The Justice Department’s move forcing RT America to register as a foreign agent has received little to no criticism, or in some cases notice, from prominent media outlets and civil liberties groups. We speak to author and journalist Max Blumenthal
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. The controversy known as Russiagate has dominated media attention over the past year, and now it’s directly impacting the media itself. The Russian Parliament has just voted to require all mass media outlets in Russia that receive overseas funding to register as a foreign agent. The move is a retaliation to the Justice Department which has just forced the Russian state financed network RT America to register also as a foreign agent. RT compiled on Monday to avoid the risk of having its assets seized by the US government or even its executives put under arrest. While a few civil liberties advocates have voiced concerns about RT being forced to register as a foreign agent, many have been completely silent. As have many of RT’s colleagues in the media. I’m joined now by Max Blumenthal, Senior Editor for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project and co-host of the podcast “Moderate Rebels.” Welcome Max. Your thoughts on this decision by the Justice Department to force RT America to register as a foreign agent? MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, this is the attack on press freedom that the liberal resistance and mainstream journalists had been warning of ever since Trump came into power. The ironic thing is that they goaded the Trump Justice Department into doing this. This foreign agent listing is actually the product of a years long campaign, beginning really in earnest in 2014, that was initiated by a small cadre of neoconservative operatives: Peter Pomerantsev, Michael Weiss, Jamie Kirchick and Anne Applebaum, who’s a columnist for the Washington Post. They’ve worked through organizations like the Atlantic Council, which is funded by NATO, as well as the Saudi, Turkish, Bahraini and Qatari governments. Kind of sounds like a foreign agent there, in order to pressure the US government into doing this. They succeeded amidst this McCarthyite atmosphere where you have democratic lawmakers howling about Russia attacking the US, and the attack being worse than Pearl Harbor. Hillary Clinton likening it to 9/11, so this was another aspect of the unprecedented sanctions that have been imposed on Russia under the watch of the Trump administration. The Russian consulate in San Francisco was actually raided by FBI agents. So, RT is the next victim. The government has done absolutely nothing to demonstrate how RT American programs or the journalists who work for RT are taking direct orders from the Kremlin, which is what’s required under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. They have to demonstrate that they have lobbied Congress on behalf of a foreign government or disseminating information materials on behalf of that government at the orders of that government. None of us this has been demonstrated. It seems to be an arbitrary demand. The mainstream reports on RT America have framed it as RT agreeing to register as a foreign agent, but RT America did not agree. It was threatened with the arrest of its News Director, Misha Solodovnikov, and the freezing of its assets. These are, I wouldn’t call them Gestapo tactics but they are definitely anti-democratic. The US government has also done nothing to demonstrate how RT is different from Al Jazeera which is funded by the Qatari government, and definitely promotes the Qatari line on foreign policy in many cases. The BBC does the same, France 24, i24 out of Israel, CCTV, the Chinese broadcaster. How are these broadcasters any different? AARON MATÉ: Max, [crosstalk 00:04:24]. MAX BLUMENTHAL: You can’t really establish that. AARON MATÉ: Right. Max, so you mentioned that the Justice Department has not provided any evidence to substantiate its designation of RT America as a foreign agent. So, the most detailed thing we have so far from the government, and actually what the government followed from was the DNI report last January on alleged Russian meddling in the US election. RT America was a big part of that, and that report offers extensive documentation of the US government’s thoughts about RT and what it feels threatened by. I want to quote from it. It says, “The network highlights criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties.” It also goes on to point out that RT covered things like Occupy Wall Street and the anti-fracking movement. All this is seen as part of the nefarious Russian effort to meddle in the US, and of course, it doesn’t mention the fact that RT has about less than 30,000 viewers in the US apparently, and is not even inside the Nielsen rankings of the top 94 networks. But I’m wondering if you think that the content of RT America, a lot of it which is critical of US foreign policy, and domestic policy, factored into this decision? MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well of course, I mean, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in its January report this year, which came about basically because the Trump administration was saying, “Prove there’s collusion. Prove all your allegations,” so they dumped this report. 8 out of the 23 pages of the report related to RT America’s content, and as you said the report finds RT guilty of, “Promoting radical discontent.” Covering Occupy and fracking, hosting a third party debate, covering the Syrian Civil War from an angle that is alternately opposed to the American and Western regime change campaign. These kinds of things relate to content that should be completely permissible in any open society. It definitely filled a void in the US, and there’s been very little that the government has been able to produce to demonstrate that some operatives in the Kremlin are giving instructions to RT employees to pump put certain elements of propaganda. You could argue that RT might be an arm of soft power of the Russian government, I don’t see how that makes it any different from any of the other foreign state broadcasters that are working in Washington. Beyond that, I go on RT fairly regularly. I mean, you could say occasionally, to talk about my work and to talk about the issues that I cover that are completely forbidden and frozen out by the three main cable news networks, and by much of US