The company that manages the Russian news outlet R.T. (Russia Today) announced this week that it had received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice requiring it to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act(FARA). The Russian news outlet Sputnik International may be next.
FARA was passed in 1938 to require entities or individuals who represent foreign governments to disclose their relationships, activities, and finances. Registration would not stop R.T. from broadcasting in the U.S. or censor its programs – it is a paperwork requirement – but it would formally label R.T. an arm of the Russian government rather than an independent media source. This, in essence, would tell Americans that news from R.T. should be considered suspect.
As a practical matter, all news – particularly from government-sponsored sources – should be considered skeptically. That includes the British-owned BBC and U.S. government-funded PBS. Trevor Burus wrote of PBS earlier this year in the Daily Beast:
A 1969 memo outlined the administration's goals: creating a new "public" media network to compete with more independent sources such as NET. That network could be controlled because the White House would 'have a hand in picking the head of such a major new organization if it were funded by the Corporation [CPB].' That major new organization became PBS.
Many other foreign news services are strongly government-influenced even if the government does not hold an ownership share. Does Le Monde reflect the views of the French government? Does The London Times have a British viewpoint? Russia and China have a number of news agencies that have operated for years under the guidance of their respective Communist parties; The People's Daily, Pravda, and Izvestia were never told to register.
But, you say, there was a report in January from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) that singled out R.T. as "a state-run propaganda machine," part of Russia's attempt to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
This is the heart of the issue – the American government is still trying to blame Russia for the outcome of our election. The Russians were not found to have altered voting machines, cast illegal ballots, or destroyed legitimate ballots, so the DNI was reduced to saying the American public was duped by R.T. programming. Pretty good for an outlet almost no one is watching. R.T. didn't even make the ratings in a 2015 Nielsen survey of the top 94 cable channels in America. According to the Economist, among its top 15 YouTube hits presently are earthquakes, grisly accidents, and Vladimir Putin singing "Blueberry Hill."
There are important principles at stake here for the American audience, for bilateral relations, and for journalism.
1. Registration is a two-way street. The U.S. is likely to find its media outlets in Russia ostracized and excluded, maybe even barred entirely. Since the Russian government has a heavier hand with journalists than our own government does, it is not in our interest to let this happen.
2. There are countries presently systematically destroying their own free press. Turkey, a NATO member, comes to mind. If journalists operate under duress and threat of imprisonment at home – as do the Turkish media – why should they be considered independent operators in the U.S.? The Justice Department would have a credible case for warning Americans about Turkish media as propaganda by journalists intimidated by their own government.
3. Blaming Russia for the choices Americans made last November is insulting; Americans are generally smart enough to put foreign broadcasting in its proper perspective. Al Jazeera America – owned by the government of Qatar – never had more than 60,000 viewers on a single night (State of the Union 2015) and generally had about 10,000 viewers in any given hour in a country with 100million cable-linked homes. It died.
R.T. has a certain benefit. It is worth understanding the Russian vantage point on important issues – and watching the Russians' generally rather overt propaganda. The greatest value has been excellent reporting on Russia's Syria operations, including video of some of the air and ground operations they are supporting. R.T. also provides strong coverage of Russia's president, including lengthy videos of conferences and meetings where Vladimir Putin outlines his policies. This kind of information often is missing in Western reporting, and even better, many of Putin's appearances in conferences and meetings are complete (including his annual Q&A with the Russian public), which allows Americans to evaluate them in their entirety. You won't find that kind of unedited coverage of Russia in the American media – in fact, it is hard to find unedited coverage of theAmerican government in American media.
In today's world, where social media have outpaced old-time news outlets, trying to sanction or ostracize R.T. or any other source that is primarily a social media or internet phenomenon is a pointless exercise and likely to backfire.
It has been the Russian goal from the days of the USSR to sow doubt among Americans about our government, our laws, and our electoral system. The Justice Department decision is an admission that they believe Russian propaganda can do that to us. It makes us look fearful rather than strong, foolish rather than smart. An American government with confidence in its system and its citizens wouldn't feel the need to hand them that victory.