Why I quit ‘Russia Today,’ and why it remains necessary

Working for Russia’s state-owned media was supposed to be an opportunity to tell the ‘other side’ of the story. But it turns out that the U.S. and Russia — along with their mainstream media ecosystems — are equally horrendous. The inside story of nepotism, click-bait and propaganda at Ruptly.

By Paula Schmitt

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears on state-owned television station Russia Today. (Photo by The Kremlin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin appears on state-owned television station Russia Today. (Photo by The Kremlin)

The first thing I told my father when I accepted a job offer from Russia Today was, “at least I know where their money comes from.” I had no illusions about news outlets – they all have masters, though we can only know a few of them. In the case of RT, everyone knew who the conductor was, and I wanted to play the music. I was very much up to the job of uncovering bad things about America. I was ready to debunk the West, that philosophical province embellished by news corporations, all house-trained to sing in unison the disgrace that is the Other and how perfectly green our astroturf grows.

But as is wont to happen with laws and sausages, I couldn’t stomach the way RT’s news was made.

I hadn’t told many people I was going to work for RT. I didn’t update my LinkedIn profile, or add RT to my Twitter bio. I was cautious and rather embarrassed. But I did believe I could do something good there, probably more so than if I were on CNN or BBC. I had always been a fan of RT. I thought, and still think, it is refreshing, informative, even crucial. People like Abby Martin, Tom Hartman and Max Keiser are helping change the world for the better – I am convinced of that. RT also helps the public get access to specialists who are never consulted by the mainstream media, people who may be even more qualified to speak on specific issues but are completely ignored and erased from debate because they refuse to hum the tune set by Western think-tanks and paid lobbyists. I knew RT had a political agenda, but I expected to get lucky and cover issues where my truth would lie precisely where Russia thought it should. I had seen incredibly good documentaries about the ills of the West, from starvation and illiteracy in America to the corrupting power of Wall Street. Russia and I were on the same page most of the time. I just hoped they wouldn’t ask me to cover Putin’s government. Yes, that’s what I thought, or wanted to think – that Russia and I mostly only disagreed on Russia itself.

The truth, however, is that, much like the U.S., Russia has an interest or a political position on practically every country in the world.

Before RT flew me to Berlin from New York, I got effusive compliments for my new job from well-meaning U.S. journalists, tired as they must be of the putrescence that is their mainstream media, a Punch & Judy show of pretend enemies fabricating divisive issues while standing shoulder-to-shoulder where it really matters: war, corporatocracy, wealth distribution and surveillance. But then I realised, by the very effusiveness of their compliments, that these journalists were also victims of that old false dichotomy, swallowing whole the idea that the U.S. and Russia are worlds apart in ideology when both in fact bow to the same god.

Ruptly, the RT group’s video news agency, hired dozens of journalists (myself included) a few months before the launch, scheduled for March 2013. Despite being part of RT, Ruptly claimed to be different in that it was meant to have a twofold nature: on one hand it was state-led, owned by the Russian government to further its politics; on the other hand it had to sell the videos it produced in order to make a profit. As I soon learned, Ruptly got to encompass the worst of those two worlds, statism and capitalism, with possibly the best means of delivery: viral videos and government propaganda all rolled into one. My rationalizing brain came to the rescue and imagined harmless clips of a kitten meowing the word Puuuutin.

As it turned out, reality was much less cute.

The newsroom was staffed with people from all over the world, many without any journalistic experience. There were a few veterans from AP and other news outlets, but few of them stayed on. We spent the couple of months leading up to the launch in intensive practice, a large part of it focused on simulating content meetings. On our first day, sitting at the head of the conference table was our deputy boss, a Russian journalist silently mocking surplus value with a pair of Ray-Bans and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt. One of his children was present as a hired journalist, also using the human body as a free billboard for sweatshops. The deputy boss’s wife, a remarkably kind woman, worked in the administrative department. The top boss also had his wife, an American, occupying one of the highest jobs at Ruptly. But all that nepotism didn’t have the benefit of making the place feel as family like and cosy as an Italian trattoria – it actually made everyone suspect they were constantly being watched.

