WASHINGTON — Staci Bivens knew something was seriously wrong when her bosses at Russia Today asked her to put together a story alleging that Germany — Europe's economic powerhouse — was a failed state.
"It was me and two managers and they had already discussed what they wanted," Bivens, an American who worked in RT's Moscow headquarters from 2009 through 2011, said of a meeting she'd had to discuss the segment before a planned reporting trip to Germany. "They called me in and it was really surreal. One of the managers said, 'The story is that the West is failing, Germany is a failed state.'"
Bivens, who had spent time in Germany, told the managers the story wasn't true — the term "failed state" is reserved for countries that fail to provide basic government services, like Somalia or Congo, not for economically advanced, industrialized nations like Germany. They insisted. Bivens refused. RT flew a crew to Germany ahead of Bivens, who was flown in later to do a few standups and interviews about racism in Germany. It was the beginning of the end of her RT career.
"At that point I'd been there for a little bit and I'd had enough of the insanity," Bivens said. She stayed until the end of her contract in 2011 and didn't make an effort to renew it.
Judging by interviews with seven former and current employees, Bivens' story is typical. RT, the global English-language news network funded by the Russian government, has come into the spotlight since the Russian invasion of Crimea, which the network has defended tooth-and-nail. The invasion has led to two high-profile rebellions within the ranks: first, an on-air condemnation of the invasion by RT America host Abby Martin, followed days later by the live resignation of another host, Liz Wahl. Martin, who hosts an opinion show, said that Russia's actions were wrong; Wahl, a news anchor, went one step further, saying that she could not work at a network that found Russia's actions acceptable.
The public shake-up and skewed coverage of Ukraine has pulled aside RT's curtain, exposing the network's propaganda apparatus, which relies on a number of Western reporters and producers. Former and current RT employees from both the Moscow headquarters and its D.C. bureau, which heads a channel called RT America, described to BuzzFeed an atmosphere of censorship and pressure, in which young journalists on their first or second job are lured by the promise of a relatively well-paying position covering news for an international network. Except for Bevins and Wahl, all spoke on the condition of anonymity — some because they didn't want their name associated with the network or were afraid they would face repercussions in their current jobs.
Soon after joining the network, the current and former employees said, they realized they were not covering news, but producing Russian propaganda. Some employees go in clear-eyed, looking for the experience above all else. Others don't realize what RT really wants until they're already there. Still others are chosen for already having displayed views amenable to the Kremlin. Anti-American language is injected into TV scripts by editors, and stories that don't toe the editorial line regularly get killed.
Bivens, a native of the Chicago suburbs, was freelance producing in Chicago when a friend told her RT was hiring in 2009.
"To be honest... I hadn't heard of it before," Bivens said. "I assumed that it was comparable to DW or France 24," she said, referring to English-language channels based in Berlin and Paris.
The Kremlin had launched RT four years before in an attempt to better project its message on the world stage. Putin said in 2013 of the founding of RT, "When we designed this project back in 2005 we intended introducing another strong player on the international scene, a player that wouldn't just provide an unbiased coverage of the events in Russia but also try, let me stress, I mean — try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams."
Bivens flew to D.C. for an interview with Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan and the D.C. bureau chief, Denis Trunov. Shortly thereafter, she was hired as a reporter and moved to Moscow.
The job quickly began to seem strange. The editing process was multilayered: "First you have somebody who's a native English speaker, usually British," Bivens said. This person edits the script for clarity and tightness. "Then you have a Russian and they make sure that it fits whatever narrative they want it to fit."
Bivens said that apart from the "failed state" story, she was asked to do a segment claiming that Russia did not have a problem with alcoholism after Dmitry Medvedev, then president and now prime minister, proposed legislation that sought to address Russia's problems with drinking.
"I said, I don't feel comfortable reporting something I know is not true," Bivens said. "They sent me to some bogus website that proved this editor's point. There was all this back and forth. Finally the producer called me back and said, 'You know what, you're not the reporter for this job.'"
Several other RT employees from both Moscow and Washington described similar incidents.
A former reporter in the Washington bureau, who later quit RT due to the frequent censorship, described working on a story about an aspect of President Obama's immigration policy and being ordered by an editor to describe it as "schizophrenic" in her script.
"It was really charged language, not accurate, and it was giving it a tone it didn't need to have because my story was strong enough on its own," the reporter said. "I was told, 'You have to put this in.' At that point I said no. That was really the start of how I left RT." The reporter ended up quitting, though she did not want to disclose when for fear of being identified.
Another former RT employee in D.C. was shooting a story about the Wounded Warriors softball team. The story never made it to air because, as the employee was told by a higher-up employee who had lobbied for it, Trunov wanted one of the veterans to say something to the effect of, "I served my country and now all I have is this softball game." None of the veterans said such a thing.