mainstream media, and even progressive media. The Real News is one of the only other networks that let’s me do that, so that’s another reason why RT is being sanctioned by the US government, or slapped with this foreign agent label. It’s to suppress the narrative that the US and that the West are extremely uncomfortable with. Alex Salmond, who was the former Leader of the Scottish National Party, has just taken a show with RT UK and you can just turn to the UK and see the British establishment media just absolutely in a complete meltdown about the fact that Salmond has taken a show with RT, and it’s because he couldn’t have gotten a platform anywhere else, and they are upset that this very tightly controlled, conformist narrative that they had been enforcing as establishment gatekeepers, is being broken. They’re calling on the government to register RT and to try to drive it out of the broadcasting environment. Jamie Kirchick, the neoconservative operative I mentioned before, who is an advocate of permanent war, who has called for Chelsea Manning to be executed, he argued in a Washington Post editorial and in his presentation at the Atlantic Council, that RT should be registered as a foreign agent, as a means of intimidating its American employees into quitting and deterring other American media professionals from taking jobs with the network. It’s clearly- AARON MATÉ: Max, let’s play that clip. I have that clip of Jamie Kirchick. He’s speaking recently at an Atlantic Council event, where he calls for a private sector initiative to basically encourage media outlets to tell any prospective candidate that we’re not going to hire you if you work at RT. This is what he said. JAMIE KIRCHICK: There should be maybe some sort of informal agreement by reputable news outlets, so the young up and coming 22 and 23 year old journalists in the West, who maybe didn’t get the job that they wanted at the BBC and are tempted to take that offer from RT, which will give them a lot of airtime, maybe they won’t take that job offer if they know they will never get a job afterwards at any reputable news organization. I think these are some of the private sector initiatives that need to be undertaken, to name and shame and isolate RT, and push it out of the respectable presence of society. AARON MATÉ: So, that’s Jamie Kirchick, Max, speaking recently to the Atlantic Council. I also saw just this week, and on Twitter, there was a comedian who used to work for The Daily Show, called on anybody who works for the RT comedy show, Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp, she called on them to quit their jobs, and she said, “Get work elsewhere so as not to be useful idiots.” There’s a culture right now of hostility towards RT pushed by people on both the right and the left. MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. I mean, for like a failing American regime jester, like Jena Friedman who was responsible for that McCarthyite statement, bashing RT is maybe a convenient way of getting attention and seeming like you actually care about something without offending any of the powers that be. She encouraged RT employees and specifically the staff of Redacted Tonight, which is an extremely successful show, fronted by the comedian Lee Camp at RT America, which has demonstrated total editorial independence and is really popular on the left. She urged them to quit and take up jobs with Teen Vogue. Teen Vogue this month is guest edited by Hillary Clinton, so I’m sure that would work out just great. This is the level of delusional thinking that prevails within the ranks of the idiot liberals that I call idlibs. AARON MATÉ: Max, you mentioned earlier that we’ve been hearing warnings all year about Trump’s crackdown on the media, and I want to read you a few headlines. CNN’s Brian Stelter, “Trump’s Reaching for Ways to Punish the Media for Stories he Doesn’t like.” The Guardian, “Trump has Declared War, Journalists Denounce any Attack on Press Freedom.” Democracy Now, “A Trump Presidency Could End Press Freedom.” The New York Times, “Trump Calling Journalists Sick People Puts Media on Edge.” None of these outlets have criticized this move against RT. Some of have not even mentioned it, so I’m wondering your response on the media’s non-response to this RT news. MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, I mean, the Washington Post changed its slogan for the Trump era, to “Democracy dies in darkness.” The Washington Post proceeded to initiate and amplify the campaign against RT America on the grounds that it was part and parcel of a Kremlin attack on America’s otherwise shining democracy. We see with the Washington Post silence that democracy is dying and they’re bringing the darkness. That’s pretty much been the case for all of the mainstream pundits, corporate media, talking heads and journalists and even Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman who has in a soft way, pushed the Russiagate narrative. But the rest of these figures have really hyped it up. Brian Stelter, who’s the media critic for CNN has positioned himself as a defender of press freedom, but he has actually attempted to humiliate guests, like Larry Johnson, who was a former CIA operative and is now a blogger, writer, for merely appearing on RT. Jake Tapper stood up in the White House Press Gallery during the Obama era, and confronted White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs for calling Fox News not a real news organization, when Fox News was claiming that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim, and Jake Tapper has also encouraged this campaign against RT. He’s even directly personally attacked RT America employees on social media. So, the hypocrisy is so obvious here, and I think a lot of these figures are a little bit ashamed of what they’ve accomplished because they’ve created a precedent for the government to drive out not only foreign state media but to suppress other dissident voices while they go around trying to champion themselves as defenders of press freedom. AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Max Blumenthal, Senior Editor for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project where his two part series on the figures behind the Russiagate frenzy is up right now, and we’ll link to it. Max, also the co-host of the podcast “Moderate Rebels.” Max, thank you. MAX BLUMENTHAL:: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.