Ed Schultz used to be the bombastic lefty host of a syndicated radio show and daily MSNBC program. He befriended Hillary Clinton, called Donald Trump “a racist” for his birther views, and once beseeched God to take Dick Cheney “to the promised land.”
In 2014, he ripped Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “nasty” human rights record. He also torched American conservatives for siding with the Russian president as a counter to President Obama. “Putie is their new hero,” sneered Schultz.
But the times have changed. And so has Ed Schultz.
In mid-2015, MSNBC handed Schultz his last paycheck. After six years on the air, the ratings of his daily program, “The Ed Show,” were soft and MSNBC was going for more news in Schultz’s time slot, not opinion. His daily radio show had ended the previous year.
So Schultz went back to his lakefront home in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and took stock. At 61, after a lifetime in broadcasting, he concluded he wasn’t done. In early 2016, he returned to television, albeit in an unlikely place and role for a guy who once styled himself as a “prairie populist.” He became the lead news anchor for RT America, the domestic network of what was once known as Russia Today, a globe-spanning multimedia organization funded by the Russian government.
Schultz, in other words, went to work for “Putie.”
The transition would require a bit of adjustment.
Schultz now hosts RT America’s signature evening newscast, “News With Ed Schultz,” produced in a studio located three blocks from the White House. Schultz is the American face — ruddy, beefy, with a megaphone voice — of a Moscow-based media organization that reports the news a little differently than CNN or NBC.
“Good evening, friends,” Schultz boomed on his program one recent evening before swiftly segueing into “the alleged hacking” of the presidential election by Russia. Schultz skipped the latest details, such as President Obama’s views on the matter or the consensus among American intelligence agencies about the extent of Russian meddling. Instead he went straight to Ed Schultz’s view of the matter: “This has become a lifeline for Clinton supporters in an effort to reverse the outcome of the election. . . . In the meantime, the story has entered the arena of outrageous.”
Schultz quickly threw to a recorded package, in which RT America reporter Alexey Yaroshevsky wondered how long the “spiraling downfall of sanity” over hacking in the U.S. media would continue. “Until the public sees forensic evidence, if such exists at all, these accusations should carry as much weight as online humor,” Yaroshevsky reported.
Next up: A Schultz-led panel discussion of Trump’s appointment of ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and Tillerson’s ties to Putin.
“Why is [Tillerson’s] business relationships and successes with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the business world and in the energy industry, why is that a negative on Capitol Hill?” he asked the panel, almost pleading. “Isn’t that a positive thing that he knows Putin?”
RT, whose slogan is “Question More,” arrived in Washington in 2010, five years after being launched in Moscow by its founder, Margarita Simonyan, at the time a 25-year-old state journalist. Simonyan, who remains RT’s editor in chief, was also a member of Putin’s re-election staff in 2012.
Schultz, now 62, is one of several Americans who appear on the domestic channel. Others include former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, who hosts “On Contact,” a weekly interview show featuring “dissident voices”; Max Keiser, who has a financial program; and Tyrel Ventura, co-host of public-affairs show called “Watching the Hawks” and the son of former Minnesota governor and RT personality Jesse Ventura.
RT America has broad distribution via the Internet, but virtually no presence on cable; only 19 cable systems (out of 5,208 nationwide) carry the channel. Nevertheless, RT claimed this year that it had a weekly TV audience of more than 8 million in the United States , a questionable figure given its limited cable carriage.
Schultz, who once said on MSNBC that Putin is “crippling” his country, now has a Russo-friendly, or perhaps American-skeptical, viewpoint on any number of issues on his RT program. So do most of the guests he interviews.
The crisis in the Syrian city of Aleppo, besieged by Syrian and Russian military forces? Apparently, it’s the United States’ fault: “You’ve got [Secretary of State] John Kerry supposedly trying to find the peace while the U.S. is being an arms dealer right into the city of Aleppo,” said Schultz on Dec. 8.
Fake online news, allegedly generated by Russian sources? Schultz, a North Dakotan who once considered running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, thinks it’s all “fear and hype” by the American news media and a smear by the Democratic Party, especially Clinton.