Show, don’t tell

The main rule of Ruptly’s journalism was straightforward: we were supposed to talk of things that could be shown, not told. Our main product was to be 40-second-long videos with no voiceover and preferably no sound bite. If a sound bite was necessary, it should be eight seconds long. It took us few veteran journalists a while to understand the concept. I personally wasted a lot of everyone’s time suggesting the wrong stories, like short pieces about countries’ expenditure on weapons, duly vetoed with pertinent questions like, “can we show expenditure, CAN WE?” My ideas were consistently dismissed as lacking any visual appeal. Fiscal cliff was off, unemployment was off, wealth distribution was completely off, and cheating by including charts was not allowed.

Each journalist was supposed to produce four videos a day. Our priority was “to be the first,” as explained by one of the few veterans who stayed on, formerly from the Iranian Press TV. She kept performing better and better (also known as worse and worse) and kept being appropriately promoted. In one of the climbing stages towards her seniority, she dropped a different cliché so as to avoid saying “being the first” a third time, and I had to ask:

“You keep saying ‘the first, the first.’ You surely mean we should be the first only after we verify our news.”

“Even if we don’t,” she said. “If we have to choose between being the first or being accurate, we choose being the first.”

The faces of the aspiring journalists in the room got gloomy.

“Being ‘the first’ will soon mean nothing if we are the first to be wrong,” I said.

The faces now got so despondent I tried a joke.

“Maybe we should be renamed Ab-ruptly.”

No one laughed.

In case there was any doubt left, the top boss soon synthesized what Ruptly was about: “We are a contact sport, pure competition.” Still in coach mode, he explained what it meant to be a “good journalist.”

“Who saw yesterday the photo of that French soldier in Mali wearing a skull mask?”

Many hands were raised.

Top Boss then went on to praise that photo as the biggest visual coup of the week, and we all agreed it was a major strike of luck. Then he stopped us.

“No, not luck. This is what you must learn,” he started solemnly, while we braced for the life lesson. “If that photojournalist is any good, he is the one who asked the soldier to wear the mask.”

Most of us hoped we misheard him.

“But if that journalist is truly excellent,” and here comes the coup-de-(dis)grace, “he brought the mask with himself.”

In another content meeting, someone suggested a story about the signing of a peace agreement in some African country.

“Are they dancing on the street?” boss asked.

“Yes, they dance on the street,” the guy answered.

“Are they dancing Gangnam style? Because we must have something people can relate to. If it’s not Gangnam style, we are not interested.”

I understand how journalism has changed. News outlets no longer have a one-way power to dictate what we consume – content nowadays is decided almost interactively. And more and more, it is quantity, not quality, that commands the news. It is the largest crowd – or the most median – that will help decide content according to its taste, or lack thereof. At Ruptly, content was already pre-emptively decided by the worst of us, almost always expecting the worst in others. It was the lowest bar I’ve ever seen set, though I admit the only other big international newscast I worked for was Radio France Internationale – a widely respected news outlet where I never had a single word changed, edited or vetoed, even at my most critical of Israeli crimes in Lebanon.

UFOs and Angela Merkel

One day Top Boss explained like a voice-over to a bad TV trailer that he wanted “videos of the unusual, the weird.” He gave us an example of what he meant: a viral video of a woman who ate stones. I burst into laughter, thinking he was joking, and then I looked around and from the general seriousness in the room I gathered that he meant it. “That video is a sure sale,” he said looking at me, “and if you don’t know it you are missing the point.” Top Boss kept describing the video while The Point kept eluding me. And then he said that viral video could be better.

My interest was suddenly aroused.

“We can indeed see her eating the stones,” he continues, “but the video is not perfect.”

Now I was really intrigued. I badly wanted to understand what change could possibly make that video perfect. But though Top Boss tried, he couldn’t quite explain where perfection would lie. I ventured a guess:

“Were you, by any chance, hoping to see the whole digestive process and catch the stones on their way out?”

Now everyone laughed, just as I was being serious.

With time we were all clear on what type of news Ruptly wanted us to cover. Among the favourite subjects were UFO sightings and criticism of Angela Merkel. Perhaps because we were in Germany, even during our training we were supposed to come back to the newsroom with sound bites against the German chancellor. The subject of the story was irrelevant – we should be able to guide the interviewee and get the answer we wanted. As Top Boss once put it: you only conduct an interview when you can be sure of the answers you’re gonna get.

The only other sound bite deemed as important as blaming Merkel was one with people claiming to have met aliens. This was such an obsession that I started referring to us at the newsroom as ruptilians. Those two subjects were hammered in our heads with such frequency and so openly, that when I was told by the very offspring of my Deputy Boss that it was his birthday, I joked that we should give him a 40-second video gift consisting of a landed UFO with an alien coming out of it and making a speech against Angela Merkel.

