Firth and Wahl weren’t firsts to flag Russian-owned media outlet’s news coverage

Another Russia Today anchor resigned Friday amid reports that a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over the Ukraine. Sara Firth tweeted this morning that she had left the US-based, Kremlin-owned television network.

Firth resigned, she said, because she felt the news channel was “disrespectfully” blaming the Ukraine for Thursday’s disaster that killed 298 people aboard the Malaysian airliner. “I couldn’t do it any more, we’re lying every single day. Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it,” Firth told Buzzfeed. She is the second news anchor to publicly quit Russia Today in recent months. Liz Wahl resigned on air in March, saying at the time that she could not “be part of a network funded by the Russian government which whitewashes the actions of (Russian President) Putin.” But Wahl and Firth are not the first journalists who felt forced to leave the company due to questionable news coverage. 

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Jamila Bey, former host for Voice of Russia that, until this week, was the sister radio station to television channel Russia Today.

Jamila Bey, a former host for Russia Today’s sister radio station, Voice of Russia, was among a handful of journalists who left the station in November after complaining about plagiarism, bias and other ethical concerns in terms of the editorial product. Bey, who has also appeared on Russia Today and contributed to All Digitocracy, says the two companies, until this week, had been indistinguishable on paper.

Voice of Russia was abruptly shut down on Monday amid allegations of tax dodging and employee discrimination, according to a report in The Washington Free Beacon. Bey is one of the employees who filed a discrimination complaint against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year.

“(Russia Today) is the more well-known arm of Kremlin funded media here in the US, but what existed as Voice of Russia Radio, pretty much is run now by cronies of Vladimir Putin,” Bey said in an interview with All Digitocracy in March. “The programming before was ‘we’d really like to do stories that show Russia in a positive light.’ Now there is the mandate, ‘you will do stories that show Russia in a positive light.’

“It’s not what I believe, as an American, is a free press,” continued Bey who now works in public relations. “It’s not actual media, it’s not real reporting. This is all in line with what the Kremlin wants the world to know.”

While both Wahl and Firth resigned, Bey along with five other employees were dismissed from Voice of Russia, half of them people of color. The company cited a number of factors for the dismissals. To some employees, poor finances were blamed. To others, a change in editorial direction was the reason, Bey said. Bey believes she was actually let go because she repeatedly protested lack of editorial policies and rampant plagiarism. She even went as far as notifying victims that their work had been stolen.

Roman Tokman, who was Bey’s boss and the budget director for Voice of Russia and is the business manager for Russia Today, did not return phone calls or emails from All Digitocracy.

“Quitting on air, while something I fantasized about, is something I chose not to do,” said Bey, six months after she was laid off. “The company that runs Russia Today and its associated journalistic outfits is but a house of cards. It will not stand in the face of common sense and facts.”

Click below to listen to the full interview with Bey that took place in March after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian military forces into Crimea, located in the eastern part of Ukraine.

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  1. says

    While I now have a nice normal job with a trade organization magazine, in between that and getting a master’s in journalism at the U of Missouri, I worked for a year and a half at “Voice of Russia America,” which shut down on Monday. Not many publications seem too interested in the development – except the Washington Free Beacon, presumably out of some loyalty to Reagan/Cold War nostalgia. They have actually done a great job figuring out that a man named Alexei Iazlovsky is actually the head of both VOR and its flashier cousin, RT, despite tax documents saying he is the head of “INTL TV Services” (where my paychecks used to come from) and RTTV (where RT employees’ paychecks come from). The reason this is relevant is that he is going (eventually) to jail for tax fraud.

    Here is their latest: http://freebeacon.com/issues/voice-of-russia-goes-silent-in-washington/

    Here is the explanation of the tax fraud situation (sounds like a plea bargain given the extent of what he did): http://freebeacon.com/national-security/russia-today-president-facing-prison-for-tax-fraud/

    Iazlovsky isn’t going to be sentenced, apparently, until December, because he has more cooperation and turning-over-of-his-accountant to do before then. As WFB says, there’s no indication he has stopped being the head of RT (and, indirectly, of VOR).

    [Time to apologize for the length of this e-mail ....]

    I feel that I should explain, briefly, that VOR was very different from what I hear RT is like. VOR started up six months before I was hired, and everyone had been told to report on whatever they wanted. There was no real organization or editorial structure – certainly not enough to manage a consistent propaganda message. Every now and then, the then-bureau chief would emerge from his office and demand that we cover some story that he clearly believed was a harbinger for America’s doom – often to do with shootings and similar incidents, or the fact that we were secretly planning a war with Iran. These would often become watered down “panel” discussions – with one American guest saying “Well, no, we’re not secretly planning a war with Iran,” and a Russian guest saying we were. But it was nothing compared to what you see on RT.

