Another big story, another high-profile departure: Russia Today’s (RT) Sara Firth has resigned over the network’s coverage of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. RT is the Kremlin-funded international news agency that made headlines earlier this year as anchor Liz Wahl resigned on-air, denouncing its alleged efforts to “whitewash” the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As for Firth, it was a matter of conscience, she told the Erik Wemple Blog today. The London-based correspondent has been with RT since 2009, first as a Moscow-based reporter. Over the years, she says, RT allowed its people to do tough journalism so long as it pleased RT editorial sensibilities. “I can question the British government,” said Firth, noting that such stories generally “fit” the RT “narrative.” But too often she encountered a company line that didn’t make room for unfavorable publicity about the network’s funders. For instance, Firth said she was pulled out of Syria after a dispute with her supervisors over the drift of coverage toward Russian ally Bashar Al-Assad. “We need you back in Moscow,” Firth said she was told after raising concerns. (Waiting for reaction from RT on this front).
I resigned from RT today. I have huge respect for many in the team, but I’m for the truth. pic.twitter.com/mZ1g0R7N0D
— Sara Firth (@Sara__Firth) July 18, 2014
When the story concerns Russia and Ukraine, the 28-year-old Firth suggested that there’s no place to hide at RT. That’s right at the core of RT’s mission, and a predetermined viewpoint will be pushed on air, she said: “In a situation like that, you just see how little regard they have for the facts. It’s a real shame.”
Check out the video up top. It features testimony from a witness to the wreckage and aired on RT’s breaking-news coverage yesterday. Some guy — a “person who was near the scene,” in the words of an RT anchor — lays out a very early theory about who’s to blame for the tragedy:
According to preliminary information coming from militias, the aircraft was brought down by a missile presumably coming from the positions of the Ukrainian military. This information will be verified. It could be that the aircraft was shot down by Ukrainian air defenses . . . According to preliminary information, this could be Ukrainian air defenses because the armaments that the militias possess are not enough to shoot down an aircraft from the height of 10,000 meters above ground.
Those words comport with a tweet that Firth sent out this morning:
RT style guide Rule 1: It is ALWAYS *Ukraine’s fault (*add name as applicable)
— Sara Firth (@Sara__Firth) July 18, 2014
Over her five years with RT, Firth said she became steadily more uncomfortable with the organization’s editorial slant. The stuff about Ukrainian air defenses, however, provided something of a shoulder-shaker: “That story made me jump, and I was on the edge already,” she said.
Though RT allowed early speculation on Ukrainian culpability, it generated a news package ripping other media outlets for jumping the gun in blaming pro-Russian rebels. “Investigators haven’t even arrived at the crash site yet, but the Ukrainian authorities and certainly some Western media outlets have been very quick to blame anti-Kiev fighters,” noted an RT anchor.
RT distinguishes itself from many U.S. media outlets in its willingness to address staff defections. Anna Belkina, RT’s head of communications, sent these words, among others, about Firth’s resignation:
Sara has declared that she chooses the truth; apparently we have different definitions of truth. We believe that truth is what our reporters see on the ground, with their own eyes, and not what’s printed in the morning London newspaper. In our coverage, RT, unlike the rest of the media, did not draw conclusions before the official investigation has even begun. We show all sides of the story, even if everyone else has already decided which side is to blame.
When the Erik Wemple Blog read that statement to Firth over the phone, she short-circuited for a moment. “Oh my gosh, it’s amazing — what is the right word for it even? That’s what’s so crazy about RT, this idea that they have about versions of the truth. They took an eyewitness account and blamed the Ukrainian government” very early, she said. “It’s all about pointing fingers for them and manipulating the truth.”
Whatever its mission, RT is splurging on the story. According to Belkina, there are 15 RT journalists on the case, located in Moscow, the Russian-Ukrainian border, London, Berlin and Washington. RT has 22 bureaus in 19 countries and territories, according to its Web site.