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'RT America': The One News Outlet For Which Trump Retains An Unexpected Affinity


For all of the vitriol Donald Trump aimed at the press during the campaign, there's one news outlet that he and others in his inner circle seem to be comfortable with. It's RT America, originally known as Russia Today. In the U.S., it's widely seen as a propaganda arm of the Kremlin, which owns and funds it. NPR's David Folkenflik looks at RT's ties to the incoming administration.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: American TV networks are broadcasting searing tales from the Syrian city of Aleppo, home to some of the worst fighting in that country's civil war - this from ABC News.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world and one that the next American president will have to deal with on day one.

FOLKENFLIK: A different tenor prevails at RT America.


MARIA FINOSHINA: But we start with Aleppo of course.


FOLKENFLIK: RT's Maria Finoshina landed a rare interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and she offered a sympathetic hearing.


FINOSHINA: But the Western politicians and Western media have been largely negative about your army's advance. Why you think this is happening? Do they take it as their Rome defeat?

FOLKENFLIK: RT America has a modest audience, exploring stories of dissent, injustice and poverty within the U.S. that it says American news outlets ignore. Former MSNBC host Ed Schultz joined the network back in January.

ED SCHULTZ: Our mission is to be fair and factual, to go deeper than the soundbite of 20 seconds, to have a broader scope and to get both sides.

FOLKENFLIK: Schultz made a mark as an outspoken liberal on radio and MSNBC for years. He is now RT America's chief news anchor.

SCHULTZ: And I'm very proud of the fact that I anchor a newscast that does just that.

FOLKENFLIK: Many American analysts call RT's work outright propaganda for a country now accused of trying to tamper with the 2016 presidential elections.

JAMES MILLER: RT has played a key role in sort of advancing a narrative that the Russian government is fundamentally trustworthy, whereas the American government is fundamentally untrustworthy.

FOLKENFLIK: James Miller is managing editor of The Interpreter, a site covering Russian foreign and domestic policy.

MILLER: RT sort of kicks up dust on stories like what's going on in Syria. They don't as much convince people that their version of the story is true as much as they do sort of implant doubt as to whether or not the truth can be known at all.

FOLKENFLIK: Liz Wahl was a correspondent, an anchor for RT America for several years. Over time, she says, the network increasingly amplified the Kremlin's agenda in places like Ukraine and Syria.

LIZ WAHL: We were not meant to deliver the truth but to skew what was happening there. I think RT is just part of a greater Russian disinformation machine.

FOLKENFLIK: Wahl ultimately resigned live on the air. Several figures with ties to Trump have appeared on RT's shows, such as Trump's incoming national security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, a former military intelligence chief.

Last December at a banquet celebrating RT's 10th anniversary in Moscow, Flynn sat next to RT's top editor and just two seats away from Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Flynn participated in a Q&A there, an appearance for which he was paid by RT.


MICHAEL FLYNN: First of all, thank you so much for inviting me and having me here.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump himself appeared on RT back in September on former CNN talk show host Larry King's program.


DONALD TRUMP: The media has been unbelievably dishonest. I mean they'll take a statement that you make which is perfect, and they'll cut it up and chop it up.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump's camp said he was misled into thinking he was just speaking for King's podcast, yet Trump has praised Putin lavishly and repeatedly as a decisive leader and as a counterpoint to President Barack Obama. On MSNBC, Ed Schultz mocked conservatives for making a hero of Putin. Here's what Schultz told me this week.

SCHULTZ: I view Putin as a protector of the country. There's been a lot of bad history and a lot of bad actors on Russia in the past, and I think that he doesn't want to repeat that history. And I think that's his concern.

FOLKENFLIK: Schultz has also previously called Donald Trump a racist. Now...

SCHULTZ: He is the change agent that America has been looking for.

FOLKENFLIK: For now, the incoming American president is enjoying a warm reception from the Russian president's American news channel. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.