A ship on troubled waters
Screenshot of a recent “Op–Edge” post, 2014, with apologies to RT ANO “TV Novosti.”
I would hate to work at RT these days.
On Monday 3 March 2014, RT America presenter Abby Martin used the last minute in her show Breaking the Set — in the midst of its second season on the “Question More” newscaster — to voice her displeasure with the Russian Federation’s military actions in Ukraine, as tensions between the two nation–states have steadily intensified. Amazingly, the Moscow–based newscaster, which has a bureau and studio facility in Washington (and smaller facilities in New York and Los Angeles), decided not to discipline her for her defiance, even though she declined their offer to go to Crimea. No doubt Ms. Martin, whose résumé includes Project Censored, is mulling her options at this time.
So, for that matter, is now former RT America presenter Liz Wahl, who shocked viewers on Wednesday 5 March by announcing her resignation from the newscaster while the last evening newscast from Washington was winding down. But unlike Ms. Martin, who prides herself in being up–front in her opinions, there were indications that Ms. Wahl’s employment with RT America was in peril even before her unexpected on–air resignation. (Truthdig has since published a comprehensive account of Ms. Wahl’s troubled employment, one that comes a few days after Buzzfeed’s exposé about working at the newscaster’s U.S. service.)
To be sure, there’s been quite a bit of cheering, as well as some Schadenfreude — the laughing at another’s misery — at how quickly the public image of RT as a broadcasting institution is melting. To this you can certain add what Ms. Wahl stated in an interview for The Daily Beast about some folks working at the former Russia Today being all too willing to please the network’s parent entity, which itself was until recently known as RIA Novosti (novosti is Russian for news):
I think management is able to manipulate the very young and naïve employees… They will find ways to punish you covertly and reward those that do go along with their narrative.
I’m not so sure I’d be so willing to report for work knowing that Kiev (and what is going down there according to the higher–ups in the Kremlin) will be the main course on the menu. I’m reminded of the reported practices of the Fox News Channel — a diametrically–opposed newscaster, to be sure! — in which, say, a memo dictates the workday agenda. What would be so different at RT, then?
But look closely at the Huffington Post story about Ms. Martin’s blurt, and work your way down to where the sudden constriction of independence in Russian journalism took place. There is no more RIA Novosti, which preferred a more moderate tone. That ended in advance of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi — and the current tug–of–war between Russia and Ukraine. RT took its original tone from RIA Novosti during the first seven years of its existence, even as U.S. viewers discovered the English services at the height of the Occupy Wall Street actions (coverage that actually gave RT an International Emmy nomination) and the 2012 special coverage of the U.S. Presidential Election (including uncut coverage of two third–party candidate debates, one of which took place inside RT America’s Washington studio). In short, RT may have been funded by an arm of the Russian government, but it didn’t seem to act like one.
And during that time, things actually worked well to RT’s advantage. They gradually built audiences for their U.S.–specific shows, including The Big Picture, hosted by celebrated progressive pundit Thom Hartmann. Last year, they pacted with ORA TV to bring in two shows hosted by former CNN presenter Larry King (Larry King Now and Politicking). 2013 was also the year that RT struck social media gold: more than a billion hits on YouTube (where they have a big family of channels, even for specific shows), the No. 1 news video of that year (dashboard camera footage of a meteorite streaking across the sky before crash–landing), and a million verified likes on their main Facebook page.
In other words, it was as if RT could hardly do anything wrong.
But 2013 was also the year that brought some much–hated changes to Russia, most notably the anti–gay–”propaganda” law that feels like it was pushed by the country’s all–powerful Orthodox Church.
And all this time, there has been Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. Like him or hate him, there’s no question that he may be that country’s shrewdish politician right now, one not to be taken lightly on anything — be it while hosting the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics, or as he carefully plays his cards, so to speak, in front of an increasingly skeptical — or perhaps even cynical — global community.
