Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a house after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, April 11, 2022.

As the war rages in Ukraine, Radio Sputnik occupies the airwaves in American heartland

As Russia's military shifts focus on the ground to Ukraine's east, an information war is being fought on social media and on the airwaves — including in American heartland cities like Liberty, Missouri. 

The World

In Liberty, Missouri, Russian-funded news programs from Radio Sputnik can be heard daily on KCXL — it’s one of a handful of US stations that broadcast its shows.

Radio Sputnik’s hosts often attempt to convince Americans that the reality of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is unlike anything the “mainstream media” reports.

For instance, Jamarl Thomas, on a recent episode of Radio Sputnik talk show “Fault Lines,” blamed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for starting the war.

Related: Russia’s feminists are protesting the war and its propaganda with stickers, posters, performance and graffiti

While many hail Zelenskiy as a national hero, Thomas has called him a NATO puppet and a patsy president.

It’s an example of how, far beyond Ukraine, an information war is unfolding on social media, TV stations and airwaves — waged mainly by the US and Russia who produce competing narratives to justify their perspectives and influence audiences.

KCXL’s program director Jonne Santoli-Schartel said that she believes that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is “100%” wrong.

“I don’t agree with a lot of shows on KCXL, but I run them because it’s so important to get different opinions.” 

Jonne Santoli-Schartel, KCXL program director 

“I don’t agree with a lot of shows on KCXL, but I run them because it’s so important to get different opinions,” she said.

Getting a mix of voices on the air — “to me, that’s what America is all about,” she added.

Related: Russians in Georgia help to evacuate Ukrainians  

The US’ National Association of Broadcasters has called for Radio Sputnik to be taken off the air, stating that the First Amendment “does not prevent private actors from exercising sound, moral judgment” and that “our nation must stand fully united against misinformation and for freedom and democracy across the globe.”

And although the station has received plenty of hate calls since the Russian invasion began, Santoli-Schartel said, she has no plans to pull Sputnik.

In that same spirit, she said that the station would be willing to broadcast a Ukrainian program.

“I still would, and if they'll pay for it, absolutely,” she said. “Yeah, my heart goes out to the people in Ukraine.”

The station broadcasts the Russian-government-funded programming six hours a day. (The rest of the station's content runs the gambit from evangelical programs to far-right talk shows, including conspiracy theorist “Alex Jones” and “TruNews.”)

Differentiating propaganda from legitimate news 

The small, independent radio station gets paid $5,000 each month by Radio Sputnik to broadcast its shows, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act filings.

Related: Ukraine is now urging people to evacuate the Donbas. This Ukrainain American pastor is risking his life to help.

In 2019, a judge ordered Florida-based RM Broadcasting, LLC — an intermediary for two US radio stations including KCXL, and Rossiya Segodnya, a media organization sponsored by the Russian government — to register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

Since then, the company has had to regularly disclose how much it is paying broadcasters like KCXL for airtime on behalf of the Russian government.

FARA, enacted in 1938, grew out of fears that countries like Germany were attempting to influence public opinion in the lead-up to World War II.

“It’s been the intent of the law from the beginning to catch propaganda efforts and require disclosure of them,” said Matthew Sanderson, a lawyer specializing in FARA with the firm Caplin and Drysdale.

One of the first registrants under FARA was Transocean News Service, a German media agency that, in the 1930s, came under the control of the Nazi regime and began offering pro-Nazi propaganda as stories for US publications to print for free or a small fee.

“The trick, obviously — especially in this day and age — is to differentiate propaganda efforts from legitimate news services,” Sanderson said.

It’s a line that Radio Sputnik and its sister network, RT, formerly known as Russia Today, have straddled.

They have reached an audience in the US since 2017 and 2010, respectively, though RT America shuttered last month, citing “unforeseen business interruption events.

‘Whitewashing’ Putin’s actions 

Liz Wahl, who worked as a news anchor for RT America from 2011 to 2014, said that the news staff did have some degree of journalistic independence when it came to covering stories that were critical of the US. They included topics such as police brutality, income inequality and others that suggested the decline of Western institutions — “all these kinds of issues that really are important,” she said.

But after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, that journalistic independence disappeared, Wahl said, and the show was pressured to “whitewash” Putin’s actions. She said that she can’t help but see echoes of this now as the Kremlin justifies the invasion of Ukraine in order to “denazify” it.

Related: Body armor factories in the Americas are sending gear to war-torn Ukraine

“It's kind of chilling looking back on that time, on the kinds of narratives that I was pressured to push,” Wahl said.

She said that she felt pushed to highlight alleged neo-Nazi elements of the Ukrainian government. When she went to fact-check these claims, she found that, for the most part, the sources were colleagues at RT.

“There just wasn't a justification. It made no sense to focus on this element of Nazis in Ukraine.”

That year, she announced her resignation from RT America on air.

Wahl, who now hosts a podcast, “Radicalized,” on disinformation and extremism, said that her RT producers and news directors promoted the notion that RT America told stories ignored by the mainstream media.

“But the wider goal was really to make the US look like [its] democracy was in decline, in disarray, and that we’re just kind of hypocritical.”

Russian censorship 

According to USC Annenberg professor Nicholas Cull, this Kremlin strategy is ripped from the pages of an old, US playbook.

“To understand the game with Sputnik, you have to think about the Russian understanding of American broadcasting during the Cold War,” Cull said. “As far as the Russians interpreted it, the US achieved success in the Cold War by broadening the differences and creating doubt within the Soviet Union.” 

Nicholas Cull, USC Annenberg, professor

“To understand the game with Sputnik, you have to think about the Russian understanding of American broadcasting during the Cold War,” Cull said. “As far as the Russians interpreted it, the US achieved success in the Cold War by broadening the differences and creating doubt within the Soviet Union,” through radio programs like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.

Today, these two US government-funded media organizations reach more than 300 million people in over 40 languages across the globe, according to the US Agency for Global Media.

Cull said that this can be credited in part to their editorial independence from the US government.

“Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are fiercely defensive of their editorial independence,” Cull said.

And their editorial teams haven’t shied away from criticism of the US.

In 2019, for example, Voice of America’s reporting series on child brides included in-depth coverage of the issue within the US.

“So, they include the United States [in their] criticism when criticism is due, and you will not find that on Russia Today or Sputnik.”

In contrast, the Kremlin has attempted to squash criticism of its war in Ukraine and blocked Voice of America and RFE/RL inside Russia in March.

But RFE/RL’s former president, Thomas Kent, said that the US shouldn’t take this censorship lesson from Russia’s playbook.

“In your heart, you really feel this should be stopped,” he said. “In your head, you say to yourself, ‘Our country is based on freedom of speech and freedom of  information’ – even freedom of information we don’t agree with.”

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