Russia Needs To Counter Mainstream Media, Head Of RT Network Says
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The investigation of Russian interference took our colleague David Greene to Moscow, and he's on the line. Who are you talking to, David?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, Steve, one person I want to introduce you to is Margarita Simonyan. She is the editor-in-chief at RT. That's the English-language news channel that is of course funded by the Russian government...
GREENE: ...And seen by many as just a propaganda machine. The latest criticism of RT came from French President Emmanuel Macron. He said RT engaged in what he called deceitful propaganda to support his election opponent, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Now, Margarita Simonyan - she said she's thinking of suing Macron for slandering her network. And she said RT was just trying to counter what she calls the mainstream media.
MARGARITA SIMONYAN: All of the mainstream French media - all of them - were jumping out of their pants to make people vote for Macron - all of them. I can...
GREENE: Well - and that's my question. Did you...
SIMONYAN: ...Give you tons of examples.
GREENE: But did that make it RT's role...
SIMONYAN: But still, we are propaganda, and they're not.
GREENE: So this really speaks to how Simonyan sees RT's role. She says the mainstream media has its own narrative about Russia that she needs to combat. And some say she is basically just taking orders directly from the Kremlin.
Let me ask you about another issue that comes up frequently among your critics - that you have some sort of telephone in this office where you have a direct link to someone who works for Vladimir Putin and you have editorial discussions on that phone.
GREENE: Does that phone exist? Is it somewhere in this office? Is it...
SIMONYAN: Yeah, I have a phone. It's right here, which I use whenever I have to discuss something that is needed what is called secure line.
GREENE: There's this narrative line that this is a secure line to the Kremlin.
SIMONYAN: Just today, I talked on that line with the Russian central bank discussing some of the issues of RT finances that probably shouldn't be discussed on an open line. So...
GREENE: Do you talk to people who work for Vladimir Putin on that line?
SIMONYAN: See, (laughter) you don't want to listen to the answer, do you? You don't...
GREENE: I do.
SIMONYAN: ...Want to hear the answer.
GREENE: I want to hear the answer.
SIMONYAN: No, you don't. You want a statement that you can using use in your broadcast. I'm a journalist as well. All of the people who work in the Russian government and Russian presidential administration, in this way or another, work for Vladimir Putin. I talk to all sorts of people. Many times...
GREENE: Well, let me ask the question in a more fair way. Do you ever make editorial decisions...
GREENE: ...About the mission of RT and story decisions with people who are working very closely with Vladimir Putin?
SIMONYAN: We never make editorial decisions with people who are working closely with Vladimir Putin, unless you consider myself a person who is working closely with Vladimir Putin. That, a lot of people actually would say so.
GREENE: Would you say so?
SIMONYAN: I wouldn't.
GREENE: Do you have a relationship with him? I mean, are you friends? Are you...
SIMONYAN: (Laughter) No, we're not friends. I know him. I've known him ever since I was 20 or 21 because I - just like you have White House pool, we have the Kremlin pool. And I used to be Kremlin pool correspondent, so we said hi to each other, you know. But I can't call him, if that's what you mean.
GREENE: Do you have an opinion about him as president and his policies?
SIMONYAN: I have tons of opinions about him as president and his policies. To understand Russia's fascination about Putin - and I think this is something that is completely not being understood in the West and in the mainstream media. And the reason why it's not being understood is because people didn't live here through the '90s.
In a town like mine, I probably, at that time, wouldn't name a single person whom I personally knew who wanted to stay in Russia. Can you imagine that? All of the people I knew wanted to leave because we saw our country as something horrible, falling apart, that will only continue to fall apart. There were numerous wars going on. And then came Putin, and he stops all that. And we saw it in our lives. People around started - first of all, they stopped being hungry. Then they stopped having one pair of shoes for both my sister and me, you know, and wearing them in a row - and my mom. So for three of us (laughter), one pair of normal shoes - that all stopped. It all seemed magic.
GREENE: Given those personal reflections and your life improving, I just think about...
SIMONYAN: Not just mine - it's everybody I know. And when I'm saying - I want to underline this. It would be an extremely difficult task to find a single person who lived worse before Putin than now, very difficult.
GREENE: You know, I think about the United States. And some of the proudest moments for news organizations in the U.S. have been when investigations have ended up confronting power. I mean, I think of Bill Clinton and the scandals that he got involved in, the reporting around that. I think of Richard Nixon and his ultimate resignation. If investigations revealed things about Vladimir Putin that could ultimately lead to him leaving office, would you be ready to carry out an investigation like that to its fullest here?
SIMONYAN: If I saw and if I really sincerely thought that what Putin is doing is harmful for my country and for my people and it needs to be stopped, I wouldn't hesitate to do that.
GREENE: This - that's not - I think you recognize this. That's not your image or RT's image on the outside.
SIMONYAN: I understand that. I understand that. What are you going to do, you know, when the mainstream media, again and again and again, publish stories about us that are completely false? You know, that's the image. Why do they do that? You tell me. I don't know.
GREENE: Thank you for this conversation.
SIMONYAN: Thank you.
GREENE: I really appreciate it.
SIMONYAN: Thank you. It's good talking to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF D.P. KAUFMAN'S "THE POEM YOUR GRANDFATHER TOLD")
GREENE: Margarita Simonyan is the editor-in-chief of RT.
(SOUNDBITE OF D.P. KAUFMAN'S "THE POEM YOUR GRANDFATHER TOLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.