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Crisis In Ukraine Reveals Tensions Within RT's Newsroom


You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene, good morning.

Since the television network RT hit American cable, viewers tuning in have generally found left of center coverage designed to appeal to an audience that's younger with an international bent. The network's name used to stand for Russia Today. RT is fully funded by the Russian government.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the crisis in Ukraine has revealed tensions within RT's newsroom.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Click over to RT at the right moment and you can catch Larry King interviewing movie stars much as he did for decades on CNN; in this case, paling around with the stars of "Anchorman 2."


LARRY KING: Did you ask...


KING: Did you ask for heavy money?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I did and I did not get it.

FOLKENFLIK: There's also plenty of banter about liberals, academics and conspiracy theorists of many stripes. Yet, the network's loyalties to Russia has been thrown into sharp relief of late, by that's in Ukraine. In this report, RT's correspondent Maria Finoshina was describing a possible reunion.

MARIA FINOSHINA: Crimea that used to be part of the Russian Empire has very close ties with his big neighbor with...

FOLKENFLIK: That would involve the referendum that President Obama and other Western leaders have called unlawful.

RT has warned that Western correspondents are stoking fears about the presence of mysterious masked Russian-speaking men, troops in unmarked clothes who were patrolling Crimean streets with machine guns. Yet, on Monday night, RT host Abby Martin told viewers she wanted to speak from the heart.

ABBY MARTIN: Just because I work here for RT doesn't mean I don't have editorial independence. And I can't stress enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation's affairs. What Russia did is wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Strong words from a host perhaps the best known for suggesting that the U.S. government was complicit in the September 2001 terror attacks.

On Wednesday, RT anchor Liz Wahl went a step farther.

LIZ WAHL: As a reporter of this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges, especially me personally.

FOLKENFLIK: Wahl invoked her grandparents whom she said were Hungarian refugees who sought a life free from Soviet repression. And her partner whom she said was a physician at a military base, who treats wounded American forces.

WAHL: And that is why personally, I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I'm proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why after this newscast, I'm resigning.

FOLKENFLIK: Wahl's resignation and protest arrives as international rights groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, say there has been a crackdown on independent media operations in Russia and Crimea.

James Kirchick is a correspondent with The Daily Beast and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a center- right think tank on security issues. He says RT's three international channels - in English, Spanish and Arabic - serve together as a propaganda arm of the Kremlin.

JAMES KIRCHICK: I would say their audience that they're trying to reach is sort of a young, millennial generation that is skeptical or cynical towards mainstream media and traditional authority structures.

FOLKENFLIK: Kirchick says the RT channels are slicker than what the Russians see on state-controlled channels at home.

KIRCHICK: Their motto is: Question more. But it's only Western institutions that they want their audience to question. It's not the Kremlin, not Vladimir Putin.

FOLKENFLIK: RT's editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan posted a long online essay calling Wahl's public resignation of self-promotional stunt and saying the reporter should have express criticism internally.

American news organizations are using Wahl to wage a media war to discredit the Russian position, Simonyan wrote. Martin was not punished for her remarks, which included this...

MARTIN: Furthermore, the coverage I've seen of Ukraine has been truly disappointing from all sides of the media spectrum and rife with disinformation. Above all, my heart goes out to the Ukrainian people who are now wedged as pawns in the middle of a global power chess game. They're the real losers here.

FOLKENFLIK: The Daily Beast' Kirchick argues even Martin's statement serves Kremlin purposes. Her remarks appeared to show that RT welcomes robust debate while damning both houses, equating the diplomatic objections of Western officials to Russia's actual military moves.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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