CounterPropaganda · Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia · United States

Russian Propaganda Hits Local DC Airwaves

A Radio Sputnik host at the Levitan Studio. Sputnik via AP

A pro-Putin outlet is now broadcasting full-time on the FM dial in the nation’s capital—and it’s as bad as you might expect.

As wealth has poured into the nation’s capital and the city has largely redeveloped over the last two decades, one of the last reminders that Washington, D.C., possessed any local culture at all was the existence of Bluegrass Country 105.5. The FM station was sponsored by American University and played nothing but, yes, bluegrass music, which is a big part of the regional culture as you head south and west into Virginia.

However, FM radio stations are valuable commodities, and last year American University announced its plans to sell the station. The station was sold, and a few days ago, the beloved Bluegrass Country went off the air*. Under normal circumstances, the loss of such a unique and terrific radio station would be merely sad.

But given the station that has replaced it, the loss of Bluegrass Country is an absolute outrage. If you live in the D.C. area you can now turn the dial to 105.5 and listen to Sputnik Radio, which broadcasts Kremlin propaganda 24 hours a day.

Of course, the first thing propagandists usually do is insist they are not propagandists. “We’re glad to finally be able to directly address our listeners in Washington. During the last few months Sputnik Radio has become the target of constant attacks in the U.S. corporate media,” Mindia Gavasheli, editor-in-chief of Sputnik’s D.C. bureau, told Newsmax. “Often the people who wrote or spoke about us didn’t even bother to listen to our broadcasts first.”

With all due respect to Gavasheli, I spent the last few days driving around listening to Sputnik, and the experience is like being immersed in some menacing alternate history timeline: It’s like The Man in the High Castle, but for Cold War kids and with real-world implications. It’s not an exaggeration to say that any patriotic American with a half-functioning brain would be alarmed by what’s being said.

If you listen to Sputnik Radio, America is a relentless military aggressor. Every other word that comes out of the various hosts and guests’ mouths is “imperialism”—never mind that in the last decade Russia has invaded two countries to claim territory, more or less unprovoked. Leaps of logic that would derail any conversation between normal people are tolerated as long as the impetus is anti-American, e.g., “Well, of course, the real reason for invading Afghanistan after 9/11 was America’s history of institutionalized racism …”

Now broadcasting the un-distilled id of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky would be bad enough. But overlaid on this nonsense is a very Russia-specific agenda. NATO is a curse word, and members of the organization are derided as “Vassal states” of America. The prospect of missile defense systems being deployed in Europe was discussed on the station’s programming so often that the emphasis couldn’t have been accidental. And when the topic did come up, missile defense was treated as an act so provocative it’s basically a 21st-century Cuban missile crisis, a talking point entirely consistent with the Russian government’s rhetoric. Reasonable attempts by the Israeli Defense Force to keep the Syrian conflict from spilling across their own border were called “unprecedented escalation.” Oh, and Oliver Stone’s interview series with Vladimir Putin—which was widely derided for giving the Russian president the kid gloves treatment—well, it really makes you think …

Perhaps the other interesting thing about all this is that for all the talk of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, as a matter of political ideology, this Russian propaganda station quite obviously skews hard left. In hours of listening to the station, I heard one self-identified populist and Trump supporter. (Based on the program guide, I believe he was former Breitbart reporter Lee Stranahan.) He was on the air ostensibly to bash “the swamp,” which in practice meant railing against American defense contractors and the deep state, which I’m sure the Kremlin approves of. However, he never got too into his spiel because it seemed like every minute he had to push back the insane ravings of his leftist co-host who, I kid you not, was blaming America for inciting North Korea.

While certainly there are elements of the alt-right that are responding positively to Putin’s superficial embrace of Christian nationalism, it seems telling to me that Russia’s American propaganda efforts are still overwhelmingly aimed at the left. For three hours on weekdays, Sputnik Radio airs “The Thom Hartmann Program.” Hartmann has been a staple of liberal talk radio for many years. And the emphasis on foreign policy leans heavily on the same parodic perception of America as imperialist, capitalist running dogs that haven’t really changed since the Soviet Union collapsed.

In fact, Brian Becker of the ANSWER Coalition hosts a daily show on Sputnik covering international issues. ANSWER—Act Now to Stop War and End Racism—was the group best known for organizing the lion’s share of anti-war protests during the George W. Bush years. ANSWER was also an outgrowth of the Workers World Party, a group so pro-Kremlin it supported the invasion of Soviet Afghanistan in 1979, even as ANSWER would later oppose America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It seems the more Russia’s anti-American propaganda efforts change, the more they stay the same.

For all the talk of a dark Trump-Russia conspiracy, if “the resistance” is truly concerned about pernicious Russian influence, it also should spend some time looking at Russia’s effects in its own ranks. The Nation is regularly publishing a nakedly pro-Putin columnist, and for all the sophistry of various Trump defenders, I honestly can’t think of an equivalent figure at a mainstream conservative institution that goes that far.

But either way, Sputnik is an alarming development, and it’s part of an even more troubling trend toward acceptance of propaganda from foreign governments in the United States. You can’t walk a block in D.C. without tripping over a newspaper rack stuffed with free copies of China Daily, an official communist Chinese mouthpiece. It’s also hand-delivered to influential offices throughout the city, whether they want it or not. And I cancelled a Washington Post subscription a few years back in no small part because one of its editions was wrapped in a special advertising section that read, “This supplement, prepared by China Daily, People’s Republic of China, did not involve the news or editorial departments of the Washington Post.” Consider that the Post, fresh off adopting the new slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” recently instituted a new social media policy that forbids reporters from saying things that adversely affect “The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners.”

I realize the commitment to free speech is dependent on tolerating offensive speech, and I’m pretty absolutist on these matters. But at a minimum there needs to be pushback from ordinary citizens to media explicitly designed to undermine our democratic institutions to benefit a foreign power such as Russia that has no problem assassinating journalists it doesn’t like. The machinations that put Sputnik Radio on the air remain murky, though communications attorney John Garziglia did confirm that he’s the owner. “It’s a business arrangement,” Garziglia told DCist.

I doubt I am not alone in wanting to know much more about the specifics. If Sputnik Radio has a First Amendment right to broadcast, Americans also have a right to speak out and apply reasonable public pressure that might lead to a different “business arrangement”—one that results in a new station with programming respectful of the most basic sensibilities of all freedom-loving Americans.

* Well, sort of. Bluegrass Country subsequently formed a nonprofit foundation to support itself, and is still broadcasting over the air on an FM HD station that requires a special HD radio to hear. You can also listen online.



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