and there is no objective truth. And in a way, that sounds very “enlightened.” But when it comes to news and journalism, what are the implications of there being no truth and everything being up to interpretation? That gets very manipulative. What the Russian media does is they take advantage of the approach of Western journalism that aims to be fair by showing both sides of the story. They manipulate that. If you have a journalist that is legitimately trying to report on the truth and another entity that just wants to obscure it, instead of being closer to a greater truth, you end up with a lie. It’s just chaotic.
PP: Peter Pomerantsev, a British journalist who testified together with you at the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearing two weeks ago, said in his testimony that unlike their Soviet predecessors, Putin’s regime will “work with anyone as long as its agenda helps creates instability. Its aim is not to persuade anyone Russia is ‘right’. Their aim is to disorganize and demoralize the West.” Do you agree with this?
LW: Absolutely and it can be a far left party, it can be a far right party … Russia finds strange bedfellows and provides anybody a platform who would go out and criticize the West. And oftentimes these are the people who don’t get a platform for a reason, because some of them are just simply crazy. But then thanks to RT, they get an audience, what’s more, a receptive audience, when otherwise they wouldn’t even be heard. And I will give you the example of the Malaysian Airlines incident. The Russians very quickly put out a story that it was the Ukrainians who shot down the airplane because they [the Ukrainians] thought that Russian President Vladimir Putin was flying in it. And then there was another conspiracy that it was actually the first missing Malaysian plane already carrying dead bodies. No basis in facts. But it didn’t matter. And it’s not like they were trying to convince anybody, but they just wanted to pollute the conversation and the dialogue, so any constructive conversation that you are trying to have, gets lost. What they’re really trying to make use of is to be the first in putting out an explanation and since first impressions count, it will stick. And if they plant these seeds of doubt, it becomes indirectly part of the conversation even if it’s complete nonsense to begin with. In the end it creates this chaos, and it corrupts the idea of journalism and fact-finding so that we can’t really move on as a society because it creates just more of a divide.
PP: How about your former colleagues, how come they don’t recognize this?
LW: There are some people that truly believe in all this, because they have become so immersed in this thinking that the West is this evil hegemonic power that they think they are actually doing a service. But I think that they are really brainwashed by that ideology and believe in it and they convince themselves and others that they are providing others a great service. That’s a minority, actually. Others feel sometimes uneasy about it, especially over Ukraine, but people stay in jobs, because they convince themselves that it will just pass and they will get to report on another story and that will make them feel better for a little while. And some people just don’t care. If you tow the line and you are willing to really push this anti-Western line, you will get rewarded and you get your own show and a raise of tens of thousands of dollars. The more you break the journalistic rules, the farther you get. I think they will have a harder and harder time getting Western journalists to join them, but there is always going to be people who buy into their conspiracy theories.
PP: Do you think that the US is losing or winning the information war?
LW: I think in a way we are losing because of the effectiveness of this kind of Russian propaganda. It has been able to reach and mobilize an audience that otherwise would not be. The war on Ukraine is a really good example of how the Russian disinformation campaign has worked in confusing the public and political leaders and even journalists. Russia has really harnessed the power of the internet to spread the seeds of doubt and outright lies. At RT, for example we were very serious about putting everything on YouTube. And the Russian government focuses very much on using social media, Twitter, Facebook, and mainstream media site commenting, so that the real comments are corrupted by paid Russian trolls to spread the Kremlin’s pro-Putin messages. And it does have a kind of psychological effect because you are reading through them and you think, well, here’s another part of the story, here’s another viewpoint.
PP: What about your personal experience with all that? Did the trolls go after you once you quit?
LW: After I resigned, although it took them a while, RT had come up with their own response to my resignation. Through an online news portal written by the best friend of one of the conspiracy-minded hosts, citing anonymous sources within RT, they connected all these dots that existed but didn’t actually connect, and formed an alternative story to my resignation. They said that because of a tweet that came out from a conservative think tank, it was proof that my resignation was staged by neoconservatives that wanted to ignite a Cold War. And they ended up running an exclusive “inside scoop” of “what was really behind Liz Wahl’s resignation.” The correspondents vigorously tweeted out all this and the crazy following that they had amassed – they believed it. So there is this network of people who think they are critically thinking but they are obviously not because they believe everything that’s coming out of this organization. I got spammed and received hundreds of just really vile and hateful messages from people that had really bought into this idea that I’m this anti-Kremlin neocon. And I swear they just call me a neocon without really knowing what it means. But it’s this label that RT uses, the “evil neocons” that want to start another Cold War.
PP: …and that also conveniently caters to the anti-Semitic constituency out there as well…
LW: Yes, I was also accused of being part of this Zionist-Jewish plot. Of course, there is absolutely no basis of facts there, but for people who actually thrive on anti-Semitic hate, I’m part of this evil war-hungry system. And it gets kind of scary to see so much hate and lies.
PP: Were these attacks intimidating on a personal level?
LW: It was overwhelming at first, but I wasn’t scared for my life. I was more scared when I realized how easily manipulated people can be. It’s not to say that people who were trolling me represent the majority but there were enough of them. And the fact that people can be so blindly manipulated by something that is not based on truth is a scary prospect. And that’s what disturbed me at Russia Today in general: it was all this hate playing out right before my eyes. I think the real danger is creating this culture of hate that rallies people around it who are really paranoid and come from this anti-Western view.
PP: Where did your bosses come from intellectually and what drove them philosophically?
LW: My boss, for example, came from this libertarian background and so we obsessively covered candidates like Ron Paul who was very isolationist and very anti-intervention. And of course that’s a kind of leader that Russia can stand behind because there is a benefit there to them. But this libertarian slant was used only when it benefited Russia, so really it could be anything as long as it made the US, or Western powers or NATO look bad.
PP: Where do you think Russia Today is headed as a news organization in the news business?
LW: Since my resignation, Russian media has expanded. They have launched an RT channel in London and Germany. They also launched Sputniknews, an online news portal with the same kind of narrative and angles that they push at RT. It’s only expanding and we’re seeing a growth because they are trying to reach out to an international audience to try to gain sympathy in any way and in any corner of the globe. Be it the far right or the far left – anyone, anywhere to create that division in societies throughout the world.
PP: After covering so many shortcomings of the US democratic system and all the faults of the West, what makes you still believe in our system of government?
LW: The very existence and the fact that we have RT, this very anti-American platform just a couple blocks from the White House is the proof of our system and how strongly we value freedom of speech. I also believe in it because my grandparents had escaped Soviet rule during the 1956 Hungarian revolution and I had grown up in the United States without being oppressed, and I feel that I am lucky to live here. I absolutely think that it is better than its alternatives. Yes, we are not perfect, but we have a system that although imperfect, it strives to get there. The United States is not a utopia; we struggle with our own issues, politically, economically. But on my Filipino side, I have seen what it looks like to live in a country with mass corruption, mass poverty, where opportunity is not available except for a very very small group of well connected people. And without a question our system in the West is favorable to that in Russia and many other systems.
PP: How did you feel when you resigned and how do you feel now?
LW: It was definitely a tense moment, but it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and my conscience felt better. After seeing the way things have played out in Ukraine and how Russian propaganda has been instrumental in manipulating the conflict in Ukraine, I am really glad that I took action when I did. We all need to be more conscious consumers of information and understand where it is coming from and what the interests are behind it. We must be aware of the Kremlin’s use of information and when they put out a lie, we need to recognize it. We can’t let that be part of the status quo. We need to reclaim the facts. We can’t buy into this fallacy that the Russian media and the Kremlin wants us to believe – that there is no such thing as the truth. I think there is and we need to fight for it.