We never got the alien but we did score some videos on Ruptly’s website even before the launch: naked yoga in Berlin; a record-breaking driver who parks in the smallest space possible; elephants eating Christmas trees; a Subway sandwich that was inches shorter than its promised size (my own idea). I kept hating every second of it all. For someone who loved RT, I very much resented Ruptly’s fewer inches. And to every new sign of outrage or disagreement from me, Top Boss would say, “just read Scoop,” the novel by Evelyn Waugh about journalism. I wanted to tell him Scoop was a satire, but I don’t think it would have made a difference – some people see insult as compliment, war as peace, ignorance as strength etc.

And then I committed crime-think.

Unspoken rules: The ‘S’ word

At one of our meetings, I was asked to give my colleagues tips on reporting from foreign countries. Top Boss opened my improvised address saying the best thing for a traveling journalist was, “without a doubt, to tag along other journalists.” I immediately disagreed. I am someone who doesn’t attended foreign journalists club nor dinners, and finds friendships forcefully based on profession a tiring granfalloon. Even out of a pure journalistic sense, it’s hard to report real news if you are following scheduled events and covering what everyone is covering. “News often hides where no one is looking,” I said, hoping a cliché would work as efficiently as a 40-second viral video. But Top Boss didn’t like my journalistic musings, and changed the subject to practical advice, asking me about the logistics of getting press permits. I was sure to disappoint again. “I don’t think I ever asked for permission to film or report from any country,” I said, “not Israel, not the USA, not Lebanon despite working there for years. I strongly discourage anyone to get filed with a undemocratic government, specially dictatorships, like Syria or Egypt.”

A pin dropped.

Deputy Boss became really red. I sensed something was wronger than normal, but I couldn’t understand what. I learned it in two minutes, when Deputy Boss adjourned the meeting and called me to his office where I was given my first “official reprimand.”

For the next 5-10 minutes I was gulag-ed to repent for calling Syria a dictatorship (my insult to Egypt was fully ignored). I never witnessed so much rage in a boss, but I kept trying to reason with him. I was actually surprised to see he had a few good arguments about labelling and prejudice, things that sounded incredibly lucid, were his lucidity not so one-sided. I tried pointing at his double standards, and he kept shouting, unrelenting, reverberating walls away, a sound that clearly had the double purpose of intimidating me while also dissuading future perpetrators. He kept repeating that I broke the rules. “I need you to be more specific so I can avoid further occurrences of the same error,” I said. He asked me to just promise not to repeat it, and I said, “I promise to do my best to avoid repeating that Syria is a dictatorship,” a repetition that infuriated him. “I want you to promise not to say such thing again,” he shouted, avoiding the S-word. “I cannot promise what will come out of my mouth, but I can promise what I will out of it. I don’t think I risk willing this one again.”

My first reprimand turned out to be very welcome, for it prompted my bosses to accept my “demotion request.” I had originally applied for a reporter’s position, but I learned a few days into the job that I was hired for a managerial position with “the second highest salary in the newsroom.” I kept refusing it and said I’d happily earn less, that I am no manager; I can’t fill forms, I never used Excel, I’ll do crazy stuff with a paper weight. The day of my reprimand they finally realised I didn’t have the ideological loyalty required in management, but even as a reporter I knew I wasn’t going to last long.

A first and the end

One day we were told we had to keep our phones switched on the whole night. With no penchant for being a slave, I refused. This was interpreted – loud and clear – as my not being “a real journalist.” Another time, when my boss explained the 40-second video length by saying almost no one “watches videos that are longer than 20 seconds,” I said I was the exact opposite, and anything shorter than two minutes is sure to lack even a modicum of context. At some point our boss said that if we were shooting a story about a war tank, for example, and did not have an image for it, we should show any tank. I was appalled. I said I would not do it and kept throwing the word truth at him, while he kept hurling back the words perception of the truth.

