Ex-Sputnik reporter describes his time at Russia's 'most dangerous' news outlet
A former reporter for a Russia state-owned news outlet, Sputnik, left the publication earlier this year. The reporter says Sputnik is even more "dangerous" than Russia Today. He says the final straw came when the publication tried to push him to ask the White House about the death of a DNC staffer, a story that has spawned conspiracy theories on the far right. A former reporter for Russia's state-owned Sputnik News took to Twitter earlier this year with an announcement.
"I'm no longer working for @SputnikInt — I'd love to tell you why," Andrew Feinberg, the reporter, wrote on May 26. "Please feel free to contact me."
Feinberg's offer set off a minor scramble among journalists eager to get an inside look into how Russia's state-owned news agencies operate — and how closely controlled they are by the Russian government.
Sputnik and Russia's other state-owned news outlet, Russia Today, share an editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan. The US intelligence community has pointed to outlets like Russia Today as being part of a disinformation campaign on behalf of the Kremlin to hurt Hillary Clinton's chances of winning last year's US election.
Feinberg, after working for Sputnik, now thinks it's "more dangerous" than RT. He said he knew that Russia had meddled in the election, and that its media strategy had played a role. But he said he had spent too long in "freelance hell" to pass up a full-time reporter position. Feinberg was fired earlier this year, but says he was prepared to quit after encountering a barrage of hurdles while he was employed as a reporter.
Sputnik told Business Insider in an email that its editorial policy "is totally transparent and is only guided by its motto 'telling the untold.'"
"The best confirmation of this fact is our website sputniknews.com, containing reports from all over the world, including Mr. Feinberg's coverage of US stories," the outlet said.
But Sputnik's slant is no secret. As the Atlantic Council has written, the presidential decree that founded Sputnik's parent company described the outlet's purpose as "reporting the state policy of the Russian Federation, and public life in the Russian Federation, abroad."
The website's top stories around the time Feinberg was fired "Soros and State Dept-Funded Group Accuses Russia of Meddling in Macedonia"; "Putin-Kelly Interview Revealed Absurdity of the Charges Leveled Against Russia"; and "Still the 'Great Satan': Iran's Supreme Leader Warns Not to Trust the US."
Still, Feinberg said his future bosses "came across as very reasonable" when he first met them in December 2016.
"They asked me how I would feel writing for a Russian-owned news outlet given what had been in the news" about election meddling, Feinberg said in an interview. "And then they asked me how I would feel about writing something that isn't true. I told them I would quit. And I was hired."
"So I figured they were satisfied by my answer," Feinberg said.
But it wasn't long, he said, before he was asked to write things that either lacked appropriate context or had a decidedly pro-Russian slant that he argued distorted reality — for example, Russia's annexation of Crimea being the product of a "referendum" rather than an invasion. (An article from April 27, titled "Brussels to Keep Denying Crimean Self-Determination Until Trump Says Otherwise," refers to the referendum several times, as do previous articles.)
"That referendum took place at gunpoint and tank-point," Feinberg said, referring to the fact that the vote — which the EU and US condemned as illegal, and which most Crimeans boycotted entirely — took place after pro-Russian forces had taken control of the peninsula.
"If I had tried to add any of that context, it wouldn't have gotten past the first edit," Feinberg said.
He said his managers, most of whom "were on the young side, in their 20s or 30s," scolded him after he asked former White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this year why the US was not sending weapons to Ukraine, he said, to help the army fend off pro-Russian separatists in the country's east. (He ended up filing the story, anyway, and it was published.)
At one point, Feinberg said he was tasked with asking Spicer a question that framed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons attack as a false flag attack staged by Assad's opponents. (Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, subsequently repeated that claim.)
Feinberg said he couldn't be sure how much instruction his higher-ups were getting directly from the Kremlin. And if they supported President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, it wasn't obvious.
"No one there really ever talked about Trump in glowing terms," Feinberg said. "Most of the Americans there just want to do journalism."
'There is a pattern of these interests aligning'
The final straw, Feinberg said, was when his managers told him to ask Spicer about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer whose death has spawned conspiracy theories on the far right. Police say he was the victim of a botched robbery, and the investigation is ongoing.
Fox News published a story advancing the theory in May that was subsequently retracted and is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, a detective hired by Rich's family to investigate his death.
Wheeler alleged that he was misquoted in the Fox story and that the White House, including President Donald Trump, had knowledge of the story before it was published. The lawsuit claims that a wealthy Trump supporter worked in concert with a Fox News reporter to push the story. Fox News has called the claims contained in the lawsuit "erroneous."
"It's disturbing but not surprising that the White House apparently was very eager to push the same unfounded story as the Russian state-owned news outfit that I worked for," Feinberg said.
"I'm not going to spout any wild conspiracy theories, but there is a pattern of these interests aligning," he said.
Feinberg says he refused to ask Spicer about Rich and was subsequently fired without explanation. Sputnik told Business Insider that the problem was not their editorial policy but Feinberg's work ethic.
"We would like to extend our gratitude to Mr. Feinberg for passion he demonstrated at the beginning of his career at Sputnik," the organization told Business Insider.
"Unfortunately, as high as it was this passion did not convert into the same level of professional journalism and the amount of exclusive stories that our clients and readers are looking for."
Feinberg said his former bosses never complained about his lack of exclusive reporting. But he said that, as a Sputnik reporter, many sources would refrain from talking to him.
Sputnik also runs many of its stories without bylines, which Feinberg said allows them to print "pretty much whatever they want."
"If you take them at their word, everything they write is very neutral," Feinberg said. "But a critical thinker who knows anything about the way good journalism works knows this isn't it."
Sputnik said that Feinberg "started on a merry note, and ended on a sad one," adding, "we hope the fruits of his rich imagination [do] not create more conspiracy theories around Sputnik."
Feinberg, for his part, rejected the notion that he ended on a "sad" note.
"I signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement that covers proprietary material, sources and methods, all of that. But bulls--- is not a proprietary source or method," Feinberg said. "And in terms of rules against disparagement — well, all I'm telling is the truth."
He added: "If they think they'd redeem their reputation by coming after me for speaking out, well, come at me, bro. I'm not afraid."
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