Here I must acknowledge that Ukrainian and Russian politics are not my forte; I’m woefully lacking in the realm of objective analysis when it comes to the very issues that have resulted in bad blood spilled (literately even) on both sides of the conflict. So it matters to me, and to the rest of the world, that the coverage be as objective as possible — something that becomes impossible when your trusted news source is given hard–line marching orders from the top.
One thing is certain: RT may not be facing its own demise just yet — the Truthdig investigation suggests that will be a long way off — but it is being taken down a path its global viewership, whether reached via satellite or online, probably won’t completely accept. I will not be surprised if all or some of their social media fame is suddenly flushed away — whether by viewers slowly abandoning the channel, or by governments in the West taking pro–active action to ban or block it. (It will have some precedent: the U.S. Department of Treasury banned the Iran Broadcasting Authority’s broadcast holdings — including the English–speaking Press TV, the Spanish–speaking Hispan TV, and the Iranian cinema–centric IFilm — from satellite carriage last year. All three channels can still be accessed online for the time being, although that may change with the lack of network neutrality laws in the States.)
As I said, Ms. Martin and Ms. Wahl will certainly be mulling over whatever options they now have. The big problem is over where they can go post–RT America, especially Abby Martin with her progressive outlook on the news. Other nations have their own international broadcasters, to be certain — France 24, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, and South Korea’s Arirang are three of them — but I’m not sure any of them are willing to set up big U.S. bureaus of the sort that will welcome RT’s castoffs. There is Arise News, which has bureaus in London, New York, Johannesburg and Lagos, but I’m not sure how they’re able to stay in business (there is no advertising in their stream or on their website). And David Icke has launched The People’s Voice, which is a mite scrappy and struggling technically — but it might appeal to an audience if they can get enough support (and get their name out in the open).
For now, the best way — and the saddest one, for certain — to view RT is as a ship full of talented people, capable of putting on a show with style, but currently headed by some foolish people all too willing to please their headmasters in the Kremlin. It’s the sort of image that doesn’t project very well in a live stream. Whether or not they are capable of changing course — or willing to do so — is one question that isn’t so easy to ask, let alone answer.
A lot of people may not be worried now.
But they should be.
[UPDATE 2014.03.12: The Huffington Post has more on the topic of Russia’s recent news management.]
[UPDATE 2014.03.15: The BBC weighs in. Meanwhile, a recent issue of Rolling Stone Magazine included a short interview with Abby Martin, who can also be heard in this interview for WNYC and National Public Radio’s On the Media.]
[UPDATE 2014.03.19: RT weighs in on the Truthdig report, just a few days after a brief outage of their main YouTube channel, which has since been restored.]
[UPDATE 2014.03.27: Another Huffington Post report, this one offering far more on the shutdown of RIA Novosti, and the creation of another “Russia Today” — the original name of what is now just simply RT.]
One uncertain summer
I am writing this in early March, and already I am approaching the summer of 2014 with some trepidation.
Even as we will soon be able to resume work on Just One Story… and thus get through the backlog of future episodes, we are also keeping close tabs on the labour situation involving the Long Island Rail Road and its parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA. The LIRR’s rank and file employees have been without a current contract for some time now, and there have been some pushes to get the matter resolved — but without success. The MTA has ruled out any talk of actually giving LIRR employees even a small raise in their salaries, and have instead insisted that said employees forfeit certain benefits and submit to cost–cutting measures that are more likely to increase tensions on the job.
In late February, what was supposed to be a two–day gathering to air out the most sticking of issues ended abruptly after a mere four hours — without both sides meeting face to face.
The upshot of all this is that without a new contract deal in place, the LIRR’s rank and file will be free to strike in July.
That will be damaging enough to the many weekday commuters of the LIRR, who choose to ride the rails to and from their cubicles or office desks. But it will be equally damaging to Rosegarden, because we use the LIRR to get into New York City and record our signature show.
In a nutshell: No LIRR, no passage to and from Manhattan — and thus, no Just One Story… episodes. That simple. And that sad.
