Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:
Elswah, M., & Howard, P. N. (2020). “Anything that Causes Chaos”: The Organizational Behavior of Russia Today (RT). Journal of Communication, 70(5), 623-645.
This article draws upon the testimonies of former Russia Today journalist to analyze the role this media outlet plays in Russian foreign policy.
The article describes the evolution of this outlet from its creation up until the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Russia Today was created in 2005 to broadcast a positive image of Russia with an emphasis on cultural news. However, in 2008, the Russian state used this media outlet to legitimize its political action during the conflict with Georgia. The outlet subsequently recentered its agenda on Russian foreign policy. According to the journalists interviewed, the channel now serves to destabilize the “West” (mainly Europe and the United States) by generating controversies and relaying opinions that are critical of Western governments. During the Ukrainian civil war in 2014, several journalists from Russia Today’s American branch resigned, believing that the outlet had become a channel of disinformation and propaganda at the service of the Russian state. Meanwhile, other non-Russian journalists also resigned in order to avoid signing a confidentiality clause put in place by the media outlet to prevent the dissemination of compromising information. In 2016, the outlet was registered as a “foreign agent” by the U.S. Department of Justice, and several states decided to ban its broadcast.
According to the authors of the article, Russia Today’s management is strongly inspired by the Soviet policy of media control, as analyzed by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm in 1956. The outlet is described as opportunistic – it adapts to current events in order to best serve the interests of the Russian state – and as an instrument of “oppositional soft power” – it adopts an editorial line that is systematically opposed to that of "Western" media outlets and governments, so as to offer the public a competing discourse.
From an organizational standpoint, Russia Today recruits inexperienced journalists and offers them above market salaries. Most of these journalists know little about Russia and have never visited it. According to one of the journalists interviewed, the company’s tendency to offer safe and comfortable positions has helped them retain individuals who are otherwise uncomfortable with the way Russia Today operates. The treatment of so-called “sensitive” subjects is supervised by editorial directors of Russian nationality who are in direct contact with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While none of the journalists interviewed reported that they had experienced direct pressure from a superior, self-censorship is a common practice: each of the journalists interviewed said that they had internalized their management’s editorial expectations. It is here that lies the fundamental difference between Russia Today and past mechanisms of Soviet soft power: Russia Today doesn’t aim to strictly control its journalists – the outlet employs less coercive methods and places more emphasis on rewards than reprobation.