Russia Today home to 'naive' journalists

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Media captionLiz Wahl said RT "whitewashes" the actions of Vladimir Putin

It's a sad but familiar story. Bright-eyed kids make their way to the big city seeking fame and fortune. They think they get a break in the business, only to find themselves caught up in a dark, nefarious world where they have to sacrifice their ethics to get ahead.

The law business in The Firm, perhaps? Or maybe stock trading in Oliver Stone's Wall Street? Or Swimming With Sharks' dismal take on the film industry?

According to Buzzfeed writer Rosie Gray, it's the sad fate that awaits young journalists who sign on with RT (formerly Russia Today), thinking they are employed by a legitimate news organisation.

She writes:

Former and current RT employees from both the Moscow headquarters and its D.C. bureau, which heads a channel called RT America, described to BuzzFeed an atmosphere of censorship and pressure, in which young journalists on their first or second job are lured by the promise of a relatively well-paying position covering news for an international network.

Instead, she says, they're "producing Russian propaganda" bankrolled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

She quotes a former employee: "They hire young and mould you into the 'journalist' they want you to be … blinded by ambition, eager to please and quite frankly inexperienced."

RT has been around since 2005, expanded in the US in 2009 and is currently available to 644 million people in 100 countries.

Its website touts that it "covers the major issues of our time for viewers wishing to question more and delivers stories often missed by the mainstream media to create news with an edge".

The network's reporting on the Ukrainian story, however, has garnered RT the most attention - and not in a good way.

RT has been sharply criticised for taking a pro-Russian slant toward the crisis. Opinion show host Abby Martin made international headlines when she went off-script to denounce Russia's Ukraine actions. Then presenter Liz Wahl upped the ante, quitting on-air.

"I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin," she said.

Not everyone is abandoning the RT ship, however. One American host who continues to plug away on RT America is Larry King, the 80-year-old former CNN and syndicated radio host. Although he has been pressured to pull his two shows, Larry King Now and Politicking, off the network, he's stood firm so far.

"It would be bad if they tried to edit out things. I wouldn't put up with it," he told the Daily Beast.

"As long as they don't, as long as they're carrying stuff critical of them, I've got no problem with it."

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait speculates on the thought process of someone who works for RT:

Their motives appear to be a mix of careerism, naivete and utter incuriosity. The modal career arc of an American RT reporter appears to be an ambitious but not terribly bright 20-something aspiring journalist who, faced with the alternative of grim local-news reportage, leaps at the chance to make two or three times the pay while covering world affairs, sort of.

And RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan has responded to the Buzzfeed piece, sort of.

In a post on the RT website, she sarcastically answers five questions put to her by the Buzzfeed writer before the story's publication.

When asked if RT regularly has meetings at the Kremlin, for instance, she writes that she doesn't have to go because she already lives there, with all other TV executives in Russia.

She also mocks the idea of getting information from former employees. "Are you sure?" she asks.

"It is highly unlikely you could reach actual former-RT employees as it is company policy to unleash the KGB on anyone who dares to leave."

Zaid Jilani, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, writes that for all the criticism of RT, the type of moral dilemmas its young employees face are not unlike what most Washington journalists deal with at one time or another.

"Working in Washington taught me we're all a little bit like the good folks who work at RT America - struggling against editorial censors, doing our best to follow our conscience despite sometimes suffocating pressures from our publishers and sponsors," he writes.

To the casual observer, there may be some irony in Buzzfeed - best known for click-bait headlines and what-kind-of-X-are-you quizzes - criticising another outlet's journalism.

The website has started to regularly turn out some serious political and social commentary, however.

For that matter, so has RT - accidentally, critics would say, and perhaps only on issues that paint the US in a bad light.

Slate's David Weigel writes that all the recent attention has severely damaged RT's credibility, however:

It was Martin's on-air denunciation of the Ukraine incursion that woke up the media, again, to the strangeness of RT. It was anchor Liz Wahl's on-air resignation and Martin's quick back-peddling that deepened the strangeness, and brought new media attention, and will probably make it even harder for RT to book top guests. No secret here: D.C. (and New York) are in ready supply of pundits who want to go on TV shows and collect clips of themselves to show bookers for other TV shows. RT was a possible stop along the way, but some tanks in Crimea might have ended that.