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Don’t Call Us Information Warriors

US government-funded channels like “Current Time” face a test in the age of Putin and Trump

Feature

Washington, D.C.

Cufflinks glinting on his wrists, anchor Roman Mamonov looked into camera as the production assistant gave the final countdown. “Five, four, three, two...”

It was 1 p.m. in the Washington, D.C. studios of “Current Time,” the U.S. government-funded channel aimed at Russia and Russian speakers, and another edition of one of its flagship shows “Current Time America” was going on air.

”Let’s check the clock against the current time from our studio in Washington,” said Mamonov, his trademark opening line.

Current Time started out as a daily program almost four years ago, before becoming a 24-hour channel last year.

Mamonov has an interesting backstory. A decade ago, he was doing the same job in Russia, for the Kremlin-linked channel NTV, anchoring puff pieces about Vladimir Putin. Now, after claiming political asylum in the U.S., Mamonov has switched sides.

Or, as he put it when we met, “I was on a different side of the barricades.” He quickly added that he meant “barricades” as a joke. “I don’t want a fight,” he explained. “I have my family [in Russia], and it’s more than enough for me to hear from my mom that I was brainwashed.”

This show of nerves is not just about his mom though. It’s a reflection, too, of wider tensions over the channel’s aims and identity. After all, the channel was born at the instigation of American foreign policymakers, as a reaction to the 2014 Crimea crisis.

Current Time’s head, Daisy Sindelar, is open about the fact that the channel “was created in the aftermath of the Russian occupation of Crimea.” But the aim, she says, was to give “Russian speakers, in particular in Crimea, in Eastern Ukraine, but everywhere in the world, an opportunity for an alternative source of information.”

The channel is co-produced by two U.S. government-funded entities with long Cold War histories, the Washington-based Voice of America and the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In turn, they are overseen by a federally-funded government body called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which lists “Advancing American Influence” as a key goal in its strategic plan for the next four years.

In the eyes of the Kremlin and its supporters, this backstory makes Current Time simply a propaganda mouthpiece for the United States government. It was immediately on the Kremlin’s radar. When it was first launched, state-owned Russia 24 aired a sensationalist report about “what Current Time is really up to,” in effect accusing it of being an American version of the Kremlin-controlled RT network.

But this comparison also misses profound differences in the political systems and journalistic traditions underpinning the two networks. “A lot of people ask me: ‘Oh, are you American propaganda?’” Mamonov said. “The answer is ‘No.’”

Unlike Current Time, RT’s operations, including its budgets and governance structure, are highly opaque. In Russia, the network discloses the bare minimum of what it needs to publish as a government-funded organization, and it only started doing so recently. Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst and research fellow at the University of Southern California, told me, “for nine years, [RT] were not filing, or at least not publishing, the reports about their funding.”

Fair Criticism?

Mamonov’s show focuses largely on American society and politics, and the day I was in the studios the first major item was about fire safety in the U.S. The broadcast led off with a shot of the ceiling sprinkler. “Just these kinds of systems,” said Mamonov in Russian, “are installed in our studio.”

There had been a fatal fire in Siberia a few days earlier, and the Russian authorities had been sharply criticized for their response. And Russian state-media had been accused of deliberately undercovering the story. But Current Time had given the fire extensive coverage.

You could read Mamonov’s fire safety segment both as a dig at Russia, and as a self-congratulatory comment on the U.S. approach to safety and, by extension, America itself.

But when we spoke afterwards, in a room decorated with photos of U.S. presidents, Mamonov pushed back at that interpretation. “That was not about ‘[America is] greater’ in any way,” he said. Instead, he argued, it was simply public service journalism, looking at how the U.S. deals with fire risks and makes systemic change when disasters happen.

Young Radicals

Almost two years ago, in the confusing aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, I had a chance to pay a similar visit to the studios of RT America, the network’s U.S.-focused division (before it was forced to register as a “foreign agent.”) The tonal difference was striking. The RT staff were young American radicals, more interested in rocking the boat politically than reporting what was going on in the country.

And, as its output has shown, RT is far more concerned with sowing confusion or attacking the West than trying to provide balancing reporting.