    I used to call VOR the Island of Lost Journalists. About a third were like me, recently out of school and just starting out in journalism. Another third had years and years of experience at legitimate places like NPR, BBC, or various other mainstream outlets. The final third appeared to have no idea how words combined to make sentences, and would often end up plagiarizing. Before we blame cultural differences, I should emphasize that almost all employees were American, as were the plagiarizers (one was Russian-American).

    While RT employees – at least those on camera – appear to be frequently hired for A) their appearance (or “presence”) and B) their interest in discussing conspiracy theories, at VOR there appeared to be no rhyme or reason for who was hired. That said, there were conspiracy theorists among us, who used their editorial freedom to focus on aliens and the Catholic church, but those were, frankly, people who had mainstream experience in spades. I guess they were just so happy to be able to say what they wanted, finally, that they ran with it. I feel I can almost guarantee, however, that these topics did not come up during the hiring process.

    If I met Alexei, I do not remember, and as I said, his control over my area was indirect. I did, however, meet Roman Tokman (who is either his nephew or son-in-law) many a time, as he was our “business manager.” He gave me my exit interview more than a year ago, and this is how that went, as I recorded it in an e-mail minutes later (names edited):

    “Roman asked me about what I was frustrated with here, I simply said: lack of marketing, and incidences of plagiarism (without specifying who plagiarized).

    Roman: What plagiarism?
    Virginia: I already reported it, I don’t really want to go into it now.
    Roman: This is a newsroom, how can there be plagiarism? I didn’t know anything about this.
    [Supervisor/Plagiarist #1, who was sitting in on the interview]: I think … she’s talking about the [Plagiarist #2] incident …
    Virginia: There were others ….
    Roman: I’d like to hear about those, who did you report them to?
    Virginia: I talked to [Bureau Chief] and [Former Supervisor]. I can forward you what I sent them.
    Roman: What happened with [#2]?
    [#1]: It’s why we moved her off writing news …. she was putting other people’s stories in her international news … and reading them …
    Roman: But that’s not plagiarism. We take other people’s stories and report them – AP, Reuters, etc.
    Virginia: …. no, we mean word for word …
    Roman: Yeah.
    Virginia: No …. okay, so, for instance, we pay for AFP to be our written wire service, and for AP to be our sound clip service …
    Roman: Yeah.
    Virginia: But we can’t use Reuters because we didn’t pay for it.
    Roman: Yes we can.
    Virginia: Um …
    Roman: Yes, it’s fine, it’s in our handbook.
    Virginia: Okay, then we have a difference of opinion.
    Roman: It’s in our handbook.
    Virginia: (struggling not to laugh) Okay, but legally you can’t …
    Roman: Yes you can.
    Virginia: Okay then we have a difference of opinion.

    At which point Roman crossed off the ‘plagiarism’ complaint from the form he was filling out.”

    As indicated above, one of the plagiarists had become my supervisor, which made working there even more crazy-making. In terms of the marketing – as you presumably know, you and everyone else have never heard of VOR, or the AM station it was on (in D.C. and New York!). Roman once told a coworker of mine that we didn’t need ads, because they do not work – what works is interviewing celebrities. We actually did interview several rather well-known people/celebs, but that is a different story …

    When RT briefly became well-known a few months ago due to its coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, and Liz Wahl etc., I felt even more embarrassed and sick about having worked at their invisible cousin than I normally do. I actually served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, so I was feeling sick about the whole situation, really. I ended up working there out of a mix of naivete, needing health insurance, enjoying radio work, and being hopeful that the employees I had tracked down were telling the truth about the lack of propaganda and the station’s potential. In the end, they weren’t really lying, but any potential was, of course, wasted.

    It’s entirely reasonable to say I should have known better than to work there. (Especially given my previous experience with the post-Soviet world.) But I got my health insurance, made friends, and started freelancing a little on the side, which I might not have otherwise been so motivated to try. And then I got out as soon as I was able. I was sad to see a swath of those friends fired suddenly last fall, and the rest fired on Monday. One of the lessons, for me, of the Island of Lost Journalists is that it’s not an easy time for a journalist to get a decent job. Regardless, I can’t wait to organize a night on the town for my VOR friends when Iazlovsky finally goes to jail.

    Hope some of this was mildly interesting …

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