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Russian influence and the bizarre propaganda TV that is Russia Today

This column was first published in March 2017

If you're wondering what Larry King is doing these days – and let's face it, somebody, somewhere might be wondering – he's on the channel RT (Russia Today).

The 83-year-old King, still in his shirtsleeves and suspenders, actually has two shows on the Kremlin-backed RT channel. There's Larry King Now, which is minor celebrities, mainly, and Politicking, which has King talking politics and interviewing pundits. He's not as smooth as he used to be and sometimes stumbles over the questions he's asking, but he's there, clinging to the raft of his reputation.

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According to King, he's not a employee of RT. He just licenses his shows to them and he said in a recent interview that he will continue to work with RT as long as they don't edit his shows to create bias.

There is a lot of bias on RT. (The channel is readily available in Canada and the United States on cable.) Watching it is a bizarre journey into the mind of the Russian government and, at times, the journey is a strange mirror image of the main message emanating from the Trump White House. Its news programs spend a lot of time attacking the coverage of other media.

On Monday's main daytime news program, media-bashing was front and centre. The lead item was about the siege of Mosul, Iraq, to retake the city from the Islamic State group. A reporter on the ground talked to civilians who had fled the city as what the RT reporter described as a U.S.-led coalition attacked it. Next was an in-studio item about coverage of the situation. The point was to illustrate that fleeing, desperate and traumatized civilians were getting much less coverage than when Russia was involved in the siege of Aleppo some months back. Not so much now.

That was followed – and I'm not kidding here – by yet another item in which the anchor presented stats about how much time the BBC and CNN had devoted to civilian casualties and displaced citizens when Russia was part of the siege of Aleppo.

Naturally, the alleged stats indicted that much greater coverage was given to the civilian crisis in Aleppo because Russia was involved and being blamed. Very hard done by, is Russia. And the dishonest media is conspiring to stain its reputation. That's the gist.

An item about the presidential race in France was also part of the same news program. After a straightforward news story about the scandal-plagued François Fillon staying on as a candidate and former prime minister Alain Juppé announcing he would not run, RT's news team got down to the real news – that poor, beleaguered Marine Le Pen is not getting the respect she deserves because, well, the media is against her. And, you know, according to RT news, most people in France are fed up with the European Union and Le Pen reflects this view.

Another favourite of RT is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Why, that man is getting a raw deal. Just because he's locked up journalists, probably. And on Monday, RT found a journalist in Germany to say that Erdogan was quite correct to liken the German government to the Nazis.

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Now, if you're a thinking person with a reasonable level of skepticism, Russia Today might seem ridiculous. A blatantly biased news machine furthering the views of Vladimir Putin and attempting to present the world from his point of view. The EU is about to crumble. It makes sense that Marine Le Pen should lead France. And by the way, this obsession with Russia and its connections to the Trump White House is ridiculous. "When it comes to Russia, the details don't matter," sneered an RT staff pundit the other day, aiming his umbrage at MSNBC.

But it's not funny. It's a bracing, brazen example of skewing the news coverage. And it is not without power and influence. It is commonly accepted that RT pays American cable and satellite companies handsomely to carry the channel. It has a lot of money to spend and has slick, well-staffed channels in several countries.

Before retired Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn was dumped as President Donald Trump's national security adviser, there was a growing campaign among Democrats in the United States to investigate him for his ties to RT. Flynn was a regular, paid pundit on the channel. And he was paid to speak at a gala in Moscow celebrating the channel's 10th anniversary in December, 2015. At the event, apparently, he dined with Vladimir Putin, who was there to congratulate RT on 10 years of success.

Far be it from me to suggest that you add yet more all-news channel viewing to your schedule these days. But, in the context of the endless drip-drip of news and speculation about the Trump team's links with Russia, RT is highly stimulating, illuminating viewing. Whether you're pining for Larry King, or not.

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