Media Criticism Ted Rall

Ted Rall: Why I Work for Sputnik

The real reason for the Left’s lack of representation in mainstream media, one suspects, is ideological discrimination.

By Ted Rall / Patreon

I have won two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, published more than 20 books and have seen my political cartoons and columns appear in hundreds of newspapers and magazines. So why do I have Russian state media as one of my clients?

I’m on Sputnik News’ website—as a freelancer, not on staff—and a frequent guest on its radio feed for the same reason that former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges and former MSNBC talk host Ed Schultz appeared on the now-shuttered RT America television network:

I’m a leftist.

It’s an article of faith that the United States is a conservative country. But 38% of American voters prefer socialism to capitalism. That’s a remarkable figure considering this country’s history of suppressing the Left from the Palmer raids to McCarthyism to the methodical legislative destruction of trade unionism.

The American Left is bigger than you may think, and it’s growing. Yet leftist voices—antiwar, anti-capitalist, militantly environmentalist—are nowhere to be found in the mainstream, corporate-owned print, broadcast and online news media outlets consumed by the vast majority of U.S. citizens.

It doesn’t matter how entertaining or relevant or smart or funny you are. Communists, socialists, anarchists, left libertarians, deep-green environmentalists and populist progressives need not apply as opinion columnists, radio or television commentators. There isn’t even space in mainstream media for pundits who align with establishment progressives like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose ideas are indistinguishable from old-school liberal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern.

Fortunately, some leftists found a home on RT or Sputnik. Conservative critics often accused them of being mouthpieces for the Russian government. But that’s not my experience of the Americans I know. They had their own opinions and found a platform where those opinions were welcome.

Working for Sputnik puts a target on your back. Even though I’m not on staff, Twitter and Facebook label links to my Sputnik cartoons as Russian state media. And in the current atmosphere of hysteria over the Russia-Ukraine war to which the U.S. isn’t even a party, reactionaries tar me with that 1950s Cold War classic, guilt by association. Just this week, for example, another cartoonist had the nads to call me “a traitor to American ideals and to democracy,” “Putin’s puppet, a Kremlin propagandist, and a useful idiot.” If this were the 18th century, I’d demand satisfaction from the cur.

Useful idiot, of course, is an insult popularized by fascists during McCarthyism. It is still used by the extreme right.

I’m curious: what would this neoconservative, who was in favor of invading both Afghanistan and Iraq and now wants another stupid war in Ukraine, have people like me do? Sit in silence forever?

Apparently, yes. If you’re on the “actual left,” with a worldview influenced by Marxist class analysis rather than identitarianism, no amount of talent or popularity will get you on the airwaves or into “respectable” print. Until last week, if you were a lucky leftist, you’d be invited to host a show on RT or appear as a guest, where—unlike on CNN, MSNBC or Fox—you’d be treated with respect, asked intelligent questions and given time to answer them.

Is it really possible that there are no insightful communist economics experts? No funny socialist editorial cartoonists? No sharp, telegenic, anarcho-syndicalist TV commentators? Of course such mythical creatures exist—they appeared on RT and, before it was deplatformed by Comcast and DirecTV in 2016, Al Jazeera America. The real reason for the Left’s lack of representation in mainstream media, one suspects, is ideological discrimination.

If “democracy dies in darkness,” as The Washington Post’s motto reads, why not allow all ideas to be discussed openly?

Even cable TV’s most “liberal” channel refuses to air content to the left of the center of the Democratic Party. MSNBC fired left-leaning political talk host Phil Donahue in February 2003, at the peak of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq even though he had the highest ratings of any program on the network. Bosses blamed production costs. But an internal MSNBC memo worried that Donahue presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” and provided “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

“They were terrified of the antiwar voice,” Donahue recalled.

Twelve years later MSNBC fired feisty pro-worker talker Ed Schultz. He claimed that they fired him for insisting upon covering Bernie Sanders’ 2015 campaign launch speech. “You’re not covering Bernie Sanders,” network president Phil Griffin ordered Schultz.

