Russia Goes Viral: How the RT Network Built a U.S. Audience

By
RT anchors Meghan Lopez and Bob English.

On Wednesday, August 21, Russia's global cable-news network got ambushed.

James Kirchick, a Foreign Policy Initiative fellow and prolific freelancer, had been invited on to RT (formerly known as Russia Today) to talk about Bradley Manning. Kirchick, who is gay, had something else in mind: skewering a controversial Russian law that essentially makes it illegal to talk about homosexuality.

"Being silent in the face of evil is something we can't do," said the 30-year-old, quoting Harvey Fierstein in a pair of rainbow suspenders. “Being here on a Kremlin-funded propaganda network, I’m going to wear my gay-pride suspenders and speak out against the horrific anti-gay legislation that [Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin has signed into law.”

The incident made for great TV: an American journalist commandeering the airwaves of a state-owned Russian broadcaster that’s widely seen as a megaphone for anti-U.S. bias, conspiracy theories, and the types of marginal news personalities who might look less out of place on a late-night cable access show than mainstream television. It went bananas online. One version, uploaded to YouTube by the Washington Free Beacon, had amassed nearly 700,000 views at the time of this writing.

This week’s viral hit was more typical of the network’s fare: RT aired footage purporting to show Syrian rebels initiating a chemical-weapons attack. Problem was, the videos had clearly been fabricated. “I do not support Russia Today's use of the credibility of my work to prop up videos I consider to be highly dubious,” wrote the blogger who originally unearthed them. Politico’s media reporter put it this way: “Why you don’t watch RT.”

But lots of Americans are watching RT — online at least. The network was founded in 2005 as Mother Russia's brand ambassador to the English-speaking world. Although RT is distributed in only a dozen American cable markets (plus a satellite deal with DISH), this June it became the first news channel to hit 1 billion views on YouTube, where it has leveraged the virality of raw, user-generated content like February's transfixing meteor impact in Russia's Ural region. RT has 1.06 million YouTube subscribers, and traffic to rt.com more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to network spokeswoman Anna Belkina. The site logged 6.32 million unique visitors in July, according to comScore, up from 4.93 million when the digital measurement firm began tracking RT in May 2012. Thirty percent of the YouTube views and 50 percent of rt.com’s traffic comes from the U.S., says Belkina, as did 30 percent of its more than 1.03 million Facebook followers as of August. "Their visibility has increased," said Ellen Mickiewicz, a Duke University political science professor who specializes in Russian media and follows RT closely. "What they want most is to be a player."

To achieve this, RT is stepping up its marketing efforts. Starting in New York this past May, the network kicked off its first U.S. advertising push since 2010 with commercials that run in PATH train stations and city taxis; the plan is to expand these efforts "in the biggest U.S. markets," including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Chicago, said Belkina. At the center of the campaign is RT's lone A-lister: Larry King, who broadcasts two new shows, Larry King Now and Politics with Larry King, on the network. If nothing else, King brings a sheen of credibility. Your average rush-hour commuter probably wouldn’t flinch upon seeing RT's ubiquitous PATH train promo in which he declares, “I would rather ask questions of people in positions of power instead of speaking on their behalf.”

The rise of RT in America has occurred amid an increased appetite for coverage of Putin's empire, between Russia's new anti-gay laws and their potential impact on the 2014 Sochi Olympics; the ongoing saga of Edward Snowden, which RT has covered extensively and with a home-court advantage; and Russia's role in the escalating Syrian conflict. At the same time, Americans are consuming more news that's filtered through a foreign lens, as evidenced by the recent U.S. expansion of outlets like Al Jazeera, the BBC, and the Guardian.

RT is keen to exploit this momentum. "We have big ambitions," said Alina Mikhaleva, the network's marketing chief, though she admitted a handicap: "We are not going to compete with the budgets of national networks. What's the purpose of trying to copy CNN but only much cheaper?" (RT would not disclose its budget.)

Absent those deep pockets, RT aims to distinguish itself in the U.S. by covering topics that mainstream media does not. "The news items that play best in the U.S.," said Margarita Simonyan, RT's 33-year-old editor-in-chief (who was on maternity leave and therefore responded to questions via e-mail through a spokesperson), "are the ones directly touching on critical American issues in public policy and politics and that aren’t being seriously explored anywhere else." Such as? "Coverage of third-party candidates in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections," she said, or Occupy Wall Street, which RT covered round the clock from day one. "We thought it was a big deal," New York–based correspondent Anastasia Churkina told me during a recent visit to RT's six-person bureau near Grand Central Station. (The D.C. bureau, branded as RT America, opened in 2010 and has a staff of roughly 100.) Their diligence paid off: RT's Occupy coverage was nominated for an International Emmy last year.

Of course, there’s another way of looking at it: RT thrives on covering topics that make the U.S. look bad. Third-party candidates, after all, embody defiance of America’s ruling political elite. Occupy Wall Street gave us images of NYPD officers pepper-spraying peaceful protesters and roughing up members of the press. Snowden must have been manna for the network, whose blanket coverage has included a widely circulated YouTube clip of reporters from CNN and the A.P. grilling a State Department flack over the NSA whistle-blower turned Russian asylum-seeker’s First Amendment rights. Still, RT's journalists swear they’re under no pressure to toe a party line.

RT also traffics in the type of fringe punditry that’s found an audience across the U.S. media landscape. Its marquee anchor, the zany, histrionic Max Keiser, is a champion of 9/11 trutherism and financial apocalypse. Controversial commentators over the years have included people like the Russian historian who predicted that the dissolution of the United States was nigh, or the American one who believes the CIA is using unwitting citizens as guinea pigs to test dangerous drugs. One guest last year explained of the situation in Syria: “President Obama is acting on a British geopolitical plan to force a confrontation with Russia and China, a military confrontation of which Syria and Iran would merely be the ignition point.”

“If they’re not trying to be anti-American, they’re at least trying to be anti-mainstream,” said Julia Ioffe, a Russian-American journalist at The New Republic and a former Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker. She told me she has refused multiple requests to appear on the network. But as Jesse Zwick reported in TNR last March, there’s also a contingent of scholarly, well-regarded figures who can regularly be seen on RT airing views that are critical of the U.S. "I get treated better there than I do by Hannity or O'Reilly," Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told him.

It’s this mix of the legitimate and the absurd — credible pundits and wacky conspiracy theorists, aggressive reporting and propagandistic commentary, traditional news broadcasts and viral meteor videos — that has made RT a compelling proposition for the Americans who are already tuning in, even if only as a guilty pleasure. At the very least, the network offers a unique formula. But being inimitable can only take you so far. "I don't think it's [for] a mass audience," said Mickiewicz, the Russian media scholar. "I don't think they even have a niche yet."

Ioffe was more blunt. “More power to them if they want to be a legitimate news organization and fight their way into the market. Why not? If it’s another voice in the conversation, fine,” she said. “I retweet their stuff all the time. But would I ever tune in other than to mock them? No.”