Unable to make me be proud of my work or even enjoy doing it, they used several techniques to persuade me to comply, from make-her-feel-special by mentioning I was the only journalist whose oceanic plane trip they paid for, to “we have a lot of faith in you,” an expression that sounded creepier than usual. Nothing worked, and I soon became the very opposite of the employee of the month, only daily. I also got a reprimand for arriving late and one for – brace yourself – not ratting on a colleague. This was without a doubt one of the most surreal and disturbing experiences I’ve ever had, a 12ish-minute psychological torture that quite cunningly tried to twist most of my values into some fetid doctrine while turning loyalty to one’s boss into the highest virtue. I was also lambasted for having tried to solve my problem with a colleague by dealing directly with her, rather than through the intervention of a superior. Throughout the shouting I had flashes of “Battleship Potemkin” and how viciously clever communism once was, making people work collectively while feeling miserably alone and suspicious of everyone around them.

When I was sent to report from Spain, I ended up making my first appearance on RT proper. Because this was Ruptly’s first full reporting on RT before the launch, I was welcomed back with the laurels reserved for someone who scored a goal for her team. But it had been an easy trip, one where Russia and I probably saw things from the same angle. I was sent to cover things I deemed worthy of being covered, and that were sadly absent from most international TV news, like the yayoflautas, a group of elderly men and women who take to the streets to protest against the boundless power of money and corporations. I even scored my own story about a small town where dozens of people decided to occupy and live inside a bank that repossessed the house of a family man even though he no longer owed the bank any money. After Spain, I was dispatched to Sophia to report on demonstrations about nuclear energy in Bulgaria. I came back with a lot of sound bites, most of them against the Russian government. It was to be my last video made for Ruptly, and it never aired.

Equally horrendous — and necessary

And now that I have said all of that, I also must say that I think RT is necessary. I don’t believe that a person or organisation can be fully bad or fully good. CNN has Ben Wedeman. BBC had Jeremy Paxman. And I bet those men aren’t perfect either. I don’t think anyone is perfect. And I don’t think we can fully agree with anyone, not even on facts. Show me a man who agrees 100 percent of the time with another and I will show you an idiot. But in the fast and sweeping world of 140-characters and 40-second videos, nuances are more and more unwelcome – they literally don’t fit.

In an ideal world RT would not need to exist, but neither would the increasingly awful CNN, or the now even worse BBC World. If the only way we can evade a monopoly of ideas is by promoting the other side of the same coin, I want the other side to have its voice. But here is where we reach another problem, one that is perhaps even more harmful than having a coin with only one side: having chosen this damn coin in the first place, this flattened, two-sided fallacy as the representative of the world we desire, when issues don’t only have two sides, and they need not be so almost equally horrendous. This manufactured dissent created around the U.S. and Russia is extremely harmful because it helps entrench the belief that Russia and the U.S. are antithetical, when in fact they are much more like each other than Sweden is to the U.S., or Finland to England.

One of the main goals of journalism should be informing someone of what he doesn’t know. If you keep repeating what one already knows, then that person will no longer be informed, but formed, shaped, carved like a rock hit by the same wave over and over. That’s why Fox is so harmful. That’s why any permanent slant is so harmful, including RT’s. And that’s why those people who embrace this manufactured dissent are part of the problem. Those journalists and analysts who unwittingly enthrone either Russia or America as bastions of anything noble or exemplary, other than what they really are – oligarchies with the ability to destroy the world – are playing into those insidious hands and making the world believe that you only have Russia or the U.S. and no other system in between. Even if there still were communist countries, they shouldn’t be considered “the opposite” of American capitalism. A tyranny of capital is not the opposite of a tyranny of the state – they are both tyrannies. Why does no one talk about Sweden when discussing capitalism? Why do so few people discuss the extremely enlightened and simple rule applied in Finland, which establishes that a traffic penalty be set according to one’s salary? That law gave a director of Nokia a speeding ticket of $103,600. Think about the brilliance of this idea, by which people are truly equally punished by having to pay different amounts.

Not that America cares, but America should know that I am one of those suckers for the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the pursuit of happiness. But the American government no longer defends that. In many cities, the U.S. has become a grim dystopia, a true nightmare of social injustice murderously protecting the pursuit of wealth. But Russia doesn’t fight for equality and wealth distribution either. China treats its people horribly, and Cuba is that Nietzschean weakling who thought itself good because it had no claws. It’s time we start looking for different paradigms for our discussions, other coins whose sides we will compare and measure, other examples to emulate and political goals to which we should truly aspire.

Paula Schmitt (@schmittpaula) is a Brazilian journalist, Middle East correspondent, author of the non-fiction, Advertised to Death – Lebanese Poster-Boys, and the novel Eudemonia.