“I think that they were in the tank for Hillary Clinton, and I think that it was managed, and 45 days later I was out at MSNBC,” Schultz who died in 2018, remembered. Like other exiled lefties, Schultz landed at RT. “There was more oversight and more direction given to me on content at MSNBC than there ever has been here at RT,” he added.

RT’s diverse team of commentators wasn’t limited to leftists. The roster included Hedges, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, “Star Trek” actor William Shatner, ex-CNN host Larry King, leftist comedian Lee Camp and right-wing pundits Dennis Miller and Steve Malzberg. Guests included academic experts, political activists and politicians like former Green Party presidential candidates Ralph Nader and Jill Stein, both of whom were marginalized by U.S. news media and denied spots in presidential debates.

The small sliver of American viewers who gave RT a chance encountered excellent production values and high-quality news and opinion programs that didn’t talk down to the audience. RT was unpredictable, entertaining and frequently more engaging than the three major cable news channels. It was nominated for five Emmys.

Critics of RT and Sputnik, however, have complained that RT shines a spotlight on schisms in U.S. politics and society, for example “push[ing] divisive racial narratives, including stories emphasizing allegations of police abuse in the United States and highlighting racism against African-Americans within the military,” as The New York Times wrote in 2020. Since when, however, is the U.S. or any other government entitled to positive news coverage? If racism makes America look bad, don’t eliminate coverage of racism—eliminate racism.

Opponents also deride RT and Sputnik’s news coverage as Russian government propaganda. Which is, of course, objectively subjective.

On RT/Sputnik as on other outlets, bias is largely a matter of omission. In my experience what runs on Sputnik is fact-checked. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s go-to source for criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, any more than you should look to MSNBC for harsh takes on Joe Biden or Fox for sharp attacks on Donald Trump. One could argue, and many on the Left have, that “respectable” American news outlets have frequently worn their biases on their sleeves often, and are often accused of disseminating propaganda. The absence of thoughtful antiwar voices during false WMDs claims during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and denying coverage to Bernie Sanders come to mind.

RT America shut down last week after it was deplatformed by Roku, DirecTV and cable networks in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Before it went dark on television, it had earned a sizable online audience. In 2013 the channel became the first to reach 1 billion views on YouTube, numbers driven in part by its willingness to cover third-party candidacies that no one else would touch and round-the-clock reporting on the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The leftist Australian blogger Caitlyn Johnstone has frequently remarked that RT America and Sputnik News would have become instantly unviable had left-leaning voices been invited onto mainstream American media outlets. “There’s this bizarre, stupid notion people have accepted that socialist and antiwar voices should never allow Russian media to platform them, and should instead wait until they are given a large platform by Western mainstream media, and keep waiting, and waiting, and just keep on waiting until we all die in a nuclear holocaust,” Johnstone wrote. “If you have something important to say and you know it’s a true and helpful message, then it doesn’t matter if it’s the Russian government who’s giving you your platform or anyone else, because the message itself is intrinsically valuable.”

I agree. When I tell friends that I’m on Sputnik News, an online radio service and news site accessible via the web and therefore less vulnerable to Ukraine-related cancellation in the United States than in Europe, where it is banned, some cock their heads and give that “Really?” expression. Those who check it out are impressed, surprised that the overall tenor of discussion is smarter and sharper than, say, NPR. Sputnik is still operational, with 57 million visits online in the last month. They grant me a platform for my ideas, which are discussed by an appreciative, well-informed audience. They don’t censor me. And they pay.

Until the revolution destroys capitalism, leftists must compromise their principles in order to survive. I’ve never been published by a media organization with which I shared all of my political ideals. As a realist with bills to pay, where would I find a media organization with which I share most of my political ideals? I disagree with Sputnik about various issues; I also disagree with NPR and even with Jacobin, the socialist magazine.

I would work for pretty much any media outlet that doesn’t constrain my freedom of expression beyond what I consider reasonable limits. (Sputnik has never told me what to say, which is more than I can say for many of my other clients.) But over the past 20 or so years, the media has been turning farther and farther to the right. Left voices, especially before 9/11, were occasionally allotted space alongside liberal Democrats on the opinion pages. I was one of them. Leftists sometimes appeared on cable news television. Again, I was one of them. So was Rachel Maddow. She survived, and thrived, by moving right into mainstream liberalism.

