“Consider the source,” former RT news anchor Liz Wahl said when appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday. Host Brian Stelter said, at the end of the interview, “The three words I am taking away from you were ‘consider the source.’” But that is exactly what Stelter didn’t do during the segment with Wahl.
What Stelter effectively did is play a role as a gatekeeper. He decided during the segment that a possibly significant and interesting aspect to her resignation—her link to a senior fellow at a neoconservative foreign policy think tank—was unimportant to understanding the story of Wahl. He disregarded the work of journalists, who chose to cover something no one in US media had thought to ask questions about before having Wahl on their programs.
Journalists Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal had reported during the previous week on how a neoconservative foreign policy think tank, Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), had sent out Twitter messages before Wahl announced her resignation, which informed followers that they should tune into RT. The first person to publish an “exclusive” on Wahl’s decision to resign was James Kirchick, an FPI senior fellow and writer for The Daily Beast.
Wahl became fond of Kirchick after his outburst on RT, where he appeared in rainbow suspenders and called attention to an anti-gay propaganda law in Russia while refusing to discuss Chelsea Manning. Kirchick remained in contact with Wahl and said he “always encouraged her to follow her conscience in making a decision about her professional future.”
After RT host Abby Martin spoke out against the Russian invasion of Crimea, attention was on the Russian state-funded media network. Wahl took advantage of the moment, especially because things had not been going well for her at RT.
According to Khalek and Blumenthal’s report, she had been “suspended for two weeks without pay and then demoted from anchor to correspondent after a series of outbursts in the office.” She was “disgruntled about her salary” and complained she “was receiving insufficient assistance from producers in writing her monologues.”
The only acknowledgment of any of this would come when Wahl addressed the issue of conspiracy theories receiving so much air time on the network.
STELTER: “I’d like to hear people’s views that are critical of America. I’m personally turned off by extremism but I am interested in hearing those critiques. Where it gets more complicated is the notion of conspiracy theories.”
STELTER: And that’s what you hear oftentimes on this channel.
WAHL: And conspiracy theories get really dangerous. I never realized—I was never privy to this world before, but working there I realized how dangerous it is, these conspiracy theories. These people hear these conspiracy theories and think that it’s fact. I mean, the insiders there hatched a story with one of their friends saying that my resignation was part of a neocon plot.”
STELTER: Yes, this was a dust-up online this week.
WAHL: [smiling] …It was to take over the world, a neocon conspiracy theory to dupe the mainstream media. And they hear this from these people that thrive off of conspiracy theories. This is their livelihood. They’ve cultivated this kind of fringe extremist audience. And they think it’s fact and no matter what you say these are people—It doesn’t matter what kind of evidence you present to them. They do not want to believe the truth.”
Multiple things occurred during this exchange. Wahl was able to fabricate this idea that Khalek and Blumenthal’s reporting was purely a “conspiracy theory” and that it had been developed from “insiders” at RT. She referred to Khalek as one of Martin’s friends, essentially accusing Martin of being involved in putting out this story that raised questions about her resignation.Stelter asked for no proof that this was the case. He marginalized the journalism of Khalek and Blumenthal by calling what Wahl was mentioning a “dust-up online.” A “dust-up” might be when someone says something on social media, which they immediately regret and then have to apologize for publishing. Journalism is certainly not a “dust-up,” unless you have no interest in asking questions about what is being reported and prefer to ignore it.
The journalism was also marginalized by Stelter’s acceptance of the fact that it was part of the media network’s culture of promoting conspiracy theories. He allowed Wahl to exaggerate and say it accused her of being part of some “neocon conspiracy theory” to “take over the world.” Such exaggeration makes it easy to dismiss to the story as the product of lunatics, but all the story highlights is how someone from a neoconservative think tank with Bill Kristol on the board of directors played a role in her resignation. It then proceeded to provide critical context for why this was significant.
Even Wahl admits that Kirchick “alerted” FPI to the fact that she would be resigning. But, why? What was the reason for anyone at FPI to be paying attention to this unless they planned to exploit her resignation to advance their agenda? These are apparently questions Stelter did not want to broach on the show.
When confronted on Twitter after the segment aired and asked why he didn’t address why FPI had tweeted about her resignation before it happened, he replied, “I’m curious about it, but there are lots and lots of other Q’s I wanted to ask Wahl, too.”
If one breaks this down, what Stelter was really saying is he is “curious about it,” but he probably wouldn’t ever ask her about it on air because there are “other Q’s” that he thinks should be asked first. Initially, one might think after reading Khalek and Blumenthal’s article that it is the exact kind of story “Reliable Sources” exists to highlight.
Acknowledging the role of a senior fellow from a neoconservative foreign policy think tank would complicate what the show was trying to present to viewers through the interview with Wahl. Viewers are supposed to sympathize with her, not question her integrity. And, RT is supposed to be considered in black-and-white terms without any acknowledgment of how much of RT’s success is a result of a significant segment of the US population believing US media in general is a miserable failure.
RT has been covered by CNN nine times since Wahl’s resignation. Prior to this month, the network had received virtually no mentions on CNN, even though it was started in 2005.
In this current geopolitical climate, US media outlets like CNN are not increasing coverage of RT and the media war inside of the network because they care about issues of journalistic integrity or editorial independence. They have no interest in encouraging the same honest conversation about their own network. Rather, a show like “Reliable Sources” is eager to utilize Wahl in news segments because there is a face-off between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rooting for employees at RT to quit their jobs fits a moment when many Americans are eager to confront the Russian government over its actions around Crimea and Ukraine.
Photo by Center for Strategic & International Studies, used under Creative Commons license