Can This DC TV Show Win the Messaging War Against Russia?

In a DC studio, the US government produces a Russian-language news program. Can such efforts combat Moscow’s media operation?
Can This DC TV Show Win the Messaging War Against Russia?
Illustration by Doug Chayka.

The Wilbur J. Cohen building is a splendid place to wage an information war. It’s one of those indistinguishable Art Deco edifices near the Mall with New Deal art on the walls and vast rooms where everyone looks like they’re doing something important. The Men in Black vibe barely falters in a TV studio a short walk from security, where cameras scoot around a spare set as anchors Roman Mamonov and Igor Tikhonenko, both sporting hip facial hair and artfully rumpled jackets, prep for an afternoon broadcast. In the control room, a countdown begins. The show’s name appears onscreen—in Cyrillic letters. Mamonov then welcomes viewers in Russian, his native language. It’s 1 pm, and Current Time America is on the air.

The program is one of two stateside productions of Current Time, a 24-7 Russian-language TV channel headquartered in Prague. But this isn’t some Euro import or a start-up aimed at Russian expats—it’s run by the US government. Launched in February, the project is a collaboration between two venerable broadcasters, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. After Russia annexed Crimea, says Daisy Sindelar, the network’s director, “we realized that we were losing a messaging war.”

Current Time now has a $22-million annual budget and a mission to combat Moscow’s disinformation efforts. The channel is available on cable or satellite in countries with Russian-speaking populations, such as Ukraine and Estonia, and via Facebook and other online platforms in Russia itself.

So far, Current Time is not having the kind of impact seen by pro-Russian-government media operations such as the cable network RT and the website Sputnik, which have both found an improbable foothold in the West by creating polished journalism that often warps reality. Current Time staffers know that RT comparisons are inevitable, but they say they aren’t following that skewed-news blueprint. “We kind of chafe at being referred to as the anti-RT,” Sindelar says. Current Time strives to present news earnestly, competently, and professionally.

That spirit is deeply embedded in the traditions of Voice of America, one of the organizations that fund it. The network was founded to fight Axis powers during World War II and was retooled to battle communism during the Cold War. Along with Radio Free Europe, it has always positioned itself as a bastion of straight-ahead reporting, operating on the assumption that the best way to combat propaganda is with a just-the-facts style that promises accuracy rather than spin (although it doesn’t always hit that mark, as documented by skeptics who chronicle its perceived stumbles at BBGWatch.com).

Current Time operates in a similar vein. In 2017, however, that strategy is starting to feel old-fashioned. While RT is influenced by CNN, and Sputnik by BuzzFeed, Current Time’s reliance on the staid traditions of VOA and Radio Free Europe can make it feel a bit out of touch. Sindelar says the network is focused on kitchen-table issues such as “corruption, poverty, failing infrastructure—things that are of common concern to people ranging from Vladivostok to Moscow to a rural city in Kyrgyzstan to someone in Georgia or Ukraine.”

RT, meanwhile, is finding success by feeding wild stories to fringe US outlets like Infowars. That’s the kind of material that gets people talking—and injects confusion and distrust into public discourse. In the past, the American government hasn’t been above such tactics itself, but the US Information Agency, which used to handle our ickier information tasks, shut down in 1999. Today, it’s not clear that anyone owns US counter-narratives.

Can Current Time’s more traditional approach compete? On the day I visited the DC office, about 165 people were watching on Facebook Live, just a few dozen more than work at the network. Viewership can jump sharply, depending on the subject—shows involving Ukraine, for example, can attract more than 10,000 online watchers—and Current Time’s Facebook page has plenty of videos with tens of thousands of views. But if you worked at a conventional network, numbers that small might make you leap off the nearest onion dome.

Jeffrey Trimble, deputy director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a roughly $700-million-a-year body that oversees Current Time and other US broadcasting services, says these videos are on track to attract more than 300 million views this year—not quite new-TaylorSwift-song levels but not bad for a young publisher. Still, it’s a number unlikely to make Putin especially nervous.

But the point is not to create some kind of media behemoth; it’s simply to offer an alternative to the official Russian info machine. Current Time has already pushed some stories into mainstream Russian media, Sindelar says. Yet the notion that honest journalism can be the antidote to manipulative nonsense has had a humbling few years in the US, thanks in no small part to a particular admirer of Putin’s who’s now ultimately in charge of all these projects.

Will the Trump administration prove hostile to VOA and Current Time’s approach? So far, it hasn’t made obvious changes. The Broadcasting Board of Governors is still run by Obama appointee John Lansing, and early fears that BBG would become a sort of federally funded Trump TV haven’t come true, perhaps because the President has bigger issues to deal with. Matt Schuck, a White House adviser to BBG, told me he spends a lot of time explaining to fellow administration officials what these broadcast services actually do.

Back at the studio, coanchor Mamonov banters onscreen with reporter Rafael Saakov, who’s in Yuma, Arizona, as part of a series on border security. The hourlong show soon moves to a discussion of a BuzzFeed story about the relationship between Trump and Putin. There’s a pro forma entertainment segment and an interminable business report. It’s all slickly produced and, even to someone who can’t understand Russian, extremely familiar. Exactly, in other words, the sort of polished, mundane news show you’d expect—the kind of thing that in the American context might air on weeknights at 6:30, underwritten by ads for vitamin supplements. The question, in 2017’s insane media culture, is whether perfectly good is really good enough.

This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously the news editor and lead media reporter for the Poynter Institute, arts editor for the now completely vanished TBD.com, and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.