That tiny sliver of openness has vanished. Anti-interventionists rarely if ever—I would say never, but I can’t watch 24-7—appear on those panels of talking heads who discuss foreign policy crises; the acceptable range of discussion runs from pro-interventionist to more pro-interventionist. When is the last time you heard anyone on cable news suggest that the U.S. ought to stay out of an overseas hot spot entirely, that it’s not our business?

All the Left needs for a fair shot at readers and viewers is one angel investor. But millionaires tend to dislike socialism. George Soros, bête noir of the right, funds Democrats, not lefties.

This piece was submitted to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Both rejected it.

For leftists, Sputnik is still one of the few games in town.

Ted Rall

Ted Rall, the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.”

20 comments

  1. “Ideological discrimination” Very well put. “This piece was submitted to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Both rejected it.” Of course! What an apt summary. Thank you Ted. I love your work.

  2. I, on the other hand, am not familiar with your work. I intend to become so based on the very well presented history, “Why I Work for Sputnik.” Don’t discount the amount of fear that determines what people will read or listen to. There is lots of opportunism out there, laziness, and conformity, but I am convinced that fear is what drives many of us. I am so glad to know about your work.

  3. Thanx, Ted …
    I think DISH was the last outlet to get rid of RT – when I heard RT was being de-platformed generally, I called DISH and, as a 20+ year subscriber, asked them not to follow suit – of course that and $3.50 got me a cup of coffee …

  4. It is not just Leftist left out by Western mainstream media, it is also anti-war/peace activists. Solutions to end war between nations and eliminate weapons of mass destruction (see Einstein on Peace) will require forming a “new UN.” It means forming a democratic world federal union government such as seen in the EARTH CONSTITUTION drafted by the World Constitution & Parliament Association. But this practical solution, ready to go, is never heard about from mainstream media, effectively keeping the public in the dark.

  5. Just a note on the political left: These are not the middle class liberals who call for enhancing the advantages of the middle class within the capitalist system. It is not the Democrat version, “socialism for the better off, deadly capitalism for the poor.” The left have been shining a light on the consequences of America’s “free market capitalism,” our poverty crisis. The left are also the ones who had been shining a light on Biden’s troop buildup in Eastern Europe over the past year (in violation of the 1990 NATO agreement), relentlessly trying to provoke war. As the US invaded Ukraine, liberals, right on cue (Monday morning, March 7) shouted, “Russia’s invading Ukraine!”

    1. @DHFabian
      So you think the tanks with the Z and Russian flags are really US Army?

  6. ” But 38% of American voters prefer socialism to capitalism.”

    Must be the 38% that do not even bother to vote in general elections…

    1. To Dem. etc.,
      The 38 % who don’t bother to vote, or who vote for Ds under the misconception they are “socialist” – if that 38% voted 3rd party … (and please, don’t make me go through a rebuttal of those tired nonsensical memes about 3rd parties can’t win, spoiler, etc. ) fact is if that 38% had voted in electoral polls the way they do in opinion polls – think about it …

  7. “But 38% of American voters prefer socialism to capitalism. ”

    I am sure they are thinking of the Swedish/German/French kind of Socialism, not the USSR one.
    Just curious, did anybody see on Sputnik any opinion critical of Russia aggression against Ukraine?

  8. If as Rall says it’s an article of faith that the US is a conservative country, yet 38% of its voters (which would mean 38% of the roughly half its population that typically participates in electoral charades) prefer socialism to capitalism, then maybe we should take this as no more than another sign that politics, like religion (and polling), is useful as an opiate of the masses.

    After all, what does ‘conservative’ mean when you’ve got people claiming as much who in the name of national defense, etc. effectively end up supporting super-militarist empire that hardly conserves anything on earth, least of all human cannon fodder? Or who, in the name of free enterprise and similar mythology, pit themselves against (communist) causes of union and labor translating into ever greater power for monopoly capital over the economy that results in consistent crushing of their small enterprises?

