A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article here, "Bambi Lives," about how after Liz Wahl quit her job as an anchor for the Russian government-funded TV network Russia Today while on the air, she commented afterwards that she "didn't know that his (Vladimir Putin's) views would be imposed on the news operation."
"Wait a minute, seriously, Ms. Wahl?," I wrote, "You were a news reporter for a one-party Russian government TV network, and you had no idea that the president of Russia, who is additionally a former KGB officer, would have his views imposed on the news operation??? Really? You didn't know? If you wrote game captions for My Weekly Reader, I'd think you know that. But as a news reporter ('news'!), I'd have thought that knowing that was a basic given. Sort of like a server at the We Only Serve Spaghetti chain of restaurants knows he'll be pushing spaghetti."
Honestly, for someone who criticized RT for not being a "sound news organization," how difficult would it have been to do a little digging (and by "little," I meant "asking the person who'll be sitting in the cubicle next to you") to find out how providing news about Russia from a one-party, government-owned TV network would work. It didn't speak well to her reportorial skills.
What I suggested at the time was that what she did had seemed as much a promotional stunt as anything, in her hopes of getting attention and landing a big U.S. network job.
But if I was an executive at one of those "sound news organizations" that she says she admires, I wrote, and I was looking to hire a reporter with top-notch analytical skills, I might pause before going with Liz Wahl. "After all, she's either the most naive correspondent in the world, or the most disingenuous and untrustworthy. Neither a good thing for a reporter who's supposed to see through deception and deliver the truth."
In fact, it does indeed now look like she's auditioning for that big network job -- Ms. Wahl has just written an article for Politico, "I Was Putin's Pawn."
And it was awful. At least the part I could get through. Then I gave up. In fact, I almost stopped at the title -- I mean, swell, just what I want from a crack reporter, being an unwitting pawn. But it happens, people make mistakes, get used by careful, clever manipulators. (Mind you, I still think that getting tricked into thinking Vladimir Putin was going to give you free reign is a pretty massive mistake, as far as massive journalistic mistakes go. After all, Vladimir Putin is less a manipulator than bulldozer.) So, giving Liz Wahl a chance, I dove in.
Then I got to the second sentence. "I’d looked the other way as the network smeared America for the sake of making the Kremlin look better by comparison, while it sugarcoated atrocities by one brutal dictator after another."
Keep in mind that this is her defense of herself! And she's telling you right off -- the second sentence -- that she had been knowingly looking the other way at one smear and atrocity after another. So, her quitting wasn't a case of a sudden act of moral conscience and outrage, suddenly discovering that she'd been deceived by a bulldozer. She'd been watching the bulldozing for quite a while. And just kept blithely reporting the smears and sugarcoated atrocities as news.
But then, we shouldn't be too surprised. This wasn't a seasoned, professional journalist, after all, working her way up the ladder with deep international experience of world politics until she got to that host anchor's seat. As she tells us --
"When RT first contacted me, I was working as a reporter and anchor 8,000 miles away on the island of Saipan, in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a 40-minute plane ride from Guam. I had been there for about two years, reporting for the local news station on topics like immigration and local political corruption. Before making the move across the globe, I had freelanced at a local news station in my home state of Connecticut, and had done several internships in broadcast news, including at NBC and Fox."
So, let's be clear about this: her experience was that she was an intern, did some freelancing, and spent two years as a reporter in Saipan. I'm sure that immigration in the Northern Mariana Islands is a major story there.
This isn't to criticize someone starting out in their career. Just to point out that Liz Wahl was just starting out. If she wants to use this attention-grabbing, self-promotion stunt to move up to that big network job, that's what they'd be getting. If she doesn't want that job, that's what RT was getting -- and likely precisely what they were looking for. An inexperienced American wide-eyed doe who would happily look the other way reading stories on smears and sugarcoated atrocities because being a news anchor for Russia was a huge leap up from being a 40-minutes plane ride from Guam, not realizing that Russia didn't actually invite criticism on its government-owned TV stations. How unqualified was she for all this? She herself tells us -- honest, these are her own words! -- "I knew my other options would likely require moving to some Podunk town to cover rescued kittens and the Fourth of July parade."
Never mind that that's probably the job she's most suited for, and never mind that I'm sure all the Podunk towns love to know their would-be anchor's opinion of them, but man, what a contrast between job opportunities!!
What most leaped out to me, though, wasn't so much the naivety, but the really bad writing. Not that I expect all people to be wonderful, insightful writers, heir to Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid, but I think we all expect news anchors for national news organizations to offer more depth and analysis than, "Island life was a blast."
Yes, I know I'm being harsh on Liz Wahl. But I don't like someone trying to play me for a sap. And I don't like someone being a sap while trying to think they're substantive and deserve heroic attention. And I find news important. And world politics important. And I don't like someone using their naivety and incompetence as stepping stones to positions of responsibility. If Liz Wahl had written that she knew clear-eyed what she was getting into, but hoped it would give her experience on a larger stage and that maybe she could take something from the job that would help her later on in her career in terms of building international bridges, I could accept that. But this lollypop she's throwing at us is pathetic.