At least with Current Time’s reporting on American domestic issues, a clear contrast emerges: “Current Time America,” for instance, is filled with reports highlighting U.S. government failings or problems inside America.

After last year’s Charlottesville protests, the channel devoted a long segment to criticism of Trump’s response. A recent episode looked at links between Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, and a Russian oligarch and an update on the Mueller investigation led the hour.

In covering Trump’s recent meeting with Kim Jong-Un, the show echoed the skepticism of America’s mainstream press. Their correspondent in Singapore even slipped into a healthy dose of sarcasm, nothing that the summit generated few concrete agreements, “yet much was beautifully stated about the sunny future.”

It is hard to find examples of RT or other international-facing Russian government media outlets running similarly critical coverage of Vladimir Putin.

Truth is the best propaganda

Editorial objectivity is protected, say Current Time executives and defenders, by a metaphorical “firewall” that separates journalists from government policymakers. And the stated idea that balanced, fact-based journalism can serve a foreign policy agenda is hardly new. The U.S. government claims to have been pursuing this approach for decades. “We must make ourselves heard round the world in a great campaign of truth,” said U.S. President Harry S. Truman in 1950, as he called on the nation to rally against propaganda promoting communism. In an interview earlier this year, Current Time feature programming director Kenan Alyiev told the National Review that “We don’t do propaganda. We believe that truth is the best propaganda.”

But there are caveats. Journalists working for U.S. government-funded broadcasters still have to observe certain big-picture parameters aligning with American policy positions, according to Jeffrey Gedmin, a former president of RFE/RL.

As an example, he cited reporting about NATO’s operations in Afghanistan by Radio Liberty’s Afghan service. It would have to clarify that troops from the U.S.-led alliance are not there “for imperial conquest, not to take oil or dominate territory,” said Gedmin, and that “NATO has been invited by” the Afghan government.

Still, Current Time maintains a stated commitment to balance and a level of transparency you won’t find from RT or other Russian government-funded outlets. For instance, the mission statement for Voice of America (VOA) says “it will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”

But with Current Time effectively split between different locations and management bodies, critics point to a divergence in editorial approaches within the channel.

There have been questions over the balance of Current Time’s reporting on Russia itself that is produced from the channel’s offices at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague (distinct from the “Current Time America” program run from the VOA offices in Washington D.C.). Much of its coverage of Russia has the feel and tone of an opposition media outlet, according to Gatov, with the goal of showing “that your rival, your competitor, is bad.”

“The work of Current Time, as well as the work of Russia Today in America or anywhere in the world, provides disturbance, provides negation, and cynicism,” Gatov said. In his view, this approach invites a counterproductive backlash from viewers.

Current Time director Daisy Sindelar responded that “Current Time aims to provide Russian-speakers with an alternative to Kremlin-controlled media. This means providing balanced and factual reporting about the political developments and social issues — positive and negative — that most impact our viewers’ day-to-day lives.”

The Broadcasting Board of Governors executives, too, try to toe the line between embracing information warfare and maintaining the organization’s self-perception of objectivity. Their 2018 budget request for Current Time reflects the fact that the channel exists largely as a reaction to Russia’s information operations, but emphasizes the importance of “balanced, accurate, topical, and trustworthy information.”

Current Time’s mission is split between the political task of countering Kremlin narratives and the more humble mission of providing a service to its Russian-speaking audience. Back in his studios on Capitol Hill, Mamonov is clear about which of these missions he identifies with: “There’s no such thing in my job,” he told me, “as countering Russian propaganda. I do news.”

For decades, the coverage of U.S. government-funded broadcasters has been underpinned by the broad ideological beliefs of American foreign policy, coating U.S. interests in the language of democracy and human rights.

But these underpinnings are increasingly vulnerable. Trump has so far been disdainful towards efforts to promote democracy. And there have even been fears that he would try to turn U.S. government-funded media into an overtly partisan propaganda arm.

Current Time and its sister outlets also face domestic pressure from conservative voices who have long criticized what they see as liberal bias in their programing. The Trump administration has recently indicated it will nominate Michael Pack — an ally of Trump’s former aide Steve Bannon — to head the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and critics feared this will lead to the Voice of America’s being turned into President Trump’s political megaphone.

Illustrations by Sofiya Voznaya.