    On the left rather than right side of the dumbed-down, either-or spectrum of permissible politics, as Rall himself notes, for instance, you’ve got ‘socialists’ who are supporting ‘progressive’ candidates of the capitalist Democratic Party (which organizations like the DSA and CPUSA have long supported) who are nothing more than warmed-over servings of old-school liberalism, just to show how far over intervening decades the definition of political identity has been changed, left as well as right, by the manufacture of consent to a corporate state increasingly fascist overall, whose repression and oppression of ‘the people’ should indicate to anyone not hoodwinked by the ideological conditioning that the key axis of understanding the social system is not the horizontal left-right focus, or fixation, but the vertical top-bottom distribution between the 1% and 99%.

    If the contemporary ‘right’ is a far cry from old-school conservatism, todays ‘left’ is a cosmic scream from even old-school liberalism, let alone socialism/communism/anarchism. What’s been manufactured over more than a century of class war from state repression (e.g., WW1 and Palmer Raids) to philanthropic colonialism (e.g., Ludlow-Rockefeller-Ivy Lee-PR connection), more than a century of being subjected to an increasingly totalitarian means of communications and thought control (aka psychological warfare), is a left, or woke cultural revolution, which exhibits an intolerance, if not incapability, for engaging in politics, rather than cancel culture, much beyond trigger reactions across an endless range of micromanaged identity formations of market commodification, whose news of the world is derived from that private arm of the military-intelligence complex known as Facebook/Meta, who serve as fascist antifascists pushing plandemic agenda on behalf of police-state technocratic terror that would eradicate whatever’s left of the left, let alone liberal democracy.

    Orwell was right again. In this time of universal deceit, where the future is now a jackboot in the face of all humanity in terms of biosecurity laid down by psychopaths who always veil their power in terms of our welfare , it’s from the left, Ingsoc, that the shock troops of control come.

    1. yes—in the US context these labels have lost any important meaning…”the US liberal or progressive wants to preserve the essence of the past–the US conservative wants more progress; the European radical wants to hasten the transformation of the future—the European conservative wants to preserve the essence of the past”. Geoffrey Gorer

  9. Ted, once again you’re telling it like it is, to an audience that prefers it’s information delivered from it’s “reliable” Red/Blue source of journalism.
    Until Americans come to the staggering revelation that it’s flawed representative democracy has been replaced by a well oiled duopoly; angry satirists will never run dry of topics, but should expect to find diminishing outlets for their commentary.

  10. Good one here by my collegeu, Kim P.

    https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/01/dont-confuse-the-left-with-the-right/

    Paul Craig Roberts was the United States assistant secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under President Ronald Reagan. Nowadays he writes about American domestic, economic, and foreign policy with a souciant eye as to the destruction caused by American elitists to regular people at home and abroad.

    In his most recent article, he investigates “why 10 of 11 US aircraft carriers are lined up in a row in dock allegedly for maintanence. [sic]” The reason given to him was that the Russians are able to render US military craft inoperable.

    Despite this, notes Roberts, Russia and China have not made any move to take advantage of the situation, belying any aggressive intentions by these two superpowers. Roberts says,

    All of the aggression in the world stems from Washington. This is plain as day. How come so few see the obvious? Who else but Washington has been at war since the Clinton regime murdering people in nine countries? [emphasis in original]

    Yes, Washington is the source of much aggression, but to state “all of the aggression” is hyperbole and it ignores, for instance, the constant Jewish-Israeli aggression against Palestinians and other Arabs, as well as other skirmishes in the world.

    In the next paragraph Roberts takes issue with “the entire liberal-progressive-left [for] helping the entrenched CIA Establishment demonize president-elect Donald Trump, whose stated goal is to normalize relations with Russia…”

    This again is hyperbole. The Left is not a monolith. What would constitute a genuine Left (which I will define as a movement dedicated to progressivist priniciples) does not oppose normalizing relations with Russia. Nonetheless, Roberts should not expect the Left to embrace Donald Trump, a figure from a rather extreme manifestation of the Right. Excluding the possibility of a genuine revolution that expresses the democratic will of the masses, then insofar as adherence to the norms of “US democracy” is germane to political etiquette, Donald Trump must be granted his stab at the presidential can.