My favorite part of that head-spinning gumfummery was the description she writes of her job interview with the news director of Russia Today. The government-owned network was pitched to her as an alternative news source, she says, one "that dared to challenge conventions." Cool. Because that is so what Russian news is known for, of course. After all, she explains, "Question More" was RT's slogan. Well, hey, that's proof enough for me! They've got a good slogan. Why in the world look further? No need to actually...well, question more. Hey, the "Fox News" slogan is "Fair and Balanced," so it must be so. ExxonMobil's slogan was "Think Clean" -- which they came up with to get your mind off that Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster
Question More? Ms. Wahl could hardly have questioned less. During their interviews over email and Skype, "there was little talk about Russia," she says, "or any indication the news would be influenced by Russian politics." No, of course not, why should there be? It was only a Russian government-owned network. Boy, howdy, that's some job interview, I must say. Where could I get me one of those? Happily, she at least did have some misgivings, Ms. Wahl tells us, and says she asked the news director about editorial independence. But "He scoffed, and asserted that the network was providing alternative news that mainstream outlets didn’t want to hear." Well, there you go -- he scoffed. Enough said. A scoff tells a thousand words. Next!
And then this ace journalist writes perhaps her most telling sentence -- "I wondered why the network was interested in me since I’m not Russian and have no ties to the country, but I checked out RT America’s online videos and saw that almost all of the on-air correspondents were from the United States."
Note to Liz Wahl: they were interested in you because you're the kind of person who's entire research is to look at online videos. That was you crack investigation into the Russian government-owned network. One is shocked that you became a pawn. From all you're describing, I'd have thought you'd have become a flattened pancake.
Yet the article actually gets worse.
"I was a little skeptical about the whole thing," she writes, "but I couldn’t find much concrete information on the Internet about the station and its mission and I didn’t know anyone who’d ever worked there."
At this point, my head was about to explode, and I was still only on page one. Seriously? Did she ever consider, oh, I don't know, asking the news director for the names of anyone she could call? Or check with any journalists she did know and ask them?? Or call some respected journalists she didn't know and ask?! Miss Wahl, you're this terrific reporter who the Russian TV network is interested in to be an on-air host -- did you think of taking advantage of any of those skills you used covering all those big Saipan immigration stories and track down someone, anyone to talk to??
There was an episode of the TV series How I Met Your Mother where they introduced a character called "Honey." When someone asks Honey's friend why they called her that, the answer was because the girl would always say the most utterly naive, trustingly idiotic things, and your first response was always, "Ohhh, honey..." You just want to take Liz Wahl protectively in your arms and say, "Ohhh, honey. You really shouldn't be left outside alone."
"I figured there are other networks that do respected journalism while getting some form of government funding," Ms. Wahl then explains, trying to justify her ignorance and deer-in-the-headlights innocence. New note to Liz Wahl -- RT didn't get some form of government funding. It is funded by the government. It is a branch of the government. It is the government. "It’s not like it was North Korea," she almost pleads. (No, it's not, not exactly. But it's close enough that you can see it from Sarah Palin's porch. By the way, the North Korea TV news slogan is "This is Real. Honest. Trust Us.")
Liz Wahl keeps topping herself with great lines. The best may be: "Maybe I ignored some red flags." Forgetting the obvious pun she missed here, you just want to say, gee, yeah, that's just what you want from a great reporter, one who can't see the red barn she's standing in front of. And then she almost tops herself again with the very next line, "Maybe I should have asked tougher questions." Maybe? She's still not sure??.
But it was two paragraphs later when I gave up. And again, remember, we're still on the first page of a three-page article. But if anything can encapsulate the total disingenuousness of Liz Wahl's attempt to paint herself as a gritty reporter who became a used, put-upon pawn, it was this. She explains sardonically that her very first days on the job were "...interesting" -- and then adds:
"Some colleagues warned me that I’d need to let go of any preconceived notions and journalistic principles. I wasn’t exactly sure what they meant."
Oh, dear God.
That sentence on its own is bad enough, just on the pure face of it, just the simple fact that she wrote it -- and thought it would make her look good. But you just want to scream at the page, "If you didn't understand...then ask them what they meant!!!!!" Question more. Question something. Question any freaking thing.
And so, I gave up reading any further. There was more still on the first page, and two more pages remaining. And I just didn't have it in me.
I wish Liz Wahl well. Perhaps she'll get a job in some Podunk town covering rescued kittens and Fourth of July parades. Perhaps she'll even get that Big Network Job. After all, it's for anchor hosts like her without any pretense of credibility why "Fox News" was created. And, in all seriousness, I think it's swell that she quit her job on the air, even if it likely was a self-promotional stunt, because it also brought more attention to Russia's actions in the Ukraine. (To be clear, Russia Today isn't broadcast in Russia. So, Ms. Wahl's quitting passed unknown there.)
It now seems likely to me that Liz Wahl falls heavily on the unearthly-naive side of the aisle, rather than disingenuous (to the point of making one wonder how she's able to blink and manipulate her fingers at the same time). It also seems to belie the theory that life can't exist in a vacuum.
In the end, as disheartening as it was to read most of page one of that article in such a good publication as Politico, there is something comforting in knowing that the world is a better place without Liz Wahl broadcasting for Russia Today.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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