Al Jazeera English vs. Russia Today

MOSCOW, Russia — Anyone getting their information about Egypt from Russia Today would have learned that the United States orchestrated the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed by MI6 and opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei was a Free Mason.

Five years since its launch, the English-language channel has become home to fringe ideas and rabid anti-American rhetoric. At the same time, Qatar-based Al Jazeera English has proved itself indispensable, in a time of decreasing television budgets, to the coverage of global stories such as the Egypt uprising — bringing non-stop live coverage as the events unfolded and holding interviews with those most relevant to the story.

Another difference between the two? Russia Today is widely carried by major U.S. cable providers such as TimeWarner. Al Jazeera is not.

Al Jazeera English launched to suspicious fanfare in November 2006. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had famously called the coverage of the Iraq War provided by its Arabic-language sister channel “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.” Former U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly mused about bombing its Doha headquarters (a report the White House denied).

Yet in four years it has grown into a respected news channel, watched by policymakers as it provides — by virtue of its budget, location and focus — incomparable breadth of coverage of the Middle East. What the 1991 Persian Gulf War was for CNN, so the ongoing crisis in Egypt may well be for Al Jazeera English.

“There’s been an incredible amount of interest in Al Jazeera English from around the world, and the U.S. in particular,” said Al Jazeera spokesman Osama Saeed, noting that nearly half of the channel’s website visits have come from the United States. As the channel began live-streaming the events on Tahrir Square and around Egypt, site traffic skyrocketed by 2,500 percent. The channel has launched a campaign, including an online petition and taking out full-page ads in major newspapers, to get on the air in the United States.

Meanwhile, U.S. viewers can tune in to Russia Today, also known as RT.

They would have seen a report called “Color Me Revolution” on Jan. 28, four days after Egyptian protesters first took to the street demanding a change in government. Rather than delving into Egyptians’ complaints about their government — or the state’s reaction — RT instead compared the uprising to failed uprisings in post-Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine. “Ultimately all aspirations came to nothing,” the reporter says. “Those false dawns and bitter lessons are far from the minds of those clamoring for change in North Africa,” he adds, before cutting to commentary from the editor of a Venezuelan state-run newspaper.

Two days later, on Jan. 30, viewers would have seen another report looking into the “real” reasons for the uprising. An anchor asks her guest, a blogger beamed in from Winnipeg, Canada: “What’s America’s real agenda here?” Henry Makow answers: “I think El Baradei is a Free Mason and the Zionists are Free Masons and the people who run the United States, the Illuminati, are Free Masons and this is about consolidating the Masonic new world order.” The anchor replies: “Alright, many thanks for those thoughts on what we’re seeing in Egypt at the moment.”

RT’s management admits mistakes were made, but stands by their coverage. The Jan. 30 interview was not re-aired and Makow has been banned from the channel. “Much to our regret, at the end of his interview, he started speaking total gibberish,” said Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief.

Yet often, far-out guests are given free rein to “speak total gibberish,” unquestioned by a corps of reporters that largely comprises recent journalism school graduates with little experience. (A recent favorite has been Colleen Thomas, an American woman who claims to be in on secret alien doomsday plans.)

“We believe our coverage of events in Egypt was quite successful,” said Simonyan. “While mainstream media found it possible to label the protesters 'pro-democracy,' even though what most of Mubarak's opponents were looking for on Cairo's streets was far from democracy, we were trying to cover the developments from a wider angle.”

Even current and former employees, who declined to speak ill on the record about a former employer, don’t necessarily agree.

“I liked RT when I first started working there,” said a former employee. “They were exposing stories on human rights violations, political activists under siege — stuff the U.S. media never touched on.” But the reporter soon grew disenchanted, saying editors often “added extreme opinion into the stories” without the reporter’s approval. “They over-exaggerate details and to a certain degree make up details — details that had no importance to daily news.”

Some reporters at the channel wondered why RT, normally so quick to criticize the United States, was relatively muted in its coverage of the BP oil spill last summer. One reporter wondered if BP were about to make a deal with Russia. “I thought he was being paranoid,” the former reporter said. “And that’s what happened.” In January, Russian state-run oil giant Rosneft announced a “strategic global alliance” with BP, including a share swap and the potential for Arctic exploration.

Russia Today is 100 percent owned by the Russian government, which maintains a stranglehold over television news at home, using it more as a tool of propaganda than information.

“It’s not really a news channel, even though it uses all the visual mechanisms of one,” said another former employee, one of several who left RT to join Al Jazeera English. “Its whole reason to be is very different.”

“It’s a form of PR, an extension of the government — but it’s done nicely and lightly and in a very entertaining way,” the former employee said.

And it does work. Citing Nielsen ratings, Simonyan says RT’s daily viewership outnumbers that of other English-language international channels in the United States, such as Euronews and France 24. It holds strong numbers in places like Germany and South Africa, as well as across central Europe and Asia. It has become particularly successful online, with its channel reaching 250 million views on YouTube (30 million views ahead, Simonyan notes, of Al Jazeera English).

“An awful lot of it is to do with filling a niche which hasn’t been filled,” said the former employee now at Al Jazeera. “I think they realize deep down they can’t keep up directly with the more broad networks and as a result what they’re trying to do is plug a gap in the market so what often results is a ludicrous attempt to gain as many viewers as possible.”

“It does fuel the conspiracy theorists,” the former employee said. “It’s capitalizing on curiosity more than anything.”

Current and former employees say they rarely — if ever — felt direct pressure to present a certain point of view or carry a certain party line. And the employee who used to work at RT and now works at Al Jazeera says that was the case at both channels. The difference? “Al Jazeera is all about scrutinizing the status quo, RT seems more of a social experiment. You felt like you were part of an organization that didn’t quite understand what it was doing.”

Simonyan would not agree. “I would say we've achieved much more than we could have expected,” she said, when asked to look back at the past five years. The channel’s viewership is growing, as is its reach.

As for Al Jazeera, several reporters at the channel said they felt like they were on the cusp of something big, namely, being taken seriously in the United States.

“We’re even being watched in the White House,” the channel’s spokesman said.