“If they [the American media] want to go after fake news, they can start with the Clinton campaign and their accusations” about Russian involvement, he said on a broadcast in September.
RT America’s approach to the news makes some American officials and foreign-policy observers wonder: Is it merely “an alternative voice,” as it likes to say, or something more sinister?
Stanford professor Michael McFaul, the former American ambassador to Russia, calls RT “an instrument of the Russian state. Their mission is to advance the mission of Mr. Putin and the [Russian] government.”
By mimicking the look and feel of an American newscast — even to the extent of permitting an occasional dissent from the Kremlin-centric line — RT is trying to “disguise” its real intent, he said.
And Schultz is part of the strategy, says McFaul. “They put on a lot of Americans as hosts and journalists,” he said. “The idea is to obfuscate and confuse people about it being a government entity.”
Schultz, a former college quarterback and sportscaster, rebutted the notion that he or RT America were mouthpieces for the Kremlin. He blamed the news media — and Clinton.
“The Clinton camp is trying to do all it can to connect Donald Trump to Putin,” he said during a phone interview in early September. “They’re trying to cast anyone on RT in a negative light. I think it’s deplorable. We’re journalists. We’re fair. We have correspondents all over the world. Yes, part of our funding comes from the government. But so does the BBC. So does the Canadian Broadcasting Network. The mainstream depiction of RT is a travesty. It’s dishonest.”
A follow-up question: How does Schultz square his liberal résumé with his current embrace of a Kremlin-friendly outfit like RT?
That question will have to wait. Schultz agreed to another interview in mid-October, and even sounded eager about it. But when a reporter came to RT’s Washington office on the appointed day, he was intercepted in the lobby by a network representative. The interview, she said without explanation, was off.
Fast-forward to early December. Schultz sounded eager about talking again but deferred final approval to an RT spokeswoman, Tiffany Evans. A few days later, Evans declined via email.
The RT gig marks another twist in Schultz’s long and winding broadcast career.
Schultz began as a radio and TV sportscaster on stations in North Dakota after his days as a football player culminated with tryouts with the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. In the mid-1990s, he began a second line, hosting a political-talk show on a Fargo radio station. Schultz was no liberal then. As the Los Angeles Times once described it, “Big Eddie,” as he was known, would scoff at local Democratic officials and deride the homeless. “How about getting a job?” he’d ask on the air.
But the budding Rush Limbaugh underwent a stunning political conversion a few years later, switching from conservative talk-show host to a fiery liberal one.
Schultz attributed the conversion to his wife, Wendy Noack, a psychiatric nurse who worked in a Fargo homeless shelter and later became his radio producer. Schultz’s longtime friend from Fargo, Don Haney, thinks the transition was sincere. “The change was gradual, but Ed really meant it,” says Haney, an anchor and reporter at KFGO-AM, Schultz’s old station.
But others suspected that Schultz merely smelled an opportunity for counterprogramming in a field dominated by conservatives.
In any case, Schultz-the-liberal was no less subtle than his conservative persona. He taunted Limbaugh for his drug addiction and tore into President George W. Bush as an enemy of “the working stiff” (later on, in 2011, he apologized after calling conservative radio host Laura Ingraham “a right-wing slut” on his radio program).
But this second guise was Schultz’s most successful. Backed by donations from Democrats, Schultz took his radio program into national syndication in 2004. “The Ed Schultz Show” eventually reached about 100 stations, including those in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington.
Among those who came calling was the senator from New York, Hillary Clinton; she sat for several interviews with him and described him as “a personal friend.”
MSNBC hired him in 2009, just as President Obama took office.
Brent Budowsky, a columnist for the Hill newspaper and an irregular guest on Schultz’s program, says he still views Schultz “as a strong voice for progressive populism.” Even so, he says, RT promotes the interests of the Russian government, sometimes moving into outright “propaganda.” Budowsky calls Schultz “a good man in a difficult spot.”
But perhaps a comfortable one, too. In October, Haney saw his old friend again when they traveled to Des Moines to interview Bernie Sanders. They flew there on Schultz’s newly purchased jet, whose previous owner was golf legend Arnold Palmer.