In late May, the Kremlin-funded outlet Sputnik made waves by parting with its White House correspondent, Andrew Feinberg. Sputnik — which recently failed to land a permanent U.S. Congressional press pass — had hired Feinberg only a few months prior, and the reporter received plaudits for his approach to covering U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget. However, as the reporter tells The Diplomat, his unwillingness to push conspiracy-based questions caused frictions with higher-ups at the outlet.
The Diplomat spoke with Feinberg about his experiences at Sputnik, including how the outlet has its writers frame Russian foreign policy, and which conspiracies the Russian outlet prefers to push.
Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Was there any kind of agreement on editorial independence when you first joined Sputnik?
I wouldn’t say an agreement, but there was an assumption when I interviewed for the job, based on what they held themselves out to be. When I interviewed for the job, they asked me how I’d feel about working for a Russian outlet, and they asked how I’d feel if I wrote something that wasn’t true. I said I’d quit. I said the fact that a news agency is state-sponsored isn’t a bad thing. I actually think it’s a good thing — I think the gathering and dissemination of information is a good thing, and deserving of taxpayer funding. I think every country should put money into that. Voice of America does wonderful work, Agence France-Presse does wonderful work, the BBC does wonderful work. And Al Jazeera — they have shelves and shelves full of Peabody Awards. They do amazing work. So the fact that a news agency is state-sponsored — I don’t find that to be troubling, and I don’t get the bias some have against state-sponsored outlets.
But the difference between those outlets and Sputnik is that Sputnik pretends to be state-sponsored, but they’re really state-controlled. They held themselves out to be like anyone else, they held themselves as having the same editorial independence, with the caveat that their mission is to present the Russian point-of-view. I don’t have an inherent problem with the Russian point-of-view. That being said, when they say the Russian point-of-view, what they really mean is bullshit. Telling the other side is valuable, it’s important — but not when it’s based on lies.
So they asked you to create fabrication? Or mischaracterize news developments?
They never asked me to say things that were fabricated. There was always just enough truth, just enough grounding to something for us to write on. And when they asked, “Would you write something that’s not true?” and I said no, they technically held that end of the bargain. They never asked me to write a total falsehood — they couldn’t get away with that. What they’ll do is they’ll take things that have that kernel of truth to them, and flip everything on its head into this upside-down world.
And in a normal news organization, you have an idea, you make calls, you do your reporting, you do your story, and someone writes a headline for it. At Sputnik, you pitch the headline — and then write the story. It’s almost like a Yakov Smirnoff joke. At Sputnik, you pitch the headline — you don’t pitch the story.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere you went through an interesting experience in covering U.S. arms shipments, or lack thereof, to Ukraine. Can you talk a bit about how Sputnik wanted you to shape your coverage?
So for a number of years, the National Defense Authorization Act has provided funding and authority for the president to give — not sell — lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine to repel the Russian occupation of Crimea. And that was put in there several years ago. [President Barack] Obama didn’t take advantage of it, because he had his reasons. But when I asked [Press Secretary Sean] Spicer why the White House hadn’t done it — especially since both party platforms wanted that, even if the Republican platform was watered down — and if [President Donald] Trump wasn’t doing that because he wanted to preserve the chance of having Russia as an ally against ISIS, Spicer gives me a bullshit answer about sanctions, and finally cut me off.
But Sputnik, a day or two later, emailed me saying that I needed to clear my questions. So every day I’d send a list, and every day they’d reject most of them. And then after the chemical attack [in Syria] came, they wanted me to ask a question based on a crackpot professor’s thought saying that it was a hoax that it didn’t happen. God bless Sean Spicer for not calling on me that day.