The employee also recounted waiting for a phone call to go cover the celebrations outside the White House on the night that Osama bin Laden was killed — a phone call that never came, because "Denis [Trunov] was not interested."
"We basically ignored the story except to ask if the death of one man really makes the U.S. any safer," the former employee said.
Trunov, who has left RT America to work for RT's Ruptly news service in Berlin and was replaced by Mikhail Solodovnikov, did not respond to a request for comment.
On certain stories, like WikiLeaks and Occupy Wall Street, RT has been ahead of the curve. But former employees say that even that focus was an attempt to force international news to fit a Russian agenda — one that presents the U.S. as a crumbling, corrupt empire.
"They were way ahead of the WikiLeaks story," a former employee said. "But not because they believed in the free flow of information — but because it looked terrible for the U.S."
"We covered Occupy Wall Street extensively, almost obsessively, and yeah I think it was very important to cover but after a while you think, 'Why are we covering this?'" said Wahl, who quit last week. "And in this case it was to sow the seeds of discontent."
Russia Today was founded in 2005, and in 2009 it opened RT America, its Washington-based version, and began staffing up. The American version is allowed a degree of autonomy from the Moscow headquarters and former employees at RT America say they themselves had little contact with Moscow. RT International broadcasts internationally and RT America is on TV in the U.S., but the two can use each others' stories.
"I saw a job posting and figured why not," said one former RT America reporter who came on board near the start of the Washington bureau's launch. "I was a local news reporter and I was looking to just get a new job, and local news was never what I wanted to do — I always had my eye on international news."
At that stage, very few Americans were working at RT, but that changed after the Washington bureau expanded rapidly in its first year. The reporter was told that the channel's mission was to cover news that the mainstream media ignores — a line that RT often uses when hiring prospective employees.
"I think in the beginning we were all pretty optimistic about the mission of it," the former reporter said. "I thought we were going to do exactly what they advertised to us. It was a really lofty mission and I think we were all a bunch of idealistic kids who thought, Wow this is going to be so cool, we're going to work at a place that lets us do what we want."
RT America, by the accounts of the former and current employees with whom BuzzFeed spoke, has a strategy of hiring very young reporters who are eager to break out of small markets and want to cover international news. And the channel pays relatively well, more than most 22- or 23-year-olds expect to make in journalism. One former employee said a correspondent starting out could make as much as $50,000 or $60,000.
"They'll hire really young people and you almost feel like you're working in a mini-CNN-type situation," the former reporter said. "You're not covering snowstorms or the puppy parade. You're doing stories that are a lot bigger and meatier."
"I was fresh out of college when I got the job offer," another former RT employee said in an email. "The prospect of working in D.C. and not going to some small town to start my career was appealing."
"They hire young and mold you into the 'journalist' they want you to be," the former employee wrote. "Blinded by ambition, eager to please and quite frankly inexperienced. That or they looked for people who shared RT's agenda (like Abby Martin)." Martin, who has been involved in the 9/11 Truth movement and whose show frequently delves into other conspiracy theories, was hired after RT noticed her independent coverage of Occupy Oakland in 2011 and was given her own opinion show.
But even she is weary. Martin told BuzzFeed recently that she had brought an extra copy of her script the day of her outburst against the channel's coverage of Ukraine in addition to what went inside the teleprompter "just in case" there was interference.
Wahl, meanwhile, had been doing regional news for a station in Guam.
"I wanted to make the transition back to the States and RT reached out to me via email," Wahl said. "The way that it was pitched to me was as a network that covers stories that the mainstream media ignores. That sounded attractive to me, I thought, Wow, this could be an opportunity to move to D.C. and try to do those kinds of stories."
That's not quite what happened. Wahl described an interview she did with Ron Paul in which she referred to the Russian military action in Ukraine as an "invasion."
"The editor went back and edited out that part of the question," Wahl said. "As a journalist there, I can't even say the word invasion. It was literally cut out of the interview." RT has denied this.
Wahl also described doing an interview with a man from Mali who expressed gratitude for France's actions after the French intervened in his country. Because of that, she said, the interview never aired.
Former staffers from both Moscow and D.C. said they realized that something was not right soon after starting.
"When we felt like the edit process was getting crazy, there was a mass exodus," said the former reporter who left local news for RT. "I think 10 or 15 people quit RT in 2011." This particular reporter ended up staying for four years.
"You watched people come in and be excited about it and then you watched people within a couple months hit that wall, however that wall manifested itself, and they'd be really bummed out," another reporter said.
But even when they leave, RT stays with them: Staffers sometimes have trouble finding jobs at legitimate outlets. "That's been a challenge," one former staffer said.
