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How Cold War-Hungry Neocons Stage Managed RT Anchor Liz Wahl’s Resignation

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Posted on Mar 19, 2014

The “Freedom selfie” from James Kirchick’s Twitter feed.

By Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek

For her public act of protest against Russia Today’s coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory and supposedly advancing the agenda of Vladimir Putin in Washington, D.C., previously unknown news anchor Liz Wahl has suddenly become one of the most famous unemployed people in America. After her on-air resignation from the cable news channel, Wahl appeared on the three major American cable news outlets—CNN, Fox News, MSNBC—to denounce the heavy-handed editorial line she claims her bosses imposed on her and other staffers.

“What’s clear is what’s happening right now amid this crisis is that RT is not about the truth,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “It’s about promoting a Putinist agenda. And I can tell you firsthand, it’s also about bashing America.”

Wahl’s act of defiance eventually earned her invitations from “The View” and “The Colbert Report,” offering her the opportunity to introduce millions of Americans to a Russian government-funded network whose Nielsen ratings have been too low to measure, but which commands a massive following on YouTube. Wahl was the toast of Washington, winning plaudits from a variety of prime-time pundits, from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes (“remarkably badass”) to the conservative Amanda Carpenter (“Liz Wahl is proud to be an American and in the last five minutes I think she made everyone else proud to be one, too.”)

The celebration of Wahl fed directly into a BuzzFeed expose on “How The Truth Is Made at Russia Today,” with writer Rosie Gray painting a portrait of an “atmosphere of censorship and pressure” on American staffers toiling in RT’s D.C. offices. RT had long been the subject of criticism and ridicule for its promotion of Zeitgeist-style trutherism and libertarian paranoia, but Wahl now placed RT under unprecedented scrutiny, with mainstream U.S. media sounding the alarm about a bulwark of soft Russian power situated just blocks from the White House.

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Behind the coverage of Wahl’s dramatic protest, a cadre of neoconservatives was celebrating a public relations coup. Desperate to revive the Cold War, head off further cuts to the defense budget and restore the legitimacy they lost in the ruins of Iraq, the tightknit group of neoconservative writers and stewards had opened up a new PR front through Wahl’s resignation. And they succeeded with no shortage of help from an ossified media establishment struggling to maintain credibility in an increasingly anarchic online news environment. With isolated skeptics branded as useful idiots for Putin, the scene has been kept clean of neoconservative fingerprints, obscuring their interest in Wahl’s resignation and the broader push to deepen tensions with Russia.

Through interviews with six current RT employees—all Americans with no particular affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin or his policies—and an investigation into the political forces managing the spectacle, a story has emerged that stands in stark contrast to the one advanced by Wahl, her supporters and the mainstream American press.

It is the story, according to former colleagues, of an apolitical, deeply disgruntled employee seeking an exit strategy from a job where, sources say, she was disciplined for unprofessional behavior and had been demoted. Wahl did not return several voice and text messages sent to her cellphone.

At the center of the intrigue is a young neoconservative writer and activist who helped craft Wahl’s strategy and exploit her resignation to propel the agenda of a powerful pro-war lobby in Washington.

The story began at 5:07 p.m. Eastern time on March 5.

PR From PNAC 2.0

It was a full 19 minutes before Wahl resigned. Inside the offices of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative think tank in Washington D.C., a staffer logged on to the group’s Twitter account to announce the following:

“#WordOnTheStreet says that something big might happen on RT in about 20-25 minutes.”

Then, at 5:16, exactly 10 minutes before Wahl would quit on air, FPI tweeted:

“#WordOnTheStreet says you’re really going to want to tune in to RT: http://rt.com/on-air/rt-america-air/ #SomethinBigMayBeGoingDown”

Up until two minutes before Wahl’s resignation, FPI took to Twitter again to urge its followers to tune in to RT. 

And finally, at 5:26 p.m., at the very moment Wahl quit, FPI’s Twitter account broke the news: “RT Anchor RESIGNS ON AIR. She ‘cannot be part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin.’ ”

The tweets from FPI suggested a direct level of coordination between Wahl and the neoconservative think tank. Several calls to FPI for this story were not answered.

Just over an hour later, an exclusive interview with Wahl appeared at The Daily Beast. It was authored by James Kirchick, a 31-year-old writer whose work has appeared in publications from the neoconservative Commentary to the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz.

Kirchick acknowledged having been in contact with Wahl since August, but cast himself as a passive bystander to the spectacle, claiming that they merely “stayed in touch periodically over the past 6 months, and I always encouraged her to follow her conscience in making a decision about her professional future.”

Kirchick wrote that by quitting, Wahl paid “the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth.”

Later that evening, Kirchick tweeted a photo of himself with Wahl, calling it a “Freedom selfie.” The two had apparently gathered to celebrate.

On March 7, Kirchick and a camera person stationed themselves outside the office building on D.C.’s G Street housing RT America’s headquarters. On a self-proclaimed mission “to find out more about RT,” he badgered dozens of random passers-by with questions like the following: “What is a more appropriate punishment for the women of Pussy Riot: two years in a Siberian labor camp or public whipping by Cossacks?”

Kirchick says RT staffers called the D.C. police department to remove him from the premises. However, several RT staffers told us that a security guard notified the police because Kirchick had mistaken employees at two adjacent law firms for employees of RT—“the wannabe thugs at 1325 G St,” he called them—and began harassing them. (An update inserted at the bottom of The Daily Beast summary of the incident noted that it was building security and not RT staffers who called the D.C. police.)

So who was Kirchick, and what sort of commitment did he maintain to “objectivity and the truth?”

  From left: Jamie Kirchick, Eli Lake, Rosie Gray, Liz Wahl. Photo from Twitter.


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