Five days after the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times’ publisher and executive editor wrote a public letter to their subscribers. “As we reflect on the momentous result,” they confided, “and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor.” After the newspaper’s data incorrectly predicted the results of the election and its journalists underestimated the intensity and volume of the President-elect’s support, the New York Times assured readers that their faith in the publication was warranted.
The Times observed that faith in its journalism—and in that of other publications—is under siege. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the scruples of mainstream American news sources have been questioned by the usual U.S.-based suspects, like FOX News, Breitbart, and Info Wars. But the most vehement and persistent sower of doubt in the veracity and honesty of traditional American reporting comes from overseas, in Moscow.
The Twitter feed of Russia Today’s Washington branch (RT America) is a series of repetitive, near constant posts decrying violence and disorder in America and lauding Russian and Chinese scientific achievements. But since the election, RT has also taken particular care to tap into the American public’s frustration with traditional media.
When the President-elect’s team failed to inform journalists that he was headed to the 21 Club in Manhattan for steak, it violated a core norm of presidential relations with the media. A press pool must always accompany the president, so the public knows the whereabouts and health of the Commander-in-Chief. In response to the media outcry over Trump’s negligence, RT saw an opening. In a YouTube video titled “‘Protective Press Pool’ Tradition Made Up By…Guess Who,” an RT journalist claimed that “there is no rule mandating this protective pool.” In fact, she claims it is not even necessary, as Trump can interact with constituents in person at the steak restaurant. (I find it relevant to note that the average price of a main course at the 21 Club is just shy of $42; I fear few of Mr. Trump’s constituents will be able to make it to his steak outings in Manhattan.)
The journalist proceeded to trace the origins of the press pool tradition, highlighting its roots as an initiative of journalists to improve their access to the president. For RT, journalists’ protectiveness of the press pool tradition is purely self-aggrandizing “Makes you wonder,” she asked, “who this pool is supposed to be protecting in the first place.” Journalists are not bearers of the public trust, imbued with the New York Times’ mission to report “without fear or favor,” but instead self-interested agents. Any pursuit of access by the press is portrayed as a power grab, not a move to collapse walls of presidential secrecy.
This argument about the press also informs RT’s reaction to the American media’s keen interest in investigating “fake news.” In a second YouTube video titled “Fake News & Russian ‘Sophisticated Propaganda Machinery’ Trend Spreads, Picked Up by Media,” an RT journalist questions the motives of the “mainstream media” in identifying sites that produce content of dubious validity or even outright falsehoods. He asks whether the act of undermining fake news sites is actually a “way to get rid of competition.” The frequency of the Washington Post’s reporting on fake news is a sign it is “afraid” of “little think tanks” who propagate the “truth.”
Any journalistic crusade, for RT, must have a self-aggrandizing motive. Why is there a press pool? So journalists can unnecessarily learn when the President-elect is eating steak. Why must fake news sites be rooted out? So journalists can remove competitors in a saturated market for news.
RT does not acknowledge—or perhaps even believe—that media may be motivated by a belief in journalism as a public good, rather than self-interest or a desire to protect their patrons. If it is impossible for its management to read the New York Times’ publisher’s note with anything other than disbelief or suspicion, we should read RT’s material with no less skepticism ourselves.
Note: The author is employed by the Atlantic Council of the United States.