Is the Kremlin’s propaganda chief “a journalist”?

Last week, the European Union expanded its sanctions list in reponse to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, and added an interesting name: Dmitry Kiselev (Kiselyov), the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, who calls himself a journalist.

But is he?

I ran across a Tweet this weekend, criticizing the addition of Kiselev to the list, arguing that governments should never censor journalists.  The thing is, I’m not convinced that Kiselev is a journalist.  It’s worth some discussion.

Who is Kiselev (aka Kiselyov)?

First, who is Kiselev?

Dmitri Kisilev (aka Dmitry Kiselyov).

Dmitri Kisilev (aka Dmitry Kiselyov).

He’s the head of Rossia Segodnya, a 2,300 employee organization that includes Russian state-media entities RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia. He’s also a top TV presenter in the country.

All one need do is look at Rossia Segodnya’s official name to fully appreciate what they are: “Federal State Unitary Enterprise International Information Agency Rossiya Segodnya.”  It’s an agency of the Russian government (and has ties to RT, aka Russia Today, the Kremlin’s international TV “news” propaganda organ – both organizations have the same editor).

Kiselev is a controversial figure who recently used his TV show to discuss Russia turning the United States into “radioactive ash” (in front of a nice backdrop of a huge mushroom cloud).  Kiselev, who comes across as rather fey (to put it lightly), is also the man who last year suggested that gay car accident victims have their hearts cut out and burned so that no one makes the mistake of letting them become organ donors.

What is a journalist?

Traditionally, a “journalist” was someone who worked for a traditional media entity, such as a newspaper, radio or television station.  Putting aside for a moment the question of whether a federal agency can be a “media entity,” things got even more confusing with the advent of the Internet, and the decreasing costs of entry: Literally anyone could publish. But did that necessarily make “everyone” a journalist?

Former RT host and correspondent Liz Wahl quit the Kremlin propagand network after realizing she couldn't live with herself.

Former RT host and correspondent Liz Wahl quit the Kremlin propaganda network after refusing to toe the pro-Russia line.

Some initial attempts at defining online journalism insisted that the venture be for-profit, and that “journalism” be the “reporter’s” main source of income.  But that would mean some freelancers wouldn’t be “journalists,” and it also would mean some pretty successful blogs and Web sites, at least back in the day, wouldn’t be considered journalism when it sure seemed like they were.

Poynter reports on a recent attempt to come up with a modern definition for “a journalist.” Here’s what that attempt came up with:

“A journalist is someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing, and disseminating (activities) news and information (output) to serve the public interest (social role).”

Interesting.  It leaves out money. Well, perhaps. I’m not sure what they mean by “employed.”  Also, the definition does require “regularly engaging,” and I suspect that’s to weed out people who simply write things on Facebook after work.  But it’s an interesting definition.

But under that definition, wouldn’t government propaganda be journalism?

Is government propaganda journalism?

Propaganda is a loaded term.  We normally think of the word as meaning “lies.” But in a government context, it can be as simple as disseminating your country’s story in a way that furthers your national interest.  But is that necessarily “journalism,” even if the propaganda is accurate, and not so biased as to border on a lie?

I don’t consider the former USIA, now the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), a den of “journalists.”  I did some consulting for IIP shortly after 9/11, helping share the story of New York City’s recovery from the attacks, and the role of recent foreign immigrants in helping on that day.  But I never really thought of my work as “journalism” per se – though it was honest and accurate work, and I do think that what I did, if printed in a magazine or newspaper, would count as journalism (and it was certainly of a quality to be so published).  But still, the government funding angle bothers me when deciding whether you’re a journalist.

Then again, look at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) or Radio Free Asia (RFA).  They both do great work.  And I’ve written about, and linked to, their stories before, because they do great “journalism.”  But they’re government-funded, even if they are officially private organizations.

Contrast the work of RFE/RL and RA with Kremlin TV network Russia Today and I’m hard-pressed to claim the latter as journalists too.  Russia Today isn’t just funded by the Kremlin, it’s an official Kremlin propaganda organ that twists the news, and basically lies, in an effort to help Russia, and hurt everyone else.  The closet comparison for Russia Today isn’t Radio Free Europe, it’s Fox News.  And my concern about Fox isn’t from the funding side, but rather the content side.  I just feel that in order to be a journalist, you have to be after the truth.  And that’s definitely not the case with RT and Dmitry Kiselev, of I fear with Fox News either.

So, while I’m not convinced that government funding is necessary a deal-killer in terms of your being a journalist, it all depends on how independent you are, and how accurate and objective you’re trying to be.

Say what you will about CNN, ABC, CBS, or NBC, but they try get the story right, and they try to do it an impartial manner.  You can’t say the same about Russia Today, RIA Novosoti, Voice of Russia, or Dmitry Kiselev.  And while the government may try to influence the media in America, the government is the media in Russia.  And there’s a big difference.


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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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