If you’re paying attention to the global struggle against Kremlin subversion through propaganda, you’ll often hear a narrative that the Broadcasting Board of Governors and RT, the Kremlin broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today, are competitors standing toe-to-toe. Responses to my recent article on whether RT was a lobbyist or a foreign agent included this comparison. The notion that they square off against each other or seek the same audiences is based on two simplified, shared attributes: funded by their respective governments and seeking audiences abroad.
This oft-heard narrative is pushed by RT, Sputnik, and friends of the Kremlin’s propaganda centers as they justify efforts and declare their value to some audience. It is pitched as a story of David versus Goliath, where Russia is little David trying to be heard over the din of Goliath, which is apparently the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG. It is repeated, or implied, by some in the U.S. in response to prevarications from RT and the like. The result is a kind of reflexive control from the Kremlin that shifts focus from the actual problems and from potential solutions.
Does the comparison hold up?
RT’s funding in 2014 was around $310 million, give or take based on several factors, including the impact of Putin’s foreign and domestic policies on the ruble. While RT was promised a budget increase of 30% last year, to over $400 million for 2015, they were reportedly awarded a 10% cut instead because of the Kremlin’s financial mess.
RT is not a lone wolf, however. RT is part of a collection of Western Europe and U.S.-facing operations that includes Ruptly, RT’s video service, and Sputnik. Sputnik is part of the Rossiya Segodnya global enterprise which is the renamed and restructured RIA Novosti. The 2015 funding for Rossiya Segodnya was reportedly to be around $170 million, triple the original planned for 2014.
Besides these operations, there is the Russian-language programming for domestic Russian audiences but made available to audiences across Russia’s near abroad and globally. Add Kremlin-friendly providers, such as www.kartinausa.tv which streams programs globally minutes after they are available in Russia, or Modern Times Group, the not-quite Swedish owned broadcaster that makes sure pro-Kremlin channels make it to Lithuania. It is hard to put a dollar figure on these efforts, but it is likely the total spending is into the hundreds of millions of dollars. And then there are the other subversive activities, like fake think tanks and conjured experts. For this discussion, we will pretend RT is alone.
The comparison breakdown when matching target audiences. RT operates in English, Spanish, Arabic, French, and German. The audience in French and German is negligible, at best. The same is true for Arabic. While Putin made a deal with Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for RT to expand into Argentina, RT appears to have limited traction there and across the region.
RT is focused primarily on the English language audience and it is this target that fuels the comparison. RT is on many (seemingly all) cable networks across the United States and they are in some 3 million hotel rooms (which is seemingly all of the hotel rooms) around the world. Their audience is claimed to be over 600 million, but the difference between ‘reach’ and actual consumers, plus a recent story that some views of pro-Russian videos may have been inflated by malware, suggest a different number may be appropriate when thinking about impact.
While RT's 2014 was allegedly around $310 million, BBG’s actual total expenditures for 2014 was $733 million. This appears to make the BBG twice as large as RT. However, while RT is a singular operation within a larger group, the BBG is the larger group with five news organizations: Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East Broadcast Network (MBN), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB). The BBG also has Information Freedom programs that range from firewall circumvention programs to applications that allow users to capture, describe, and share local news, including the Open Technology Fund. BBG operates in 61 languages around the world, with VOA in nearly 50 languages and RFE/RL in 28 languages.
Further, English is not a primary language of VOA or RFE/RL. Their English programming does not target hotel rooms or cable networks across Europe and neither targets the U.S. market. VOA and RFE/RL are not in French or German (VOA does have French, but it is French to Africa, not the same target audience as RT’s French). In Spanish, VOA was authorized in 2014 to spend about $3 million.
Excluding the territorial mismatch, a qualified comparison of RT with the BBG’s authorized spending on English-language services makes RT about ten times the size of VOA’s and RFE/RL’s combined English operations.
The BBG is direct by legislation to focus on countries that lack free and open news media. RT, on the other hand, directly targets the open markets in English across the United States and Western Europe. (These arguments can be extended to show the BBC and BBG are neither competitors nor peers when considering target markets and various measures of success each use.)
A similar false narrative is often heard regarding BBG and Russia across Russia’s near abroad. The BBG is authorized to spend about $18 million on Russian language services across VOA and RFE/RL. Add other languages in the area and the authorized expenditure is about $25 million.
Who is David and who is Goliath now?
RT knows who their real competition is -- Western media -- which they call out in their mission statement. They know it isn’t the BBG but they — and more frequently their supporters — use the BBG as a straw man when convenient, and many fall for false rivalry and call for stooping to the Kremlin's level.
The success of RT is not the failure of VOA or RFE/RL, but the failure of commercial media, a decline in professional journalism, missteps at various Western podiums, a general reduction in media literacy and polarization in the West, and failures to understand policy implications and resulting gaps between words and deeds. It is easy to overstate RT’s actual impact, but the greater risk is failing to appreciate the threat posed by RT’s ability to seep into the cracks on the margins to eventually influence the middle. It is not just about today, but about tomorrow.