For now, five things need to be decided:
• whether there will be a 2014 story season at the Statue of Hans Christian Andersen in Central Park (and money to pay for it),
• who will be the artistic director this year (Laura Simms, or…?),
• who will be telling,
• whether or not we will be invited back to record some of the story hours, and most importantly…
• whether or not the LIRR’s rank and file will strike — and if they do, how long will it last.
You can help decide the first item by heading for the Hans Christian Andersen Storytelling Center website and making a donation via PayPal or any of the other methods available. If you enjoy coming to Central Park every summer for stories, then please do your part. It is bad enough that the original storytelling tradition is impoverished when compared to cinema, theatre, opera, broadcast media and the like. That needs to change, and it needs to change now.
Rest assured, we at Rosegarden will be able to keep ourselves busy during the summer if we need to. It would, however, be preferable if we don’t have to sacrifice something that gives so much pleasure summer after summer.
P.S. to the LIRR employees and MTA managers who may be reading this: Please get your act together and get a contract done and signed. We’d prefer to think the world of you in the end.
We are still moving through our archives of Diane Wolkstein recordings — the earliest ones date back to 1998 and were made on a Sony MiniDisc recorder(!) — and this time around we offer one of her many audience favorites: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Most Incredible Thing of All” (1870), the story of a contest that promises the Princess’ hand in marriage to whoever can impress the judges the most (and the one who clearly rises to the challenge).
That should be all we need to say, except that we have included a little surprise to go along with this Storytelling Library release — hence the size of this particular download.
As you will see in the accompanying booklet, producer Philip David Morgan has a special fondness for this particular Andersen story and the way Mme. Wolkstein told it, especially in the way she actively engaged the Central Park audience. All you need do is hear for yourself.
(N.B.: We do have another 2010 recording coming, that of four stories from Mme. Wolkstein’s book The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. That album will be coming once we have heard from the guest artistes whose voices were captured by our camera and microphone. Thank you for your patience.)
We’re putting the word out on behalf of Marina Verenikina — or as her fans know her, Marina V — who is now using Patreon to finance her next recordings. Unlike other better known “talents” (start naming names), Ms. Verenikina’s muse is about, as she says, "finding strength and being brave enough to be yourself."
With the music industry very much in freefall (especially after the breakup and sale of everything EMI last year), it now matters all the more to support the musicians you say you love. Start here, and start now.
One minor tweak to our homepage.
Well, let’s face it: documenting storytelling is the one thing we’re especially known for doing.
Voilà! And we have a new look. See it for yourself.
Yes, we have a new storytelling MP3, just in time for gift–giving. So if you’re planning on giving a loved one a mobile phone or tablet, make sure it comes with some quality storytelling. Come get it.
Yes, our little MP3 series will be making a comeback.
In the meantime, I’ve updated the PDF booklet that accompanies our first release, which came out just six days before my dear friend Diana left us and her unfinished Journey to the West (Xī Yóu Jì, or 西遊記) retelling behind. Get it here (192kbps).
We are preparing to completely overhaul our Just One Story… series — there will be a new opening title sequence, and we want to get a special signature tune for it all. All of that will be going on during the Fall and Winter months, and it will affect all episodes in the series.
In the meantime, here is a Special Presentation from Rosegarden Television (accessible on both Vimeo and YouTube): Rachel Zucker remembering her mother, Diane Wolkstein, with a telling of the 1992 story Little Mouse’s Painting.
Little Mouse’s Painting ©1992 Diane Wolkstein.
Video ©2013 Rachel Zucker / Rosegarden Media and Entertainment.
And now, Motoko.
At long last, Just One Story… is BACK at you with our first two episodes of 2013. And we’re also proud to say that we have added what we hope will be the first of many Asian (in this case, Japanese) stories to our growing library.
Without further adieu, please welcome… Motoko.
Please enjoy what you see and hear, and — if you’re as impressed as we are — do remember to support her by buying one of her albums.
Videos ©2013 Motoko Dworkin / Rosegarden Media and Entertainment.