The former and current employees' accounts of how RT exerts strict editorial control over their scripts raises questions of how far up the chain the process goes.
According to several former employees, non-Russians are kept out of management and editorial roles at both the D.C. and Moscow bureaus, despite the fact that it's an English-language network.
"It's true that yes they hire a bunch of Americans, but the people who are calling the editorial shots are all Russian," said the former employee who worked for RT for four years. "They don't really put anyone in a position of editorial power that isn't Russian."
Bivens says she was told by editors that "we work for the Kremlin" and "we were all made aware of it."
"My feeling was that there was always a point of deniability. You had Margarita saying, 'We are just trying to do news through a Russian viewpoint, just like how America has VOA [Voice of America radio] or France has France 24,'" Bivens said, referring to Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan.
"I was told that Margarita was meeting with someone in Putin's administration," Bivens said. "They would check in to see if things were on track."
RT has also hired people who have clear ties to the Russian government, like Aidar Aganin, who used to be in charge of RT's Arabic-language news service as deputy editor-in-chief. Aganin formerly worked in the Russian foreign ministry, at the Russian embassy in Jordan, and, according to a former RT employee, once served as Putin's translator. He was not reachable for comment.
Anastasia Churkina, the daughter of Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin, is an on-air reporter for the channel.
"I edited a piece in 2010; it was about the U.N. sanctions on Iran, and she was shown pretty clearly interviewing her own father on camera in a cluster of journalists," a former employee in Moscow said. "Obviously that's something that would never happen at a real news organization."
Churkin also appears in a Churkina report about Syria in 2012.
The network also employs Sophie Shevardnadze, whose grandfather was the Soviet foreign minister and later the president of Georgia. Churkina and Shevardnadze, along with Simonyan and a host named Daniel Bushell, were part of an RT team that hosted a roundtable with Putin in 2013.
Asked about all of these issues — the pervasive unhappiness among employees, the connections to the Kremlin, and to what extent the Russian government decides how stories are shaped — Russia Today chose not to provide serious answers, instead mocking BuzzFeed's questions and supplying joke answers in the format of a blog post by Simonyan.
Simonyan refused to answer questions about her meetings with Kremlin officials, instead sarcastically writing that she lives and works inside the Kremlin. "RT doesn't do any of its own investigating or reporting — presenters just read the latest Kremlin press releases on camera," she added. "It is much more efficient that way."
She laughed off questions about Churkina and Aganin. "Presidential affiliations are the only credentials that matter in prospective candidates who are not fortunate enough to be Churkins," she wrote. (In a Russian version of her blog post, she said: "The Arab version is really headed by Putin's former translator, the Spanish by his former hairdresser, and the English by his dog's former chef.")
Simonyan also mocked BuzzFeed's questions about the concerns raised by former employees: "It is highly unlikely you could reach actual former-RT employees as it is company policy to unleash the KGB on anyone who dares to leave," she wrote.
Russia Today did not provide any serious answers to the questions posed by BuzzFeed.
That is part of the scrambling PR effort RT has made to protect its image since the Martin and Wahl incidents. After Martin's rebellion, RT said they would send her to Crimea to see the truth for herself, and otherwise sought to take advantage of the moment to promote the channel as open-minded. Martin herself has gone on to laud the network for the way it treated her, telling the London Evening Standard, "They said I present an opinion show and even though it goes against the line of the network they respect me and admire my tenacity. It's encouraging, considering presenters have been fired for speaking out against the Iraq war. People have said even though they disagree with me they still admire what I did. That's the best compliment."
RT's attitude toward Wahl has been less kind. After Wahl quit, RT released a statement attacking her for "self-promotion" and Simonyan accused the channel's critics of launching a "media war" against the network.
And yet it is RT that has resorted to extreme tactics like allegedly calling the cops on a reporter who asked questions outside its Washington office.
And RT has its fair share of Western supporters who are fighting to defend it.
Writer Kevin Gosztola, claiming to be writing an article for the Glenn Greenwald-led project First Look Media, left a threatening voicemail with writer Jamie Kirchick accusing him of orchestrating Wahl's resignation "as part of some Foreign Policy Initiative agenda."
"You like to 'fuck with the Russians' and we're going to respond to that," Gosztola said.
The media war to defend RT is all the more striking considering that many of the people who have actually worked there or continue to do so aren't willing to defend a network that Wahl told BuzzFeed is characterized by "censorship."
"A lot of us ex-RTers joke that we have PTSD from working there," one of the former RT America employee said in an email. "My girlfriend wonders why I get so upset when I hear people defending RT. I say it's because I'm scarred from working there. It was my first job and I feel embarrassed and ashamed. This bright-eyed, idealistic college grad found out how dirty the world of journalism can be. How easy it is to blur the line between journalism and soft-power agenda pushing."