Russia's American cable news experiment just backfired

RT America's credibility is one of the first casualties of the Ukraine-Russia war

RT former anchor Liz Wahl
(Image credit: RT)

On Wednesday, Russian cable news network RT America had its second on-air rebellion in almost as many days. After the first one — Breaking the Set host Abby Martin said on Monday night that Russia's invasion of Crimea, Ukraine, was wrong — RT offered to send Martin to Crimea to "better her knowledge" of the conflict. (She declined.)

Then, Wednesday evening, reporter Liz Wahl one-upped Martin, resigning on live TV with the memorable rationale: "Personally, I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of [Vladimir] Putin. I'm proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth." (Watch above)

This time, RT took a sharper tone: Martin's comments were made "in the context of her own talk show," where for years she "has been speaking out against U.S. military intervention, only to be ignored by the mainstream news outlets" — until with "one comment, branded as an act of defiance, she became an overnight sensation." RT continued:

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

It is a tempting example to follow. When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt. [RT]

Maybe it was, in part — Wahl's on-air resignation made her a media sensation and earned her several interviews, including one with CNN in which she told Anderson Cooper that Ukraine had raised "the propagandist nature of RT" to a new level. "RT is not about the truth; it's about promoting a Putinist agenda," she added. "And I can tell you firsthand, it's about bashing America."

All cable news channels have their editorial brand, or shtick, or political slant — everyone knows that MSNBC is liberal, Fox News is conservative, CNN is in a constant identity crisis, and both BBC America and Al Jazeera America are aiming to show Americans the world.

RT America was supposed to fill that latter niche, too, with a Russian point of view. Since its launch in 2010, it has steadily been gathering an audience in the U.S., and even gained enough legitimacy to land veteran CNN talk show host Larry King last year. Now, after the Ukraine invasion? RT sort of looks like the Kremlin-funded promotional outlet it was founded to be.

Maybe RT America could have breezed past Russia's incursion or these high-profile rebellions in a few years, when it was a more established brand. But the invasion of Ukraine has set RT America back years in terms of becoming a credible alternative to America's "corporate" media outlets. Like all things in showbiz, timing is everything. That's true for both RT and Liz Wahl.