    Roberts speculates,

    Is this an indication that the liberal-progressive-left is a CIA front? This possibility is not far-fetched. As it is a known fact that the CIA owns the American and European print and TV media, why would the CIA ignore the liberal-left “progressive” Internet media?

    This begs the question of which wing of the political spectrum to place the CIA. Of course it is a tool of capitalism, and hence it is of the right-wing, the gangster Right.

    But why blame the left-wing for the right-wing attempting to subsume it? By all means criticize any leftists who abandon principle and become co-opted. And it is a supreme betrayal of principle because a leit motif of the Left is solidarity. But the preponderance of criticism should be directed at the Right.

    Part of Donald Trump’s problem is the Right is not a monolith either. Hence one neoconservative section of the Republican Party capitalist class aligns with the neoliberal section of the Democratic Party capitalist class; they have joined with the CIA to undermine Trump and his base. This is entirely a right-wing attempt to preserve the current Establishment.

    Thus, when Roberts asks “… so why is the liberal-left allied with its Establishment enemy against Trump?” … he is off base. There is no liberal-left in this alliance. Outside of Bernie Sanders and perhaps a handful of other Democrats, the rest of the Democratic Party is staunchly pro-business, pro-war, rightist in political orientation.

    Then Roberts poses what he calls the “real question”: “Does the US really have an independent liberal-left?”

    If one is looking for such in either of the two business parties, then the answer is a resounding no. Whatever there is of a leftist movement in the US has been supremely marginalized and it is virtually ignored by the mass media.

    The Right and its media organs are not about to shine a light on or otherwise bolster the Left.

    Still Roberts takes pot shots at the Left, writing that it “has served as protectors of the fake 9/11 official story…” Much of what is considered independent leftist media did swallow the 9/11 kool aid. But a segment of the Left did not. This writer certainly never accepted the “official” explanation for 9/11 or could accept, for example, that WTC 7 should free fall into its footprint despite not being hit by any plane.1

    Roberts’ writing, whether intended or not, has done much to distance himself from the legacy of the Reagan administration that invaded tiny Grenada, sledgehammered unionism, and trumpeted neoliberalism. And I more-or-less agree when Roberts ends his piece: “What the Western world hurtling to its destruction desperately needs is a real left-wing, a left-wing immune to emotional disabilities that blind it to reality.”

    The world needs a left-wing faithful to its core principles as a unified movement. It must be ever vigilant against fifth columns out to destroy the Left from within. Therefore, the Left must be a wide-based movement with the masses of its rank-and-file empowered. The Left must not make the mistake of putting all its eggs in one basket. The concentration of too much decision-making power in one or a few people must be avoided, as it presents too easy a target for the Right to seek to infiltrate and corrupt. It is much more difficult to corrupt a voluminous mass than a movement’s head.

    1. it is fundamentally false to claim that any left wing exists in USA—the so called progressive in USA aligns most with ruling class interests—to claim there is any substantive distinction between legacy political parties is “the narcissism of small differences”. any critical examination of behavior, actions policies will yield the conclusion made by the famous americanist Sacvan Bercovitch in 2012: “only in United States has nationalism carried with it the christian meaning of the sacred. the revelation of America serves to blight and ultimately to preclude the possibility of fundamental social change”

  11. when a stupified population cannot think critically they will only accept propaganda they agree with—as many have observed, amerikans do not make connections, they only comprehend discreet disconnected facts—Tocqueville, Sennet, Gorer, Lasch Lakoff, etc
    “since the masses are eager to believe in something nothing is so easy as to arrange facts for their benefit”. Charles Talleyrand

  12. I used to read your column in the Chicago Tribune and liked it. No need to apologize for writing for Sputnik news. Your in good company. You would need to apologize if you were a war cheerleader for US Corporate news.

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