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.

(I’m told that in order to better see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me.)

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | 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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19 Responses to “Is the Kremlin’s propaganda chief “a journalist”?”

  1. 4th Turning says:

    To alleviate the perennial shortages of butter, The Politburo of the Communist Party ordered the Soviet scientists to develop a technology for converting shit into butter, and to complete this project on or before the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. After six months of work, the Politburo demanded an interim progress report. The scientists reported that they had achieved a 50% success. The party requested elaboration. The reply from the Academy of Sciences explained, “One can already spread it, but not yet eat it.”

  2. FLL says:

    Your response is a keeper.

  3. Naja pallida says:

    My point is that for every journalist, like yourself, trying to get it right, there’s a dozen getting their site traffic by posting sensationalized crap and conspiracy theories. So much of the populace seems to prefer soaking up easily disproven nonsense than facts and good writing.

    Companies like CNN have fallen right into the trap. Just watch their flight 370 coverage. It’s absolutely pathetic, and they haven’t had a care yet about getting the story right. It’s even worse with their coverage of Ukraine, because the story is infinitely complex, and complexity is something that CNN, MSNBC, ABC, et al, seem loathe to even attempt to address. Most Americans don’t seem to want to hear about ethnic relations and economic sanctions, they want that guy ranting about how it’s so much like Hitler, and how terrible Obama is at his job. I even see it here, every time you post something about Russia and you get the immediate response of “Well, we’re no better…” They don’t want to discuss the actual issue at hand, or debate the actual content of the article. I’m probably guilty of it myself.

    I’m not trying to attack you, or even your profession. I don’t envy anyone working as a journalist in a world where viewers/readers have the attention span of a ferret on meth, and many have even less knowledge to process what little information is actually seeping in. One of my favorite reporters is Richard Engel. He risks his life all the time to try and get the story right, but when his reports get aired, they always seem to gloss over the nuance entirely, in favor of the easy to digest bits. Look at his reporting on the fall of Baghdad, when they covered the big ‘Saddam statue falling’ bit. He was trying to explain to people that no one on the streets was cheering for the American troops, that it was entirely Shia vs Sunni. He basically set the stage for telling us that a civil war was inevitable, and nobody listened.

    Sensationalism and repeating nonsense apparently sells just as well as fact and accurate information, but it’s infinitely easier to churn out.

  4. FLL says:

    “Now they’re trying to start a war in the Ukraine.”

    No, Putin is trying to start a war in Ukraine, as in soldiers, tanks and helicopters.

  5. 2karmanot says:

    The Nancy Grace of Mutha Russia.

  6. NMRon says:

    Man, if that guy doesn’t look like every Russian crime boss or hit man stereotype, no one does.

  7. What do you think I wrote about? LOL I got news for you, I don’t spend a lot of time writing about things that you dont’ want to read. Because if I do, you won’t read it, I won’t get enough advertising revenue, and I’ll be forced to close up shop.

    As for accuracy, that’s an interesting question. Don’t assume that profits and accuracy don’t go hand in hand. It depends on your audience. Conservatives don’t necessarily care if their media gets it wrong. Liberals do, I’d argue. So it’s in my best interest to find stories you want to read, but also not to get it wrong too often, or people won’t trust me, they won’t come here, they won’t forward my stories, etc. Credibility is still tied to profitability, in some sectors. Not on the right, but in the middle, and to a degree on the left, yes.

  8. That’s entirely irrelevant. I’m discussing motivations, which goes to the heart of whether you’re a journalist or not. Not whether you’re a good one, but whether you’re a real one. And while I get that the cool kids like to talk about how all journalists suck, in fact, there are a lot of excellent journalists out there, as there are excellent people and crappy people in every profession and walk of life. And while the media, and the entire country, got duped by Bush on Iraq. In Russia, the media doesn’t get duped – they’re in on the lie. Every single one of them on every single story. Getting it wrong isn’t a glitch, it’s their mission. Again. And Again. And Again on every single story.

    And what exactly was the media supposed to do differently about Libya or Egypt? You forget, this isn’t Russia – it’s not the media’s job to help stop wars because you’re a pacifist, or you like dictators, or whatever. It’s their job to report the truth as they see it, and most attempt to do just that. But again, because the cool thing of the last ten years has been to parrot the right wing talking points that all media sucks, we all dutifully report that little chestnut over and over, helping to ensure that the only “media” that survives all of this is Fox News and its Russian equivalent.

  9. Yep, I knew that (from my proud one year of college Russian, before I gave up on that impossiblly difficult language – those declensions!), and thought I’d mentioned it, but didn’t. Yeah, it’s very weird that both just “happen” to have the same name, and both are funded by the govt.

  10. Olterigo says:

    Just one more parallel: Rossiya Segodnya (Россия Сегодня) actually means Russia Today.

  11. mvrs768 says:

    Or the media wing of the DNC consisting of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, NYT and WaPo.

  12. Naja pallida says:

    The corporate run media reports whatever gets them ratings, and thus profit. Whether it reflects getting the story right or not.

  13. nicho says:

    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.

    Thanks, I always like to start my day with a hearty laugh. They were the drum majors for two illegal wars, a couple of government overthrows — Libya, Egypt and how many others. Now they’re trying to start a war in the Ukraine. Yeah, impartial — in Bizarro World

  14. I’m not convinced they’re journalists either.

  15. 4th Turning says:

    I am not generalizing here but there is widespread and oddly proud (?) disdain for the evening news locally. The source of choice, for those who do bother, is Fox.

    ‘The history of our party and our state has proven that a danger recognized is a danger defeated. Our coming hard battles in the East will be under the sign of this heroic resistance. It will require previously undreamed of efforts by our soldiers and our weapons. A merciless war is raging in the East. The Führer was right when he said that in the end there will not be winners and losers, but the living and the dead.’

  16. keirmeister says:

    I dropped cable and now get TV over the air. One of the stations I pick up is RT.

    HOLY CRAP!!!!!

    Fox News is shameless propaganda, but RT makes Fox News look like Edward R. Murrow!

  17. Badgerite says:

    Frankly, I think Putin has been studying Fox News and likes what he sees. That is his idea of a national media. The media he would like to have for himself and Russia. I always thought he and Bush had more in common than people realized.

  18. sonoitabear says:

    Kisilev is just as much a “journalist” as any of the talking heads employed by America’s Republican Party propaganda machine, Faux Noise…

  19. Indigo says:

    Where the Orwellian Standards are in force, all propaganda is journalism and journalism is always propaganda.

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